Big! — NGC 4889’s black hole has a mass of 21 billion of our suns — and an event horizon approximately 15 times the distance from our sun to Neptune

© 2016 Peter Free

Citation — to press release

Mathias Jäger, The sleeping giant, Hubble Space Telescope (11 February 2016)

From remarkably voluminous gas gobbling to peaceful coexistence

From Hubble Space Telescope:

Located about 300 million light-years away in the Coma Cluster, the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 4889 . . . is home to a record-breaking supermassive black hole. Twenty-one billion times the mass of the Sun, this black hole has an event horizon — the surface at which even light cannot escape its gravitational grasp — with a diameter of approximately 130 billion kilometres. This is about 15 times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit from the Sun.

By comparison, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is believed to have a mass about four million times that of the Sun and an event horizon just one fifth the orbit of Mercury.

But the time when NGC 4889’s black hole was swallowing stars and devouring dust is past. Astronomers believe that the gigantic black hole has stopped feeding, and is currently resting after feasting on NGC 4889’s cosmic cuisine. The environment within the galaxy is now so peaceful that stars are forming from its remaining gas and orbiting undisturbed around the black hole.

© 2016 Mathias Jäger, The sleeping giant, Hubble Space Telescope (11 February 2016) (extracts)

The moral? — Some things are really big

And arguably beyond the ability of our imaginations to fully picture in astrophysical action.

A study of 591 people appears to show that — theistic belief in an omniscient and punitive God — extends generous treatment to geographically distant fellow religionists — But this doesn’t say much of significance, does it?

© 2016 Peter Free

11 February 2016

Citation — to study

Benjamin Grant Purzycki, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich, Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality, Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature16980 (advance online publication, 10 February 2016)

Citation — to press release

Glenn Drexhage, UBC-led study finds beliefs about all-knowing gods fosters co-operation, University of British Columbia (10 February 2016)

The gist

If you think that God will punish you for being ungenerous, you may treat far away people — who share your religion — more impartially than you would complete outsiders:

Beliefs about all-knowing, punishing gods – a defining feature of religions ranging from Christianity to Hinduism – may have played a key role in expanding co-operation among far-flung peoples and led to the development of modern-day states, according to a . . . study published in Nature.

The research, an international collaboration among anthropologists and psychologists, looked at how religion affects humans’ willingness to co-operate with those outside their social circle. The study involved interviews and behavioural experiments with nearly 600 people from communities in Vanuatu, Fiji, Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia and Tanzania whose religious beliefs included Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, animism and ancestor worship.

“Certain kinds of beliefs – involving gods who are aware of human interactions and punish for moral transgressions – can indeed contribute to the evolution of human co-operation,” said lead author Benjamin Purzycki . . . .

“If you think you’re being watched, and expect to be divinely punished for being too greedy or thieving, you might be less inclined to engage in anti-social behavior towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs.”

Results show that believers in all-knowing gods who punish for wrongdoing are more likely to behave fairly towards anonymous, distant “co-religionists” – those who share beliefs about gods and rituals, but may not belong to the same religious organization.

When people act this way, the study suggests, they are engaging in behaviour that can support key features of modern-day societies – such as large, co-operative institutions, trade, markets and partnerships.

“Religious beliefs may have been one of the major contributing factors in the development and stability of highly complex social organizations, such as states,” said Purzycki.

© 2016 Glenn Drexhage, UBC-led study finds beliefs about all-knowing gods fosters co-operation, University of British Columbia (10 February 2016)

In science-ese

From the abstract:

Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers.

We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world:

(1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu;

(2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu;

(3) Yasawa, Fiji;

(4) Lovu, Fiji;

(5) Pesqueiro, Brazil;

(6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius;

(7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia;

and

(8) Hadzaland, Tanzania.

Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship.

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists.

Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

© 2016 Benjamin Grant Purzycki, Coren Apicella, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Rita Anne McNamara, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris Xygalatas, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich, Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality, Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature16980 (advance online publication, 10 February 2016) (paragraph split)

Well, duh?

If you think someone else is more like you than not — and you will get zapped for treating them badly — you just may treat them better than you would someone else.

Caveat — regarding the small size and apparent complexity of this study

Otherness is not so simply dissected (and treated) as this study’s abstract seems to imply.

I have my doubts that one can do a study of only 591 people:

(a) spread among varying theistic and non-theistic religions,

(b) distributed among a variety of cultures,

and

(b) ranging further between beliefs in variously punitive (and non-punitive) Gods or forces —

and still come to a statistically valid conclusion about who is inclined to do what to whom.

I am skeptical that such a numerically small study can legitimately separate out the influence of a punitive God from competing influences of simply shared sameness.

For example, would not a Bronco football fan be likely to be generously welcoming to fellow Bronco fans, especially after this year’s successful Super Bowl? I use this Bronco football example to demonstrate the temporal nuances of shifting socialization that is due simply to temporarily favorable pro-social circumstances.

The moral? — “Well, duh” — probably combined with statistical questionability

I doubt that this study advances our knowledge of pro-socialization very far. And given that this planet’s majoritarian mass of theistic religions mostly share a knowing and punitive God (or gods), just what are we substantively adding to our existing knowledge base?

The essential moral problem for human beings has always been “who” gets thrown into the Other category. All this study says is that belief in a knowing and punitive God may mold us more generously with regard to people whom we think share our beliefs. They become less Other than they were before. We already knew that.

Indeed, the counter-argument to this Punitive God form of pro-socialization is that religiously shared similarities make us even more intolerant of people whom we do not believe share our views. Thus, the argument could just as well be that co-religionists’ punitive God works against socialization in the broader context.

In considering the socialization conundrum, we see that the study question revolves around how widely (and socially meaningfully) we frame the inclusivity and exclusivity of our initial hypothesis.

Tree ring data from Russia’s Altai Mountains and Europe’s Alps — appear to support the idea of a “Late Antique Little Ice Age” — from 536 AD to about the year 660 — that outweighs the later Little Ice Age (1300-1850) in its social effects

© 2016 Peter Free

Citation — to study

Ulf Büntgen, Vladimir S. Myglan, Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, Michael McCormick, Nicola Di Cosmo, Michael Sigl, Johann Jungclaus, Sebastian Wagner, Paul J. Krusic, Jan Esper, Jed O. Kaplan, Michiel A. C. de Vaan, Jürg Luterbacher, Lukas Wacker, Willy Tegel, and Alexander V. Kirdyanov, Cooling and societal change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536 to around 660 AD, Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2652 (advance online publication, 08 February 2016)

Citation — to press release

Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, Old trees reveal Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA) around 1,500 years ago, www.WSL.ch (08 February 2016)

Volcanic eruptions, sea ice, and a solar minimum combined to make things unpleasant

From the abstract:

Here we use tree-ring chronologies from the Russian Altai and European Alps to reconstruct summer temperatures over the past two millennia.

We find an unprecedented, long-lasting and spatially synchronized cooling following a cluster of large volcanic eruptions in 536, 540 and 547 AD . . . which was probably sustained by ocean and sea-ice feedbacks, as well as a solar minimum.

We thus identify the interval from 536 to about 660 AD as the Late Antique Little Ice Age.

Spanning most of the Northern Hemisphere, we suggest that this cold phase be considered as an additional environmental factor contributing to the establishment of the Justinian plague, transformation of the eastern Roman Empire and collapse of the Sasanian Empire [see here], movements out of the Asian steppe and Arabian Peninsula, spread of Slavic-speaking peoples,  and political upheavals in China.

© 2016 Ulf Büntgen, Vladimir S. Myglan, Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, Michael McCormick, Nicola Di Cosmo, Michael Sigl, Johann Jungclaus, Sebastian Wagner, Paul J. Krusic, Jan Esper, Jed O. Kaplan, Michiel A. C. de Vaan, Jürg Luterbacher, Lukas Wacker, Willy Tegel, and Alexander V. Kirdyanov, Cooling and societal change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536 to around 660 AD, Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2652 (advance online publication, 08 February 2016) (at Abstract) (paragraph split)

Contextual signifcance

From the press release:

Tree-ring widths in old trees reflect the summer climate in any given year in the past. Looking at these, the researchers were particularly struck by a cold phase in the 6th century.

It exhibited even lower temperatures, longer duration and larger expanse than the temperature drops in the Little Ice Age . . . [roughly 1300 to 1850, see here].

“This was the most dramatic cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 2,000 years,” explains Büntgen.

© 2016 Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, Old trees reveal Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA) around 1,500 years ago, www.WSL.ch (08 February 2016) (paragraph split)

There are some nice photographs and illustrating charts attached to the press release. They’re worth a look.

Caveat

The research team notes that the relationship between the cooling period and the societal effects that they ascribe to it is (of course) a purely associative one.

The moral? — Climate change may cause or contribute to relatively sudden social and public health effects

From the press release:

[Lead author] Ulf Büntgen points out that their study serves as an example of how sudden climatological shifts can change existing political systems:

“We can learn something from the speed and scale of the transformations that took place at that time,” he says.

Knowledge about the effects of past climatic fluctuations could maybe contribute to developing strategies how to deal with modern climate change.

© 2016 Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, Old trees reveal Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA) around 1,500 years ago, WSL.ch (08 February 2016) (paragraph split)

A study of past research concludes that “linear no threshold” radiation damage model is unproven — thereby implying that low dose radiation-based medical imaging may not be worrisome — yet the abstract supporting this bold rejection of current practice summarizes no review methodology nor any associated data

© 2016 Peter Free

Citation — to study

Jeffry A. Siegel, Charles W. Pennington, Bill Sacks, and James S. Welsh, The Birth of the Illegitimate Linear No-Threshold Model: An Invalid Paradigm for Estimating Risk Following Low-dose Radiation Exposure, American Journal of Clinical Oncology, DOI: 10.1097/COC.0000000000000244 (published ahead of print, 03 November 2015)

Citation — to press release

Loyola University Health System, No proof that radiation from X rays and CT scans causes cancer, EurekAlert! (03 February 2016)

The gist — no medical imaging worries

From Loyola University Health System:

The widespread belief that radiation from X rays, CT scans and other medical imaging can cause cancer is based on an unproven, decades-old theoretical model, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The model, known as linear no-threshold (LNT), is used to estimate cancer risks from low-dose radiation such as medical imaging. But risk estimates based on this model “are only theoretical and, as yet, have never been conclusively demonstrated by empirical evidence,” corresponding author James Welsh, MD and colleagues write. Use of the LNT model drives unfounded fears and “excessive expenditures on putative but unneeded and wasteful safety measures.”

The LNT model dissuades many physicians from using appropriate imaging techniques and “discourages many in the public from getting proper and needed imaging, all in the name of avoiding any radiation exposure,” Dr. Welsh and colleagues write.

The authors reexamined the original studies, dating back more than 70 years, which led to adoption of the LNT model. This reappraisal found that the data reported in those studies do not actually support the LNT model.

In the LNT model, the well-established cancer-causing effects of high doses of radiation are extended downward in a straight line to very low doses. The LNT model assumes there is no safe dose of radiation, no matter how small. However, the human body has evolved the ability to repair damage from low-dose radiation that naturally occurs in the environment.

The LNT model dates to studies, conducted in the 1940s, of fruit flies exposed to various doses of radiation. The scientists who conducted those studies concluded there is no safe level of radiation, thus giving rise to the LNT model that is used to this day. But their conclusion was unwarranted because their experiments had not been done at truly low doses. A study exposing fruit flies to low-dose radiation wasn’t conducted until 2009, and this study did not support the LNT model.

Studies of atomic bomb survivors and other epidemiological studies of human populations have never conclusively demonstrated that low-dose radiation exposure can cause cancer.

Any claim that low-dose radiation from medical imaging procedures is known to cause cancer “should be vigorously challenged, because it serves to alarm and perhaps harm, rather than educate,” Dr. Welsh and colleagues write.

The authors conclude the LNT model “should finally and decisively be abandoned.”

© 2016 Loyola University Health System, No proof that radiation from X rays and CT scans causes cancer, EurekAlert! (03 February 2016) (extracts)

Caveat

Given the boldness of the claim, the abstract supporting it is not persuasive:

This paper examines the birthing process of the linear no-threshold model with respect to genetic effects and carcinogenesis. This model was conceived >70 years ago but still remains a foundational element within much of the scientific thought regarding exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation. This model is used today to provide risk estimates for cancer resulting from any exposure to ionizing radiation down to zero dose, risk estimates that are only theoretical and, as yet, have never been conclusively demonstrated by empirical evidence.

We are literally bathed every second of every day in low-dose radiation exposure due to natural background radiation, exposures that vary annually from a few mGy to 260 mGy, depending upon where one lives on the planet. Irrespective of the level of background exposure to a given population, no associated health effects have been documented to date anywhere in the world.

In fact, people in the United States are living longer today than ever before, likely due to always improving levels of medical care, including even more radiation exposure from diagnostic medical radiation (eg, x-ray and computed tomography imaging examinations) which are well within the background dose range across the globe.

Yet, the persistent use of the linear no-threshold model for risk assessment by regulators and advisory bodies continues to drive an unfounded fear of any low-dose radiation exposure, as well as excessive expenditures on putative but unneeded and wasteful safety measures.

© 2015 Jeffry A. Siegel, Charles W. Pennington, Bill Sacks, and James S. Welsh, The Birth of the Illegitimate Linear No-Threshold Model: An Invalid Paradigm for Estimating Risk Following Low-dose Radiation Exposure, American Journal of Clinical Oncology, DOI: 10.1097/COC.0000000000000244 (published ahead of print, 03 November 2015) (at Abstract) (paragraph split)

What, for example, is “low dose”? What levels were the (past’s) fruit flies exposed to? What and how many studies of radiation damage did the authors actually look at? And how?

One can certainly surmise that we have evolved to resist radiation damage.

But asserting that improved human longevity negates the idea of (possible) damage due radiation-based medical imaging is a scientifically questionable hypothesis. It may instead be that the effects of modernity’s wide range of life enhancements has outweighed quantitatively less evident damage inflicted by medical imaging.

The moral? — Major new claims should make an attempt to persuade — by providing an abstract that (a) summarizes an explicit methodology and (b) provides an overview of the data reviewed

No such effort here.

The authors’ methodology and reasoning, as inadequately summarized in their abstract, does not impress me. It is one thing to say that no evidence exists for a proposition. It is another to persuade us that the proposition has been adequately tested.

Measuring mesothelioma tumor volume after surgery may improve prognosis accuracy — as compared to the TNM (tumor-node-metastasis) method

© 2016 Peter Free

Citation — to study

Diana Y. Kircheva, Aliya N. Husain, Sydeaka Watson, Hedy L. Kindler, Amy Durkin, and Wickii T. Vigneswaran, Specimen weight and volume: important predictors of survival in malignant pleural mesothelioma, European Journal of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery, DOI: 10.1093/ejcts/ezv422 (advance access, 21 January 2016)

Citation — to press release

Loyola University Health System, Study suggests improvements in how mesothelioma is staged, EurekAlert! (02 February 2016)

The gist

With terminal cancers, many patients would like an estimation of how much time they have left.

Many of these prognoses are generated by using the TNM (tumor, node, metastasis) cancer staging method. But TNM does not work well with diffusely spread cancers like mesothelioma:

Mesothelioma occurs in the layer of tissue that covers internal organs. The most common type, malignant pleural mesothelioma, affects the tissue that surrounds the lungs (pleural).

Staging a malignancy is an important prognostic tool and plays a fundamental role in patient management. The current classification system, known as tumor/node/metastasis (TNM), considers the size and extent of the tumor, the amount of spread to nearby lymph nodes and whether there has been metastasis (spread of cancer to other parts of the body).

CT scans and MRIs used to determine TNM staging are more precise in measuring discrete tumors such as those in lung cancer. But TNM is less precise in staging mesothelioma, which is diffuse, varies in thickness and has a similar density to surrounding tissues. So Dr. Vigneswaran and colleagues examined whether measuring tumor volume also could predict outcomes.

The study included 116 patients (95 males and 21 females). The median age was 68, with an age range of 43 to 88.

As the volume (and therefore the weight) of the tumor increased, survival decreased.

The median survival was 26.94 months in patients with tumor volumes between 0 and 300 millimeters;

19.45 months for tumor volumes between 301 and 600 ml.;

12.68 months for tumor volumes between 601 and 900 ml.

and

11.7 months for tumor volumes greater than 901 ml.

(By comparison 901 ml. equals about 30.4 oz.)

While not surprising, the finding that larger tumor volumes were associated with shorter survivals had not been demonstrated previously.

The finding that tumor volume and weight are significant predictors of survival needs further validation in larger, multicenter studies, Dr. Vigneswaran and colleagues reported.

© 2016 Loyola University Health System, Study suggests improvements in how mesothelioma is staged, EurekAlert! (02 February 2016) (extracts)

The moral? — Research team’s mesothelioma tumor weight-volume suggestion makes intuitive sense

A larger trial will be necessary to be reasonably sure.