Thursday, September 05, 2013

Daily 2 Cents: Charlie Sheen Seeks the Kushtaka -- Smell the Weather Forecast -- Estimating Alien Life Across the Universe

Charlie Sheen: 'I'm Hunting a Half-Otter Man'

Barely a month after his Loch Ness monster mission failed, Charlie Sheen is back on the hunt for crazy mythological creatures ... this time in snowy, snowy Alaska ... Charlie's favorite.

Charlie tells TMZ, he flew up to Sitka, AK on his private jet last week in search of the mythic Kushtaka, which loosely translates to "Land otter man."

Stories about the elusive Kushtaka originated among natives in Southeastern Alaska ... and according to Charlie, it's "a shape-shifting trickster who is half man, half otter. It lures one away from the campsite with the mimicked sounds of a crying baby, then kills you, takes on YOUR form, and returns to the scene for more suckers or prey."

Charlie says he embarked into the wilderness with some friends in order to find the creature ... but just like on his Nessie mission, he returned empty-handed. Sheen has since flown back to civilization.

Charlie tells us, "It obviously knew our group was far too skilled to be snowed in this fashion so it stayed hidden like a sissy."

Yeah, that's what happened. - TMZ

Here's a recent real-life experience - Beware the Kushtaka!

Shamans and Kushtakas: North Coast Tales of the Supernatural

Monster Spotter's Guide to North America

Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart


The new equation for estimating alien life across the universe

Many of us have glanced upwards at the stars and wondered whether there is other life out there somewhere. Few, however, have then tried to write down an equation to express the probability in numbers.

Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done just that. Her equation collects together all the factors that could determine how many planets with detectable signs of life may be discovered in the coming years.

The factors include the number of stars that will be observed, the fraction of those stars with habitable planets, and the fraction of those planets that can be observed. First presented at a conference earlier this year, the equation is written as N = N*FQFHZFOFLFS. It was published yesterday in the online Astrobiology magazine.

This is not the first time an astronomer has put such thoughts into numbers, as Seager acknowledges. Back in 1961, astronomer Frank Drake gave a lecture about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. To set the agenda, he wrote down a list of the factors needed to estimate the number of intelligent civilisations in the galaxy.

The resulting string of factors is known as the Drake equation, and it has become a bit of a scientific superstar. It may even be the most famous equation after E=mc2.

Drake's factors were:
1: The average number of stars to form per year in the galaxy.
2: The fraction of those stars that form planets.
3: The fraction of those planets that could support life.
4: The fraction of life-supporting planets that form life.
5: The fraction of those living planets that develop intelligent life forms.
6: The fraction of those intelligent life forms that develop technology.
7: The average lifetime of a communicating species; in other words how long a civilisation will use radio technology, leaking signals into space for us to hear.

Rather discouragingly, the only factor that is known is the first one. Astronomers have shown that the galaxy gives birth to about seven new stars per year. They are now working on an estimate of the second term, the fraction of stars that form planets. All the rest is still guesswork.

Seager's new equation makes no assumption that extraterrestrials are intelligent and using radio technology. Instead, she simply works on the idea that life of any type may be present in sufficient abundance to alter the chemical composition of its planet's atmosphere.

On Earth, for example, our atmosphere has been driven to a specific chemical composition by the combined metabolisms of all the living things. It is as distinctive as a fingerprint. So, by analysing the atmosphere of another planet, we may be able to detect the presence of life, even if it is only pondweed.

Nevertheless, Seager's new equation suffers many of the same drawbacks as Drake's original: we have no idea what value to assign to most of the factors.

Last year, I appeared at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto alongside Canadian poet Larissa Andrusyshyn. Realising the probabilistic nature of the Drake Equation, she had written her own tonugue-in-cheek equations to estimate such things as the number of men in her city who displayed boyfriend potential.

Similarly, I could write down an equation to estimate the probability of me finishing this article. Factors could include: the number of computers in the house that I could potentially use to write, the fraction of those computers equipped with a word processor, the fraction connected to the internet, the amount of time I had to spare, and of course, how motivated I felt (which on my cynical days could be a function of how much I was getting paid for the article).

In short, you can think up a "Drake equation" for anything.

While Seager's and Drake's equations are useful ways of organising one's thoughts about the challenge of looking for life, the bottom line is that the factors are too loosely constrained for either to have any quantitative value.

The only way to know if there is truly life on other worlds is to design and build missions that will look for it. Thankfully, Seager is at the forefront of that effort too. Her planet-finding telescope, TESS, will be launched by Nasa around 2017 and could locate hundreds of Earth-sized planets. - The Guardian

If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens ... WHERE IS EVERYBODY?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life

The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet


This Man’s Smell Hallucinations Can Predict the Weather

Along with the tremors, stiff muscles and difficulty walking, about a third of Parkinson’s patients experience hallucinations. And for one patient, those hallucinations were both horrible and predictive. He smelled an intense, skunk-like, oniony smell that got worse when a storm was coming. According to the International Journal of Biometeorology, he is the “first reported case of weather-induced exacerbation of phantosmia.”

The case study says that the patient, a 64-year-old white male with Parkinson’s, these phantom smells would suddenly intensify two to three hours before a storm and last until it has passed. This also isn’t the first time, the patient has been a weather predictor. “Twenty years prior, he reported the ability to forecast the weather, based on pain in a torn meniscus, which vanished after surgical repair,” the researchers report.

Storms weren’t the only thing that triggered the patient’s terrible smell hallucinations; they could also be summoned via “coughing, nasal congestion, and tiredness.” They could be banished by eating—which has caused the patient to gain weight—and also by “watching TV, nasal irrigation … occluding the nostrils … snorting salt water, blowing of the nose, laughing … humming and talking.”

Now, the doctors didn’t actually test the patient’s weather prediction accuracy. Which means that he could simply be misattributing his smelly signals. Christian Jarrett at Research Digest suggests:

Just as we tend to remember all those times that we received a phone call from a friend or relative just when we were thinking of them – but none of the more numerous times when we weren’t – perhaps this patient’s purported forecasting ability is a trick of memory. This explanation is supported by the fact that twenty years earlier the patient claimed to predict the weather based on worsening of pain in a torn cartilage. This history may have led him to expect other sensory experiences to be weather-related and to seek out meteorological associations with his phantom smells that may not be real.

So the Weather Channel will probably not be hiring this man to predict storms any time soon. The doctors say that their patient is probably not a magical weather predictor, but rather an interesting case of how environmental factors like air pressure could trigger pathways in the brain and cause these kinds of feelings and hallucinations. With that understanding, perhaps they can rid this poor man from his smelly hallucinations. - SmithsonianMag


Down syndrome reversed in newborn mice with single injection

US researchers have found a way to reverse Down syndrome in newborn lab mice by injecting an experimental compound that causes the brain to grow normally.

The study, published in the Science Translational Medicine journal, offers no direct link to a treatment for humans but scientists are hopeful it may offer a path towards future breakthroughs.

There is no cure for Down syndrome, which is caused by the presence of an additional chromosome and results in intellectual disabilities, distinctive facial features and other health problems.

The team at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, in Baltimore, used lab mice that were genetically engineered to have extra copies of about half the genes found on human chromosome 21, leading to Down syndrome-like conditions such as smaller brains and difficulty learning to navigate a maze.

On the day the mice were born, scientists injected them with a small molecule known as a sonic hedgehog pathway agonist.

'Unexpected benefits' in learning and memory

The compound, which has not been proven safe for use in humans, is designed to boost normal growth of the brain and body via a gene known as SHH.

The gene provides instructions for making a protein called sonic hedgehog, which is essential for development.

"It worked beautifully," said Roger Reeves of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"Most people with Down syndrome have a cerebellum that's about 60 per cent of the normal size," he said.

"We were able to completely normalise growth of the cerebellum through adulthood with that single injection."

The injection also led to unexpected benefits in learning and memory, normally handled by a different part of the brain known as the hippocampus.

Researchers found that the treated mice did as well as normal mice on a test of locating a water platform while in a swimming maze.

However, adjusting the treatment for human use would be complicated, since altering the growth of the brain could lead to unintended consequences, such as triggering cancer.

"Down syndrome is very complex and nobody thinks there's going to be a silver bullet that normalises cognition," Dr Reeves said.

"Multiple approaches will be needed." -



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