Thursday, July 29, 2010

The lighter side of physics


“I like light,” says Daniel Weiss, an applied physics major at Emory, who enjoys photography and working as a lighting designer on Emory theatrical productions. “I would probably go crazy if I didn’t have the ability to do art while doing all the optics courses and thermal physics. Everything I do has an artistic flair, including what I do in the physics department, and everything ties in to light.”

Watch the video to learn more about combining science and art at Emory.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rootless professionals: The new normal

Knowledge@Emory interviewed Peter Kilborn about his book “Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class.” The term “Relos” refers to the growing group of American professionals who move every three or four years for a job. Kilborn researched the book during a fellowship with Emory’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life.

Q: Do Relos represent another rip in America’s social fabric?

Kilborn: They do, but in the greater Atlanta area, for example, the effect is limited to a small number of communities where Relos make up a sizeable part—arbitrarily, I’d say 20 percent or more—of the population. For Relos, communities are just places to sleep. So they demand little of the community, beyond good schools for their kids, but likewise contribute little. They’re part of a wider phenomenon that Robert Putnam cites in his book, "Bowling Alone." Americans are so busy with their personal lives that they can’t make time for the community, like participating in a bowling league. Relos are even more harried than Putnam’s Americans. Before they can become involved with a community—after finding homes, schools, doctors, churches, the mall—they’re gone.

Q: What does Relo culture say about our perception of “community?”

Kilborn: It says we have less community, if by community we mean places with interacting people. But Relos are also redefining community. Their community might not be a geographic spot on the map. It might consist of their cross-border links to others with similar interests. Electronics engineers, for example, might identify with other electronics engineers, all members of associations of engineers, across the globe. They interact on the Net and at group gatherings. Those of their children who have lived abroad often don’t identify with a place or even a country. They call themselves “third culture kids.” But many of them, too, engage with other kids via electronic links—Facebook, My Space, email, texting, and so on.

Read the full interview.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The math of rock climbing


By Carol Clark

Do you know your ape index? What’s it like to fall 40 feet down a sheer cliff face, while dangling from a rope hundreds of feet from the ground?

Watch the video of Emory mathematician Skip Garibaldi describing his rock climbing experiences on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He also explains some basic climbing math, such as the fall factor, used to reduce the risk of injury during a rope climb.

“Climbing has a lot of puzzles that have to be solved,” Garibaldi says. “It’s not just strength or skill. You really have to think about the different ways you can place your body.”
Photo by Craig Clarence.

The sport seems to attract mathematicians, he adds. “When I learned how to climb, in San Diego, Mike Freedman was a professor there. He has the Fields Medal for his work on the Poincar├ę conjecture, and he helped develop the San Diego climbing scene.”

One of Garibaldi’s collaborators, noted French mathematician Jean-Pierre Serre, “has bouldered at Fontainebleau, near Paris, for decades,” Garibaldi says. And mathematician John Gill, who went to high school in Atlanta, and graduated from the University of Georgia, is considered the father of modern bouldering by many climbers.

Atlanta has a thriving climbing scene, Garibaldi says. Check out the Emory Rock Climbing Arena.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oil spill may reshape environmental law


The cap on the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher has raised hopes that the flow may be contained, but the legal effects of the disaster are just getting rolling. The court battles could drag on for 20 years, says Emory environmental law expert William Buzbee.

The federal government has announced a $20 billion fund to pay for claims related to the spill. “No one has yet to see the governing document that will explain how this $20 billion fund will work, and that’s a huge issue,” Buzbee says. “If there is a small restaurant in Atlanta that has bought Gulf coast products and sells them, should that restaurant be able to recover for lost profits? These things will be fought.”

Even in the wake of the spill, it is a virtual certainty that offshore drilling will continue, Buzbee says, adding: “If you look at the history of environmental law, crises again and again resulted in improvements in the written law and improvements in the law as actually implemented and enforced.”

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Mouse trail leads to online shoppers

Credit: istockphoto.com

Emory computer scientists Eugene Agichtein and Qi Guo have developed on online tool that helps predict whether a person intends to buy or to browse by tracking the cursor movements.

“We used controlled experiments to develop a model for the way people use a computer mouse when they plan to make a purchase,” explains Agichtein, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science. “When we apply this shopping model to data from actual Web users in an uncontrolled environment, it correlates to a doubling of the ad click-through rate.”

Agichtein and Guo, a graduate student, will present their findings this month at the SIGIR 2010 conference in Geneva, Switzerland. SIGIR is the leading forum for innovations in information retrieval and Web search.

Patterns of computer mouse behavior vary a great deal, depending on the habits of the user, Agichtein says. “A lot of skeptics have felt that mouse movement is too varied to be useful, but our study shows that it can be a valuable indicator of a searcher’s intent.”

Agichtein heads the Emory Intelligent Information Access Lab.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The bi-polar ape, in love and war


“It is interesting in discussing the history of human violence to know that we have one close relative who is sort of a happy, go-lucky hippie primate, and we have one that is pretty brutal,” says Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, referring to the bonobo and the chimpanzee.

In the above video, de Waal debates whether human nature is essentially violent with psychologist Steven Pinker and anthropologist Richard Wrangham, both of Harvard.

So what can the Pentagon learn from the behaviors of chimpanzees and bonobos? De Waal covers that topic in the video below.

“I was invited one time to a think tank of the Pentagon,” he says. “I was the only animal person, the only primatologist. All the others were anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists. The Pentagon asked us the question, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, what’s going to happen to a super power that’s the only super power in the world? How can we use that status in the world?”

The videos were produced by the Department of Expansion and the Leakey Foundation.


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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fiction, facts and values of synthetic biology

“The story of Frankenstein is a scientific one,” says bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, adding that the classic tale by Mary Shelley is “a product of the Christian cultural milieu that had underpinnings of suspicion and worry about technology.”

Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, was one of the speakers at recent meetings on the future of synthetic biology, held by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

What is synthetic biology? Are molecular biologists playing God? Should we be more excited or frightened by the potential to make life as we don’t know it? Click here to listen and watch as experts explain some of the challenges ahead, including communicating potential benefits and risks of synthetic biology to the public.

Emory President James Wagner is vice chair of the Presidential Commission, which plans more public meetings in November, on the Emory campus.

Illustration, above, from 1831 edition of "Frankenstein." Source: Wikipedia Commons
.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dogs may help collar Chagas disease

Mongrel dogs have a hardscrabble life in poor, rural communities of Argentina.

Some diseases, like stray dogs, are largely neglected by society.

Chagas disease, for example, is caused by a parasite that roams with only limited control among the rural poor in Latin America. The main vector for the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi is the triatomine insect, or “kissing bug,” which thrives in the nooks and crannies of mud-brick dwellings. The bug sucks the blood of mammals, helping T. cruzi move between wildlife, cats, dogs and humans.

“Dogs tend to lie on porches or other areas easily accessible to the bugs,” says disease ecologist Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies at Emory. “And when a dog is malnourished and its immune system isn’t great, they are even more at risk.”

Kitron has been researching Chagas disease in remote communities of northern Argentina for the past 10 years. “One of our most significant findings is the importance of dogs in both the spread of the disease, and the potential to help control it,” he says, explaining that dogs can make good sentinels for health officials monitoring T. cruzi transmission.

Chagas disease begins as an acute infection that can subside on its own. In one out of three cases, however, the infection persists and can go unnoticed for decades, until it causes complications such as heart failure, digestive problems and sudden cardiac death. The condition affects 10 to 12 million people in Latin America, killing more than 15,000 a year.

Human migration has moved Chagas disease around the globe: U.S. blood banks must now screen donors for T. cruzi. And bugs travel hidden in people’s luggage to new places such as Patagonia in southern Argentina.

Kitron is collaborating with Ricardo G├╝rtler of the University of Buenos Aires on a research project funded through a joint NIH-NSF program on the ecology of infectious diseases. Their work in Argentina’s Chaco province is included in a June 24 special supplement of Nature, devoted to the topic of Chagas disease.

“We are interested in answering scientific questions, but we also want to help reduce the risk and the impact of the disease on the rural population,” Kitron says.

Few government resources make it to the rural poor, and the main control for Chagas disease is spraying insecticide. “It’s a limited strategy,” Kitron says. “If you want to control Chagas disease, you have to look at the whole picture.”
A mud-brick home is emptied of its contents, before spraying with insecticide.

The researchers have shown, for example, that people with fewer than two dogs in a household are unlikely to become infected. It turns out that dogs are 14 times more effective at spreading Chagas disease than humans.

“Many of the dogs are not in good shape, they’re exposed to a whole bunch of parasites and worms and they just get scraps to eat,” Kitron says. “But the idea of just eliminating the dogs is not an option. People really care about their dogs.”

An alternative may be to identify dogs that are most at risk of remaining infectious for a long period of time. These “super spreaders” could be targeted with insecticide collars. Research is also ongoing for a vaccine against T. cruzi in mongrel dogs.

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