Einstein's general theory of relativity proposed that the all-encompassing blanket of space-time is warped, ever so slightly, by massive objects like the Earth. Al's theory was, you know, pretty genius. Still, so far there's been no way to measure these tiny distortions and actually prove his predictions. But a NASA/Stanford team of physicist- engineers might have finally found this proof.

In April 2004, the team launched the "Gravity Probe B"—a satellite-laboratory that contains the world's most precise gyroscopes. The satellite has been in orbit ever since, and the researchers are now starting to make sense of the data it collected. (Interestingly, the probe was first proposed in 1960, but funding and technological hurdles kept it from ever getting off the ground.)

To refresh your memory, a gyroscope is basically a wheel that's mounted within a ring so that it's free to spin in any direction. When the wheel is spun quickly (and in the absence of any pesky friction), it will keep its original plane of rotation no matter which way the ring is turned. Since gyroscopes always maintain equilibrium, they're used by experimentalists to define a fixed direction in space.

Gravity Probe B holds four super-accurate, 3-D gyroscopes, so accurate that they could detect a movement the width of a human hair from 20 miles away. Each gyroscope is made up of a spherical mass, about the size of a ping pong ball, spinning in a -271 degree-Celsius chamber of superfluid helium. The spheres are the most perfectly rounded objects ever made by hand—if blown up to the Earth's size, their biggest imperfections would form mountains only eight feet high.

If Newtonian physics is right, then the gyroscopes within Gravity Probe B should always point in the same direction. But if Einstein's relativity is correct, then the slight curvature of space should cause the spin axis of the gyroscope to change by a tiny, tiny bit (we're talking a difference of .0018 degrees in one year). As I mentioned, the data's still being analyzed...but preliminary results show the balls are indeed drifting. Way to go, Al.

Hat tip: Clive

Fair Warning



Does Size Matter? It's all relative.

When I was about 12, my piano teacher extolled my long fingers: thumb to pinky, when stretched, could span 10 keys. But she was the exception. My sister calls them “alien fingers,” and it’s generally an awkward moment when a date first discovers his hands are smaller than mine.

Finger length is determined by the precise mix of hormones a developing fetus is exposed to. Men, who were exposed to more testosterone in the womb than women, generally have ring fingers that are longer than their index fingers. Women, exposed to more oestrogen, generally have longer index fingers. (The differences, of course, are but a couple of millimeters.)

A new study from the British Journal of Psychology found that this ratio of finger lengths may also indicate how well a child scores on math and verbal SAT tests.

After comparing the index and ring-finger lengths of 75 7-year-olds, psychologists from the University of Bath found the children whose ring fingers were longer than their index fingers--mostly boys--did better on math tests than verbal tests.

This makes sense, the researchers say, since previous research has shown that exposure to testosterone in the womb promotes growth in brain areas associated with math and spatial reasoning. It's not yet clear whether oestrogen exposure promotes growth of verbal areas of the brain.

...which means that apparently my hands are unusual in yet another way: unlike most girls, my ring fingers are longer than my index fingers. And indeed, my math standardized test scores were higher than my English scores. But what I really wanna know is: How'd I get all that extra testosterone? (And shouldn't I be, like, more competitive? Or at least less timid?)


eBay Allows Ivory Trade

In a one-week period this February, more than 2,200 elephant ivory items were up for grabs on eBay, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

In Britain, it's legal to sell ivory only if it was harvested before June 1947. In the U.S., it has to be more than 100 years old. But for more than 90 percent of those listed ivory goods, sellers did not provide the required proof-of-age certificates, the report stated.

"What's happening online is that there's a totally unregulated trade. If you stop the selling of ivory, then the killing will stop," Robbie Marsland, director of the IFAW in Britain, told the AP.

Between 1979 and 1989, poaching for ivory in Africa cut its elephant population in half. About 1.3 million elephants lived in Africa in 1977; by 1997, there were just 600,000.


Marriage, Divorce, and Mitt Romney's Delusions

Every once in a while, we can all get caught up bemoaning the progressive decline of "American Family Values." I just wrote a piece on childhood obesity, in fact, that cited some discouraging statistics: 40 percent of American meals are eaten outside the home; Americans now spend more than $100 billion a year on fast food, up from $3 billion in 1972; 53 percent of kids aged 6 or younger eat meals in front of the TV; 31 percent of eighth graders watch four hours or more of TV per day.

This week over at denialism blog, Mark debunks another oft-quoted (like by the Family Research Council) sob-story statistic that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. This is "statistical nonsense," he says, that:
...comes from comparing the number of marriages in a given year to the number of divorces in a given year. However, since the marriages and divorces aren't occurring in the same year, this doesn't give an accurate picture of how many marriages are failing and is notoriously susceptible to population dynamics. Your actual chances of a failed marriage are about one in four.
The myth is interesting in itself, but I was more interested in one of the comments made on Mark's post, by one Michael LoPrete:

The other, other, alternative is to abandon this notion of marriage as permanent.

They may only exist right now in Romney's bizzaro-France, but 7-year marriage contracts make a whole lot of sense.

What what what'd he do? About a week ago, Romney indeed said to a crowd of more than 5,000:

"In France, for instance, I'm told* that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past."

Whatever jokester intern told Romney that must be having quite the chuckle now, for no such contract exists in France, or anywhere else. (*A few clever internet punks have offered various hypotheses for the source of Romney's misstatement...my favorite is that it's actually a reference to the 1992 sci-fi novel, The Memory of Earth, a fictionalization of the first few hundred years recorded in the Book of Mormon. In the book, marriages just so happen to be contracted out for seven years. Romney's not only Mormon, remember, but also loves sci-fi....)

Anyway, maybe a seven-year marriage contract DOES make sense. The scariest thing about marriage, after all, is that "forever" concept (which includes the "omg I'll never be able to sleep with anyone else for the rest of my life"). When I was young, my parents used to send me away to summer camp in Connecticut. Some days I loved it (especially archery and synchronized swimming), but some nights I cried my homesick self to sleep. The only thing that got me through the tough times was knowing that it would all be over at the end of the summer. I actually had a piece of notebook paper taped to the top of my bottom bunk bed where I tallied the days left until the end. But then, by the time the next spring rolled around, I was always itching to go back. Go figure.


Sperm Compete (duh)

Here's a recent press release, from Blackwell, about an article (behind firewall) in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. Not only are they three months late on getting out this "news," but please note the writer's egregious oversimplification of the work (in bold). Sigh. (The news is actually much, much older than than three months. Robin Baker et al. have been observing sperm competition in all kinds of animals, including humans, for, oh I dunno, 20+ years...still, glad to see it making headlines again.)

Research suggests men's sexual behavior adapts to perceived threats

Behavioral and physical characteristics allow men to compete in fertilization

Davie, Fla. May 08, 2007 -- A review of the latest research in sexual adaptation shows that evidence is building for what researchers call "sperm competition." According to a review appearing in Current Directions in Psychological Science, physical and behavioral sexual characteristics exhibited by human males indicate that males have evolved to deliver their sperm more effectively to females with multiple partners.

"Although many people are familiar with the idea of animals competing for mates before sex occurs, through mating displays such as bright feathers or butting antlers, we are finding more evidence that there is also competition after mating occurs," says author Todd K. Shackelford. "An alternative way of thinking about it is that there is not only competition between males for mates, but competition between males for fertilization."

The research presented in the review covers physical adaptations, including penis shape and style of intercourse, as well as behavior in response to perceived infidelity that all serve to increase the success of fertilization. "The studies have shown that when partners are separated for periods of time, males are more likely to arouse easily, produce more sperm, and even rape their partners," says Shackelford. According to Shackelford and co-author Aaron T. Goetz, this does not mean that women are promiscuous by nature, but it is evidence that humans are not naturally a monogamous species.

Shackelford is quick to point out, however, that females are not passive partners in the sexual relationship. "Although this review focused on male adaptations, sexual conflict between males and females produces a co-evolutionary arms race between the sexes, in which an advantage gained by one sex selects for counter-adaptations in the other sex."


"Proving" God

On Saturday, two celebrity Christians debated a group called the Rational Response Squad about the existence of god for the televised "ABC Nightline Face-off." Evangelical author Ray Comfort and child actor Kirk Cameron intended to “prove god’s existence scientifically, without mentioning the bible or faith." After watching the clip (below), it's clear they failed. Not quite as funny as the banana video, though.

(Hat tip: PZ)


Charleston Punk

Hat tip: Lee. Thanks for cheering me up. ;-)


Monkeys at the GOP Debate

Thursday night, the 10 Republican candidates in the 2008 presidential race squared off in their first debate. They repeatedly mentioned Reagan (but rarely Bush), and also answered a few questions about global warming, embryonic stem cell research, and, bizarrely, organ donation. Three candidates raised their hands to show they did not believe in evolution.

Cartoon hat tip: John


Map of Online Communities

xkcd, you never disappoint.


Violent Vaccine Denialists

Sadly, the anti-vaccination lobby seems to be growing in political influence, according to an editorial in May’s Nature Neuroscience (under firewall). The editors point out (as I did this fall in a Nature Medicine feature story about how vaccine denialists affect public health) that a host of rigorous scientific studies have debunked each and every claim of a mercury-autism link. Nevertheless, in the same insidious style as animal rights wackos, the anti-vaccers won’t back down—on Capitol Hill, in the press, or in their personal attacks. The editorial’s money quote:
People who oppose the [mercury-autism link] have been harassed with repeated calls, whether they have written a letter to their local paper or an editorial for The Wall Street Journal. The harassment includes parents of autistic children who do not align themselves with the anti-vaccine movement. Kevin Leitch reports, 'I have personally been told that because I am not chelating my daughter, I am a child abuser. That I am a murderer. I have had threats of violence made against me, and a few people have even sent personal hate mail to my seven-year-old autistic daughter.'
As Orac points out, Kevin Leitch made further comments about harassment by anti-vaccers on his blog:
I know of four scientists whom I have exchanged emails with who have been targeted by this same extreme group and who had:

1) Threats of property damage made against their homes and property
2) Threats of physical violence made against them
3) Been the victims of concerted email and telephone harassment campaigns to the point where security services have had to get involved
4) Had their associations with entities that merely sound like Pharma organisations misrepresented
5) Been accused, on no basis at all, of fraud

These scientists are staggered that merely performing accurate science has led them to having to (in three cases I know of) inform Campus Police of the places they work at of their movements in order to remain safe.
Indeed, this behavior reminds me of an act of “protest” against esteemed UCLA neuroscientist Dario Ringach. Ringach’s lab used monkeys to study information processing in the visual system. (Primates are the only animals whose eye biology/physiology is comparable to humans.) In August, after receiving several threats from the Animal Liberation Front—including a bomb on his porch—Ringach sent the ALF an email saying, “You win,” and closed up his lab.

The anti-vaccers whom I interviewed for my story presented themselves as helpless victims of some kind of medical/CDC conspiracy. I’d never suggest that any of them are instead violent manipulators. However, it’s time to start holding the activist groups they’re associated with accountable for their violent acts, regardless of their philosophical/political motivations. I thus agree whole-heartedly with the logical, if na├»ve, recommendation from the editorial:
In the end, these fears are driven by ideology rather than science. We urge legislators to base science policy on the best consensus among researchers in the field, rather than the emotional appeals of an agenda-driven group, especially one that attempts to bully into silence those with opposing opinions.
(Right, because our government always tries to base its science policy on sound science. Like our stance on stem cells, for instance, or the space program, or global warming. Sigh.)