Vol. 1 / No. 31 — A New Dragon, Your Brain on Kids, and Mapping the Proteome (Twice)

Dragon 2 at Thursday's press event; Photo: SpaceX
Dragon 2 at Thursday’s press event; Photo: SpaceX

Dragon 2 Unveiled

This past Thursday night, Elon Musk and the team at SpaceX unveiled the futuristic, touchscreen-equipped passenger version of their Dragon spacecraft, the unmanned version of which is already routinely ferrying cargo to and from the International Space Station. Equipped with eight of the company’s new 3D printed SuperDraco thrusters, it promises to be able to return astronauts to any point on the planet with great accuracy.

“It can land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” Musk said. “It can carry seven astronauts for several days. It has an improved heat shield. It’s a big leap forward in technology. It takes things to next level.”

Check out the full (short) video of the unveiling for more.

Broadband on the Moon

Researchers at MIT and NASA announced this week that using a combination of technologies, they could provide future astronauts on the moon with broadband wifi. The system makes use of lasers and satellite relays to allow for transmission at surprisingly good speeds. But don’t expect it to be a great connection — the team views it as a bonus that it can operate on days with thin, wispy clouds (on Earth), meaning this might be the kind of wifi that only works when it’s not raining. The two teams will present their data at next week’s CLEO:2014 conference in California.

PETA Does Something Stupid Again

There are days when it’s quite fair to wonder whether PETA, an organization ostensibly dedicated to the ethical treatment of animals, isn’t instead some kind of industry double-agent, trying to make animal rights activists look so bad that no-one wants to be one. Their ads often involve sexism, fat-shaming, and a kind of “on the backs of the weak” opportunism that makes people more interested in killing and eating PETA activists than in not killing and eating animals. So when the organization launched their latest ads this week linking autism to consuming dairy products, the inevitable backlash (by design) caught the media’s attention. Except here’s the thing: there’s no data to support their claim.

Two studies, neither of which is specified. We don’t know the design. We don’t know if more than casein was removed from the diet, but most studies addressing diet and autism focus on the GFCF (gluten-free/casein-free) diets that many parents of autistic children swear by. There’s no way to stake improvements to a decrease in dairy when other components are being removed, as well. Cherry-picking studies aside, the aggregate of results addressing dietary limitations, such as removal of casein or gluten, and the effects on autism symptoms remains mixed, at best. The best controlled studies find no effect.

Check out the full article at Forbes.

This is Your Brain on Kids

Having kids (not using them) can alter your brain in interesting ways. This week researchers in Israel announced findings suggesting that the so-called “parenting circuit” in the brain isn’t deterministically female. The study focused on new two-parent families: one the one hand, “traditional” male-female couples where the mother was the primary caregiver, and on the other, male-male couples who had reproduced with the help of a surrogate mother. The changes typically called the “mothering instinct” were stronger in the mother in the male-female couples, but equally strong in the male-male couples, suggesting that it’s engagement in primary parenting that causes the changes, rather than something pre-existing. Check out the full article in AAAS Science news for more.

Vitamin E for Good or Ill

According to the NYT “Well” blog, a recent study published in the journal Respiratory Research indicates that we may need to pay more attention to where we get our vitamin E. The study looked at lung function and the reaction to different kinds of the vitamin, called alpha tocopherol and gamma tocopherol. Alpha, typically found in olive and sunflower oil seemed to have a beneficial effect on lung function, but gamma, typically found in oils from canola and corn, had the opposite effect. This could help to explain why studies have found conflicting results in the past on the health effects of the vitamin. Check out the full article at the Well blog for more.

Mapping the Proteome

In a turn of events reminiscent of the decoding of the first complete human genome, two “drafts” of the first complete map of the human “proteome” — consisting of every protein produced by or functioning within the human body — were publicized this week. Two teams, one in Germany and one from the US and India, independently released their databases to the public simultaneously (which also happened in February 2001 with the human genome). These should prove extremely useful tools for scientists in the future. Take a look at the BBC article for more, or check out the databases yourself: ProteomicsDB.org and the Human Proteome Map.

Landing in the Dark

Finally, while attention was turned to SpaceX this week, another lander, NASA’s Morpheus, was testing out its systems for a rough-terrain autonomous Mars landing. Using lasers to gauge the terrain, the lander’s ALHAT system (Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology) successfully guided the unmanned craft to a landing in the dark in a “lunar-like hazard field.” The Morpheus vehicle was designed to serve as a test-bed for new planetary exploration technologies. Check out the article at Phys.Org for more.

That’s all for now!

Have a great week.