April 7, 2014

global-religious-diversityGlobal Religious Diversity
Alan Cooperman and Michael Lipka: From a global perspective, the United States really is not all that religiously diverse, according to a new Pew Research Center study. In fact, 95 percent of the U.S. population is either Christian or religiously unaffiliated, while all other religions combined account for just 5 percent of Americans. As a result, the U.S. ranks 68th out of 232 countries and territories on our Religious Diversity Index. (Fact Tank, Pew Research Center)

Religious Affiliation and Internet Use
Why are Americans losing their faith? Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation. (Emerging Technology From the arXiv, MIT Technology Review)

Religion by App
Whereas the Bible was the first text to experience widespread mass production, it’s taken it a bit longer (along with other religious texts and religions in general) to latch onto today’s hot, new medium: mobile apps. Of course, that’s not to say such apps aren’t being made in droves—they are. An ongoing study by Heidi Campbell, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, has catalogued over 500 religion-oriented apps in the iTunes App Store alone. And that’s not even the half of it. Rather, the issue lies in religious leaders’ and congregations’ hesitation in relying on the same technology that gave you sexting for sacred prayer. (Ashley Feinberg, Gizmodo)

Aesthetic Pleasure
Mohan Matthen: In every culture on Earth, people decorate their possessions and themselves, and enjoy visual art. They stare in awe at vast landscapes and the starry sky, and they sing and dance, and make instrumental music. Why? The answer seems obvious: it gives them pleasure. But why should it? What benefit does the capacity for aesthetic pleasure bestow on the human organism? (Aeon Magazine)

On Islam and Science
Sana Saeed: This current discourse that pits faith and science against one another like Nero’s lions versus Christians—inappropriate analogy intended—borrows directly from the conflation of all religious traditions with the history and experience of Euro-American Christianity, specifically of the evangelical variety. In my own religious tradition, Islam, there is a vibrant history of religion and science not just co-existing but informing one another intimately. (Salon)


April 4, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationSelf-Compassion and Health
In a recently published paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Brandeis University researchers report they found a connection between a self-compassionate attitude and lower levels of stress-induced inflammation. The discovery could lead to new techniques to lower stress and improve health. (Leah Burrows, BrandeisNOW)

Does the Saturn Moon Enceladus Have a Sea of Water Beneath Its Icy Surface?
“What we’ve done is put forth a strong case for an ocean,” said David J. Stevenson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and an author of the Science paper. For many researchers, this tiny, shiny cue ball of a moon, just over 300 miles wide, is now the most promising place to look for life elsewhere in the solar system, even more than Mars. (Kenneth Chang, The New York Times)

The Well-Being and Life Satisfaction of “Service” Lawyers vs. “Money” Lawyers
High-powered, high-status lawyers are less happy, and drink more heavily, than their counterparts whose jobs focus on public service. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which analyzes a survey of nearly 6,000 American attorneys. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Byzantine Monks Used Asbestos Under 12th-Century Wall Paintings
“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision—they must have understood the properties of the material.” (Joseph Castro, Live Science)

Biblical Epics
Hollywood is releasing several stories from the Bible this year, to varying reactions. “We’re talking about sacred characters and sacred stories,” says San Diego State University history professor Edward Blum, “and so it’s not just Noah on screen talking to some powerful force. It’s Noah talking to God.” (Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, PBS)


April 3, 2014

Shroud of TurinDoes the Shroud of Turin Depict a Y-Shaped Crucifixion?
Matteo Borrini wanted to know if the “bloodstains” on the left arm, the clearest ones, were consistent with the flow of blood from the wrist of a crucified person. So he asked Luigi Garlaschelli of the University of Pavia, Italy, to assume different crucifixion postures, while a cannula attached to his wrist dribbled donated blood down his arm. They found that the marks on the shroud did correspond to a crucifixion, but only if the arms were placed above the head in a “Y” position, rather than in the classic “T” depiction. (Linda Geddes, New Scientist)

Compound Emotions
We smile when we’re happy. But how does a face strike the proper look to show, say, happy surprise? Or happy disgust, like when you’re laughing at a really gross joke? A new report, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that we instinctively mix and match actions from the six basic emotions to stitch together more subtle expressions. (Michaeleen Doucleff, Shots, NPR)

How Cereal Mascots Use Their Gaze to Suck You In
The team enlisted 65 university students and had them look at two versions of a Trix box. In one, the rabbit made eye contact; in the other, it faced too far down. The researchers then asked the participants to rate their feelings about Trix. On average, the students who looked at the eye-contact version had a 16 percent higher “connection” and 10 percent higher level of “trust” for the brand. They liked Trix more in general, too. (Colin Lecher, Popular Science)

The Latest on the Acid-Bath Stem Cell Papers
A developmental biologist in Hong Kong says that he has succeeded in reproducing a method of reprogramming cells to an embryonic-like state by applying mechanical stress. The development, which the author describes as a “megatwist,” took place on April 1, the same day that the Japanese researcher who invented the method was found guilty of scientific misconduct. The new claim, however, has been greeted with skepticism. (David Cyranoski, Nature)

Q&A
Michio Kaku

Alan Boyle: In his latest book, The Future of the Mind, Michio Kaku surveys the burgeoning field of neuroscience. You might think the subject is out of a string theorist’s usual comfort zone, but his breezy, science-fictiony style wins the day. The Future of the Mind has been on The New York Times’ best-seller list for the past month. In preparation for our talk-show gig on “Virtually Speaking Science,” Kaku fielded some questions about the far-out future of the mind. (NBC News)


April 2, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationOxytocin and Dishonesty
The hormone oxytocin is usually associated with positive traits like trust, cooperation, and empathy, but scientists have now found that it can make people more dishonest when their lies serve the interests of their group. “This is the best evidence yet that oxytocin is not the ‘moral molecule,’” said Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam, who co-led the study, which was published in PNAS. “It doesn’t make people more moral or immoral. It shifts people’s focus from themselves to their group or tribe.” (Ed Yong, The Scientist)

Choosing Material Items Over Life Experiences
We believe material goods provide better economic value than experiences, which are by definition ephemeral. The desire to make our money go further pushes us in a materialistic direction. “People actually do know, and accurately predict, that life experiences will make them happier,” said San Francisco State University psychologist Ryan Howell, who co-authored the study with Paulina Pchelin. “What they really underestimate is how much monetary value they will get out of a life experience.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Do We Have an Innate Language Instinct?
People instinctively organize a new language according to a logical hierarchy, not simply by learning which words go together, as computer translation programs do. The finding may add further support to the notion that humans possess a “universal grammar,” or innate capacity for language. (Bob Holmes, New Scientist)

Microbes and the End-Permian Extinction
Tiny microbes on the bottom of the ocean floor may have been responsible for the largest extinction event our planet has ever seen, according to a new study. These microbes of death were so small, that 1 billion of them could fit in a thimble-full of ocean sediment, and yet, they were almost responsible for killing off all the life on our planet, the scientists suggest. (Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times)

Why South Carolina Doesn’t Have a State Fossil
An 8-year-old South Carolina girl’s dream of having the woolly mammoth become the official state fossil has been put on hold while lawmakers debate an amendment that gives God credit for creation of the prehistoric animal. A bill that recently passed the state House to designate the Columbian Mammoth as the state fossil stalled in the Senate after Republican Senator Kevin Bryant added two verses from the book of Genesis. That amendment was ruled out of order but senators this week will debate a new amendment that says the mammoth was “created on the sixth day along with the beasts of the field,” Bryant said on Monday. (Harriet McLeod, Reuters)