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Robert CooperRSS Feed of this column.

I have given up on categories. I did a BA in physics, a PhD in molecular biology, and now a postdoc in a bioengineering department. So call that what you will, I'm interested in using a quantitative... Read More »

The Earth just got a few shots across our bow, what with a giant asteroid hurtling between us and the moon, and another (fortunately much smaller) space rock exploding over Russia, causing a surprising amount of destruction.  

So what can we do about the solar system trying to bomb us?  Fortunately, the Space Generation Advisory Council is on the case with its Move an Asteroid contest.
The influenza virus, ever-wiley, has decided to hit America early and hard this year.  

The flu season is always full of uncertainty.  How bad will it be?  How well will the annual vaccine work?  What folk remedy will the internets come up with this time?

 For many people, all this uncertainty can make a flu shot not seem worth the effort.  That wouldn't be so bad if flu shots were just about our own personal cost-benefit analysis.  

But the truth, which gets far too little attention outside epidemiology circles, is that getting your flu shot is about more than just you.
Well here's an interesting development.  Mandatory labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), the subject of CA Prop 37, has opened a rift between two of my favorite organizations.  The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) recently released a statement opposing mandatory GMO labeling, while the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists), remains firmly in favor.  The AAAS says mandatory labeling is reserved for potential dangers, but genetic engineering is as safe as conventional breeding.
Hurricane Sandy, 2012:
Massive and dangerous Hurricane Sandy has grown to record size as it barrels northeastwards along the North Carolina coast... -Jeff Masters, Weather Underground, Oct. 28 2012.
Science paper, 2010:
Fewer but fiercer and more-destructive hurricanes will sweep the Atlantic Basin in the 21st century as climate change continues, a new modeling study by U.S. government researchers suggests. -commentary by Richard Kerr on Bender, M.A. et al., 2010. Science, 327(5964), pp.454–458.
Hurricane Sandy, 2012
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to Earth other than our own sun.  So one would think if it had planets, we would know by now, right?  Wrong, apparently.  Astronomers just announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet in Alpha Centauri, although it's closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun, so unlikely to have life.  However, there may actually be even more planets further out from the star!  So why are we only just now discovering planets in our nearest neighboring solar system, and why don't we know yet if there are more?
We humans take great pride in our ability to come together and cooperate as a society.  Interestingly, many microbes cooperate as well.  A central conundrum among scientists studying microbial cooperation has been how bacteria manage to prevent cheaters from taking over their population, even without jails or stocks or scarlet letters.  Now, a new study finds a surprising genetic mechanism that manages to punish cheaters by depriving them of a private good.

Bacteria manage to punish cheaters, even without overloading their prison system.  (Apologies to SolieLInitiative and Raul654 of wikimedia for my poor graphics skills)