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The Chile Earthquake Deformed The Earth And Shortened Our Days

“Megathrust quakes like Chile’s are so huge, and cause such a giant release of energy, that they change the shape of the Earth. In the case of Chile’s subduction quake, the planet became slightly denser and more compact. Mass was pulled closer to the Earth’s center as one plate was thrust under the other. And that affected the Earth’s spin. It made the planet spin slightly faster, to be precise, and shortened the length of the Earth day” (io9)

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The mystery of the silent aliens

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“Sixty years ago, space aliens were the preserve of lunatics and eccentrics, thanks to decades of sci-fi schlock, flying-saucer nonsense and Lowellian fantasies of Martian canals. Then, in 1950, came Enrico Fermi and his paradox – “Where the hell is everyone?” – and, 10 years later, the first attempts to put the search for ET on a scientific footing, courtesy of Frank Drake, who pointed a radio telescope at Tau Ceti and heard… silence.

Since then, a modestly funded programme to detect alien radio transmissions has stepped up a gear, and we have made significant astronomical discoveries pertinent to the question of alien life. Despite this, Fermi’s paradox has deepened, as the sheer size and antiquity of the universe has become increasingly apparent.

Today it is rare to meet an astronomer who doesn’t believe that the universe is teeming with life. There is a feeling in the air that light will soon be shed on some of science’s most fundamental questions: is Earth’s biosphere unique? Do other minds ponder the universe?

In April, the world will celebrate the quinquagenary of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, so it seems a good time to take stock of the silence. Three new books tackle the issue in three different ways. One, an immensely readable investigation of the SETI enterprise (with a surprising conclusion); the second, a technical guide to what we should be looking for and how; and the third, a left-field argument that the alien question has already been answered…” (New Scientist)

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Depression’s Upside

On the Threshold of Eternity

Wonderful behavioral science writer Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) writes for the New York Times Magazine on the idea that depression may be adaptive. It is not a new idea; I have followed the intriguing literature about possible evolutionary reasons for the persistence of depression ever since I was a psychiatric resident troubled by how readily we in the field want to obliterate any signs of the condition whenever our patients present with it. Some theories have focused on the advantages of resource preservation, given the social isolation, decreased motivation and lessened self-indulgence the depressed person displays. It has also been suggested that the depressive alteration in cognition, in the direction of impaired self-esteem, decreased sense of efficacy and control over one’s circumstances, and pessimism , may actually be more realistic, at least in some circulstances, than the rose-colored glasses with which we usually walk around.

But recent research adds neuropsychological evidence of increased brain activity in depressed patient in regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving, proportional to the degree of depression. It is certainly not the whole explanation, as critics counter, because some of the maladaptive impact of depression, including poor self-care, impairment in childrearing, increased susceptibility to other illness, and last but not least suicide, will outweigh the problem-solving advantages it might confer. Furthermore, there are many different kids of depression both in terms of precipitant and symptomatology. At one extreme, a person may become depressed in response to an acute recent loss (or even a future anticipated one); on the other hand, some people can develop either a dense acute depression or a smouldering chronic one without substantial stresses or losses. The imprecisions in both the lay person’s use of the term depression and its more technical clincal utilization muddy the waters in this regard.

Still, it is worth asking why a condition that is so painful and takes such a heavy toll would persist if it were not at least some of the time of some use… and whether, at least some of the time, we do more harm than good in leaping to treat it. Except, of course, the unequivocal good done to the pockets of the shareholders and executives of the pharmaceutical companies, reaping the profits from the explosive growth in antidepressant sales of the last few decades. (New York Times Magazine)