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Skeptical reporter @ 2013-03-17

Skeptical Reporter for May 17th, 2013 


Romania will host the first international humanist conference in Eastern Europe, on the 25th of May. The conference „Education, Science and Human Rights” is hosted by the Romanian Humanist Association in partnership with the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the European Humanist Federation. The event will take place at the Parliament Palace and has speakers such as PZ Meyers and Richard Wiseman. So, if interested, don’t hesitate to purchase a ticket now.

A research endeavor in China, regarding the genetic sources of genius has come under fire.  Researchers at BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, the largest gene-sequencing facility in the world, are searching for the quirks of DNA that may contribute to superior intelligence. Plunging into an area that is littered with failures and full of controversy, the researchers are scouring the genomes of 1,600 genius subjects in an ambitious project to find the first common genetic variants associated with human intelligence. The project, which was launched in August 2012 and will begin data analysis in the next few months, has spawned wild accusations of eugenics plots, as well as more measured objections by social scientists who view such research as a distraction from pressing societal issues. Some geneticists, however, take issue with the study for a different reason. They say that it is highly unlikely to find anything of interest — because the sample size is too small and intelligence is too complex. Earlier large studies with the same goal have failed. But scientists from BGI’s Cognitive Genomics group hope that their super-smart sample will give them an edge, because it should be enriched with bits of DNA that confer effects on intelligence. “An exceptional person gets you an order of magnitude more statistical power than if you took random people from the population. I’d say we have a fighting chance,” says Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist from Michigan State University, who acts as a scientific adviser and is one of the project’s leaders.

Family Radio, the Oakland-based evangelical network run by Harold Camping, who predicted the end of the world in May 2011 is in financial trouble, according to public financial documents. The nonprofit that runs Family Radio has sold its three largest radio stations, all cash generators. At the start of 2007, Family Radio was worth $135 million, according to its tax returns. By the end of 2011 its net assets had dropped to $29.2 million, even though Family Radio received $85.2 million in donations over that five-year period. In 2012, records show it took out a $30 million bridge loan to keep operating while awaiting the station sales proceeds; it is not clear whether that loan has been paid off. Former and current insiders allege the situation may be even worse than it appears, claiming donations have dropped almost 70 percent since the Rapture prediction proved incorrect, leading to numerous layoffs of longtime Family Radio staff members. Those insiders say the nonprofit mishandled the sales of the stations, reaping far less than they were worth, and is on the hook for millions of dollars to devotees who have loaned them money over the years.

A rhino-head heist spree swept Europe in 2011, as thieves raided museums and auctions houses in seven countries, prompting 30 investigations by Europol, 20 of which are ongoing. Similar heists have also been on the rise in Africa, as well as in the odd American backwater town. One happened in Dublin just last month. Sales in Vietnam are driving these robberies. The country’s appetite for rhino horn is so great that it now fetches up to $100,000/kg, making it worth more than its weight in gold. The surge in Vietnamese demand is fairly recent. Though rhino horn elixirs for fevers and liver problems were first prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine more than 1,800 years ago, by the early 1990s demand was limited. The removal of rhino horn powder from traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia in the 1990s had largely doused demand. But things started changing in 2008. Although there is no certain evidence for this rise in demand, the issue may have to do with a rumor that swept Vietnam in the mid-2000s that imbibing rhino horn powder had cured a Vietnamese politician’s cancer. That rumor persists to this day. In Vietnam, at least some respected doctors vouch for rhino horn’s cancer-curing properties. The country has had a surge in the number of wealthy citizens, but as in many fast-developing countries, the quality and availability of cancer care hasn't kept pace with the economic growth rate.

Consumers should not buy sexual enhancement supplements, either online or in stores, because the products may contain undisclosed drugs that could cause serious harm, medical experts say. Although advertisements on sex supplements purport that the products improve sexual function, there is no evidence to support these claims, said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In fact, there is no non-prescription product that has any proven benefit for helping with erections, Cohen said. Oftentimes manufacturers secretly add prescription drugs, such as sildenafil (sold under the brand name Viagra) or tadalafil (brand name Cialis), so that customers continue to use the products, Cohen said. Sometimes these undisclosed drugs are slightly modified versions of existing drugs, which are completely experimental and have not been shown to be safe. "These products either do not work, or if they do work, are potentially harmful," because they contain undisclosed drugs, Cohen said. In 2009, sex supplements tainted with high doses of diabetes medication caused more than 12 deaths in Asia. If doctors, lawmakers and legislatures don't act soon to reduce exposure to these supplements, more deaths could follow, he stated.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

Google and NASA  have joined up to study artificial intelligence by creating a computer that relies on the unique properties of quantum physics. To study artificial intelligence and create this computer, the two giants are forming the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab, which will be housed at NASA's Ames Research Center located in Silicon Valley. They expect the quantum computer, which will complete calculations way faster — by some estimates at least 3,600 times faster — than today's supercomputers, will be up and running by the third quarter of this year. The quantum computer would be able to find complex patterns in information in order to determine creative outputs, a process called machine learning. "We believe quantum computing may help solve some of the most challenging computer science problems, particularly in machine learning. Machine learning is all about building better models of the world to make more accurate predictions," Google noted in a blog post announcing the partnership.

A pocket of water some 2.6 billion years old has now been discovered in a mine 3 kilometers below the Earth's surface. It is the most ancient pocket of water known by far, older even than the dawn of multi-cellular life. The finding raises the tantalizing possibility that ancient life might be found deep underground not only within Earth, but in similar oases that may exist on Mars, the scientists who studied the water said. Geo-scientist Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto and her colleagues have investigated deep mines across the world since the 1980s. Water can flow into fractures in rocks and become isolated deep in the crust for many years, serving as a time capsule of what the environment was like at the time it got sealed off. "It was absolutely mind-blowing," Sherwood Lollar said. The site was formed by geological activity similar to that seen in hydrothermal vents. This ancient water poured out of the boreholes the team drilled in the mine at the rate of nearly 2 liters per minute. It remains uncertain precisely how large this reservoir of water is.

In recent years astronomers have extended their view almost to the very edge of the observable universe. With the venerable Hubble Space Telescope researchers have spotted a handful of galaxies so faraway that we see them as they appeared just 400 million years or so after the Big Bang. But even as astronomers peer ever deeper into the Universe to explore the cosmic frontier, others are finding new realms to explore in our own backyard. Such is the case with Leo P, a dwarf galaxy that astronomers have just discovered in the Milky Way’s vicinity. At a distance of some five million or six million light-years from the Milky Way, Leo P is not quite a next-door neighbor, but on the vast scales of the Universe it counts as a neighbor nonetheless. Intriguingly, Leo P seems to have kept to itself, rarely if ever interacting with other galaxies. So the discovery offers astronomers a rare glimpse at a cosmic object unsullied by disruptive galactic encounters. It also suggests the presence of other small galaxies that await discovery in our corner of the cosmos.

A fundamental property of the rarest element on Earth, astatine, has been discovered for the first time, scientists say. Astatine occurs naturally; however, scientists estimate less than 30 grams exist worldwide. For a long time, the characteristics of this elusive element were a mystery, but researchers at the CERN physics laboratory in Switzerland have now measured its ionization potential — the amount of energy needed to remove one electron from an atom of astatine, turning it into an ion or a charged particle. The measurement fills in a missing piece of the periodic table of elements, because astatine was the last naturally occurring element for which this property was unknown. Astatine, which has 85 protons and 85 electrons per atom, is radioactive, and half of its most stable version decays in just 8.1 hours, a time called half-life.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

The Romanian Patriarchate, together with the Catholic Commission of European Episcopacies, is supporting a citizens’ initiative to stop financing for human embryos research. “The Romanian Patriarchate supports the “One of us” citizens’ initiative that aims to protect dignity, right to life and integrity for each human being since the moment of conception in the European Union”, a press release from the institution shows. The initiative requires the European Union to cease financing activities that include the destruction of human embryos.


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