Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nuclear spy lizards

Sometimes it's reassuring to know that the wackos aren't confined to the United States, although I will admit up front that we seem to have way more than our fair share of them.

My reason for saying this is a story about a government official in Iran who has apparently been doing sit-ups underneath parked cars.  His name is Hassan Firouzabadi, and he is a retired ophthalmologist who is currently Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Firouzabadi was being questioned by the press about the death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, who had been head of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.  The official story was that Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in prison after being picked up by the police in January on charges of espionage.

Seyed-Emami's arrest and death are certainly suspicious.  The Wildlife Heritage Foundation has connections to Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman whose wealth predates the Iranian Revolution and who is therefore suspected of being anti-government.  The powers-that-be, however, say that Seyed-Emami killed himself because he was guilty and was afraid of punishment.

"This person was one of the accused," said Tehran's chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabidi, "and given that he knew there were many revelations against him and that he himself had made confessions, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison."

Tragic, and almost certainly further evidence of the Iranian government's determination to squelch dissent, but otherwise not far out of daily business for the Middle East.  But there's another top Iranian official who was a little more forthcoming.  Seyed-Emami was not just an ordinary dissenter, nor even an ordinary espionage agent.

He was a spy who used trained lizards to detect uranium deposits and nuclear missile sites, and then passed along the information to the Israelis.

Look at those beady eyes.  Would you trust this guy?  I didn't think so. [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This statement came, in all seriousness, from the aforementioned Hassan Firouzabadi, Senior Military Adviser to the Ayatollah.  What Seyed-Emami was doing was using the natural ability lizards have to "attract atomic waves" (whatever the fuck those are), with evil intent:
In their possessions were a variety of reptile desert species like lizards, chameleons…  We found out that their skin attracts atomic waves and that they were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities.
Needless to say, this is idiotic.  Lizards respond to being around highly radioactive materials pretty much like any other life form does, namely by dying.  If you're trying to find out where the radioactive stuff is, there's an easier way.

It's called a "Geiger counter."

But facts seldom matter to people like Firouzabadi, who sounds like he should find some like-minded souls over at InfoWars, Before It's News, and the Flat Earth Society.  As far as Seyed-Emami, my guess is that he was tortured while in jail -- it seems pretty common practice in Iran -- and under that kind of duress, confessed to whatever they were asking of him.

Secret Agent Radioactivity-Detecting SuperLizards?  Yes, sir, absolutely.  I train them.  Now please unhook the jumper cables from my nipples.

To the rest of us, though, this is more evidence that getting into a high position in government does not necessarily mean you're smart, or even in contact with reality.  As for Firouzabadi, sounds like he'd be best off if someone patted him on the back, said, "There, there," and sent him off to resume picking at the straps of his straitjacket with his teeth.

Of course, I can say that.  I'm safely over here in the United States.  On the other hand, this is the home of Alex Jones, David Icke, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump.  So maybe I shouldn't act so superior after all.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Worm brains

New from the "Haven't These People Ever Watched Horror Movies?" department, we have: some scientists in Austria who have uploaded the brain of a worm into a computer.

The research was done at the Technische Universität Wien (Vienna Technical University), and was done by computer engineers Mathias Lechner, Ramin Hasani, and Radu Grosu.  The worm was Caenorhabditis elegans, well known to researchers in developmental biology as the favorite species for research into how cell specialization unfolds.  The brain of C. elegans only has three hundred neurons, and the connections between them (synapses) are well understood, so what Lechner et al. did was to render the worm's brain as a circuit diagram, and emulated that circuit in a piece of software.

Within short order, they found that they were on to something pretty amazing.  Because the program could learn.  The task was simple -- given a model of a pole balanced on its end, the program had to figure out how to keep the pole upright if its top was moved (by sliding the base until it was upright again).  But it figured out how to do it, and most astonishingly, without having to be shown.

"With the help of reinforcement learning, a method also known as 'learning based on experiment and reward'," Lechner said, "the artificial reflex network was trained and optimized on the computer."  Co-author Grosu added, "The result is a controller, which can solve a standard technology problem – stabilizing a pole, balanced on its tip.  But no human being has written even one line of code for this controller, it just emerged by training a biological nerve system."

Caenorhabditis elegans.  Not one of the big thinkers of the Animal Kingdom.

Of course, this opens up about a million questions.  Once this software has all the bugs worked out, does it then qualify as a life-form?  Most people, faced with this question, say, "Of course not."  I know this because we discuss the possibility of artificial intelligence in my neuroscience class, and when I suggest that a computerized intelligence would be alive, most students respond with a vehement negative.  (Oddly, they are much quicker to accept that a machine could be intelligent than that a machine could classify as alive, and are usually unable to articulate exactly why they feel that way.)

Another, and deeper, question is to what extent this type of trick could be scaled up.  Not that it would be easy; there's a hell of a difference between the three hundred neurons in the brain of C. elegans and the estimated one hundred billion in the human brain.  Because, after all, you not only have to consider the number of neurons, but the number of their potential connections -- a quantity that, after playing around with some estimates, I have concluded is "really freakin' huge."  I'm no computer scientist -- heaven knows, most days I'm doing well to remember where the "on" switch is -- but the thought crosses my mind to wonder if emulating such a complex system in a computer is even theoretically possible.

Whatever the upper limit is, the feat is pretty astonishing.  The authors write:
Through natural evolution, nervous systems of organisms formed near-optimal structures to express behavior.  Here, we propose an effective way to create control agents, by re-purposing the function of biological neural circuit models, to govern similar real world applications.  We model the tap-withdrawal (TW) neural circuit of the nematode, C. elegans, a circuit responsible for the worm’s reflexive response to external mechanical touch stimulations, and learn its synaptic and neural parameters as a policy for controlling the inverted pendulum problem.  For reconfiguration of the purpose of the TW neural circuit, we manipulate a search-based reinforcement learning.  We show that our neural policy performs as well as existing traditional control theory and machine learning approaches. 
A video demonstration of the performance can be viewed at:
So while I don't think we're going to be seeing Commander Data joining Starfleet any time soon, this could well be the first step toward machine intelligence.  This is simultaneously thrilling and scary.  Like I said in my opening sentence, all you have to do is watch bad 1960s horror movies to find out how often the super-intelligent robots went berserk and started killing everyone, beginning with the scientists who had created them (usually after said scientists said, "Stand back!  I know how to control it!").  On the other hand, even if the robots do take over, they can't fuck things up much worse than they already are.

So upon reflection, I think I'll welcome our Computerized Worm Overlords.  Even if they never get around to doing much other than keeping poles standing upright, they'll still be ahead of the yahoos who are currently running the country.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Drawing the line

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a YouTube video for my facepalming pleasure a couple of days ago, and being a generous sort, I wanted to share the experience will all of you.  The video is called "Nazca Lines Finally Solved!  The Answer is Amazing!", and is well worth watching in its entirety.  But if you understandably don't want to spend seven minutes of your life watching the video that you will never, ever get back, I'll provide you with a capsule summary and some editorial commentary from Yours Truly.

The Nazca Lines, you probably know, are a series of geoglyphs in southern Peru, which are large enough that their overall shape really can't be discerned except from the air.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The relative impossibility of seeing the pattern except from above has led to wingnuts such as Erich von Däniken (of Chariots of the Gods fame) to propose that they were made to signal aliens visiting Earth from other planets.  Why aliens would be impressed by our drawing a giant monkey on the ground, I have no idea.  It also bears mention that Nazca is hardly the only place in the world that has geoglyphs, and none of them have much to do with flying saucers.  There's the Cerne Abbas Giant of Dorsetshire, England, for example, who is really really glad to see you:

Be that as it may, the guy in the video, one Damon T. Berry, thinks the Nazca lines are trying to tell us something.  What?  Well, he starts out with a bang by saying that "the universal language is constellations."  Whatever the fuck that means.  Given that the constellations are random assemblages of stars that would look completely different from another vantage point in space, it's hard to imagine anything "universal" about them except that they're, by default, part of the universe.

What Berry tells us then is that each of the glyphs has a code that points at a particular destination.  He starts with the glyph shaped like a bird, and then talks about birds representing flight (okay, I'm with you so far), and some of the glyphs being runways for flying machines (why the hell you'd make a runway shaped like a monkey, I have no idea), and then goes into a long part about how it's significant that the bird has four toes on one foot and five on the other.

"It is a bird," Berry says.  "It appears to be a bird.  But think like an alien.  Look closer at its feet."

I'm not sure why thinking like an alien involves looking at feet.  Maybe the aliens have some kind of weird foot fetish.  I dunno.

Anyhow, what does the fact of its having nine toes mean?  It means, Berry says, that "this is not a bird.  This is a constellation."  In fact, it's the constellation Aquila, a grouping of stars in the northern hemisphere which evidently looked like an eagle to some ancient Greeks who had just polished off their second bottle of retsina.  The nine toes correspond to the nine brightest stars in the constellation, he says.

Then he moves on to another bird glyph, this one of a hummingbird.  Berry tells us in astonished tones that this bird has the same number of toes on each foot, as if that was an unusual condition or something.  He then says, and this is a direct quote:  "The clue lies elsewhere... in the wings.  And the elongated wings are meant to draw your attention... to the wings."

I had to pause the video at this point to give myself a chance to stop guffawing.

We're then directed to count the feathers, and he comes up with eleven.  He includes the tail, but I'm not going to quibble about that because otherwise we'll be here all day.  He says that the number eleven can only mean one thing: the glyph points to the "constellation Columbia."

For the record, the constellation is actually Columba, not Columbia.  Cf. my comment about not quibbling.

The fact that Columba "has eleven stars" means there's an obvious correspondence.  Well, I have two things to say about that.
  1. Do you really think that there's nothing else in the universe that is made up of eleven parts?
  2. There are way more than eleven stars in Columba, it's just that the shape of the constellation (identified as a dove by the aforementioned retsina-soaked Greeks) is generally outlined using the brightest eleven stars, just as Aquila was with the nine brightest as earlier described.
He then goes on to analyze the monkey glyph, and once again makes a big deal about the number of fingers and toes, which add to fifteen.  This points to the "constellation of the monkey," which he draws for us.  It's fortunate that he does, because as I do not need to point out to any astronomy buffs out there, there is no constellation of the monkey.  As far as I can tell, he just took some random dots and connected them with straight lines to look vaguely like a monkey.

Whether retsina was involved, I don't know.

He finishes up by basically saying that aliens are out there and will be coming to visit us from those constellations.  At this point, I started shouting at my computer, "You can't be 'from a constellation!'  The stars in a constellation have nothing to do with one another!"  This caused my hound, Lena, to come into my office and give me the Canine Head Tilt of Puzzlement, meant to communicate the one concept she's capable of hosting in her brain ("Derp?").  I reassured her that I wasn't mad at her, that I was mad at the silly man on YouTube, and she accepted that and loped off to interact with something on her intellectual level, like a dust bunny.

Anyhow.  At the end we're told we can learn more if we just watch his longer and more in-depth production, available on Amazon Prime, but I don't think I'm gonna.  I've heard enough.  Me, I'll go back to trying to figure things out through science instead of pulling random correspondences out of my ass.  Call me narrow-minded, but it seems in general like a better way to understand the universe, even if it doesn't involve counting an animal's toes and acting like it means something significant.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The cure for passivity

Let me say at the outset that I enjoy and respect my students.  This is in no way intended to be a criticism of them as people.

However, I've noticed an issue with them this year that is pretty much across the board.  I know it's been there in previous years -- maybe I'm just becoming more sensitive to it, or maybe I have a disproportionate number of kids with this characteristic in this bunch of classes.

The characteristic is passivity.

They're extraordinarily well-behaved -- they're quiet, respectful, kind to each other and to me.  I think I've had to raise my voice maybe twice this year.  By and large they do their work, and any directed task I give them, they will happily dive into.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which they want THE ANSWER.  Few of them -- there are exceptions -- will stop and try to put together what they know to figure out the response to a question, to go out on a limb and make an educated guess, or (even more seldom) to look for evidence on their own to support their answer.  They are perfectly content to have me or another student give them THE ANSWER, which they write in the blank, and forthwith stop thinking about it.

The result is that their grades on homework, labs, and problem sets are uniformly good.  Man, they have those blanks filled in like crazy, and usually with the right answers.  The problem shows up on quizzes and tests -- especially in my AP Biology class, where it's not sufficient to know the vocabulary.  To be successful in that class, you have to understand the concepts on a deep level, not just to regurgitate, but to analyze and synthesize.  If you compare the average grade on quizzes to the average grade on homework, there's a disparity that demands an explanation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And the more I've thought about this, the more I've come to the conclusion that we in the public school system have created this problem.  We've taught them all to be passive recipients of information, to sit there and take notes, merely writing down whatever the teacher tells them to, rather than questioning it, thinking about it, trying to connect it meaningfully to what they already know.  Education has become simply the memorization of lists of terms, not the opening of new worlds, the expansion of minds.

We've forgotten, I think, that the root word of education is the Latin educare -- meaning "to draw out of."  The purpose of education is to put the person in charge of their own understanding, not to make them more dependent on some authority figure to fill their brains up with factoids.

It's getting worse, not better.  We're evaluating students (and teachers, and in some cases, whole schools) on the basis of student scores on standardized, multiple-choice tests.  We discourage thinking outside the box, emphasizing that they're to find THE ANSWER, not uncover novel ways of approaching problems.  We discourage collaborative learning -- usually, it's labeled cheating, and honestly, in the context of most classrooms, that's what it's become.  In most of what we call "cooperative learning," we enable one or two students to do most of the work, and the others to ride their coat-tails, rather than true collaboration where all minds are deeply engaged.

And upon reflection, I think a lot of it is based in fear.  Fear from us teachers that if we relinquish some control in the classroom, the students will revolt, disrupt, or (at the very least) refuse to learn.  Fear that if we don't test, test, test, we won't have any way to know if the students are mastering what we're asking of them.  And the fear runs all the way up the hierarchy; teachers don't trust the students, administrators don't trust the teachers, and the state departments in charge of oversight don't trust anyone.

I think the only way to fix this is with a complete overhaul.  Vocabulary lists and rote book work have to stop being the main way students are evaluated.  At very young ages, children are natural creative problem solvers; we need to hook into that, encourage it, start modeling factual knowledge as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  If you want to know how a car engine works, sure, you need some vocabulary.  You're not going to get far if you don't know which part is the carburetor.  But  if all your mechanic knows is the definition of the terms, and how to recognize the parts on a diagram, it's doubtful that you'd trust him/her to repair your car.

And it's not just with auto mechanics that the fundamental goal is understanding how the pieces fit together, and how to creatively work through problems you've never seen before using the knowledge you already have.

That's the goal of all education.

After all, in this age, students have a mind-bogglingly fast access to the raw facts.  If, to solve a problem, run an experiment, understand a behavior, model a cell or organism or ecosystem, they have to learn the word mitochondria, they can do that in fifteen seconds flat.  I'd far rather they understand how energy flow through living things works and forget the terminology than the reverse.

We need classes that are based in active, project-based problem solving.  Ones where sit-down-and-listen time is occasional and of short duration.  Where students figure out what they need to know, and using us (and their technology) as resources, learn the terms and definitions in a real-world context, within which the vocabulary actually means something.  Where critical thinking and evaluation of source validity counts for more than grades on a multiple-choice test.

The transition to this model for schools would not be easy.  And such classes will demand a great deal from teachers, much more than the lecture/problems/homework/test model we've been using since the 19th century.  But walking into our classrooms this day, the second Wednesday in February, will be thirteen years' worth of students with tremendous potential, and thousands of dedicated, hard-working professionals who care deeply about education.

With that kind of talent, potential, and energy, it's eminently doable.

We just have to admit to the problems -- and commit to finding solutions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A winning smile

I've been told I have "resting scowl face."  I can't tell you the number of times I've been walking down the hall in the school and a student has said, "Boy, you look pissed off," or at the very least, "He's on a mission."

It gets worse when I'm concentrating.  My wife has told me that when I'm performing with my band, I have a knitted brow and that my eyes look... "intense."

She always tries to phrase things kindly if she can.

The odd thing is that I honestly enjoy performing, so it's not that I'm having a bad time.  I have a hard time explaining why I do scowl so much of the time, because I'm really not an angry person.


On the other hand, I just realized I was scowling when I wrote that.

The reason all this comes up is some recent research into the connection between facial expressions and endurance while running. Noah E. Brick, Megan J. McElhinney, and Richard S. Metcalfe, in a paper called "The Effects of Facial Expression and Relaxation Cues on Movement Economy, Physiological, and Perceptual Responses During Running" that appeared in the Journal of the Psychology of Sport and Exercise last month, found that deliberately relaxing your facial muscles and smiling while on a run actually helps you to move with more economy, resulting in less discomfort and an overall improvement in performance.

As a runner, I found this fascinating.  I'm sure, given that I scowl a large percent of the time anyway, that I must look positively furious while I'm running.  I don't have much photographic evidence of that, however, because there's a natural tendency to mug for the camera when you pass a race photographer.  But I honestly can't imagine the smile lasting for much more than a second or two after the shutter clicks.

What is coolest about this is that the researchers didn't just ask runners for their perceptions before and after, they had them breathe through a mask that measured their oxygen uptake (a good measure of the efficiency of your muscles).  They had four groups -- one that maintained a neutral expression, one as genuine a smile as you can muster under those conditions, one that was instructed to scowl, and one that concentrated on relaxing their entire upper body.  (The last-mentioned group was instructed to pretend that "they were holding a crisp with both hands while they were running and trying not to break it.")

Okay, so maybe I don't scowl the whole time.

The results were astonishing.  The smiling group was 2.8% more efficient than the scowling group, and 2.2% better than the neutral group.  (The relaxed group fell in between the two.)  While this may not seem like much of an improvement, it's equivalent to six weeks of consistent jump training (plyometrics).  And, I might add, it's a hell of a lot more pleasant.  The authors write:
The improved RE [respiratory efficiency] is toward the lower end of the 2%–8% reported for short-term training modes (e.g., Moore, 2016) but is greater than the smallest worthwhile change for RE (2.2%–2.6%) suggested by Saunders, Pyne, Telford, and Hawley (2004).  As such, the improved RE can be considered a real and worthwhile change.  Furthermore, the lower VO2 when smiling is equivalent to the 2%–3% improvement noted by Turner, Owings, and Schwane (2003) following six-weeks of plyometric training in distance runners, and the 1.7%–2.1% observed by Barnes et al. (2013) after 13 weeks of heavy resistance training in male cross-country runners.

So I'm gonna try it.  My first race isn't for a couple of months, given that we're still in the third of the seasons in upstate New York's "four-season climate" (the four seasons are: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Fucking Winter, and Road Construction) and the roadsides are covered with a nice layer of dirty slush.  But I can always try it while I'm training on the treadmill at the gym, although it might make my gym buddy wonder what's wrong with me.

What I find most fascinating about this is to speculate about the cause.  You have to wonder if it's because our expressions are so tied to our emotions -- that perhaps wearing a scowl puts your body on alert for danger, resulting in a combination of discomfort and an increase in adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (which would boost the rate at which you burn fuel without necessarily giving you anything back in the form of speed or endurance).  That's all just guesswork, however.

In any case, it's worth a shot.  So if you see a skinny blond guy running down the road in upstate New York wearing a goofy grin, I'm not high, I'm just running an experiment.  Literally.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Silpho Moor mystery

Pieces of one of the most enduring mysteries in UFO lore have allegedly been discovered in the National Archives of London.

Called the "Silpho Moor Crash," the incident occurred in November of 1957, when two men who were hiking on Silpho Moor in North Yorkshire, England, saw "a red light falling from the sky" and went to investigate, despite the fact that every time someone does this in a science fiction movie, they end up being messily devoured by evil aliens.  Fortunately for the two men, this did not happen.  Instead, they found a saucer-shaped object made of metal, eighteen inches in diameter, which upon opening was found to contain thin copper sheets covered with "unidentifiable hieroglyphics."

The Silpho Moor artifacts, including the "hieroglyphic sheets" (lower right)

The objects were much talked about, and eventually (sources indicate in 1963) they were sent to the London Science Museum for expert analysis.

After that, they were "lost to history."

It's kind of weird how often this happens.  Somebody gets amazing evidence of some hitherto-unproven apparition -- UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, Donald Trump's integrity -- and then after a little bit of buzz and maybe a few blurry photographs, it mysteriously disappears.  The conspiracy theorists waggle their eyebrows suggestively about this, and say that of course the evidence disappears, because the powers-that-be don't want ordinary slobs like you and me to have proof of any of this stuff.

Why the powers-that-be would care if we proved the existence of alien intelligence (for example), I have no idea.  As far as I've seen, the powers-that-be are much more interested in destroying the evil, cunning environmental scientists' conspiracy to defeat a beleaguered but plucky band of heroic corporate billionaires.  I can't imagine they give a rat's ass whether UFOs exist, except insofar as these would really be undocumented aliens.

Be that as it may, the Silpho Moor artifacts were lost -- until now.  Maybe.  Just last week, some people digging around in the London National Archives found, hiding in an old cigarette tin, some shards that are supposedly from the Silpho Moor Crash.

What seems odd to me is that every photograph from the actual crash shows an intact object that looks like an almost comically stereotypical flying saucer, and everything in this latest discovery is just a bunch of broken-up metal.  I suppose the scientists back in 1963 could have hacked the thing apart, but isn't it funny that there's no record of that?

Anyhow, the objects were discovered by an exhibit developer named Khalil Thirlaway, who brought them to the attention of Dr. David Clarke, a journalism professor at Sheffield Hallam University.

"He [Thirlaway] opened the tin box and took out the pieces, it was an amazing revelation - it had just been sitting there for half a century.  There must be a lot of it still out there, sitting in someone's attic, or maybe these are the last remaining pieces...  I thought it was a prank, but the question remains -- who went to all that trouble at great expense and what did they gain from it?  It has been described several times as Britain's answer to Roswell, and I don't think that's too great an exaggeration."

Well, yes, in the sense that it's a sketchy set of evidence for an incident that no one is sure has anything to do with alien intelligence anyway.  But at least now the fragments are out in the light of day, and with luck some scientists will get involved and analyze them.

Still, I wonder what they'd find that could prove it one way or the other.  Metal fragments are metal fragments, whether they come from outer space or not.  Despite what Geordi LaForge would have you believe, an extraterrestrial spaceship would not be composed of whatsisium and thingamajite, because the periodic table is kind of full-up with elements we already know well.  So I don't see any way to differentiate between an alloy from Earth and one from the Klingon Home World.

But that's something we can worry about later.  At least the objects were relocated.  Myself, I'm all for submitting hard evidence for study, whether or not it turns up anything significant.  Otherwise, you're back at the level of personal anecdote -- which is the worst form of evidence there is.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Saturday science shorts

Because I am totally disheartened by the news, frustrated by the lack of critical thinking everywhere I look, and also because my blender exploded when I was making breakfast this morning and splattered orange juice and half-processed fruit over every square inch of the kitchen including myself, I am retreating to my happy place, namely: cool stuff in science news.

Let's start with a story from astronomy about something that is a near-obsession with me; the possibility of life on other planets.  This particular research involves the star system TRAPPIST-1, discovered last year and found to have not one, not two, but seven planets, three of which are in the so-called "Goldilocks Zone" (where the temperature is juuuuust right for water to be in liquid form).  Of course, that doesn't guarantee that water's there, just that if it was, it would be liquid, which scientists surmise would be a pretty good indicator of the likelihood of the probability of hosting life.

Now, researchers have found that all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets do have water -- in some cases, up to five percent of their mass.  So the three in the habitable zone might well be water-worlds.  All of which reminds me of the planet Kamino from The Phantom Menace, which otherwise was a dreadful movie, but I have to admit reluctantly that this part was cool.

Here's what we know about the TRAPPIST-1 system, although keep in mind that the illustrations of the planets are artists' renditions of what they might look like:

[image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

So that's pretty wicked cool.  The difficulty, of course, is that even if they did host life, it'd be hard to see that if the inhabitants had not advanced technologically to the point that they were sending out signals.  But even that hurdle might not be insurmountable -- as I wrote in a post a couple of weeks ago, astronomers are now trying to figure out if life is present on an exoplanet by the composition of its atmosphere.

Then, from the realm of biology, we have a study elucidating how those tiny jet fighters of the avian world -- hummingbirds -- maneuver as well as they do.

A group led by Roslyn Dakin and Paolo Segre of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute of Ottawa examined hundreds of hours of high-speed video of hummingbirds in flight, looking at twenty-five different species and examining how they do their amazing aerobatics, including pivoting while in flight, hovering, and moving in an arc so narrow that it almost defies belief.  

The research took them to remote places in Panama, Costa Rica, and my favorite country of Ecuador -- the tiny nation that is host to 250 different species of hummingbirds, including the preternaturally beautiful Violet-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis):

Where I live, we have a paltry one species, albeit a beautiful one -- the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  So it's no wonder the researchers decided to head south.

Another hummingbird researcher, Christopher Clark of the University of California-Riverside, has said that the new study is like moving from analyzing individual gestures of a ballerina to looking at how the moves fit together.  "Now," Clark says, "we're putting together the entire dance."

Last, some scientists at the University of Zurich have for the first time been able to see new neurons being formed in the brains of embryonic mice.  

Starting out by tagging 63 neural stem cells in the hippocampus, Sebastian Jessberger and his team were able to watch as the neurons grew outward and formed connections (synapses) with neighboring neurons.  What was most intriguing was that some of the new neurons had short lives -- perhaps acting as scaffolding for the developing brain and then self-destructing (undergoing apoptosis) when their task was complete.

Amongst these tagged cells, the red ones are the newest, orange next, and continuing through yellow and green (the oldest cells).

What is most exciting about this is that being mammals, it's expected that the knitting together of the embryonic human brain probably proceeds in a very similar fashion.  So what Jessberger et al. are doing might well inform us regarding how our own neural systems form.

So there you have it -- three cool new developments in the world of science.  Which has cheered me up considerably.  That's a good thing, considering the fact that now I have to go clean my kitchen, which I'm definitely not looking forward to.