Brain and Brain. What is Brain?

A new hypothesis says that humans are so clever because our brain cells are the result of a copying error, or, really two copying errors:

The second, more recent, duplication seems to be incomplete, with only part of the gene being duplicated. The researchers think this partially duplicated gene is able to interfere with the actions of the original, ancestral copy of SRGAP2. When the researchers added the partially duplicated gene copy to the mouse genome (mice don’t normally have it) it seemed to speed the migration of brain cells during development, which makes brain organization more efficient.

A Sarcasm Detector

From the Smithsonian, via @HankFortener, comes this useful information:

Actually, scientists are finding that the ability to detect sarcasm really is useful. For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance. Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.

It’s too late to use this insight at family Thanksgiving dinners, but Christmas is coming.

Intelligence and Disease

Why are some places more blessed with smart people? (Yes, I assume that more smarter people is better for a society, and no, I won’t attempt to convince you.) Some recent studies suggest that disease may be the reason for uneven distribution of intelligence:

In our 2010 study, we not only found a very strong relationship between levels of infectious disease and IQ, but controlling for the effects of education, national wealth, temperature, and distance from sub-Saharan Africa, infectious disease emerged as the best predictor of the bunch. A recent study by Christopher Hassall and Thomas Sherratt repeated our analysis using more sophisticated statistical methods, and concluded that infectious disease may be the only really important predictor of average national IQ.

The researchers wondered if, since infant humans spend as much as 90 percent of their calories building and growing their brains, fighting disease detracts from that important work.

If this finding is correct, then the uneven distribution of intelligence may be a developmental matter rather than genetics or uncontrollable environmental factors like climate.

Arsenic-Based Life Controversy Keeps Bubbling

That controversy about arsenic-based life that I blogged (on my other blog) back in December is still cooking. I don’t read Science so I had to learn about it in Ars Technia:

The authors have stuck to their guns, but have reiterated arguments that their critics are likely to find unconvincing. And that’s somewhat surprising; it should have been possible for them to accept at least a few of the criticisms and indicate further work was under way that would handle them.

I am curious to find out what the facts are, here. I’d be stunned to learn that DNA’s chemistry works with arsenic as well as phosphorus, or that both forms can code for the same amino acids. But stunning me is what science is all about.

Milky Way is Square?

Researchers create a new map of our galaxy, with the following features:

One conclusion is that the Milky Way has an additional spiral arm, not seen in previous surveys of the galaxy. The new arm is about 30,000 light years from the galactic core at a longitude of between 80 and 140 degrees.

But a bigger surprise is their conclusion that some of the arms in the Milky Way are not curved in the traditional way, but are straight instead. This gives the Milky Way a distinctly squarish look.

Kudus: Technology Review.

How to write thin science journalism

Ever wondered how to crank out shallow science journalism? In the Guardian‘s “Lay Scientist” column, Martin Robbins shows how it’s done:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

Phobos not a captured asteroid?

New research suggests that Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, isn’t a captured asteroid after all. It’s still not clear if it was ejected from Mars in some kind of impact, or if it’s all that’s left after an earlier moon broke apart and augured in.