Spirited defence

Spirited defence

OPINION LETTERS Scott’s party on their return across the Ross ice shelf, and contributed significantly to their failure. Melbourne, Victoria, Australi...

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OPINION LETTERS Scott’s party on their return across the Ross ice shelf, and contributed significantly to their failure. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Sign ’em up From David Cox I admire Steven Newton’s commitment to open debate with young-Earth creationists in his comment on their attendance at Geological Society of America conferences (8 October, p 30). But I worry that in the longer term they may want to get enough of their supporters involved so that they can elect candidates to the governing bodies of scientific organisations. It will be news to no one in the US that they are well organised and highly resourced. One safeguard would be to ask all participants to sign a statement saying they accept that there is overwhelming evidence that Earth is over 4 billion years old. This would challenge creationists and also give scientific societies a public relations tool. A similar statement could be drafted for evolution. Adelaide, South Australia

Limited thinking From Jonathan Stevens Your article “Time’s arrow” (8 October, p 39) seemed tacitly to incorporate Immanuel Kant’s ideas on why time flows in one direction. Time, Kant argued, may flow in all sorts of directions, but we are forever blind to this 36 | NewScientist | 29 October 2011

because we can never think about time (or anything else) in any way other than one thought after another. So our understanding of the nature of time, and everything else, is defined by the limits of what we can perceive and how we think. Oxford, UK

Seminal seminar From Gerald Legg, Booth Museum of Natural History Your article on metamorphosis (24 September, p 56) reminded me of a seminar I attended in the 1970s, on the reproduction of marine life forms. A very large proportion of these organisms rely on the stable, oxygen-rich saline environment of the sea to nurture and disperse their eggs and sperm. What if things got mixed up – the “wrong” sperm finding the “wrong” egg? What would this lead to? Brighton, UK

Help at hand From Althea Pearson David Robson describes research into mind-body connections, including Matthew Botvinick’s discovery that a person can be tricked into believing a false hand is their own – the “rubber-hand illusion” (15 October, p 34). He wonders about important clinical applications: “A version of the rubber-hand illusion might help the brain to accept a prosthetic limb.” My understanding is that a similar application exists. Conditions including phantom-limb pain have been successfully treated using a “virtual reality box”, more commonly known as a mirror box, invented by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran. Describing his early results, Ramachandran observed that amputees sensed movement in the phantom limb, even though

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it was just a reflected image (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1996.0058). He and his co-author commented that “there must be a great deal of back and forth interaction between vision and touch, so that the strictly modular, hierarchical model of the brain that is in vogue needs to be replaced with a more dynamic, interactive model”. Somerton, Somerset, UK

Spirited defence From David Stevenson In his letter, Quentin de la Bedoyere of the Catholic Herald makes the extraordinary statement that “science, by definition, has nothing to say about the spiritual aspects of humans” (15 October, p 33). I am sure anthropologists and medical researchers would disagree. Science can look at questions such as: Do people with spiritual belief feel less or more pain? Do prayers make people heal faster or more completely? Are societies with higher or lower rates of spirituality happier, healthier or wealthier? Science may not be able to confirm or refute some beliefs, but to say that it is, by definition, excluded from examining our spiritual side suggests the wrong definition is being used. Ayr, UK

Gone to pot From Tony Ware I would add another idea to your list of alternatives to burial (13 August, p 44) – recycling your bones into pottery. It came to me when, on a visit to an old mill in Staffordshire, I was shown how animal bones had been ground up and burned to provide the reinforcement matrix in clay to be made into bone china. Your bones could be used to make a keepsake for your

descendants, or a special tea set, perhaps. On the other hand, if your will was not to their liking, a chamber pot might give them repeated satisfaction. Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, UK

Vacuum tech From Joop van Montfoort The smartphone would have been an even more impossible invention had Jeff Hecht tried making one using vacuum tubes (15 October, p 39). They were the only option when I started exploring electronics in around 1940. Even if it were possible to replicate a smartphone’s computing capability with them, an aeroplane hangar would have been needed to house them. Hecht’s mention of personal computers reminded me of the first programmable desktop computer, the Olivetti Programma 101, which I used in the late 1960s. I was in good company – they were also used by NASA to plan the Apollo 11 moon landing. Croyde, Devon, UK

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