Grand Canyon: New Dating Reveals an Older Age

View, looking down, “Grand Canyon National Park,” Arizona (National Parks and Monuments series, taken 1933-1942)
Photographed by Ansel Adams. The National Archives.


A study published in the journal Science suggests the Grand Canyon may be even older than scientists previously thought. New data moves back its formation from an estimated 5 to 6 million years ago to about 70 million years ago (before dinosaurs’ extinction).

Read more details in this report on SciTech Daily.


Genome Sequencing: What’s the Cost for Knowing Clues to Baby’s Future?

Photo by: Sean Dreilinger. Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Baby’s keepsakes: Tiny footprint, lock of hair, and a DNA sequence? As human genome sequencing grows faster and cheaper, how much should parents learn about their babies’ genetic blueprints? In this recent NPR report, bioethicists and other researchers weigh in on what might happen if whole genome sequencing becomes commonplace.

On the positive side, knowing this data could help doctors screen for numerous genetic conditions at birth (or even earlier), and take steps to improve or correct them. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told NPR that whole genome sequencing at birth could profoundly shape individuals’ medical care and personal decisions to “have an impact on truly lifelong health.”

However, skeptics warned that sequencing could saddle families with confusing or unwanted information:

There’s plenty of evidence that parents already often overreact to the relatively small amount of data that they’re getting from little spots of blood collected at birth. Bioethicist Mark Rothstein of the University of Louisville says the tests can lead to so-called vulnerable child syndrome.

These children “are viewed as medically vulnerable and medically frail,” Rothstein says. “And so while all the other kids are riding bikes and climbing trees, these kids are sort of sitting in a corner. So they can’t even enjoy a normal childhood.”

via Genome Sequencing For Babies Brings Knowledge And Conflicts : Shots – Health News : NPR.

On a related note, it’s interesting to see how rapidly genome-sequencing technology has developed in just the last few years. Here’s a small (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of articles on that topic:

1 machine, 4 weeks now enough to sequence human genome, ars technica, 08/10/2009

The $1,000 Human Genome: Are We There Yet? Scientific American, 01/10/2012

The $1,000 Genome, and the New Problem of Having Too Much Information, PopSci, 02/27/2012

Nanopore genome sequencer makes its debut (Technique promises it will produce a human genome in 15 minutes), Nature, 02/17/2012

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Falsehoods: The Truth About Lying in the Digital Age

“The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs,” by Georges de La Tour. (Late 1620s.)
Wikimedia. PD-Art.

In this recently posted TED talk, psychologist Jeff Hancock identified three types of lies that he’s been seeing a lot of lately—the colorfully named Butler, Sock Puppet, and Chinese Water Army—but he also challenged the common notion that the Digital Age, with its greater anonymity, generates more deception.

Hancock, who did his share of deceit-tracking as a customs officer for Canada in the mid-1990s and is now an associate professor of cognitive science and communications at Cornell University, acknowledged how much has changed in the way we communicate. “We email, we text, we Skype, we FaceBook … That’s had an impact on deception.”

He gave examples of the Butler, a tiny lie someone tells when they want to spare feelings, protect themselves, or preserve a relationship in an environment where it’s possible for others to connect to us 24 hours a day: “Sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier. My battery was dead. Your battery wasn’t dead … You just didn’t want to respond to that person at that time,” he said.

“These lies are being used to create a buffer like the butler used to do between us and our connections to everybody else. But they’re very special,” he said. “They use the ambiguity that comes from using technology. You don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing, or who I’m with.”

Another kind of deception is the Sock Puppet (for an example, read about R.J. Ellory’s fake reviews of his own books on Amazon.) Take the same kind of deception to a larger scale and you get the Chinese Water Army (or its American equivalent, Astroturfing). “We see this especially with product reviews, book reviews—everything from hotels to whether you think that toaster is a good toaster or not,” Hancock said.

But when Hancock and his colleagues looked at people’s ordinary online behaviors, they didn’t find them replete with deception. In one study, Hancock and his colleagues asked participants to document all their communications and lies for a week. They found that people were the most honest on email and the least honest over the phone. They also found greater honesty on Linked In, as opposed to paper resumes, and discovered that users’ FaceBook profiles were actually a pretty accurate reflection of their personalities.

This evidence that online communication is actually fairly honest may have something to do with how, for the first time in human history, so much of our lives are thoroughly documented, Hancock explained. On their own, humans do a poor job of recognizing deceit, but today’s networked communications open us up to greater scrutiny. Hancock went on to discuss how he has developed a computer algorithm (based on language patterns) that can distinguish between real and fake hotel reviews with greater accuracy than people can.

Today’s communication records, with all the truths and falsehoods they contain, are a goldmine for social scientists, he added. “We’re going to learn so much more about human thought and expression—about everything from love to attitudes.”

In addition, they may lead people to be more honest, he believes, as they consider what legacies they want to leave behind. “Because now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.”

Families: Study Finds Four Kinds of “Home Cultures” in America

Tip Estes and his family eating dinner, 1937. Photographer: Lee Russell. Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010580-D [P&P].

The success of various parenting styles, from helicopter to free-range, is often debated. A new study by researchers at the University of Virginia finds more fundamental differences in family culture that are shaping today’s children.

The Culture of American Families Project—co-directed by James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman at the university’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation—has identified four “home cultures” that make up 87 percent of families with school-age children: the Faithful, Engaged Progressives, the Detached, and American Dreamers. The data is based on a nationwide survey of 3,000 parents as well as longer follow-up interviews with 101 respondents.

“Though largely invisible, these family cultures are powerful, constituting the worlds that children are raised in, and may well be more consequential than parenting styles,” [Davison] said.

via U.Va. Study Identifies Four Family Cultures in America | UVA Today.

(I do wonder about the other 13 percent of families that didn’t fit neatly into one of these four groups. But let’s continue.)

More details on the project can be found in the executive report. Here are brief descriptions of each family type:

The Faithful (20 percent of American parents)

“The defining feature of the Faithful is that ‘morality’ is understood to be received from a divine, external source, whether within a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim tradition,” the report states.

Faithfuls tend to be politically conservative (51 percent Republican versus 13 percent Democrat), strongly oppose gay marriage, and attend religious services weekly. They believe their own children share their moral codes, though almost half of them report an overall decline in American standards.

Engaged Progressives (21 percent)

“At the center of the Engaged Progressives’ moral universe stands the virtue of personal freedom,” the report states. “With freedom comes choice and, by implication, responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices.”

They are the least religious of the four cultures; two-thirds say religion is not important to them. Although they hesitate to punish their children, 93 percent say they “invest much effort in shaping [their] moral character,” hoping they will grow into adults who treat others well. They typically let their teens have access to birth-control information at an earlier age. Continue reading

Families: How Those Torn Apart by Slavery Tried to Reunite

Spend any time reading 19th-century newspapers and you’ll likely find them: tucked among ads for barrels of ox beef and puncheons of rum will be notices of persons for sale or, equally unsettling, runaway ads that inventory the appearance or personality of a master’s departed slave. Usually, a reward was offered to track down the individual—“a stout fellow” or “a slender wench,” who was “considerable knock-kneed” or perhaps “marked with small pox,” and showing a “pleasing smiling countenance” or “a down look.”*

In her new book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, University of North Carolina history professor Heather Andrea Williams turns her attention to a third kind of newspaper communication—Information Wanted notices posted by African Americans themselves. After the Civil War, this was one of the ways that former slaves sought to find their loved ones.

It’s interesting that “this is how black people showed up in the newspaper most often in that century,” notes Williams in a recent phone interview. “The runaway ads are about money, offering a reward to get ‘property’ back,” she says. In contrast, the Information Wanted ads launch “an emotional appeal.” But rather than providing physical details of the missing person, whose appearance may have changed with the passage of time, they typically use the owner’s name as an identifier.

“I think they’re all really laden with emotion—some much more explicit than others,” she says. “You get some where there is this resentment really coming through. They put the word owner in quote marks, making this rhetorical challenge to the idea of one person owning another. But then they are also poignant—not because they say I loved my mother and cry for her every night, but because somebody has been looking for his mother for 21 years. He thinks he somehow might have a chance [of finding her.]”

In an ad that appears in Nashville’s Colored Tennessean on October 7, 1865, Thornton Copeland wrote, “Information is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother … My mother’s name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French.”

“That one is really poignant because it raises lots of issues which people contended with,” Williams says. How do you find someone after a separation of more than two decades? “How do you find someone whose name was Betty, knowing that the owner could have changed her name at any point?

“There’s hope. There’s pain. There are multiple emotions in these ads,” Williams says.

As her book explains, newspaper ads weren’t the only strategy used by African Americans. Sometimes they wrote to former owners for information or sought clues to a relative’s whereabouts from one of the Freedmen’s Bureau offices set up around the country after the Civil War. (Others, of course, took the opportunity to run away while slavery was still in place, often heading toward the plantation where they last saw a family member.)

Williams practiced law before becoming an historian, but she has always been interested in African-American history. “I write books because I want to know the black people in the past,” she explains. “Often we talk about slaves, and the word replaces the people.”

The Help Wanted notices provide a peek at people’s personal stories. The personalities of individuals come through even more in the letters and narratives that Williams also excerpts in her book, particularly those that refer to the loss of family members in childhood. Recalling how her mother was sold and taken from her when she was a child, Kate Drumgoold wrote, “The saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone and I used to go outside and look up to see if anything that would direct me and I saw a clear place in the sky and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it 3 ½ years not knowing what that meant and it was there the whole time mother was gone.” Continue reading

Frank Furness: He Put the Modern in Architectural Design

Photograph of Frank Furness

Photograph of Frank Furness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before Frank Furness transformed western architecture in the late-19th century, his field seemed to be stuck in the past. “If you were designing a library, you looked to King’s College [at the University of Cambridge] and imitated the forms” of that institution, says George Thomas, an urban planner and architecture historian who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. “Basically, as you look at the early to mid-nineteenth century in architecture all across Europe and America, you can very quickly tease out the historical sources that were being drawn on.” Opening his office in Philadelphia in 1866, Furness had a different vision that led him to create new forms inspired by industry, Thomas explains.

Thomas is organizer of Furness 2012: Inventing Modern, a Philadelphia-based celebration of the architect’s innovative work upon the 100th anniversary of his death. The celebration has included exhibitions, talks, and Furness-inspired street art throughout the city. Click here to see more of Furness’s famous projects.

Furness was born in Philadelphia in 1839. His father, William Henry Furness—a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist—was a major influence on him. So was the rising industrial culture of his native city:

“In the nineteenth century, the premier machine tool-and-die maker in the world is William Sellers, whose business dominates industrial design and wins all the gold medals in the Paris Fair,” Thomas explains. One of his central ideas was that “the design ought to serve the particular task at hand.” His cousin and main designer, Coleman Sellers, lectured at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1874 about their machines, pointing out that they were painted gray in order to look like the metals from which they were made. He went on to explain that the new purposes of industry demanded new forms.

“My sense is that’s exactly the parallel that Furness picks up and runs with in architectural design,” Thomas says. “He begins to understand that post-Civil War America is drastically different. There’s no point in looking to history for solutions.”

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1900. Detroit Publishing Company. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph’s division. under the digital ID det. 4a08450.

One of the best showcases of Furness’s “drastically different” architectural strategy is Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871). As part of Furness’s design, “students are pushed as far away [as possible], to the farthest back corner, because I suspect that then, as now, art students are not what you want to mix with your paying customers,” Thomas says. Furness also put a giant freight elevator at the back of the building to enable the movement of canvases, sculptures, and animals used in art instruction. “Furness understands there are paying customers, students, and objects and animals. Each has a different entryway into the building.”

Rather than hiding the academy’s building materials, Furness shows them off with a huge exposed steel truss spanning the north side of the building. Its addition made it possible to put a glass roof above the academy’s ground-floor art studios. “He’s basically thinking of the building as a factory-meets-palace for art.”

Furness’s vision continued with his design of the University Library (now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) at the University of Pennsylvania. “You walk in and there’s this lesson in new materials of the age, [including] big iron stairs with cast-iron newels and wrought iron railings,” Thomas says. “Furness is reveling in what this new material can do.”

The industrialists and engineers who inspired him were entranced enough with Furness’s work to hire him at the rate of one building every other week for the rest of his career, Thomas notes. Furness designed railroad presidents’ homes, train stations, libraries, banks, hospitals, churches and synagogues, and more. “You name it, he’s doing it.”

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsy...

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furness’s career spanned four decades. Like his father, he was “not afraid to be a hero,” Thomas says. “He wins the Medal of Honor in the Civil War fighting for his father’s beliefs, and he’s not afraid to be a hero as an architect. Rather than ducking into the crowd, he tends to carry the ammunition box across the battlefield … I think that is what is at the core of what makes him so interesting: there is a heroic personality, a new context, and a connection to the great forces of the industrial age.”

Furness’s legacy isn’t limited to the buildings across the Philadelphia region that that his firm designed. His students, including Louis Sullivan (who went on to teach Frank Lloyd Wright), George Howe, and William Price, also helped carried the message of modernism into the 20th century.

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Estrogenic: Consumption of Certain Plants May Be Linked to Aggression in Monkeys

Red colobus monkeys in Uganda.
Image by Duncan (Wellington, NZ). CC By-S.A. 2.0.

Munching on large amounts of phytoestrogen-rich leaves from the Milletia dura tree appears to alter hormone levels and behavior among red colobus monkeys, according to a study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

Studying a group of male red colobus monkeys in Uganda, scientists from the University of California-Berkeley found that levels of estradiol and cortisol rose with seasonally higher consumption of estrogen-like compounds. In addition, the monkeys fought and mated more, and indulged less in the social-bonding activity of grooming.

“It’s one of the first studies done in a natural setting providing evidence that plant chemicals can directly affect a wild primate’s physiology and behavior by acting on the endocrine system,” said study lead author Michael Wasserman, who conducted the research as a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “By altering hormone levels and social behaviors important to reproduction and health, plants may have played a large role in the evolution of primate — including human — biology in ways that have been underappreciated.”

via Eating estrogenic plants alters hormones in monkeys, may increase aggression and sex.

Researchers warned against assigning too much influence to phytoestrogens, however, explaining that diet is just one factor in behavior. Others include the hormones already produced inside the body as well as the amount of competition for food and mates.

Einstein’s Brain: New Insights on Old Gray Matter

Albert Einstein.
Photograph by Oren Jack Turner. Image in the Public Domain due to age.

Albert Einstein would unquestionably be called one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. So did his brain look much different from the average person’s? As reported on SciTech Daily, anthropologists from Florida State University recently examined photos from Einstein’s 1955 autopsy and found some notable features:

The most striking observation was the complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of the cerebral cortex, especially in the prefrontal cortex and also the parietal lobes and visual cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is important for abstract thinking. The complex pattern of convolutions probably gave the region an unusual surface area, which might have contributed to his remarkable thought processes.

via Photos of Einstein’s Brain Show Unique Features | SciTech Daily.

For those who want to mull over Einstein’s gray matter some more, scans of his brain can be purchased as an App, according to this article on redOrbit.

& Attoseconds: A Moment With the Scientist Behind the Shortest Laser Pulse

Zenghu Chang, in the Florida Atto Science and Technology Lab at UCF. He is wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the laser light. Photo by Susan Frith.

Briefly returning to the A’s at the Curiosity Dispensary … Before I enter Zenghu Chang’s lab at the University of Central Florida, he hands me a pair of blue booties and tells me to put on some safety goggles. The booties help keep out the dust. The goggles will protect my eyes from intense laser light. Inside the Florida Atto Science and Technology Lab, a research team led by Chang has used a new optical technique to generate the shortest laser pulse on record—just 67 attoseconds (or 67 quintillionths of a second) in duration. Their results appear in the journal Optics Letters. Chang’s accomplishment brings scientists a step closer to the goal of being able to observe chemical reactions as they unfold.

When I think of incredibly short bursts of time, I think of Olympic sprinters crossing the finish line. I think of speeding bullets. (I think of how long I am actually sitting down at the dinner table before my kids start haggling over what they have to eat to get dessert.)

Dr. Chang, a professor of optics and physics, works in a whole different world—the world of the attosecond. In the time it takes you to blink your eye, he explains, 1015 attoseconds have passed. Comparing an attosecond to a second is like comparing one second to twice (actually 2.3 times) the age of the universe. Continue reading

Eavesdropping: A Peek at the Snooping Skills of Beetles, Bats, Canaries (and a Few Humans)

The Eavesdropper by Eugene de Blaas (1843-1932).
Image in the Public Domain due to age.

Human history is full of examples of eavesdropping, from neighbors snooping on the party line to the FBI scouring the Gmail account of Gen. David Petraeus. In a post on her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova takes a peek at John L. Locke’s book Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (Oxford University Press, 2010) for some explanation of its causes. Animals do plenty of eavesdropping, too, to avoid predators, defend their territories, and assess the fitness of their mates. Here are some ways that beetles, bats, and canaries snoop for information. (But don’t tell anybody you heard this from me.):


Margaridisa sp. Flea beetles normally like to chomp away on leaves from the pink flowering Cordobán tree (Conostegia xalapensis). But the presence of aggressive ants seems to put a damper on their appetite.

To test if these beetles eavesdrop on the communication pheromones of ants in order to avoid them, David Gonthier, an environmental sciences researcher at the University of Toledo, coated the underside of some leaves with “crushed ant liquids” from the species A. instabilis and dotted others with only water. His results appear in the open-access journal PLOS One.

The control leaves sustained 3.8 times more damage and had three times more beetles on them than the ant-marked leaves. In addition, two experiments comparing control leaves with leaves that had previously been “patrolled” by A. instabilis and another ant species, C. textor, found about twice as much damage among the control leaves.

The researcher found no significant differences in leaves that had been patrolled by a third ant species, S. geminata, but more experiments may be needed to understand those results.


Bats use echolocation, releasing short wavelength signals that bounce off other objects, in order to find food and orient themselves, as well as to socialize. By eavesdropping on these signals, bats can glean information from others. One study in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bby scientists from Germany’s University of Ulm and other institutions looks at the extent to which bats can gather social information, such as the sex of the caller, from these vocal signatures.

Greater sac-winged bat (S. bilineata).
Felineora. Creative Commons.

Their study involved the greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata). Even though they mate only during a brief time in December, males of this species defend their daytime roosting space from other males and try to attract females to it throughout the year.

After capturing bats with mist nets, researchers banded individuals and released them one at a time in order to record their distinctive echolocation calls. Then they recorded the responses of roosting males as individual bats were released, one by one, near the colony’s roosting site. All of the roosting males crooned courtship songs to approaching females and warned off approaching males with territorial vocalizations.

Due to the distance and darkness, it is unlikely that scent or visual information helped these males tell the difference between male and female bats, the study concludes. “Through passive information transfer and eavesdropping, echolocation calls play a crucial and hitherto underestimated role for social communication in a highly mobile and gregarious nocturnal mammal.”


Eavesdropping doesn’t always generate reliable information, however—especially when the subject knows they’re being watched.

Domestic canary (Serinus canaria).
L.E. MacDonald. Creative Commons.

A study published in PLOS One on socially-monogamous domestic canaries looked at the effect of having an audience on males’ behavior. Researchers from Paris West University Nanterre la Défense paired up 21 male canaries and 21 female canaries in cages, allowing them to mate. Later they placed those same male canaries in cages with different, but familiar, females, with whom they could interact. These interactions either took place in front of another empty cage or a cage containing a familiar female or their own mate. When there was no audience, the male canaries courted the most. They courted the least in front of their own mates.

“These results show that male domestic canaries can adjust their behaviour according to the social bond they share with the audience,” the study states. “Indeed, subjects courted less in the presence of their mate than in the presence of a familiar female. This suggests that males suffer costs while engaging in extra-pair behaviours in the presence of their mate.”

A second eavesdropping experiment found that male canaries competed more aggressively against other males for food when they had an audience. The presence of a mate or a familiar female led to more attacks on the competing male.

The study concluded: “One could assume that males losing a contest would suffer a decrease in their reproductive success in both situations: eavesdropping familiar females would not choose them as sexual partners … while eavesdropping mates would engage more in extra-pair copulations … ”