Venter applies for a patent on life, leopards are lured by cell phones, and Adam commits unoriginal sins.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Quick: Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? No, it’s not a trick question (unless you want to get into a discussion of inertial reference frames), but in the 2006 Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research General Social Survey, over a quarter of the respondents either got the answer wrong or said they didn’t know. In the national survey data, released at the beginning of June, about 30 percent named some period other than “one year” for the time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun or said they “didn’t know,” with nearly one-fith of respondents saying “one day.” Just over a half of the nearly 2,000 people who answered the science section knew that electrons are smaller than atoms, and only 41 percent agreed that humans developed from earlier species. Still, an overwhelming majority (78 percent) of respondents knew that the center of the Earth is very hot, with only five percent saying it’s not. And while it might appear that less than a third of respondents believe the Big Bang started it all, the somewhat questionable wording of “The universe began with a huge explosion. (Is that true or false?)” could have influenced the results. With fewer than 30 percent of respondents saying they took a high school physics course, it’s clear where we can improve.

This Is My Life
If you like digital copyrights, you’re going to love Craig Venter’s latest patent application. The human genome pioneer/bad boy of science has applied for a patent for the method he and his colleagues plan to use to create synthetic life. The patent specifies the invention as “a minimal set of protein-coding genes which provides the information required for replication of a free-living organism in a rich bacterial culture medium,” that includes 381 genes and does not include another 101 (the entire 482 gene set is that of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium). Venter hopes to use this minimal organism as a home for genes that will allow it to, say, produce cheap fuel or safely clean up waste. The environmental ETC Group says it will challenge the patent, saying Venter’s group has “breached a societal boundary” before there has been a thorough debate on the “social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life.” Venter says that synthetic life will be a tool for solving environmental problems, not causing it.

Call of the Wild
Poor Francisco T´rrega. A number of years ago, the Spanish composer’s Gran Vals was chopped to a few bars and branded the default Nokia ring tone, and it has annoyed people around the world ever since. Now, the sounds of leopard prey, including cows, goats, and roosters, have been turned into ring tones as well, but unlike the hideous Nokia tune, these animal songs serve a noble purpose: luring leopards away from human settlements. Forest guards in western India have started setting traps for renegade leopards by attaching cell phones to speakers and placing them behind cages. The phones, that ring by mooing, bleating, or crowing for several hours at a time, have effectively snagged five leopards in the month since they were introduced. Forest officials say the cell phone lure is safer than the old method of placing live bait near large pits that the big cats tumble into as they go after their prey. While animals trapped using the old method were often injured, the leopards that have been captured with cell phones have all safely returned to the wild, away from residential areas. Meanwhile, I’ve started working on a screenplay where a political leader is assassinated when his cell phone starts ringing cow sounds in the middle of an Indian forest and he is devoured by a leopard. You heard it here first.

Fabric of Our Lives
As you march onto the treacherous battlefield of your life, you’d better be wearing some serious armor. Luckily, Cornell student Olivia Ong has made it possible for you to be both armed and fabulous. Along with fiber scientists Juan Hinestroza and Hong Dong, Ong has created a metallic denim jacket and a two-toned gold dress that oxidize smog and kill bacteria, respectively. The researchers and designer created the dress by making positively charged cotton and dipping it into a negatively charged silver nanoparticle solution. The tiny silver particles are apparently able to kill a variety of bacteria and viruses. The color of the garments results from reflections off of tiny particles that coat them. Hinestroza is developing ways to manipulate the particles so the garments can change colors with the application of an electric field. Unfortunately, these protective duds will only be available to the elite: A square yard of the fabric would cost around $10,000. It must be hard to convince yourself to wipe your hands on that.

Forbidden Fruit
Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. Adam also, apparently, set up a platform for other people to be naked on the internet. According to the AP, Eric Linden, who plays the first man in a 40-second video appearing at the new Creation Museum in Kentucky, owns a website called Bedroom Acrobat, which allows members to post sexually explicit stories and photos. The site now has a disclaimer saying it is not affiliated with Linden and is not a porn site (although their logo still might be objectionable to the administration of the Creation Museum). He also sells clothes for SFX International, a company whose benign-sounding acronym is anything but. The Creation Museum has pulled Linden’s video, pending an investigation into his past. The museum would probably be appalled to learn that many of us find Linden’s business ventures much less offensive than the shoddy science being fed to museum visitors.

Originally published June 12, 2007

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