Meet Wilma: The First Neanderthal Model

September 19, 2008

“Wilma” was named after the character on “The Flintstones”, history’s most famous Neanderthal family

Okay, she’s obviously no Kate Moss but Wilma has already won over the hearts of the scientific community as for the first time a reconstruction of a Neanderthal’s face has been completed based on DNA evidence. National Geographic explains:

Artists and scientists created Wilma (shown in a photo released yesterday) using analysis of DNA from 43,000-year-old bones that had been cannibalized. Announced in October 2007, the findings had suggested that at least some Neanderthals would have had red hair, pale skin, and possibly freckles.

Created for an October 2008 National Geographic magazine article, Wilma has a skeleton made from replicas of pelvis and skull bones from Neanderthal females. Copies of male Neanderthal bones—resized to female dimensions—filled in the gaps.

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Walk into the Light – Science and the Near-Death Experience

September 14, 2008

The tunnel of light is the most common association with those who experience near-death

The question of what happens to us when we die has spawned books, songs, plays, and of course, religions. Our mortality has been a central concern of our daily existence throughout the history of human civilization. We understand that it is an end of sorts, but what kind of end? And what happens afterwards? There is no direct proof of anyone returning from the dead (Jesus’ death and resurrection rests on the gospels) and reporting to us what is on the other side. But we do have many instances of what is known as Near-Death Experience (NDE).

First popularized by Raymond Moody in his 1975 book Life After Life, NDE refers to both the physical and spiritual effects of impending death. The most common experiences include feelings of tranquility, warmth, and the presence of the proverbial “tunnel of light”. Some go as far as to suggest that they are drawn into the tunnel of light. These sensations are taken by many as proof of an afterlife.

Science is now trying to figure out what causes these feelings and what they really are and why so many people (at one count 8 million alone in the USA) experience NDE. One study group has launched AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) to look at patients who suffer cardiac arrest.

“Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment,” said leader of the study Dr. Sam Parnia of the University of Southampton in the U.K. “It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning — a medical condition termed cardiac arrest, which from a biological viewpoint is synonymous with clinical death.”

Previous research suggests about 10 to 20 percent of people who live through cardiac arrest report lucid, well-structured thought processes, reasoning, memories and sometimes detailed recall of events during their encounter with death.

One study found that people who reported peaceful feelings, bright light and out-of-body experiences during a brush with death are more likely to have had difficulty separating sleep from wakefulness in their everyday lives. Both before and after their near-death experiences, these people often have symptoms of the rapid-eye movement (REM) state of sleep while awake.

The AWARE researchers want to find out what happens to the brain when a person’s body has started to shut down, whether it is possible for people to see and hear during cardiac arrest, and what’s going on during out of body experiences.

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DNA – Not Just For Lab Coat Wearing Nerds Anymore!

September 11, 2008

Our DNA keeps telling us more and more about ourselves

In the 1983 movie Trading Places starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd, there’s a great scene in which the characters played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche get into a discussion about the age old question of what influences an individual more: heredity or environment. The two men decide to conduct an experiment using Murphy’s and Akroyd’s characters and the plot is set.

Even though this film was made only a quarter century ago, the contention of the debate seems a bit archaic in light of the exponential understanding we now have in regards to genetics. There was a time when suggestions that a person acted the way that they did because of their ancestry would be laughed at as “old wives’ tales”. Yet now we know better. Researchers keep isolating genes regulating all sorts of things from our health to our intelligence to our psychological state on an almost weekly basis. Our genes seem to be our lives as an open book.

Our genetic makeup is now even being marketed for our love lives. A company called GenePartner wants to match potential couples together according to how complementary their genetic makeup is with one another. This Swiss firm wants to:

evaluate singles and couples according to the potential union of their HLA genes, which help regulate immune response.

People may naturally be attracted to mates with HLA profiles different from their own, ostensibly guaranteeing the hybrid vigor of their offspring’s immune systems — and also providing a spark that will last through good times and bad.

“Proper age, similar life goals and ideas, education levels — all of these things have to fit. And on top of that, you need to be biologically compatible,” said Tamara Brown, managing director of GenePartner.

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I’m dying for a drink, but why?

September 10, 2008

very, very tempting……

It’s Friday afternoon around 4 pm. Your work for the week is done (maybe) and you’re ready to call it quits. You know exactly what you’re gonna do once it’s time to head out of the office. You’re going downstairs for a drink. Whether it’s a gin and tonic, an import beer, a vodka/soda or a scotch on the rocks, you’ve been thinking about it all day and you can’t wait for the taste to touch your lips.

Last week you did the exact same thing and woke up with a nasty hangover. Yet you’re gonna do it all over again. Is it addiction? A way to cope with personal problems by drowning it in drink?

Scientists are now telling us that binge drinking can be habit forming because when we binge drink, we block out the memories of the worst part of the experience and instead only remember the good parts. It seems alcohol helps us engage in selective memory. Here’s an excerpt from an article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the UK Independent:

Alcohol has been found to affect memory in a selective manner. Drinking makes it easier to remember the good things about a party but harder to recall the bad things that happen after having too much.

Studies into the memories of people engaged in heavy drinking have shown that it is the inability to remember the worst excesses of a night out – while remembering the happy things that led up to them – is one of the main causes of repeated binge drinking.

We here at Vodka/Soda encourage the proliferation of good memories associated with alcohol, so be sure to run downstairs for a quick one once work is done :)

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It’s the end of the world as we know it….and I feel fine

September 10, 2008

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is all set to start smashing atomic particles today

The media frenzy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider has hit fever pitch as today is the day when the first atomic particles are shot around the 27km track. Some scientists fear that the test could create tiny black holes that could put our planet’s existence in threat.

The world’s most famous theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking tut-tuts the notions of dangerous black holes being formed. Read Hawking’s take on today’s events (and the experiments to come) in Stephen Hawking’s £50 bet on the world, the universe and the God particle. Here’s an excerpt:

“If the LHC were to produce little black holes, I don’t think there’s any doubt I would get a Nobel prize, if they showed the properties I predict,” Professor Hawking told the Today programme. “However, I think the probability that the LHC has enough energy to create black holes is less than one per cent, so I’m not holding my breath.”

click here to read the rest of the article

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Trends in the Next Decade of Technology

September 6, 2008

Future technology
Future technology in a scene from “Minority Report”

Technological process is quickening from century to century, decade to decade, and year to year. In the previous millenium, some argued that technological advances would create a utopia for humanity. Some of the excesses of the past century showed this argument to be patently false. Technology is for the most part neutral and depends on how and why it is used and by whom it is used.

The speed with which our world is undergoing technological transformation is plain to see. The popular futurist Raymond Kurzweil tells us that we are approaching technological singularity: a point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves using artificial intelligence. That sounds frightening, as it should. However Kurzweil’s singularity is still some time away, should it actually ever happen.

In the meantime has asked several leading technological experts to predict the trends in technology over the next decade. Words like haptics and phrases like semantic web will be more commonplace. Here’s an excerpt from this excellent article:

Leo Kärkkäinen – Chief visionary, Nokia Research Center, Espoo, Finland


Ordinary products are going to have memories that store their entire history from cradle to grave, and that consumers can easily access.

Radio-frequency identification tags are a good option because they are already widely used to track inventory and to control theft. They are cheap and can be powered by an outside power source, such as the radio signal from the device being used to read them. But there may be another enabling technology that wins out.

Near-field communication systems already allow a phone to be used like a smart card for a travel pass or as an electronic wallet to pay for goods. If that technology can talk to the things you buy, as well as the systems through which you pay for them, it will enable consumers to choose not to buy goods that are unhealthy, allergenic, have used environmentally unfriendly methods or employed child labour.

As with many technologies, it could potentially be used for bad purposes; we have to ensure that privacy functions are built in to the system to put the consumer in control of whether they want to be tracked.

click this link to read the article in its entirety

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Does Sushi Pose a Health Risk?

September 6, 2008

Definitely not sushi à la carte

One of the joys of living in a large city with a sizable Asian population is the variety of sushi and sashimi restaurants that one encounters. The joy in eating sushi is as much about watching the process of it being prepared as it is about the texture of the fish itself (which usually, but not always, trumps the taste). Does anyone forget that first time eating sushi when all you can think about was the fact that the fish was raw? No food gets a greater warning for first timers than sushi, but the joy in tasting it makes for an excellent payoff.

Now, what about sushi being raw fish? Doesn’t it mean that we gamble with our health every time we go down to the local sushi joint? According to we shouldn’t worry at all:

Sushi eaters don’t typically have to worry because sushi restaurants take certain steps in handling and preparing their fish. A required step involves freezing fish at temperatures of -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) for seven days, or frozen at -31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius) for 15 hours, which kills any parasites.

“As far as sushi goes, the rules are in place because people were getting sick,” said Keith Schneider, a microbiologist and food safety expert at the University of Florida. “The parasites are why we do the freezing on the raw fish.”

The cases of sushi-related illness fall far below the number of people sickened by contaminated produce such jalapeno peppers. Even in those rare cases, the rice in sushi is more often the culprit than the fish.

However, there is a dangerous side that few venture to:

Many sushi lovers feast contentedly on albacore or eel, but a few people aim for a more dangerous culinary experience by eating the raw flesh of a poisonous puffer fish called fugu.

Master fugu chefs sometimes include some of the poison in their prepared dish, which creates a tingly feeling on the lips when eaten. However, improperly prepared fugu can kill due to the fish’s potent neurotoxin.

“I consider it more of a dare than a delicacy,” Schneider said. “There are people who kill themselves every year trying to make fugu, and it gives sushi a bad name.”

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