"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Making it for Ourselves 

"Energy independence" is a big buzzword these days, what with calls left and right for alternatives to extracted fossil carbon to fuel our ever-expanding consumptions. Investments into 'biofuels' - basically, corn or sugar cane ethanol - have been disastrous for the environment and economy, respectively exploding food prices and clear-cutting rain forests.

Some California researchers have teamed up with a bacteria and a yeast to perhaps address some of this problem - the bacteria, Actinotalea fermentans, digests cellulose into acetate, which the genetically-engineered yeast then converts into methyl halides. Methyl halides can, in turn, be converted into fuel for humans' machines. This could potentially help turn our masses of plant-based waste (from corn husks to old newspapers) into something useful.

Calling it carbon-neutral, however, is a bit of a stretch: burning the fuels will still move CO2 from solid states into the atmosphere. Even still, it's a clear example of human cleverness - which comes, of course, from our brains.

Endogenous cannabinoids have long been known to exist for some time, and researchers have now identified another one, raising hopes for effective medications without the bothersome side-effects of deep thoughts and incarceration.

It turns out our brains are better at doing fractions than we'd thought. Except, well, they don't actually "do fractions" - they interpret them directly as magnitudes, as opposed to as one number relative to another, an important distinction for understanding how we understand fractions. And how they ought to be taught in school...

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