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Archives for December 2010

Are political beliefs hard-wired?

Tom Feilden | 08:10 UK time, Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Alan Duncan's brain scan

Alan Duncan's brain scan

"Give me the child until he's seven and I'll give you the man."
It's clear from their motto that the Jesuits are firmly in the acquired camp when it comes to whether our political beliefs and values are learned or hard wired from birth: the product of experience rather than genetics.

But is that true?

It's a question the Today programme's guest editor, the actor Colin Firth, was keen to explore. He wanted to know if it was possible to "see" political belief in the structure of the brain, and if science could predict whether a person was left or right wing.

MPs Stephen Pound and Alan Duncan

MPs Stephen Pound and Alan Duncan

The obvious answer was to take a look at the brains of two MP's with diametrically opposing views - step forward Thatcherite Conservative Alan Duncan, and Labour stalwart Stephen Pound, who agreed to undergo a structural brain scan using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI.

The MP's were put through their paces by professor Geraint Rees at UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience earlier this month.

Obviously a study with just two subjects - however different their perspectives might be - was not a big enough sample to produce a statistically significant conclusion, so professor Rees expanded the study to include a pool of students and post-docs previously scanned at the Institute in other, unrelated, experiments.

This larger cohort was asked to fill in a questionaire assessing their political values, and their answers (along with those from Alan Duncan and Stephen Pound) were compared with earlier structural brain scans.

The results showed a strong correlation between between political belief and two specific regions of the brain. The grey matter of the anterior cingulate was significantly thicker amongst those who described themselves as liberal, or left wing, while the amygdala - an area associated with emotional processing - was larger in those who regarded themselves as conservative or right wing.

"It's a remarkable finding" says professor Rees. "We were very surprised to find two areas of the brain from which we could predict political attitudes."

Interestingly the results from Alan Duncan and Stephen Pound were consistent with the overall findings. Stephen Pound's scan revealed a thicker anterior cingulate - consistent with those students who described themselves as left-wing - while Alan Duncan's was thinner. Both MP's recorded similar densities for the amygdala.

Although the results do show that political belief is reflected in the physical structure of the brain it's not clear which comes first. Whether the structure of the brain shapes political belief or political belief leads to the differential development of brain structure.

In that sense we haven't answered Colin Firth's original question, but what started out as a bit of fun has turned into a significant piece of scientific research.

Professor Rees has written up the results of the experiment and submitted them to a scientific journal. That paper is currently undergoing peer review and should be published in the New Year.

Your chance to spot an alien world

Tom Feilden | 10:03 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010


Fancy yourself as a planet hunter? Who knows, you could be the first to spot the telltale signature of an earth-like world orbiting a distant star.

That's the tantalising prospect scientists at NASA and Oxford University are offering to those willing to wade through the mountain of data being generated by the Kepler Space Observatory.

Kepler has been sitting out there in deep space quietly photographing a patch of sky between Cygnus and Lyra every 30 seconds or so for 18 months. That's generated a colossal amount of data - and while the computer algorithms researchers are using to process the images are good at spotting huge Jupiter-like gas giants, they're less reliable when it comes to teasing out the signal of smaller planets 'lost' in the background noise.

For that you need the subtle pattern processing powers of a much more sophisticated computer - the human brain. And that's where you come in.

"There's a good chance that some of these alien worlds are being lost in the noisy background data from Kepler" says physicist Dr Chris Linott from Oxford University's Department of Physics. "What we're hoping is that the human eye might be able to spot these lost worlds, rescuing planets that automatic techniques have missed".

The team has built a website, Planethunters.org, that allows anyone to sift through the Kepler data on individual stars one by one, and to submit likely candidates for hidden planets.

When a planet orbiting a distant star passes in front of it - a transit - the light from that star dims briefly before picking up again. It's this telltale dip in luminosity researchers want people to highlight in the data. Then they can go back and confirm the discovery.

"We've found from previous projects that people, armchair astronomers, are very good at sifting this sort of data," says Arfon Smith who helped design the website, "but one of our users spotting an earthlike planet in another star system would be a fantastic achievement."

It's an exciting idea, and who knows, perhaps a Today programme listener will be the first to spot a planet orbiting a distant star.

Scientists have sense of humour, shock

Tom Feilden | 09:52 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

"This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author's email".

Hardly the sort of dry, dispassionate, technical assessment you expect from one researcher about another's work, but it seems that scientists are human after all.

That's the verdict after the Journal of Environmental Microbiology chose to publish some of the wittier one-liners from referees involved in the peer review process.

The results veer from the downright rude - "The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style" - via the enigmatic - "Preliminary and intriguing results...that should be published elsewhere" - to the artlessly charming - "Very much enjoyed reading this one and do not have any significant comments. Wish I had thought of it."

Much of the vitriol can be put down to the pressures of competition. Inevitably, referees are picked from a pool that includes an author's closest rivals. Other comments seem deliberately designed to try the patience of the journal's editors.

"I agreed to review this in the golden glow of a balmy evening on Lake Como. Back in the harsh light of reality in Belfast I realise that it would probably have been better not to have volunteered".

On the whole though it's the acerbic viciousness that catches the eye. "The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home and then spend time to wonder what life is about," writes one reviewer.

Speaking on the programme this morning the neurologist professor Colin Blakemore acknowledged there was a long and celebrated history to the caustic review.

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"Hans Krebs' classic paper on the Krebs cycle, perhaps the most important development in cell biology in the 20th century, was rejected by Nature. They said it was of insufficient general interest. He went on to win the Nobel prize for that".

With apologies to William Congreve, it seems Hell hath no fury like a scientist scorned.

A near miss for the North Sea oil industry

Tom Feilden | 09:21 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon

An internal safety review passed to the Today programme shows that Transocean - the company operating BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico - narrowly avoided a similar accident in the North Sea, four months earlier.

The blowout happened on Shell's Sedco 711 platform on 23 December last year as the Transocean crew was preparing to switch from a drilling operation to production, bringing the reservoir in stream.

The report, a nine-page safety review of the incident, details a series of errors and misjudgements that led to the blowout.

In a marked parallel with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, key indicators that something was going badly wrong were either misinterpreted or discounted - in this case in favour of a positive pressure test from a valve at the base of the well.

That valve had been dislodged, or damaged, in earlier operations and the report concludes: "The risk perception of barrier failure was blinkered by the positive inflow test."

By the time the crew realised there was a problem oil and gas from the reservoir was forcing its way up the drill shaft and out onto the rig.

Crucially there was not enough heavy mud available to pump back down into the well, counteracting the kick, or surge of gas and oil. A major spill was averted only when the BOP, or blowout preventer, was activated capping-off the well on the sea floor.

The Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee is currently holding an inquiry into the safety implications of the Deepwater Horizon disaster for the UK off-shore oil industry.

MP's heard from Paul King, the managing director of Transocean's North Sea Division, back in September but were unaware of the incident on the Sedco 711 platform at the time.

The committee's chairman, Tim Yeo, confirmed the report would now feature in their inquiry, and said it was important to understand how frequently this kind of thing was happening off-shore, and whether there was a risk of a more serious accident.

"It's not clear that this is something that had been properly prepared for, and it may well have been more luck than judgement that got it under control. We don't want to see people working without the necessary kit, without proper training or procedures, and the result of that being a major spill."

We asked Transocean for an interview. Sadly no one was available to comment, but in a statement the company stressed the importance of safety and well control on all its installations.

"Any related events that occur on a rig anywhere in the world, including the one in December of 2009, are immediately reported to management, fully investigated, and the valuable information gleaned from that investigation is used to improve existing safety systems across the fleet."

Thankfully for all those on the Sedco 711 rig - and for the wider environment of the North Sea - a major accident and spill was averted.

But the parallels between this and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico raise serious questions about the operating procedures and safety margins employed on rigs across the off-shore oil industry.

According to the Health and Safety Executive there were 85 major or significant unplanned hydrocarbon releases across the sector in the North Sea last year - up 20 percent on 2008/9.

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