Monday, June 29, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 6/29/2009

I'm a little late today (which is to say, I didn't write this over the weekend and schedule it to release at a seemingly random time during the day), so, to make up for it, I'm offering a twofer; one experiment that tested two hypotheses. They even threw in a little mad engineering to spice things up even more.

I first mentioned this story back in April, but it deserves a closer look. I really think it's going to end up being the biggest science story of the year.

Mad Observations: With things like the Human Genome Project and the other genome projects that preceded and followed it, we are gathering reams of data, more than we'll be able to fully investigate any time soon. At least, more than we can investigate by hand. But hey, computers are pretty advanced these days...

Mad Reference: "The automation of science." King RD, Rowland J, Oliver SG, Young M, Aubrey W, Byrne E, Liakata M, Markham M, Pir P, Soldatova LN, Sparkes A, Whelan KE, Clare A. Science. 2009 Apr 3; 324(5923): 85-9. I also recommend the excellent write-up on the research in Wired.

Mad Hypotheses: The first hypothesis was chosen by the researchers (who were bordering a bit on mad engineering, so the hypothesis is pretty close to "Let's see if we can do this"). It's along the lines of "It is possible for a properly programmed robot to investigate data, make a hypothesis, and test that hypothesis."

But then we get into the first experiment, and get the cooler hypothesis. The researchers programmed a robot, named Adam, to perform science. Without help, just looking at the data from the Saccharomyces cerevisiae (brewer's yeast) genome project and other genetic databases (plus a model of S. cerevisiae metabolism), Adam hypothesized that certain genes in the yeast genome coded for an enzyme that had a certain function in metabolism. These genes were there in the data, but had not yet been characterized. So Adam set out to characterize those genes, hypothesizing that they would produce an enzyme that would catalyze a certain reaction in yeast metabolism.

Mad Experiment: Unfortunately, I don't have full access to the article, and both the abstract and the Wired article are sketchy on the details here. I'll lay out a couple possibilities, though, for people interested in how a researcher (including a robotic researcher) might figure something like this out.

Put simply (but close enough to give the idea), Adam knew that yeast used an enzyme to turn compound A into compound B, and another to turn B into C, and yet another to turn C into D, etc. He just didn't know for sure what those enzymes were. Let's say he was hypothesizing that the enzyme he was looking at turns A into B.

One way to figure out if he's right would be to create a yeast cell that lacked the genes he was looking at (likely one at a time plus all three); the yeast cell would be exactly like a normal yeast cell, just missing the one gene he was looking at. If he fed normal yeast cells A, they'd grow and produce B, C, D, etc. If he fed his modified yeast cells A, if he was right, they wouldn't produce B, C, D, etc. He could then feed his modified cells B, and they'd then be able to produce C, D, etc. If any step of that didn't work as expected, his hypothesis would be false.

The other possibility would be that he directly characterized the genes, creating copies of the genes he was looking at in a test tube, supplying them with the components necessary to translate those genes into proteins, and seeing what happened when he put A into those test tubes. That sort of research is less reliable, though (if it doesn't work, it could be because you're missing some factor necessary to make the protein, not because the proteins are important in what you're looking at), so I think it's more likely that he used the first approach.

All this time, all the researchers did was supplied him with the chemicals he needed, and emptied out wastes. He did all the rest, designing and performing over a thousand new experiments a day.

They all laughed, but: Since I'm writing about it here, you've probably already figured out that it worked. He was able to identify that three previously uncharacterized genes in the yeast genome code for an enzyme that catalyzes a certain step in yeast metabolism.

The particular discovery made by Adam wasn't particularly Earth-shattering; he found something that would have otherwise have been assumed to be true, but he verified it. The next step is the cool part. Robots like Adam can now dig through the genomes that we've sequenced, making similar hypotheses and performing similar experiments. Now that we know that they work, the interesting part comes when they fail to verify what they're looking at. On top of verifying and adding to the body of science, they would then find something for us to look at more closely.

Mad Engineering Applications: Since this all started with a dose of mad engineering—specifically, making robots to analyze data, make hypotheses, perform experiments, and analyze their results—there isn't much left in this particular area for mad engineers to do. For a while now, this one's pure mad science. Hopefully they'll make us some more robots capable of performing other experiments, but, once they give us our army, it's scientists that will utilize that army. And hopefully more scientists (mad or not) will come up with more ways to apply this research, potentially dramatically increasing the rate of increase of the sum of human knowledge. "What we know" already increases dramatically every year, as does the rate of discovery of new information (so if it doubled last year, it's likely to more than double this year). If robot science catches on, the rate of increase is likely to go way, way up.

Have any ideas for what tasks we should set our army of robot scientists on? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 6/22/2009


Are you scared? I hope so. Apparently that will help you grasp the broad details of Mad Science Monday #3!

Mad Observations: Studies had shown that emotion (particularly fear) makes people see better, but the details of this sensitization were not investigated.

Mad Reference: "Emotion Improves and Impairs Early Vision." Bocanegra and Zeelenberg. Psychological Science Volume 20 Issue 6, Pages 707-713 (5 May 2009).

Mad Hypothesis: The emotional benefit to vision is limited in scope; some things will be easier to make out while in a state of enhanced emotion, other things will be harder to make out.

Mad Experiment: I had high hopes going into this one that the experiment might be truly mad, but it wasn't nearly as bad as it might have been. The researchers briefly showed people pictures of "fearful" faces and "neutral" faces, and then showed those people other images for the people to evaluate. This methodology relies on our mirror neurons causing us to feel a little bit of the fear we observe being experienced by a fellow human, without requiring that the test subjects actually get scared themselves. Again, I'm very disappointed; this was so close to really being mad.

They all laughed, but: The researchers found that the "scared" group had higher sensitivity to the orientation of "low-spatial-frequency stimuli" (ie, figuring out whether thick stripes were vertical or slightly tilted), but lower sensitivity to the orientation of "high-spatial-frequency stimuli" (figuring out whether thin stripes were vertical or slightly tilted).

The team's interpretation for this makes sense. When we're scared, we can notice details about coarse-grained features (things like movement of large objects), but noticing the exact texture of those large objects, for example, or the color of their eyes... that's less important.

Mad Engineering Applications: I could see a mad engineer using this to create some sort of invisibility-to-people-who-are-afraid device, although it'd probably only "work" in a TV movie vaguely referencing this research.

If you have any other ideas for mad engineering applications, let me know in the comments.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Shared Google Reader Items, 6/20/2009

It's that time again: let's take a look at my favorite shared items from Google Reader for this week.

High-flying kites could power New York [Mongabay, via Slashdot; the original article won't load for me in Chrome, which is almost bad enough form for me to not link to it]

I love ideas about "free" energy--not the crazy, fake kind, but the kind where we find way to use energy that's already there to be harvested. These two stories definitely fall in that camp. The first one presumably steals a little gas to get the power, but, since the customers would be slowing down already, it's probably gas that would be used anyway. The second would take a lot of work to set up, but I love the image I get in my head trying to envision a city powered by kites.

Twitter had scheduled downtime for maintenance this week. That downtime was going to be during the day in Iran. Iranian protestors are using Twitter (among other things) to organize, so the US State Department asked Twitter to move the maintenance to the middle of the Iranian night. Mostly what I love about this is the chance (however slim) that Twitter (and other Web 2.0 sites) could help end the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It was interesting, for example, to hear a discussion last night (I think on Rachel Maddow) about how when Iran cracked down way back in 1999, they could cut protestors off from the world, but not so much in the 21st century. It's a strange world when things can be this different this quickly.

I had read about insect detectors several years ago. In short, insects have amazingly good senses of smell (way better than dogs), and can be trained to react to the presence of certain smells (the example I read about was sarin gas, the stuff used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack). But in the example I read, the insects were put into boxes, and their movements would set off the detectors. This article is about taking that process way to the next level.

In the new scheme, the twitching associated with the insects finding their target scent is detected by a chip mounted on the insect, and information about this can then be sent to other insects. Combined with systems that have already been developed by DARPA (is there any surprise that all of this is funded by DARPA?), the insects in the cohort could even be remote-controlled to help map whatever chemical they're being used to detect (for example, to find a perimeter around a gas release, and/or find the source if it's a chemical that doesn't affect insects).

Other than pissing off PETA, I can't come up with a down side of this research. I love this stuff.

It's sad that it has to happen, but I loved the idea of shrinking Flint when I first heard about it. Basically, Flint is bigger than it needs to be anymore. The factors that led to Flint's growth (primarily the large number of GM plants that were once there) are gone, so the city is now larger than its industry can support. Many houses are empty, and that means garbage, buses, and police have to travel through a lot of empty areas to get to residents. The idea is to move the people in the outlying areas closer to the center of the city, and turn those empty areas into parks and such. It's a big change, but, since it will reduce crime and presumably increase property values, residents seem to support it.

Dan Kildee, the treasurer of Genesee County (which includes Flint), came up with the idea, and outlined it to Barack Obama while Obama was campaigning. Kildee has now been approached byt he Federal government to apply the idea to other cities that have lost the support to remain as large as they are.

Virgin Galactic has broken ground in construction of the spaceport they'll use to launch commercial space flights. Construction has begun on the world's first spaceport. When this thing is done, it is officially The Future. Glee!

A team at UC Boulder found the shoreline of a 3-billion-year-old lake on Mars, which was once 80 square miles and 1500 feet deep (the article says that's roughly equivalent to Lake Champlain, but Champlain is more than 5 times that area; Champlain isn't as deep, though, so I guess the total volume might be equivalent). More interestingly, they found deltas surrounding the basin, indicating that the lake was probably long-lived. And if there was water for a long time depositing material into deltas, we may have just found a very good place to look for evidence of life on Mars.

That's it for this week. As always, leave any comments on these or any of my other shared items below.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Vanilla Doesn't Mean Plain

I've always liked vanilla ice cream. It bugs me a little that people associate it with "plain;" it's not like other ice creams are made by starting with vanilla and then adding flavors. Just like you add chocolate to milk and sugar (and the other stuff they put in there to make it smooth, etc) to make chocolate ice cream, you add vanilla to milk and sugar to make vanilla ice cream.

But even I have to admit that HEB has taken things a bit far. HEB is a large grocery chain here in Texas. Like many large grocery chains, they have their own line of foods, including "Creamy Creations Premium Ice Creams." For reasons I don't fully understand, that line of ice creams has way more flavors of vanilla than are necessary. Eight (as far as I've seen so far), to be exact: Handmade Vanilla, 1905 Vanilla, Vanilla Bean, French Vanilla, Lo-Cal Vanilla, Hand-Churned Vanilla, Vanilla Frozen Yogurt, and, because someone clearly had a sense of humor about all of this, Vanilla.

Clearly, just randomly picking one of these each time I get ice cream is not adequate. I had to figure out which one I like best. So, logically, I had to set up brackets.

So far in round 1, Handmade Vanilla pulled off an upset over 1905 Vanilla (going into this, I thought 1905 Vanilla was my favorite, but it lost handily when I put it in a head-to-head). I have Vanilla Bean and Vanilla in my freezer now for their first-round matchup. I'll report more as I get further into the project.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 6/15/2009

It's Monday, and scientists are still studying strange things. Today (probably not for the last time) I bring you a paper on quantum entanglement, what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance."

Mad Background: Quantum entanglement involves creation of two particles with linked quantum states. It's all very complicated (I don't understand it completely, and the explanation of it depends on what turns out to be the correct explanation of quantum behavior as a whole). The "spooky" part about all of this is that it appears that information can be transmitted instantaneously between two entangled particles, regardless of distance, which defies the speed-of-light barrier.

The other important piece of background for this is the "Schrödinger's cat" thought experiment. One of the hard-to-grok concepts implied by quantum mechanics is that a system exists with all possible states of the system until that system is "observed" (by a human or by other particles interacting with that system); this is called quantum superposition. Schrödinger devised an experiment in which a cat is placed in a shielded box with a "diabolical mechanism" that poisons the cat under certain quantum conditions. Until the box is opened, if superposition is correct, the cat is both alive and dead.

Mad Reference:* "Entangled mechanical oscillators." Jost, Home, Amini, Hanneke, Ozeri, Langer, Bollinger, Leibried, & Wineland. Nature 459, 683-685 (4 June 2009).

Mad Observation: Researchers have created entangled particles, such as photons and individual atoms. The way this paper words the observation that led to their experiments is what makes this science mad:
Hallmarks of quantum mechanics include superposition and entanglement. In the context of large complex systems, these features should lead to situations as envisaged in the "Schrödinger’s cat" thought experiment (where the cat exists in a superposition of alive and dead states entangled with a radioactive nucleus). Such situations are not observed in nature.
In other words, things equivalent to Schrödinger's thought experiment should happen. Why don't we see any of that quantum strangeness in the natural world? What stops us from setting up a Schrödinger's cat experiment?

Mad Hypothesis: According to the authors, there are two possible explanations for why we can't have alive-dead cats: technical and physical. It could be that we haven't been able to isolate things sufficiently to see this strangeness (technical), or there could be some undiscovered mechanism that "prevents the formation of macroscopic entangled states" (physical). With that in mind, these researchers decided to test the hypothesis that something stops systems with more degrees of freedom than single particles have from becoming entangled (ie, they sought to set up a pair of more complicated entangled systems).

Mad Experiment: The lead author on the paper has a couple very helpful videos over at his portion of the National Institute of Standards and Technology page. Basically, a pair of interacting atoms can form a mechanical oscillator. If you could make two of these pairs, and entangle one atom in each, the oscillators would be entangled if nothing stops them from becoming entangled.

They All Laughed, But: They succeeded in setting this up, thus moving us one step closer to macroscopic entanglement. This should eventually make mad engineers very happy.

Mad Engineering Applications: There are several possibilities envisioned for quantum entanglement, but the idea that fascinates me the most is something I first read about in the science fiction books of Orson Scott Card (who, more and more, I hate to recommend, but dammit his Ender's Game books are good; check them out of a library or buy them used, so he doesn't get anything for it). In Ender's Game, Card explained that the military communicated over the long distances needed for space combat using systems of entangled particles; when the sender changed something, it was immediately experienced by the receiver's half of the entangled pair, thus transmitting the distance instantaneously. I assumed that was just science fiction science when I first read it, but it might actually be possible. That might not seem very mad engineery, but if you set your sights high enough for even a multi-planet empire (let alone multiple star systems), you need faster-than-light communication to keep your subjects in line. If you don't hear about uprisings until after they occur (possibly even years after they occur), you'd have to trust your underlings to take care of them, and that hardly seems like a winning proposition.

Oh, and quantum entanglement would also allow for faster computers and more secure communications. Those aren't entirely mad, though, unless of course you make those faster computers self-aware.

That's it for this week. Next week it looks likely that I'll either be discussing brains or branes. Stay tuned to find out which!

* I almost called this "Mad Props," but couldn't bring myself to do that. Back to where you were.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Shared Google Reader Items, 6/12/2009

Hey, remember when I used to post about the cool things I'd read in my RSS feeds from Google Reader? I miss that. I think I'm going to do that again. I'm picking my favorites for the week, rather than failing to post it daily. Let's see how that goes.

Since I'm only posting about my favorites, I'll try to say a little more about them. We start with a guy who's waaaaaaaaaay geekier than I am, which makes me very jealous.

I've mentioned my fascination with mecha (walking vehicles controlled by a pilot inside of them, often mimicing the pilot's motion) before, but this guy has me beat by a lot. It took him 4 years and $25,000, but this guy really built an 18-foot-tall robot vehicle. I'm just blown away that this thing is real. The scary part: he lives in Wasilla, Alaska. That is probably the last town I would like to have access to a mecha army.

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka the government organization that funds all of the crazy cool research) is working on "programmable matter," materials that can change shape on command. Right now it's only "self-folding origami"--materials that fold along macroscopic-level, defined lines--but the idea is to eventually get it down to a molecular level. In other words, DARPA is funding creation of the T-1000. Assuming they don't combine it with a malevolent artificial intelligence, that's just awesome.

I've seen poorly reported stories in New Scientist before (such as their story about SETI finding a signal from an alien civilization, to which the SETI researchers involved replied (paraphrasing) "We did what now?" (I think this is the story, but I also think they've toned it down from the original). That said, this story about research into the structural basis for intelligence is very interesting. If the story's true, we might not be far from pills that make us smarter. The pills won't fill up our better brains with information, but making everyone more capable to learn and reason seems very interesting.

Bose-Einstein condensates are strange states of matter, made up of a very low temperature gas of bosons. Strange things can happen in Bose-Einstein condensates. A strange thing that had been predicted for a while but not yet observed was the ability to create an accoustic equivalent of a black hole--in other words, a thing that is to sound waves and "phonons" (the particle equivalents of sound waves) what black holes are to light waves and photons. A team in Israel has made one. Don't worry, this thing isn't going to suck the world into it or anything (not that normal black holes would do that, either). But it very possibly will allow us to observe Hawking radiation. That's the stuff predicted to be given off by black holes, the prediction that made Stephen Hawking famous enough among physicists that he could become famous to non-physicists. Confirming that prediction gets us another step toward understanding how the universe works. Neat.

Nokia is developing a wireless phone that can charge off of ambient electromagnetic fields--all of those waves broadcast all around us, such as the stuff the wireless phone itself runs off of, or television and radio transmissions. It isn't much yet, but it only needs to be a little. The goal is to make it produce more power while idling than it uses to idle. If it can do that, its charge will go up when it's sitting in your pocket, rather than draining. To me, that's unbelievably awesome. It's using power that's there already, that we currently waste. So very cool, and such an amazingly awesome idea.

A boy claims he was hit by a meteorite [the only skeptical version of this story on the interwebs, thanks to the Bad Astronomer]

There's a good chance a kid got injured by a meteorite. There is no chance he got hit by a meteorite traveling at 30,000 mph, though. If he did, 1) that meteorite would not be behaving like meteorites behave, and 2) he'd be dead. But on the assumption that he's just getting some facts wrong, and journalists are doing their regular bad job of finding out what actually happened. But hey, he probably at least got hit by shrapnel from a meteorite, and walked away with just a scratch. Neat. For his sake, I kinda hope it leaves a scar. That's a hell of a story.

Warp Drive Engine Could Suck Earth Into Black Hole [, via Holly on Facebook]

Let's hope 1 plus 1 equals 3. If the universe behaves like it seems to behave, some Italian researchers think a warp drive would incinerate the ship using it and suck observers into a black hole. Hmm, I should probably back up.

In the 90s, a physicist named Michael Alcubierre figured out, in theory, how to make what's now called an Alcubierre warp drive. Nothing can move faster than light. Well, no thing can move faster than light. But Alcubierre figured out that spacetime can move faster than light. So if we could move the spacetime around a ship, we could go faster than light. And there might even be ways to make that happen.

But now researchers in Italy have figured out that, once the ship ran out of energy, the bubble of fast-moving spacetime would rupture, the inside would rise to a temperature hotter than the temperature of the core of the Sun squared, and then squared again, and then multiplied by the temperature of the core of the Sun again for good measure. The warp drive might then collapse into a black hole. That might not be the most convenient mode of transportation.

However, if string theory is correct (described by the author of the article as "a universe where 1 plus 1 equals 3"), there might be a way to make a stable warp drive. We'd need to convert the entire mass of Jupiter into energy to power it, which might be a bit inconvenient, but maybe the Nokia guys can come up with something a bit less destructive by the time we work out all of the other details of how to make the thing.

That's it for this week. As always, leave any comments on these or any of my other shared items below.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Obsessing Over My Music Library

Update: See below for edits regarding iWatchSyncer.

Most of my music listening occurs on my laptop at work, but most of my music library is on my desktop computer at home. A friend introduced me to Dropbox, which has allowed me to mostly easily transfer music between home and work, but I still had a problem. Often, I'd randomly think of a song that I hadn't heard in a while, and, inevitably, it wouldn't be one of the ones I had transferred to my laptop. Sometimes I'd remember to remedy that when I got home, but I knew I could do better. Finally, as of this past weekend, I can.

I'm still working out some kinks, but I can now:
  • Access any song in my library from anywhere (as long as I have internet access, which I do as long as I have my phone and/or a laptop).
  • Access my library through an easy-to-remember URL.
  • Download any track in my library to whatever computer I'm on (this one doesn't seem to work on my phone yet, unfortunately).
  • Play any track from my library, as long as I have the Flash player.
  • Add newly acquired music to my library from any computer.
How did I accomplish this wonder of modern technology? Read on. Note: These are instructions for Windows. If you want to do this on Linux, you can probably do it much more easily. If you want to do this on Mac, there's probably a way to do it, but I don't know what that is.

1. Install iTunes.

I would have preferred to do this in a player-neutral manner (particularly because iTunes sucks for the "add to my library" step), but the share-the-library-online program uses your iTunes library, so c'est la vie. The more organized you can get your library in iTunes, the better. Mine is currently terrible, but Lifehacker has at least one post every week about a new tool that will make tagging and organizing your iTunes library easy. So far they haven't, but I keep hoping.

2. Install pulpTunes.

This is the meat of the process, the thing that will share your library. Two things: If you have a router, you'll have to open up port 15000 for it (specifically, you'll have to direct traffic on that port to the machine that's running it). Instructions for how to do that are included, and vary by router. You should also set up a password for it (both an admin and a normal user, if you want to give access to anyone else); that isn't enabled by default. On Vista, it may also be necessary to run this as admin (I'm not sure).

3. Set up Dynamic DNS.

This step isn't strictly necessary (especially if you have a static IP address or don't reboot your router very often), but I wanted to make this easy and stable, so I set it up. Be sure to use the auto-updater app from DynaDNS, so your alias will update if, for example, there's a power outage wherever you're hosting your library.

4. Get Dropbox.

Again, this isn't strictly necessary, but Dropbox is sweet, and adding tracks to your library from anywhere is nice. Set this up on any machine that you use often, but you can also access it online (so anything you put in your Dropbox is already accessible from anywhere, but I'm assuming you want to have more than 2GB of music available).

5. Install iWatchSyncer (for now).

I am not in love with this solution yet, but it's the best I've found (Update: It does everything I need it to do; I think the LifeHacker review sold it short, or perhaps I just misunderstood what it did). I wish iTunes would just do this automatically like every other music player, but oh well. Set this up to monitor your Music folder in Dropbox. In theory, Whenever you dump something into that folder (from anywhere), it'll get added to your iTunes library.

I say "in theory" because, although this worked great when I first tested it, it doesn't seem to be updating as quickly as I'd like. I need to look into it more, and will post an update when I have one. It's possible I just have to reload my pulpTunes instance when I get home to push the update; I'm not sure yet. More info on that when I have it.

The drawback of iWatchSyncer (versus the other, similar program Lifehacker recommended) is that it can't recurse subdirectories; you have to dump anything you want synched "flat" into your Music folder (ie, as the file only, without any folders). The problem with the other one Lifehacker recommended is that they wanted me to give them money in order to actually use it, and I didn't want to actually pay for any of this.

6. Set up all of that stuff to load when Windows loads.

Some of it will do it automatically, some won't. Make sure it all does, mostly in case your power goes out.

That's it! Trust me, it's easy. Let me know if you have any tweaks to make it work even better.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 6/8/2009

Mad Hypothesis: If I put off Mad Science Monday, and then get sick, people will accept the lack of a real Mad Science Monday, as if the sickness is the reason I never got around to writing it.

Mad Experiment: Do so.

I'll be back next week. I'll try to get full-text access to a fairly insane but possibly awesome article to make up for this.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 6/1/2009

Several weeks ago (even before my last post!), I saw this comic, which points out that so-called "mad scientists" are really more like mad engineers; they aren't trying to test anything, they just want to blow stuff up. That got me to start looking for actual mad science. Since then, to my surprise and delight, I've seen quite a bit.

Assuming the world of science continues to be beautifully strange, I'm going to try to bring you news of mad science every Monday. This week, I give you talking mice.

Mad Observation: People in a certain family had "difficulties with articulation and grammar." The people in that family who had those issues all had a certain version of the gene Foxp2. The gene Foxp2 is present in many (all?) mammals, including both humans and mice.

Mad Hypothesis: Perhaps the two mutations present in human copies of that gene but missing in the mouse version are important to human speech. We have the complete genomes of people and mice (and chimps, and rhesus macaques, and a growing number of organisms), and we know that gene is different in humans than it is in other mammals. There's some evidence that gene is important to speech. Is it?

Mad Experiment: Introduce the mutations in the mouse version of Foxp2, and see what happens. If there aren't any significant changes in the mice, the mutations must not be important (at least not alone) for human speech. If something significant occurs (like, say, a slight change in brain development), the gene might really be important to speech.

Mad Quotation: At the beginning of the project, Svante Paabo, one of the lead investigators, said, "We will speak to the mouse." I'm sure he worded it that way on purpose (he never said anything about the mouse speaking back), but, if spoken with the proper flair, it's a great mad scientist quote to set the scene.

They All Laughed, But: The lab really did only expect the mice to have slightly different brain development. Certainly far too many genes are involved in speech for this to have any significant effect, right? Except, when they made the mice, they found more differences than just brain development. Sure, the mutant mice had interesting developments in the part of the brain associated with speech, probably moreso than the researchers expected. But, in addition, there were actual changes in their communication.

When a baby mouse is away from the nest, it emits chirps to let its mom know where it is. The chirps of the mutant mice were significantly different in several characteristics, including pitch and rhythm.

The mice can't speak, of course, but holy crap. This change of two amino acids in one protein had a significant effect on the way the mice communicate.

Mad Caveat: The changes in the mouse vocalizations are actually within the range of normal variation among mice. It's probably an effect of the gene, since the differences were statistically significant between the mutant pups and their non-mutant littermates, but it's possible it's just random chance. Further tests will be necessary to further characterize the effects of Foxp2, but this is an interesting step.

Now to go find more science news sources to follow, to make sure I can keep this up next week. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.