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Month February 2010

Tour de France Honours Merckx with Belgian Stages in 2010

Via Cycling News:

Merckx hopes for Belgian stage win as birthday present.

The Tour de France will pay tribute to five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx this summer, with its two stages in Belgium. Stage one will go through his current hometown of Meise and the second stage will pass through his childhood home of Tervuren.

Christian Prudhomme, of the organising Amaury Sport Organisation, presented the two stages, to be held July 4 and 5, in Brussels on Monday.

“We really wanted to pay tribute to Eddy, who is celebrating his 65th birthday, hence the desire to go to Brussels,” he said. “It is rare when the Tour de France asks a city to host a stage, and not the other way around.”

Merckx, who turns 65 on June 17, won the Tour in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974. he also took the points jersey in 1969, 1971 and 1972, and the mountain ranking in 1969 and 1970. In addition, he had 34 Tour stage wins.

The Tour will open with a prologue in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Saturday, July 3. On Sunday, July 4, the first stage will run 224 km from Rotterdam to Brussels. It will pass by Merckx’ hometown of Meise, and finishes in front of the King Badouin Stadium. The finale is tailor-made for a mass sprint, as it features a 1600-metre straight run-in to the finish.

The second stage on Monday, July 5, will start at the Royal Palace, home of King Albert, and run through the city’s European Quarter on its way to Tervuren, where Merckx grew up. The stage will end after 192km in Spa.

“The organisers and the City of Brussels are giving me a great honour in passing by my home of Meise,” Merckx said Monday at the presentation. “Brussels is my heart, my country. I feel like a true citizen of Brussels. Although I’ve never lived in the heart of Brussels, but always nearby.

“In Brussels itself, I never won a Tour stage,” he continued, “but in the 1969 Tour, I took over the yellow jersey after a team time trial there.”

“If I must be honest, the best birthday gift would be a Belgian stage victory in Brussels,” he said.

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Hemingway at the Velodrome

From Rapha, by Joe Hall:

Ernest Hemingway, American author and journalist, lived and worked in Paris during the 1920s. In A Moveable Feast, the book in which he writes of his time in the French capital, Hemingway describes trips to Parisian velodromes at the zenith of track racing.

“…the lonely absolute speed events of one man racing an hour against the clock, the terribly dangerous and beautiful races of one hundred kilometers on the big banked wooden five-hundred-meter bowl of the Stade Buffalo, the outdoor stadium at Montrouge where they raced behind big motorcycles, Linart, the great Belgian champion that they called ‘the Sioux’ for his profile, dropping his head to suck up cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed, and the championships of France behind big motors of the six-hundred-and-sixty-meter cement track of the Parc du Prince near Auteuil, the wickedest track of all where we saw the great rider Ganay fall and heard his skull crumple under the crash helmet as you crack an hard-boiled egg against a stone to peel it on a picnic.”

Similarly, see Tristan Bernard au Velodrome Buffalo.

Maître Jacques

Jacques Anquetil, 1934 – 1987

When I was small, he was for me the champion cyclist. But above all he was a gentleman for his personal qualities as much as his sporting achievements. I have always been irritated by the game of comparing champions from different times, but to be compared to him was an honour.

Bernard Hinault

Atheistic Billboards Send Ripples of Dissent Across God-Fearing America

Via guardian, by Ed Pilkington:

Campaign is riposte to Christian businessman spending $50,000 on posters denouncing separation of church and state.

In a country where more than eight in 10 people regard themselves as religious, it takes more than a little guts to preach about a world without God. But that’s the message that is creeping across America, spreading ripples of dissent in its wake.

From Tampa in Florida, to Cincinnati, Ohio, and all the way across to Sacramento in California, billboards have been cropping up with messages that run across the grain of America’s normally devout discourse. “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone!” were the first posters to be put up, in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and parts of the north-east. “Being a good person doesn’t require God,” read another.

The billboards are the work of a national group of atheists – or nontheists, as they call themselves – called United Coalition of Reason that seeks to encourage nonbelievers throughout America by bringing them together.

Through their website, they set themselves up in the mould of a religious community, outlining their “mission” , which they define as raising the visibility and sense of unity of the “community of reason”.

The idea for the billboard campaign emerged after a Christian businessman in Tampa spent $50,000 (£32,000) of his own money putting up posters denouncing the separation of church and state. The coalition decided to take him on directly by spending twice as much on its own campaign.

The result has been predictably volatile. Its latest poster – “Are you good without God? Millions are” – has been defiled in Sacramento by religious opponents adding the words: “Also lost?”

In Cincinnati, the owner of the hoarding took down the poster after he received threats. And in Tampa, the believers have hit back with another campaign pouring scorn on the coalition with the help of quotations from George Washington.

Similarly, see this NY Post article.

PhD Comics Brain Development Infographic

This cartoon by Dwayne Godwin, a professor of neurobiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and Jorge Cham, the former researcher and cartoonist who created PhD Comics, has won first place in the informational graphics category of the 2009 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

Wonders of the Solar System

In this spellbinding series, Professor Brian Cox visits the most extreme locations on Earth to explain how the laws of physics carved natural wonders across the solar system. Airing on BBC Two, March 7th.

How Your Brain Tells Time

Via Forbes, Jonathan Fahey:

Researchers are building a mathematical model of how brains keep time, and finding some surprises.

In the middle of your brain, there’s a personal assistant the size of a grain of rice. It’s a group of about 20,000 brain cells that keeps your body’s daily schedule.

Partly in response to light signals from the retina, this group of neurons sends signals to other parts of the brain and the rest of the body to help control things like sleep, metabolism, immune system activity, body temperature and hormone production on a schedule slightly longer than 24 hours.

Daniel Forger, a mathematics professor at the University of Michigan who uses math to study biological processes, wants to understand this brain region, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in excruciating detail. He is building a mathematical model of the entire structure that he thinks will shed important light on our circadian rhythm, and perhaps lead to treatments for disorders like depression and insomnia, and even diseases influenced by the internal clock like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

“I think we’re going to be able to have a very accurate model of the circadian rhythm, all the key proteins, all the electric activity of all 20,000 neurons,” he says. “We’ll be able to track all of them for days on a timescale of milliseconds.”

Forger has already taken a few steps down this path and found some surprises. In a paper published in a recent issue of the journal Science, Forger, along with colleagues Mino Belle and Hugh Piggins of the University of Manchester in England and others, showed that the firing pattern of the time-keeping neurons in the SCN was not at all what researchers had long thought.

Researchers who studied the electrical activity of the SCN had believed that the neurons there helped the body keep time by sending lots of electrical signals during the day, and then falling silent at night. Makes sense. Lots of non-teenage creatures are active during the day and quiet at night.

But when Forger used experimental data to build a mathematical model of the electrical activity, he calculated that there should be lots of activity at dawn and dusk, and a state of “quiet alertness” during the day. That didn’t make much intuititve sense. Worse, the cellular chemistry during this quiet period that Forger’s model predicted would, in normal cells, lead quickly to cell death.

“Skepticism doesn’t begin to describe what I was met with,” says Forger. “Experimentalists told me, ‘That’s crazy.'”

Researchers in the field simply assumed Forger’s model was wrong. Forger refined it and reworked it, and got similar results. Meanwhile, his British colleagues began to probe the fact that there are two types of cells in the SCN, ones that have very strong molecular clocks and do the timekeeping, and others that behave more like normal brain cells.

While previous researchers had recorded the activity of all of the cells in the SCN, Belle and Piggins were able to set up an experiment using mice that would record only the activity of the clock cells. (Mammalian central clocks all seem to work the same way.) Their experimental results matched Forger’s predictions.

“When we got the results, they were shocking,” Forger says. “They were dead on.”

The cells in the SCN that don’t keep time followed the pattern researchers were familiar with, active during the day, quiet at night. The time-keeping cells went bananas in the morning and at night, but then during the day they stayed in a bizarre state of excitement during which they emitted very few impulses. Why these cells can stay alive in this state remains a mystery.

Forger has been down this path before. Another study of his, published in 2007, reversed the thinking on how gene mutations affect circadian rhythms within cells.

Scientists studying a hamster that had a malfunctioning internal clock (its daily rhythm lasted 20 hours instead of 24) found that it had a mutation in a gene called tau. The fuzzy rodent was given the extremely appropriate name “Tau Mutant Hamster.”

They thought Tau Mutant Hamster’s mutation caused an enzyme that helped cells keep time to be less active. Forger predicted that it would instead make the enzyme more active. Experiments later proved he was right.

Now Forger is turning his attention to the entire SCN. He thinks that math is the only way we can understand the sheer complexity of what is happening–neurotransmitters coming and going, protein clocks being built up and broken down, electricity bouncing around.

“To piece it all together, you need more than intuition,” he says. “You need math to see what’s going on.”

Spotted at Darren Brown’s blog.

Liberalism, Atheism, Male Sexual Exclusivity Linked to IQ

From CNN, by Elizabeth Landau:

Political, religious and sexual behaviors may be reflections of intelligence, a new study finds.

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning — on the order of 6 to 11 points — and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say. But they show how certain patterns of identifying with particular ideologies develop, and how some people’s behaviors come to be.

The reasoning is that sexual exclusivity in men, liberalism and atheism all go against what would be expected given humans’ evolutionary past. In other words, none of these traits would have benefited our early human ancestors, but higher intelligence may be associated with them.

“The adoption of some evolutionarily novel ideas makes some sense in terms of moving the species forward,” said George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey, who was not involved in the study. “It also makes perfect sense that more intelligent people — people with, sort of, more intellectual firepower — are likely to be the ones to do that.”

Bailey also said that these preferences may stem from a desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ. In fact, aligning oneself with “unconventional” philosophies such as liberalism or atheism may be “ways to communicate to everyone that you’re pretty smart,” he said.

The study looked at a large sample from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which began with adolescents in grades 7-12 in the United States during the 1994-95 school year. The participants were interviewed as 18- to 28-year-olds from 2001 to 2002. The study also looked at the General Social Survey, another cross-national data collection source.

Kanazawa did not find that higher or lower intelligence predicted sexual exclusivity in women. This makes sense, because having one partner has always been advantageous to women, even thousands of years ago, meaning exclusivity is not a “new” preference.

For men, on the other hand, sexual exclusivity goes against the grain evolutionarily. With a goal of spreading genes, early men had multiple mates. Since women had to spend nine months being pregnant, and additional years caring for very young children, it made sense for them to want a steady mate to provide them resources.

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

“It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere,” Kanazawa said.

Participants who said they were atheists had an average IQ of 103 in adolescence, while adults who said they were religious averaged 97, the study found. Atheism “allows someone to move forward and speculate on life without any concern for the dogmatic structure of a religion,” Bailey said.

“Historically, anything that’s new and different can be seen as a threat in terms of the religious beliefs; almost all religious systems are about permanence,” he noted.

The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines “liberal” in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.

“Liberals are more likely to be concerned about total strangers; conservatives are likely to be concerned with people they associate with,” he said.

Given that human ancestors had a keen interest in the survival of their offspring and nearest kin, the conservative approach — looking out for the people around you first — fits with the evolutionary picture more than liberalism, Kanazawa said. “It’s unnatural for humans to be concerned about total strangers.” he said.

The study found that young adults who said they were “very conservative” had an average adolescent IQ of 95, whereas those who said they were “very liberal” averaged 106.

It also makes sense that “conservatism” as a worldview of keeping things stable would be a safer approach than venturing toward the unfamiliar, Bailey said.

Neither Bailey nor Kanazawa identify themselves as liberal; Bailey is conservative and Kanazawa is “a strong libertarian.”

Vegetarianism, while not strongly associated with IQ in this study, has been shown to be related to intelligence in previous research, Kanazawa said. This also fits into Bailey’s idea that unconventional preferences appeal to people with higher intelligence, and can also be a means of showing superiority.

None of this means that the human species is evolving toward a future where these traits are the default, Kanazawa said.

“More intelligent people don’t have more children, so moving away from the trajectory is not going to happen,” he said.

Person Swap

By Derren Brown.
Spotted in Kluge, by Gary Marcus.

From the Clash of White Dwarfs, the Birth of a Supernova

Via NY Times, By Dennis Overbye:

How many ways can a star go “kaboom!”? It might depend on what kind of galaxy the star lives in, astronomers said last week.

For the last 20 years, astronomers seeking to measure the cosmos have used a special type of exploding star, known as Type 1a supernovas, as distance markers. They are thought to result when stars known as white dwarfs grow beyond a certain weight limit, setting off a thermonuclear cataclysm that is not only bright enough to be seen across the universe but is also remarkably uniform from one supernova to the next. Using them, two teams of astronomers a little more than a decade ago reached the startling and now widely held conclusion that some “dark energy” was speeding up the expansion of the universe.

But astronomers, to their embarrassment, have not been able to agree on how the white dwarf gains its fatal weight and explodes, whether by slowly grabbing material from a neighboring star or by crashing into another white dwarf.

In a telephone news conference on Wednesday and a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature, Marat Gilfanov and his colleague, Akos Bogdan, both of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, said that for at least one class of galaxies in the universe, the roundish conglomerations of older, redder stars known as ellipticals, these supernovas are mostly produced by collisions.

“We have revealed the source of the most important explosions in cosmology,” Dr. Gilfanov said, adding that until now “we didn’t know exactly what they were.”

Reasoning that white dwarfs slowly gobbling gas from neighbors would emit X-rays as the captured gas fell and was heated, Dr. Gilfanov and Dr. Bogdan used NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory to look at five elliptical galaxies and the central bulge of the nearby Andromeda galaxy — all of which are composed of older stars. The satellite recorded only about one-thirtieth to one-fiftieth of the X-rays that would be expected from such white dwarfs, leading the astronomers to conclude that no more than 5 percent of the supernovas in those types of stellar systems could be produced by accreting white dwarfs.

The observations leave open the possibility that accreting dwarfs might be responsible for more of the supernovas in spiral galaxies like our own, which tend to have younger, more massive stars.

That leaves open the possibility of two different kinds of Type 1a supernovas at loose in the universe and could add extra uncertainty into efforts to use exploding stars as standard candles to make precise measurements of the universe. Accreting white dwarfs go off at a precisely determined mass known as the Chandrasekhar limit, but a pair of colliding dwarfs could have a range of masses.

Mario Livio, a theorist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said that while the new results and the idea of two classes of supernovas “muddies the water,” they would not affect the measurements of dark energy. Most of the supernovas in those studies, he said, came from spiral galaxies, and the astronomers, moreover, were very careful to calibrate their data.

“The main results so far will remain unchanged,” Dr. Livio said.

Adam Riess, of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute and a first-rate dark energy hunter, called the new paper “an interesting study.” He compared the two theories of supernovas to lighting a stick of dynamite with a fuse versus banging them together to see if they would go off. “If we find a connection to where nature does it one way versus the other, we could use that information to improve the use of these candles,” Dr. Riess wrote in an e-mail message. “I think we are getting close to that point now.”

Image: Chandra