Friday, September 4, 2015

New Horizons and Ceres

New Horizons will pass by another Kuiper Belt object in January, 2019, if NASA's proposal gets the go-ahead.

Closer to home, Dawn is still sending back data from Ceres: including an image of a very odd-looking mountain.
  1. New Horizons: Names and a Decision
  2. Ceres: Mysterious Mountain
This has been a hectic few weeks for me. I'm still feeling a tad frazzled, and didn't have time to polish this post. That, and my brain's habit of taking my attention on unplanned excursions, left me with another afterword:

Truth


I'm a Christian: so how come I'm not afraid that God will smite NASA for cracking the celestial spheres?

If you've read these 'Friday' posts before, you know the answer: so go ahead, skip down to New Horizons: Names and a Decision; or do something fun, like reading the comics.

Basically, I figure that God is large and in charge:
"Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done."
(Psalms 115:3)
The things of faith come from God. Things of the world come from God. Honest, ethical, study of this astounding universe cannot hurt our faith in God. (Catechism, 159)

Pope Leo XIII probably upset some folks, a little over a dozen decades back, when he didn't forbid using the brains God gave us:
"...God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures - and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. ... Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth...."
("Providentissimus Deus,"1 Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])
I think this is a reasonable paraphrase of what Leo XIII wrote —

Brains and Free Will


We believe that God creates everything.

If a newly-found facet of reality doesn't match our preconceived notions of what's true: that's our problem, not God's.

If we keep looking at the facts, use our brains, and don't assume that our preconceived notions are the only possible explanation, sooner or later we'll understand.

That hasn't stopped some folks from insisting that God is offended when we think, and others from asserting that God can't exist because we are learning about God's creation.

We have brains and free will. Each of us decides how we act and what we believe: or do not believe. Responsibilities come with that freedom, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1731-1742)

That reminds me of secondary causes, and that's another topic.


1. New Horizons: Names and a Decision



(From NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker, used w/o permission.)
("Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt."
(NASA))
"NASA’s New Horizons Team Selects Potential Kuiper Belt Flyby Target"
Tricia Talbert, NASA press release (August 28, 2015)

"NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.

"This remote KBO was one of two identified as potential destinations and the one recommended to NASA by the New Horizons team. Although NASA has selected 2014 MU69 as the target, as part of its normal review process the agency will conduct a detailed assessment before officially approving the mission extension to conduct additional science.

" 'Even as the New Horizon's spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,' said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. 'While discussions whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, we expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission while still providing new and exciting science.'

"Like all NASA missions that have finished their main objective but seek to do more exploration, the New Horizons team must write a proposal to the agency to fund a KBO mission. That proposal – due in 2016 – will be evaluated by an independent team of experts before NASA can decide about the go-ahead...."
2014 MU69 and another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 PN70, were on NASA's 'short list' for New Horizon's next flyby. (July 31, 2015)

Like most hard-to-see things around our star, 2014 MU69 has several hard-to-remember names. Its minor planet designation is 2014 MU69, folks on the Hubble team call it 1110113Y, and the New Horizons folks call it PT1 — or 1110113Y — or MU69, I suppose, depending on who they're talking to.

I think Gelidus is a nifty name for it, but the IAU probably won't pay attention to my preferences. Anyway, we'll most likely send probes to colder and more remote places: eventually.

There's some urgency to NASA's decision.

As I'm writing this, New Horizons is heading in the general direction of this galaxy's center; at 14.52 kilometers per second (9.02 miles per second), relative to our sun. The sooner mission planners get the go-ahead, the less fuel New Horizons needs to change course.

Being Human



(From NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker, used w/o permission.)
("Path of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft toward its next potential target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed 'PT1' (for 'Potential Target 1') by the New Horizons team. NASA must approve any New Horizons extended mission to explore a KBO."
(NASA))

That "artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object" is a nice picture: but scientists picked 2014 MU69 because it may not be quite like Pluto, apart from its location in the Solar System.
"...Scientists estimate that PT1 is just under 30 miles (about 45 kilometers) across; that's more than 10 times larger and 1,000 times more massive than typical comets, like the one the Rosetta mission is now orbiting, but only about 0.5 to 1 percent of the size (and about 1/10,000th the mass) of Pluto. As such, PT1 is thought to be like the building blocks of Kuiper Belt planets such as Pluto...."
(Tricia Talbert, NASA)
There isn't any practical reason for sending New Horizons to 2014 MU69, or studying the data it's sending back from the Pluto flyby. Not yet, at least. We can't eat the reports, although the print versions might make adequate nesting material.

But even if NASA closed its doors, and everyone else alive to day decided to stop being curious - - - someone would eventually send more probes toward the stars. Studying this astounding universe is part of being human. (Catechism, 2293)


2. Ceres: Mysterious Mountain



(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, used w/o permission.)
("NASA's Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The mountain, located in the southern hemisphere, stands 4 miles (6 kilometers) high. Its perimeter is sharply defined, with almost no accumulated debris at the base of the brightly streaked slope."
(NASA))
"Dawn Sends Sharper Scenes from Ceres"
Tony Greicius, NASA press release (August 25, 2015)

"The closest-yet views of Ceres, delivered by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, show the small world's features in unprecedented detail, including Ceres' tall, conical mountain; crater formation features and narrow, braided fractures....

"...At its current orbital altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), Dawn takes 11 days to capture and return images of Ceres' whole surface. Each 11-day cycle consists of 14 orbits. Over the next two months, the spacecraft will map the entirety of Ceres six times.

"The spacecraft is using its framing camera to extensively map the surface, enabling 3-D modeling. Every image from this orbit has a resolution of 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel, and covers less than 1 percent of the surface of Ceres.

"At the same time, Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer is collecting data that will give scientists a better understanding of the minerals found on Ceres' surface...."
The Dawn mission visited Vesta back in 2011 and 2012, arriving at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

Both are probably protoplanets that didn't keep growing: so studying them should answer a few questions about how planets form — and probably raise a whole lot more. (March 13, 2015)

I still think of Ceres as an asteroid, although it's currently called a dwarf planet. That may change as we learn more about the Solar System's development.

It's easier to say what this "pyramid-shaped mountain on Ceres" isn't, than what it is.

It's not an impact feature, like a crater. It's not like anything else we've found on Ceres so far, and it's not, really, quite pyramid-shaped: more like a truncated cone, I'd say.

It's at 11°S, 316°E, between Rongo and Yalode on this map:


(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, used w/o permission.)
("This color-coded map from NASA's Dawn mission shows the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres."
NASA))

Here's a closer look at that photo. North is down on both images.It looks as if the bright streaks are only on one side of the mountain: the northeast half.


(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, used w/o permission.)
(That's one odd  mountain: 11°S, 316°E, on Ceres.)

More:

Invaders, Lizard-Men, and Me


That's all I've got this week for New Horizons and space exploration: the reality-based version.

I've enjoyed speculative fiction since the days it was called fantasy and science fiction, and was a fan of The Invaders.

If the flying saucer in that photo looks familiar, it should: it's a five-bulb version of a famous 1950s-era UFO photo.

There was a short story, I think it was Cyril M. Kornbluth's "The Silly Season," where space invaders staged a series of fake UFO sightings: so that when the real invasion force landed, nobody believed the warnings.

Stories like that can be fun: when they're recognized as fiction. When folks really believe that space-alien, shape-shifting, lizard-men are plotting against humanity: that's more serious.

There's no shortage of conspiracy theories with an outer-space theme:
Judging by the occasional chap like Richard C. Hoagland and David Icke, someone wear an aluminum-foil cap, stay employed, and remain a somewhat-functional member of society.

That's not an option for me, though. As a Catholic, I'm obliged to accept reality: even if it means learning something new. As I keep saying, thinking is not a sin.1

Then there's the Dublin-born Calvinist's timetable that's woven into some religious beliefs. Since I keep running into folks who apparently that the 'Ussher was right' bunch reflect my faith, I'll keep explaining why I accept reality 'as is'

That doesn't keep me from having fun with the notion of space aliens now and then:
What got me started on this? Let's see: New Horizons and Dawn — which reminds me of Tony Orlando and Dawn and ABBA — Ceres, an odd mountain. Got it.

I figure it's only a matter of time before the mountain at 11°S, 316°E, on Ceres inspires a conspiracy theory or two.

I could get the ball rolling, with a claim that NASA airbrushed the northeast slopes in the publicly-released image, to hide evidence of an alien base.

Since there's no evidence supporting the notion that the mountain's a bunker, built by alien invaders — that proves that they've infiltrated NASA!!!!! A few more exclamation marks, and someone might actually believe it.

But like I've said before, that kind of trouble I don't need. (February 25, 2014)

So I'll wrap up this post as I usually do, with links to more of my take on life, the universe, and all that:

1 About humility, and thinking:
"CONSCIENCE: The interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed. Moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action. It moves a person at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil (17771778). An examination of conscience is recommended as a preparation for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance (1454)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, C)

"HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as 'poverty of spirit' (2546)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, H)

"SIN: An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God. In judging the gravity of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins (1849, 1853, 1854)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, S)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

(Not) 'Going Native'

As a Christian, and a Catholic, I should be 'in the world but not of the world.' That idea shows up in John 15:18-19 and 17:14-16, and Romans 12:2.

Joining a cloistered outfit like the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) is one option: they're part of the Benedictine family, contemplative monks and nuns.

Their website, www.ocso.org, gives a pretty good look at who they are and what they do. The FAQ page is a pretty good place to start, and that's another topic.

Not all religious orders are cloistered, not all vocations are "vocations," and that's almost another topic. Topics. (December 28, 2014)

Like most Catholics, I'm part of the laity: folks who aren't nuns, monks, deacons, or priests. Part of our job is "...engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will...." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 898)

Love and the Status Quo


Applying God's will to temporal/worldly affairs does not mean trying to drag America back to the 'good old days' before 1954, or 1848, or some other bygone day.

We can't accept the status quo, either. I'll get back to that.

The Catholic Church is catholic: καθολικός, universal, not tied to one era or one culture.

For two millennia, we've been passing along the same message: God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:29-37; John 3:17; Catechism, 52, 1825)

That's why Jesus, the Son of God, became one of us, died on Golgotha, and then stopped being dead. (Catechism, 430-655, 2669)

There's more to our faith, of course. I'm expected to love God, love my neighbor, see everybody as my neighbor, and treat others as I'd like to be treated. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1789)

Acting as if God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and what Our Lord taught — matter is what 'applying God's will to temporal affairs' means. (July 27, 2014)

The Nicene Creed is a pretty good summary of our faith. "...We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come" — but this isn't a 'pie in the sky by and bye" faith.

Part of our job is building truly just societies. (July 5, 2015; September 28, 2014)

Crime and/or Evil


I enjoyed the radio adventures of Chickenman: mostly for the campy humor.

I was one of 'those crazy kids' back then, and recognized that the fantastic fowl's comedic battle against "crime and/or evil" contained a (tiny) element of truth.

Sometimes what's legal is not right.

I'm older and balder now, and became a Catholic. But what's legal still isn't necessarily right.

If I thought the perfect society existed in 1st century Rome, or American suburbia in the 1950s, I'd be doing what I can to restore that way of life. But like I've said before, we haven't had a golden age. (July 12, 2015; August 3, 2014)

We don't have a truly just society today, either, so accepting the status quo isn't an option. (May 24, 2015; May 3, 2015)

I'm supposed to be a good citizen here in America: contributing "...to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom...." (Catechism, 2239)
But as Paul wrote to the Philippians, "...our citizenship is in heaven...." (Philippians 3:20)

As a Catholic, I must submit to the authority of whoever runs the territory I'm in: unless doing what they say would violate the 'love God, love your neighbor, everyone's your neighbor' principle. (Catechism, 2239, 2242)

Legal, but Not Right


I'd have to refuse an order to commit genocide, for example, even if the full authority of the United States Congress and Supreme Court was behind it. (Catechism, 2313)

I'm no fan of ethnic cleansing or eugenics, partly because many of my ancestors are of an 'inferior race,' I'm rather close to being Lebensunwertes Leben, and that's several more topics. (April 26, 2015; February 13, 2015: December 5, 2014)

Even the most strident anti-immigrant American politicos have stopped short of campaigning for genocide, though: happily. Maybe we learned something from the Armenian genocide and a German chancellor's eugenics efforts. Yet more topics.

Not-so-happily, killing innocent people is legal: as long as it's done when they're under an arbitrary age; or are sick enough. I think this is wrong. More to the point, the Church says it's not right — because human life is sacred, and murder is wrong, even if it's legal. (Catechism, 2270-2279)

Don't worry: I won't rant about God being a Democrat/Republican/whatever. Like I keep saying, I'm not conservative, liberal, Democrat, or Republican: I'm Catholic. (November 3, 2008)

Faith that's "Two Coats of Paint" Deep


'Going native,'1 adopting the lifestyle of the locals, is easy: but it's not necessarily a good idea.

Pope Francis talked about that sort of thing last year:
"...In essence, Francis explained, they are 'worldly Christians, Christians in name, with two or three Christian attributes, but nothing more'. They are 'pagan Christians'. The have 'a Christian name, but a pagan life' or, to put it another way, 'pagans painted with two coats of Christianity: thus they appear as Christians, but they are pagans'...."
(Two coats of Paint," Pope Francis, Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae (November 7, 2014) via L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly edition in English, n. 46, (November 14, 2014))
It's not 'those people over there.' Anybody can slide away from Truth. The trick is paying attention to what's important:
"...The signs to understand what we are moving toward, the Pope said, 'are in your heart: if you love and are attached to money, to vanity and pride, you are on that bad path; if you seek to love God, to serve others, if you are gentle, if you are humble, if you serve others, you are on the good path'. And thus, 'your identity card is good: it's from Heaven'. The other, however, is 'a citizenship that will bring you harm'...."
(Two coats of Paint," Pope Francis, Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae (November 7, 2014)...)
Money is okay, by the way. It's love of money that gets us in trouble. (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Catechism, 2544)

Humility isn't delusion, it's accepting reality; and I'm drifting off-topic again. (January 25, 2015; August 10, 2014)

Moving Forward


Going with the flow, accepting the way things are, isn't an option. Neither is desperately clinging to the way things were. Both are a 'two coats of paint' superficial Christianity: different colors, but the same lack of depth.

That leaves one direction: forward. Like I said last week, change happens. Part of our job is pushing it in the right direction.

Loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, means social justice is a priority.

That doesn't mean forcing everyone into one cultural mold, or insisting one one 'correct' form of government. We're not supposed to be all alike. (Catechism, 1901, 1897-1917, 1928-1942)

We're told to work with what we have, correcting what is unjust, and supporting what is right. (Catechism, 1936-1938, 2401-2449)

It won't be easy, or fun. As someone said, "humans are allergic to change."

But I think we can build a better world. I am sure that we must try.

Background:
Somewhat-related posts:

1 I haven't run into the term "going native" for quite a while:
"go native (of a settler) to adopt the lifestyle of the local population, esp when it appears less civilized"
(the Free Online Dictionary)

"Go native is an expression meaning 'to adopt the lifestyle or outlook of local inhabitants'."
(Wikipedia)

"to go native (third-person singular simple present goes native, present participle going native, simple past went native, past participle gone native)
  1. (idiomatic) To adopt the lifestyle or outlook of local inhabitants, especially when dwelling in a colonial region; to become less refined under the influence of a less cultured, more primitive, or simpler social environment.
  2. (idiomatic) Of a contractor or consultant, to begin working directly as an employee for a company and cease to work through a contracting firm or agency."
(Wiktionary)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Early Hands, Mutant Mice

Scientists created "super-intelligent mice" — but this isn't a cartoon, so the mice aren't hatching plots for world domination. The research may lead, eventually, to treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.

Other scientists found hand bones shaped pretty much like ours: from at least 1,840,000 years back.
  1. Hands, Human and Otherwise
  2. "Super-Intelligent Mice" — Imagined and Real
The smarter-than-average mutant mice reminded me of something I'd written in another blog, back in 2009; so wrapped up with that:

Abracadabra and Getting a Grip


As I keep saying, I'm a Christian: a Catholic. I believe that God exists, and creates everything. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 279, 301)

But that doesn't mean I believe that God said 'abracadabra-presto-chango' over a pottery project, and up popped a nice German couple named Adam and Eve.

As I said last week, the universe follows knowable rules; which means we can learn how it works. Scientific discoveries invite us "to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator."(Catechism, 283)

I also must believe that this world is changing, in a state of journeying — in statu viae — toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302-305)

I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin. (November 21, 2014)


1. Hands, Human and Otherwise



(From C. Lorenzo and others, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(Hand bones from more-or-less-contemporary humans, left; and fossilized hominin hand bones, right.)
"Earliest modern human-like hand bone from a new >1.84-million-year-old site at Olduvai in Tanzania"
Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne Pickering, Sergio Almécija, Jason L. Heaton, Enrique Baquedano, Audax Mabulla, David Uribelarrea; Nature (Accepted July 3, 2015; Published August 18, 2015)

"Modern humans are characterized by specialized hand morphology that is associated with advanced manipulative skills. Thus, there is important debate in paleoanthropology about the possible cause–effect relationship of this modern human-like (MHL) hand anatomy, its associated grips and the invention and use of stone tools by early hominins. Here we describe and analyse Olduvai Hominin (OH) 86, a manual proximal phalanx from the recently discovered >1.84-million-year-old (Ma) Philip Tobias Korongo (PTK) site at Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania)...."
Which critters have hands and which don't depends on who's talking, and what they're talking about.

Apes, monkeys, and other primates, have hands. So do koalas. That chameleon's feet look and act like hands, and I've said that before. (January 30, 2015)

Humans, obviously, are the only animals with "human" hands.

Ours follow the primate pattern: four fingers and one thumb, arranged so we can grasp a branch. All primates can grasp things besides branches, of course. What makes human hands distinct isn't so much a difference in kind, as differences in degree.

Our thumbs are longer in relation to the rest of the hand, and we've got much more control over exactly where each digit goes. On the other hand, genetic code for growing hands, paws, and fins goes back at least 300,000,000 years, and that's another topic. (December 26, 2014)

As the Nature article says, it looks like someone was making stone tools some 3,300,000 years ago. What these scientists found is much more recent: bones from someone's hand, more than 1,840,000 years old.

"Modern Human-Like"


We don't know much about the individual, apart from those bones. Whoever it was shared territory where Olduvai Gorge is now with folks on the Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis branches of humanity's family tree.

I'm glad to see scientists using terms like "modern human-like (MHL)." Folks in general seem to be getting used to the idea that people who don't look "Anglo-Teutonic" aren't inferior. (May 29, 2015; October 31, 2014; July 11, 2014)

We've changed in the last 1,840,000 or so years. Today's model is taller, on average, with a bigger brain. But those bones come from someone with "modern human-like" hands.

This matters to folks who study humanity's past. Hominins — the current name for chimps, humans, and an increasingly-diverse selection of other critters. (May 29, 2015)

I don't think chimps are people: but figure that critters making tools more complicated than a leafless and/or sharpened stick are almost certainly people. Yes, I know about Jane Goodall's chimpanzees and octopus houses.

Where was I? Chameleons, thumbs, tools. Right.

More Pages of Humanity's Long Story


We're finding more pages of humanity's long story: including a critter called Orrorin tugenensis. There's not much of Orrorin's skeleton left: but one of the bits is a distal thumb phalanx that's shaped a little like ours. Orrorin tugenensis lived were Kenya is now, roughly 6,000,000 years back.

We've found no trace of beyond-a-stick-or-coconuts tools that far back, so my guess is that the metaphorical clay we came from weren't people in Orrorin's day. (August 7, 2015March 27, 2015; July 15, 2014)

Scientists who wrote that Nature article say that hominin hands started looking a lot like ours somewhere between 3,6000,000 and about 2,000,000 years ago. That makes sense, since tools from that era were apparently made by someone with hands like ours. (January 30, 2015)

Our fingers are comparatively short and straight; dandy for making and using tools, but not so good for climbing trees. ("Evolution of the human hand: the role of throwing and clubbing," Richard W Young, Journal of Anatomy (January 2003)(via NIH))

Studying these 1,840,000-year-old bones won't tell scientists how our brains and hands became the way they are today. But I'm pretty sure that they're part of the puzzle: and we know more now than we did last year.


2. "Super-Intelligent Mice" — Imagined and Real



(From Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Claude Shannon's Theseus Maze; in the MIT Museum. In 1950, Claude Shannon made Theseus, an electromechanical mouse: programmed to search a 25-square maze, and remember where the prize is.)

And now, for something completely different —
"Scientists researching brain disorders create super-clever mice"
Kate Kelland, Reuters (August 14, 2015)

"Scientists have genetically modified mice to be super-intelligent and found they are also less anxious, a discovery that may help the search for treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Researchers from Britain and Canada found that altering a single gene to block the phosphodiesterase-4B (PDE4B) enzyme, which is found in many organs including the brain, made mice cleverer and at the same time less fearful.

" 'Our work using mice has identified phosphodiesterase-4B as a promising target for potential new treatments,' said Steve Clapcote, a lecturer in pharmacology at Britain's Leeds University, who led the study...."
I like to include images related to the articles in these posts. In this case, though, Reuters didn't have any: and Claude Shannon's mouse, Theseus, was the first 'mouse in a maze' photo that seemed halfway interesting.

"Genetically modified mice" reminded me of Tom Ruegger's "Pinky and the Brain," and one of its theme songs:
"They're Pinky and the Brain,
Yes, Pinky and the Brain,
One is a genius, the other's insane.
They're laboratory mice.
Their genes have been spliced.
They're dinky.
They're Pinky and the Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain....
"
(Animaniacs Wiki)
The mice in this study were "genetically modified" and "super-intelligent."

The PDE4B-inhibited mice learned faster, remembered events longer, and were better at recognizing a mouse they'd seen the previous day.

But that's compared to average mice. This isn't a Warner Brothers cartoon. They weren't plotting world domination.

Interestingly, the PDE4B-inhibited mice were less anxious than normal mice. Mice normally like dark, enclosed, spaces. The genetically-modified mice spent more time in brightly-lit, open, spaces: and didn't respond as fearfully to cat urine: risky behavior for mice.

Many humans aren't overly fond of dark, enclosed, spaces; and spend as much time as we can in brightly-lit, open, spaces. So how come laboratory mice are the go-to critters for so many scientists seeking experimental subjects?

Mice aren't human, but we're both in the Euarchontoglires clade: along with lagomorphs, treeshrews, colugos, and of course other rodents and primates. "Lagomorph is a word you probably don't hear often. It's what scientists call hares, rabbits, and pikas: those little critters some folks call coneys.

The point is that mice and humans have a lot in common. So do pigs, which aren't quite as easy to keep in a laboratory. Pigs have been experimental stand-ins for humans at least since Galen of Pergamon sidestepped Roman laws restricting autopsies.

Autopsies were very rare ancient Rome and Greece: Julius Caesar's high-profile case was a notable exception. When Imperial Rome finally imploded, about fifteen centuries back now, Europe entered the "dark ages:" which weren't as bad as you might think.

Reality Check, Please: "Dark Ages," Autopsies, and Animals


The period from about the 6th to 13th centuries started being called the "dark ages dates from around 1600, when Caesar Baronius applied it to the 10th and 11th centuries.

The notion that superstition reigned supreme then is — inaccurate. It's true that with very few exceptions, the only Europeans who could read or write were Catholic clerics: which meant that the documents written then were almost exclusively written by clerics. But they were Catholic clerics.

Since we don't worship nature, and think God is rational, the Greco-Roman prohibition of autopsies no longer applied. If that's not what you've heard, I'm not surprised, and that's another topic. (August 15, 2014)

I'm a Catholic, so I must believe that humans are animals, and people. We're made in the image and likeness of God: each of us is an "animal endowed with reason," who can control his or her own actions. (Catechism, 1700, 1730, 1951)

Except for humans, animals aren't people. They are for our use, not the other way around: but we can't 'do anything we want' with animals, because they belong to God. Ethics apply to scientific research, just like everything else we do. (Catechism, 2292-2295, 2415-2416, 2418)

From Laban's Sheep to Mutant Safflowers


I haven't run into someone using Mr. Squibb's line — he's the intense chap in the cartoon — "tampering with things man was not suppose to know," apart from snarky remarks and the occasional satire.

The attitude, however, is alive and well and active in discussions of new technology. These days, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the focus of technophobic forebodings.

My own opinion is that new technology should be treated with the same reasoned care we use with old tech. I don't see ethical problems with GMOs: mostly because they're not new.

What's changed since Laban's day are how we 'tamper' with genes. I get the impression, from Genesis 30:31-43, that Laban wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.

More recently, Paul mentions grafting, artificially combining parts from different plants. It's a metaphor in Romans 11:19-24, but I don't get the impression that he's condemning the practice.

On the other hand, sometimes there are ethical issues with new tech. A few years ago, scientists grafted human genes for making insulin into safflower DNA.

Good news: the insulin from these altered safflowers is 'human' insulin, and will probably be less expensive than what's available now.

Not-so-good news: mixing human DNA with that of another critter may be unethical.

Rules, Principles - - -


"Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions" (2008), 33., specifically addresses reprogramming human somatic cells with another animal's oocytes.

That's a problem, I read, because "...such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man...."1

It's not that science and technology are bad. Studying this universe and making new tools are part of being human. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

The point is that each of us is made in the image of God, with a dignity that must be recognized. Respect for the dignity of the human person is why social justice is so important, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1700, 1701-1706, 1928-1942)

I accept what the Church says about mixing human and other DNA, but suspect that the rule will be reviewed within the next century: probably sooner.

The Church doesn't 'change its mind' about underlying principles: but how those principles get applied gets revised occasionally.

Cremation, for example, was forbidden at one time: but now is allowed, unless the act is a denial of the body's resurrection. (Catechism, 2301; "Some Current Questions in Eschatology," 6.4, International Theological Commission (1992))

- - - and Speculation


Over the last few years, we've been learning that gene swapping between species happens regularly. It's called horizontal gene transfer.

Pea aphids have genes from fungi; a malaria pathogen got genetic material from humans that might help it stay in our bodies. A very recent study says that 100 of the 20,000-odd genes in our DNA probably came from other species.

That last item isn't universally accepted yet, but it hasn't been disproved either.

If we learn that some of our genes come form horizontal gene transfer, and if this turns out to be how our bodies are supposed to work — maybe the Church will decide that mixing human and other DNA is acceptable.

It could, I suspect, be seen as equivalent to implants like fillings and artificial joints, but on a molecular level.

Meanwhile, like I said, I accept what the Church says.

More about horizontal gene transfer, 'supermice,' and ethics:

Afterword: Fearless Mice, Crazy Primates


On a lighter note, reading about those very intelligent and comparatively fearless mice reminded me of a bit of speculation I posted in another blog, a few years back. It doesn't have much to do with today's topic, but it seemed like a good way to close this post.
"...The Gill Theory of Human Evolution

"I'm not terribly serious about it, but I think this is as plausible as some other ideas that've been run up the flagpole:

"Millions of years ago there was a species of primate that was slower and weaker than the rest. They were about as smart as any other primate, with one distinction.

"They were crazy.

"Every other primate had something — common sense, survival instinct, call it what you will — that kept it from climbing out on branches that didn't look thick enough, and inhibited the creature's curiosity when intellectual inquiries would involve getting close to carnivores or other known hazards.

"Not these primates. Many of them found out, first-hand, why they were the first to attempt some mad experiment. Like walking up to a lion and slapping it on the nose.1 A few were quick-witted enough to survive...."
("Move the Planet - or - Safety First ," Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (December 9, 2009))
And no, I do not think that's exactly what happened.

Stuff, but not nonsense, from this blog:

1 Excerpt"
"///33. Recently animal oocytes have been used for reprogramming the nuclei of human somatic cells – this is generally called hybrid cloning – in order to extract embryonic stem cells from the resulting embryos without having to use human oocytes.

"From the ethical standpoint, such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man. The possible use of the stem cells, taken from these embryos, may also involve additional health risks, as yet unknown, due to the presence of animal genetic material in their cytoplasm. To consciously expose a human being to such risks is morally and ethically unacceptable...."
("Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (June 20, 2008))

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.