September 18, 2008

Magnetic Cows, Commitment-Phobia, the Volt, and More

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Each week, Re:Creation will bring you commentary on news stories from a variety of topics that will restore your interest and fascination with this world.


Cows often get a bad rap, though they have seemed cooler since their appearance in Chick-Fil-A ads. Thanks to a new scientific study, they’ve now gone up further in coolness. New research by Dr. Sabine Begall of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany reveals that, whaddayaknow, cows have a magnetic compass!

Using Google Earth images, Dr. Begall discovered that cows tended to align themselves in a north-south direction when grazing in the field. It’s something so obvious when pointed out to you, but you may never have noticed it unless you were told. Even a Scottish cattle farmer named Willy Miller said, “I’ve never noticed that my cows all face the same way.”

Now what would prompt cows to all graze in the same direction? The answer must be the Earth’s magnetic field, since sun and wind direction appear to have no influence. Dr. Begall also noted that in Africa and South America, where the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker, the cattle aligned themselves more along a north-eastern-south-western direction. How they would sense it is still unknown, which makes the cow a more complicated creature than we imagined.

Is this really useful? Not unless you find yourself lost and in need of a compass in a pasture of cows. But it’s still fascinating to realize that something so simple took us so long to confirm. It makes you wonder what else in the world is out there for us to find.



A commitment-phobia gene? Really? So says a study about to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vasopressin (also known as anti-dieuretic hormone or ADH) is a hormone known to regulate water content in the human body. But it has also been known to be involved in monogamy in animals such as praire voles. The new study moves into human territory. Scientists at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockhol, Sweden, studied a gene for a vasopressin receptor in the human brain. They discovered that marital conflicts were more likely to occur when men had two copies of allele 334, a variant of this gene, than when they had one or no copies of the allele.

As with all studies in genetics, I take it with a pinch of salt. Anyone who has taken an evolutionary biology class knows that genes do not solely determine a person. The activity and efficacy of any one gene can be affected by factors in a person’s environment as well as the effects of other genes. As Dr. Hasse Wallum of the Karolinska Institute stated, “We can’t with any accuracy predict effects on behavior.” But at least now we know another part of the puzzle.



Exciting news recently surfaced about the Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid GM is developing. For those that are unfamiliar, a plug-in hybrid uses an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack to turn the car’s wheels. Once the battery runs low, the internal combustion engine consumes gasoline in order to generate electricity to power the electric motor. The battery pack can be recharged by plugging the car into an electric socket. The Volt is said to be able to run for at least 40 miles on the batteries before the car is forced to use gasoline, making it ideal for most people’s daily commutes.

There is one question that may have sprung to your mind: If you have to plug in the car to recharge the batteries, aren’t you merely shifting the pollution from gasoline to power-plant smokestacks? According to a fascinating PBS Nova special called “Car of the Future”, studies show that using plug-in hybrids would actually reduce greenhouse gas emission by around 40 percent. (They claim it could be more if electricity is generated using other sources such as wind and solar power.) And if the car is plugged in during off-peak hours (e.g. during the night), there would be tremendous savings for consumers in terms of money normally spent on gas.

When this special was released earlier this year, hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi (the brothers from the terrific radio show “Car Talk”) were told that the Volt was a very nice imaginary car, but an imaginary car nonetheless. Now the Volt is moved to in-production status, and could even be up for sale by November 2010. The current price is said to be around $30,000 or $40,000, which is admittedly high. But if it sells well with those who can afford it, the price may drop with time and thus may become more affordable.

Adding to the evidence that the Volt may be a reality soon,
photos of it were accidentally leaked online a few days ago. The original sports car design has been altered to look more like a normal car in order to give it better aerodynamics, but it’s still very cool.

But one hiccup has emerged from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for giving cars their miles per gallon (mpg) rating. Under their current rigorous tests, the Volt would only use its internal combustion engine around 15 percent of the time, giving the Volt an average EPA rating of over 100 mpg. The EPA now wants the Volt to run under new tests where the battery must be at full charge, meaning that the internal combustion engine would be used during the entirety of the tests to power the car. This would drop the EPA rating to 48 mpg. GM doesn’t think that is fair since that is not how the car is designed to run. Since most people will recharge the batteries each night, it makes little sense to perform tests that discount the battery pack completely.

Now why would the EPA want to change the tests? A CNET article speculates that the EPA doesn’t think it is fair for a car to have that high of a mpg rating. Perhaps that is the case. I do not know. What I do know is that determining how the Volt will be tested is critical. If the Volt is given an average rating of 48 mpg, it will not be seen as competitive compared to hybrids such as the Prius, which has an an average EPA rating of around 45 mpg. This could mean that they would not sell as well initially, which could delay the affordability of the vehicle or even put an end to this innovative idea if it does not sell. We’ll have to wait and see what the EPA decides.



As a political moderate, this is not a sector I like to touch on regularly. Although I know much, I would prefer to be honest and admit that there is still much I do not know. And in today’s politically polarized climate, to write about one or both parties is to be lambasted with criticism that ranges from the uncivil to the illiterate.

Nevertheless, this is too fascinating to pass up. Film critic Roger Ebert, a writer who I consider to be the dear friend I have never met, has written a fascinating article on Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama’s taste in movies. Ebert was able to find get official answers from both senators about what their favorite movies are. He also located a dialogue Senator McCain had with Entertainment Weekly about one of his favorites (Viva Zapata), revealing a more detailed knowledge of film than most Americans. From this information Ebert uses inference to gauge information about the candidates. (What he infers, I will not say. It is better that you read it for yourself).

Now why would this be important? In Ebert’s words, “cinematic taste is as important as taste in literature, music, art, or other things requiring taste (including food and politics).” He then continues that “the movies are an empathy machine, drawing us into other lives, allowing us to identify with those of other races, genders, occupations, religions, income levels or times in history. Good films enlarge us, and are a civilizing medium. Bad films narrow us. No films at all impoverishes us.”

In other words, a president with good taste could be morepable to think in perspectives outside of his or her own, which may lead to more balanced and knowledgeable decisions. Does that mean a president with exquisite taste will be a better leader? Not necessarily, but it certainly would help.

As of this writing, Ebert was unable to locate Senator Joe Biden or Senator Sarah Palin’s favorite movies, nor was he able to find a detailed dialogue with Obama about his favorite films. But I am sure that I will be bombarded with emails and comments with this information, to which I look forward to receiving.