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Hank's news this week informs us on a couple of crazy science experiments, updates us on some earlier topics (dangerous asteroids and ancient phallic rock art), and briefs us on a new study that seeks to find the evolutionary origins of intolerance.

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Interview with Elizabeth Culotta

Hello and welcome back.  This week we're talking about the origins of intolerance and two updates on earlier stories - one about asteroids, the other about genitals.  But first...

 Data Points

People have been doing some weird stuff to the planet for a long time, but usually the people doing it haven't been scientists.  However, in the past few days a couple of bold new techniques have been used, or almost used, by Earth Scientists who have some real stones, if you know what I mean.
First, how do you learn more about one of the world's most dangerous supervolcanoes that's also in a densely populated area?   Drill, baby, drill.

That's right, scientists last week got to go ahead and drill into Italy's Campi Flegrei caldera, a formation near Naples that's home to dozens of volcanic craters, hydrothermal vents, and other bitchin' things, and they're doing this to learn more about its bitchin'ness, particularly the movement of magma inside the caldera.  Geologists plan to place sensors in a well 3.5 meters deep inside the caldera.

Originally the plan was to drill even deeper, but that was scrapped when many scientists warned that the drilling could cause earthquakes, maybe even an explosion of pressurized gas and fluid underneath.

Supervolcanoes are so named because their eruptions can eject as much as 1000 cubic kilometers of ash, dust and gas, so much material that it can actually change the climate, and that's exactly what Campi Flegrei did about 39,000 years ago, right around the time that Neanderthals went extinct.

So, understandably, scientists are taking baby steps here.  We'll start by sinking a 500 meter pilot hole in a few months, just to see how that goes.

So that's the underground stuff, but scientists also want to conduct experiments on the sky.

Last week a British team suddenly cancelled its plans to test launch a system that would shoot aerosols into the upper atmosphere, in the hopes that the particles would scatter the sun's rays and counter-act global warming.  

The project, called Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, is funded by the British government, and the test launch was just gonna release some water to see if the delivery system worked.

But if implemented the system might eventually have ejected sulfates, much like those released by those volcanic eruptions that have proven so effective at cooling things down.

But the project wasn't cancelled over concerns about geo-engineering the environment.  Instead, the plug was pulled because some scientists had apparently tried to patent parts of the system, and planners were concerned about the researchers having a commercial interest in publicly funded research.

What's a scientist got to do to make a buck around here?  Or a pound?  Or whatever?


Now a couple of updates.  A few weeks ago I gave you the good news that NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Program had announced that an asteroid discovered earlier this year, called 2012 DA14, is not going to kill us all.

Good!  Right?  Well,  NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE (we're just full of good acronyms today), just finished the most complete survey ever done of so-called potentially hazardous asteroids.  These are near-earth asteroids that come within about 8 million kilometers of us, and are big enough to cause widespread damage on Earth.

And it turns out that there are only 4,700 of them.  That sounds like a lot but it's about as many as astronomers had estimated.

However, WISE also found that there are twice as many asteroids messing around near the plane of the Earth's orbit than was predicted, and those pose the biggest threat.

But like I always say when I talk about this stuff:  Don't panic.

These are estimates, and the research didn't identify any particular public enemy asteroids.  So I don't want to see you carrying on about this the comments, 'kay?

You can however, carry on about this all you want, because I actually could use your opinion on it.  

Earlier this year I told you about how Horny Little Man, the rock art found in South America, is thought to be the oldest depiction of a human in the Western hemisphere.  Also, the oldest depiction of a human penis in the Western hemisphere.  Well, it turns out that last week researches in Southern France said that they'd found the world's oldest cave art, which might also be the oldest depiction of female genitalia.

The team led by archaeologist Randall White of New York University found the engraving on a block in the ceiling of a rock shelter called Abri Castanet.  By dating material found around the engraving they've placed it around 37,000 years old, at least as old, if not older, than the mind-blowing paintings in France's Chauvet Cave, which are thought to be oldest.

Here's what I want to know.  Do you see anything here that looks like lady parts?  I see a turntable, maybe a lollipop, one-eyed person sticking out his tongue?

Scientists didn't elaborate on how you get a vulva from this picture, but the fact is the most early human images are fertility symbols, so maybe they're onto something.

What do you see in it?  Let me know in the comments below.


Finally, the ongoing controversy surrounding the shooting of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, an African-American youth in Florida, is only the latest news story to raise questions about how we perceive race and ethnicity.

Fortunately there's more and more good research being done on the origins of racism.

For instance, a recent study in Canada found that our own pride can influence our opinions of other groups.  

Through a series of experiments that surveyed more than 250 Canadian university students, the research found that subjects who felt hubris - that is, who felt that they do well in life simply because they are superior - were much more likely to assign negative characteristics to people of other races or sexual orientations.  The people who felt so-called authentic pride - basically they think they succeed because they work hard - displayed more tolerance.

But where do these impulses come from?

Well this week, Science Magazine's Elizabeth Culotta surveys research into the evolutionary origins of racism.  And her investigation suggests two main points of origin dating back to our primate cousins.

One is simply our ability to form collaborative groups.  As primates it's one of our greatest adaptations.  But being in a group automatically creates outsiders.  Psychologists call these "outgroups" and there is nothing inherently racial about them, they could be created by sports fans, tribal members, families of macaques, or hipster baristas.

But we've also inherited the ancient habit of characterizing people as soon as we see them.  Sizing them up to decide whether they're fit regarding our group.  It's a purely defensive reflex and it's actually extremely inaccurate.  In fact, it's the very definition of prejudice.

So racism may have its evolutionary origins, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's ingrained in us.  The research stresses that while our reactions to other people can sometimes be primitive, we have big magnanimous brains that make us think rationally and make informed decisions.  

So, use your brain, people.  You're smarter than a macaque.  Right?

You can listen to an interview with Elizabeth Culotta, along with links of all the other stuff I that talked about today below, and we'll see you again in two weeks.

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