Science Friday: not dead yet

OK, OK, so there’s only ever been one other Science Friday on this blog, and the others have kinda sorta failed to materialize.

But the angels of Serendip have conspired (wow, how unscientific is that?) to bring several interesting sciencey-type stories to mind, and I just gotta share.

Is your baby smarter than a chimp? According to this study in Science, um… well, maybe. Chimps performed on par with a group of children (average age: 2.5 years) on a battery of tasks relating to physical intelligence, including figuring out simple problem-solving tasks involving tool use. Children did, however, substantially outscore chimps and orangutans at tasks requiring "social intelligence," such as being shown how to complete a task and successfully copying the strategy.

In one social learning test, a researcher showed the children and apes
how to pop open a plastic tube to get food or a toy contained inside.
The children observed and imitated the solution. Chimpanzees and
orangutans, however, tried to smash open the tube or yank out the
contents with their teeth. (Reuters)

This experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that part of what makes humans unique is our highly developed social cognitive ability. As the researchers put it, "what may be distinctive [in humans] is the ability to understand unobserved causal forces in general, including (as a special case) the mental states of others as causes of behavior." Or, in other words, when some knucklehead cuts us off in traffic, we are able to instantly calculate his mental state and respond appropriately, most likely by shouting "Watch it, you crazy freakin’ moron!"

Get well soon, bees! Multiple causes for the mass bee die-off of the last year have been proposed, ranging from the goofy (mobile phone radiation) to the perhaps inevitable (global warming). But now it looks as if a possible culprit has been found: a little-known disease called Israeli acute paralysis virus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spread of the disease may be associated with the practice of starting up new colonies by feeding existing groups royal jelly imported from… where else… China. *sigh*

We don’t need no stinking evidence! As a devoted viewer of Forensic Files, the show that makes you realize just how impossible it is to get away with murder, I consider myself fairly well informed on the reliability of DNA evidence. Apparently, Forrest Allgood, district attorney of Noxubee County, Mississippi, needs to spend a little more time glued to the screen.

In 1992, three-year-old Christine Jackson was snatched from her bedroom, raped and murdered; her body, supposedly bearing nineteen human bite marks, was dumped in a creek near Macon. Five of those bite marks were identified by bite mark "expert" Michael West–a dentist who, at the time of the trial, had already been suspended from the American Board of Forensic Odontology for incompetence–as belonging to Kennedy Brewer, the live-in boyfriend of Christine’s mother. Brewer, an African-American man described as mildly mentally retarded, was convicted and sentenced to death.

In 2002, testing proved that the attacker’s DNA found on Christine’s body did not belong to Brewer; it was that of an unknown person. Brewer was moved off Death Row, but not released; instead, he spent the next five years in county jail while his case hung in legal limbo.

On August 31, Brewer was finally allowed to leave jail and return home with his family… on bail, not as a genuinely free man. Allgood continues to claim that negative DNA evidence is not an exoneration, yet he refuses to run the DNA against the state’s criminal DNA database, saying that no such database exists. (According to the director of Mississippi’s state crime laboratory, such a database has been "up and running for years.") And Noxubee County sheriff Albert Walker says he has no plans to reopen the case–in his mind, they’ve already convicted one man and there’s no need to start looking for the real killer just because the evidence suggests they oughtta.

Another sad twist to this story: about a year and a half before Christine’s murder, another three-year-old girl in Noxubee County was kidnapped, raped and murdered in a similar way. The man convicted in that case? Her mother’s live-in boyfriend. The evidence that sealed his fate? A "bitemark" on the girl’s arm identified as his by… you guessed it… shining odontological star Michael West.

Justice is alive and well in the Deep South…

Rest in peace, Madeleine L’Engle. The 88-year-old author died yesterday at her home in Connecticut. Her canonical, Newbery Medal-winning A Wrinkle in Time was the first spec-fic book I ever read… and re-read. Between the ages of six and thirteen, I must’ve read it twice a year or so; I can still quote chunks of it from memory. And oddly enough, yesterday I was thinking about tesseracts. (Yeah, yeah, so her tesseracts were something rather more like wormholes. It was still a great mindbendy thing for a nerdy eight-year-old to spend time thinking about.)

And just from reading her obituary in the Times, I learned that A Wrinkle in Time "is one of the most banned books because of its treatment of the deity." (Wow, that’s a clunky sentence. C’mon, NYT… you can do better than that.) With Banned Books Week coming up at the end of this month, it’s a perfect time to celebrate with a re-reading… maybe the littluns would like to join me.

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About Molly Newman

Writer, cook and trivia/spelling bee hostess, living it up in North Portland.
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4 Responses to Science Friday: not dead yet

  1. Mimi says:

    I’ve never read her books, maybe I should try to get into “Wrinkle in Time” this weekend in her honor.

  2. azureavian says:

    damn, i better go out and actually buy the books, before they do something stupid like try to re-write them in a “correct” manner.
    well, death surrounds us today, doesn’t it.

  3. Helena says:

    Oh, wow, I hadn’t heard about Madeleine L’Engle. That’s a shame.

  4. Ami says:

    I’m sorry to hear it, too. LOVE that story.
    Read it once again on my last camping trip.

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