Friday, May 30, 2008

Girls vs boys

Girls, we have been told, are rubbish at maths. Not so, says a new study. Girls are just as good as boys if brought up in a society where men and women are treated more equally, at least according to new research in Science. If they live in Turkey they don't do nearly as well on standard tests, whereas if they live in Norway, they do just as well. Raising girls in more equal societies allows them to do just as well in maths. The only thing that boys do retain an advantage at is geometry.

Education and sex: Vital statistics
Girls are becoming as good as boys at mathematics, and are still better at reading May 29th 2008

And this also may be of interest from a few years ago. Rereading it I realise the article sort of falls flat at the end and doesn't really reach a conclusion about whether biology or culture has a greater impact on differences between men and women.

In the editorial meetings, we had a lot of arguments about what all the data actually meant and many of my colleagues had strongly held views about the origins of these differences.

My feeling then, as now, is that when it comes to inbuilt differences between the brains of men and women, ignoring the sex-related ones (which are large), the differences are mostly small. I think the cultural influences, on the contrary, can be much much greater. What this means is that, potentially, a lot of the differences we see in the differences between the brains of men and women are actually derived from upbringing.

Differences between the sexes: The mismeasure of woman. Aug 3rd 2006
Men and women think differently. But not that differently

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the mind

In laboratories around the world, scientists are hard at work at making drugs to treat diseases based in the brain such as Parkinson's, Alzheimers and schizophrenia. Many of the drugs they are creating are specific to the disease, others are not and these offer to enhance cognitive abilities such as memory and learning. The fascinating thing about these drugs is that if taken by normal people, they may offer cognitive enhancement.

This is the lesson we have already learnt from drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil. Many people with no form of disease or disorder are now taking them as cognitive enhancers. In the case of Ritalin, it is reasonable to state that the drug is possibly one in which the risks of off-label use outweigh the benefits. It is an amphetamine-like drug that can be addictive. In the case of Provigil (also known as modafinil) the side effects are smaller, and people using it to maintain alertness when they are working late are likely to report far fewer side-effects than drinking a lot of coffee.

The comparison of coffee is worth bearing in mind. It is a drug that practically everyone takes, and it does have side effects. Just because it comes from nature doesn't make it any better than something out of a laboratory.

This brings us to the question of whether we should welcome or fear the new generations of cognitive enhancing drugs that are likely to arrive? And as they arrive, so will the potential for use "off label" by people who are not sick. People worry about a society where everyone is doing drugs but they forget or choose to ignore the various stimulants already used from caffeine to ginseng. While it is true that there are potentially medical risks of a new generation of cognition-enhancing drugs (as well as ethical issues), it be wrong to fear their arrival and legislate against them as a whole.

Policies need to be based on the each drug's potential for harm. If these new drugs are generally safe, and people want to take them, it would be wrong to criminalise this behaviour or even set up punitive measures. Some of these drugs may be a good thing, offering us real benefits—particularly as we age. Mental acuity starts to fail when we get older. Just because such mental failings are not given (at present) any specific medical label, doesn't mean that they don't have a legitimate use for cognition enhancing drugs.

Even if you hate the idea of a society where lots of people are taking cognitive enhancing drugs or one where many people feel obliged to take them, there is very little that can be done to eradicate it. People need to be realistic about what government legislation can, in any case, do about off-label drug use.

Taking a punitive approach to cognition enhancers pre-judges who has a legitimate use for them. In twenty or thirty years from now, many impairments of the brain will be recognised as legitimate reasons for the use of cognitive enhancers. Wouldn't it be a shame if the first generation of people who found a use for them were punished.

Cognitive enhancement: All on the mind
Prepare for drugs that will improve memory, concentration and learning May 22nd 2008

Leaders: Smart drugs

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dead in the water

It has been known for a long time that nitrogen in the water is, generally, a bad thing.

Nonetheless, every day large quantities of nitrogen run off from the fields of farms in Europe and America, and end up in the ocean causing vast areas to die off.

A couple of new papers in Science this week, document the effects of this nitrogen in the water and the air, and explain that reactive forms of nitrogen are being created at record rates and how this is cascading through the environment.

The story in The Economist looks at this problem and also talks about the idea of a nitrogen footprint, which is the amount of nitrogen produced by various activities, from beef farming to running a car. The green.view a few days later, picks up the story of the nitrogen footprint and looks at the various different footprints that exist (nitrogen, carbon, water and land) and at the concept that when products that require extensive use of these resources are traded, there is also a virtual trade.

For example, when beef is bought by Japan from America, there is also a trade of "virtual nitrogen" which is produced and emitted into the environment in America but on behalf of another country. An interesting paper which describes this idea in greater detail is Tip of the Pork Chop, last year in Ambio (see references).

The environment: Dead water
Too much nitrogen being washed into the sea is causing dead zones to spread alarmingly May 15th 2008

Green pedicure: Footprints in carbon, nitrogen and water

May 19th 2008 Web only

International trade in meat - The tip of the pork chop
Jim Galloway*, Marshall Burke, Eric Bradford*, Rosamond L. Naylor, Walter P. Falcon, Harold A. Mooney, Joanne Gaskell, Kirsten Oleson, Ellen McCollough, and others. Ambio, Vol. 36 no. 8, page(s) 622-629, December 2007.

Transformation of the Nitrogen Cycle: Recent Trends, Questions, and Potential Solutions
James N. Galloway, Alan R. Townsend, Jan Willem Erisman, Mateete Bekunda, Zucong Cai, John R. Freney, Luiz A. Martinelli, Sybil P. Seitzinger, and Mark A. Sutton (16 May 2008)
Science 320 (5878), 889. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1136674]

Impacts of Atmospheric Anthropogenic Nitrogen on the Open Ocean
R. A. Duce, J. LaRoche, K. Altieri, K. R. Arrigo, A. R. Baker, D. G. Capone, S. Cornell, F. Dentener, J. Galloway, R. S. Ganeshram, R. J. Geider, T. Jickells, M. M. Kuypers, R. Langlois, P. S. Liss, S. M. Liu, J. J. Middelburg, C. M. Moore, S. Nickovic, A. Oschlies, T. Pedersen, J. Prospero, R. Schlitzer, S. Seitzinger, L. L. Sorensen, M. Uematsu, O. Ulloa, M. Voss, B. Ward, and L. Zamora (16 May 2008)
Science 320 (5878), 893. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1150369]

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Green and blue

Lots of things published recently. If you choose only one thing to read, I would recommend the Clarke obit.

Other recently published items:

Science & Technology section

Gene therapy: Seeing is believing. The prospects for using genes as a therapy may be improving May 1st 2008

Palaeontology: Seeing the light. Palaeontologists can now look inside fossils without damaging them Apr 10th 2008

This is a remarkable story about how intense beams of light, designed to look at the structure of molecules, is being applied in palaeontology to allow scientists to see what lies inside a fossil.

Doping in sport: High hopes. An athlete's genes may help determine the results of his dope test Apr 3rd 2008

This article was picked up by the New York Times (several weeks after we ran it) and run on page 1.

Obituary: Arthur C. Clarke The relentless star-gazer who kept his feet on the ground Mar 27th 2008

Everyone absolutely loved this obituary. Although I can't say I enjoyed all of his books from start to finish, he was a great mind and a novel thinker of our time.


Paying for Caribbean diversity. May 5th 2008
Having recently traveled to the Caribbean, I was struck by the relatively low levels of environmental awareness on three of its islands: Anguilla, Bonaire and St Marteens. Islands face unique environmental threats yet no effort is made to tap the resources of the wealthy visitors that are in a large part responsible. This is the topic of this week's green.view column for the Economist.

Deciding what to save. Apr 14th 2008
Imagine a housefire. You have to decide what to save, and quickly. This is just the sort of dilemma facing conservationists.

Swimming with jellyfish this summer. Mar 31st 2008
Jellyfish are about to invade the coast of Spain because of overfishing. Maybe its karma.

Evaluating Dubai's island-reclamation project. Mar 17th 2008
New reefs are forming around Dubai's island reclamation project. But that doesn't mean that the project is environmentally friendly.