The world examined – Western individualism, fake news and extraterritorial proteins

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This series scans the latest research and developments in the realms of science, academia, technology and geopolitics, providing a glance at the ever changing world

GEOPOLITICS

Russian opposes gay marriage

A constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Russia was proposed by President Vladimir Putin. Commentators and analysts have called this step political; to increase turnout for the constitutional referendum planned next month. In Russian, “A law is already on the books prohibiting advocating what are called nontraditional sexual relationships to children.” Noted Andrew Kramer for the New York Times. Mr Kramer further wrote, “The deputy speaker of Parliament, Pyotr Tolstoy, praised the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage. Mr. Tolstoy has said the ban is needed in the constitution so international organizations cannot ‘force Russia into any giving sort of special rights for the LGBT community.’” (nytimes.com, 3 March 2020)

Last month, President Putin said that Russia would not legalise gay marriage while he was in power, saying “As far as ‘parent number 1’ and ‘parent number 2’ goes, I’ve already spoken publicly about this and I’ll repeat it again: as long as I’m president this will not happen. There will be dad and mum”. (uk.reuters.com, 13 February 2020)

Reuters also noted that since his two decades in power, “Putin has closely aligned himself with the Orthodox Church and sought to distance Russia from liberal Western values, including attitudes towards homosexuality and gender fluidity.”

News and Science: How to find “fake news”

In an age of “fake news” and political battles fought with misinformation, deciphering through the falsehood is crucial to find truth. In a study published in The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, researchers advise the “source” of any information should always be researched. For example, if a Geologist is talking about a vaccine, sudden alarm bells should ring telling you that the area of expertise of a Geologist isn’t concerned with vaccines. In this manner, when the original source of any information is unearthed, the truth will often follow. (The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volume 71)

SOCIAL SCIENCE

Failings of Western individualism

A new study by the University of Georgia published in Social Psychological and Personality Science has uncovered that western “Individualism” contains contradictions about the heroic myth of “American individualism”. “‘In Western and particularly American culture there is a notion that we have a lot of freedom, and that you can reinvent yourself and that’s a positive thing,’ said Brian Haas, associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology and lead author on the new study. ‘But when you apply it to one’s self-concept and reinventing one’s self, are they better off? Are they happier than people who do not change? We found that it’s not the case.’” Those who are inconsistent with themselves experience less well-being the study showed, “In the United States, people who are being inconsistent, experience lower well-being, report that they are less happy, have less meaning in life and have poorer relationships with their family members.” (phys.org, 4 March, 2020)

ASTRONOMY

Protein found in meteorite from 1990

Proteins are the building blocks of life, made up of amino acids. Previously, scientists had discovered sugars and some other molecules “considered to be precursors to amino acids” in meteorites. However, until now, fully formed proteins have not been found in these extraterrestrial bodies. Researchers at Plex Corporation, Bruker Scientific LLC and Harvard University have found “evidence of a protein inside a meteorite”. “The researchers have discovered a protein called hemolithin inside of a meteorite that was found in Algeria back in 1990. The hemolithin protein found by the researchers was a small one, and was made up mostly of glycine and amino acids. It also had oxygen, lithium and iron atoms at its ends—an arrangement never seen before. The team’s paper has not yet been peer reviewed, but once the findings are confirmed, their discovery will add another piece to the puzzle that surrounds the development of life on Earth.” (phys.org, 3 March 2020)

TECH

Google robot learns to walk itself

Rainbow Dash, a robot created by researchers from Google, UC Berkeley and the Georgia Institute of Technology, has recently taught itself to walk. The team described “a statistical AI technique known as deep reinforcement learning they used to produce this accomplishment”. Dash walked without any “dedicated teaching mechanism, such as human instructors or labeled training data.” Further, it “succeeded in walking on multiple surfaces, including a soft foam mattress and a doormat with fairly notable recesses.” Chelsea Finn, a Stanford assistant professor commented by saying “‘Removing the person from the [learning] process is really hard. By allowing robots to learn more autonomously, robots are closer to being able to learn in the real world that we live.’” (techexplore.com, 4 March, 2020)

GOOD TO KNOW

What does E=mc2 actually mean?

Arguably the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2 (the theory of special relativity), was posed by Albert Einstein in 1905. But what does the equation even mean? Well, it tells us that energy and mass are interchangeable; E is energy, m is mass, c is the speed of light squared; energy = mass x the speed of light squared.

In other words, a tiny amount of mass can equal to immense levels of energy. The equation helped explain how the sun shines so bright and hot and also how atomic bombs created so much energy through nuclear fission like those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The equation has been paramount in research into nuclear energy.

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