Monday, October 31, 2011

Canoodling with cavemen gave healthy boost to human genome, study finds

AUG. 25, 2011
Canoodling with cavemen gave healthy boost to human genome, study finds
Stanford School of Medicine

Laurent Abi-Rached, Paul Norman and Libby Guethlein are co-authors of research on how the genome of geographically-distinct human populations vary in the amount and type of immune-system genes inherited from evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. People in Papua New Guinea, for instance, have a particularly high percentage of one type of immune-system gene that is rarely found in people in Africa.

For a few years now, scientists have known that humans and their evolutionary cousins had some casual flings, but now it appears that these liaisons led to a more meaningful relationship.

Sex with Neanderthals and another close relative — the recently discovered Denisovans — has endowed some human gene pools with beneficial versions of immune system genes, report researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in an article published online Aug. 25 in Science Express.

Although modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans share a common ancestor in Africa, the groups split into separate, distinct populations approximately 400,000 years ago. The Neanderthal lineage migrated northwestward into West Asia and Europe, and the Denisovan lineage moved northeastward into East Asia. The ancestors of modern man stayed in Africa until 65,000 years or so ago, when they expanded into Eurasia and then encountered the other human-like groups. In some cases, the rendezvous were amorous in nature.

Last year, a partial genome sequence of Neanderthals, who died out approximately 30,000 years ago, revealed that these trysts left as much as 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in the genetic blueprint of some present-day humans. Last December, the genome of another human cousin, the extinct Denisovans, made clear that up to 6 percent of some people's genomes are Denisovan in origin.

Now, a team of researchers led by Peter Parham, PhD, professor of structural biology and of microbiology and immunology, has found that these matings had a positive effect on modern human fitness. "The cross breeding wasn’t just a random event that happened, it gave something useful to the gene pool of the modern human," said Parham, who is senior author of the study.

The useful gift was the introduction of new variants of immune system genes called the HLA class-1 genes, which are critical for our body's ability to recognize and destroy pathogens. HLA genes are some of the most variable and adaptable genes in our genome, in part because the rapid evolution of viruses demands flexibility on the part of our immune system.

"The HLA gene system, with its diversity of variants, is like a magnifying glass," said lead author Laurent Abi-Rached, PhD, explaining that it provides a lot more detail about the history of populations than typical gene families. Abi-Rached is a research associate in the Parham lab.

Prior to the sequencing of the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, Parham and his group had suspected that at least one HLA variant came from archaic humans. They determined that the variant known as HLA-B*73 is rare in present-day African populations but occurs with significant frequency in West Asian populations. The ethnic distribution of HLA-B*73 and its similarity across populations suggested that it came from a relatively recent co-mingling of modern human and archaic human DNA, which most likely would have happened outside of Africa. Parham's team wanted to discern which archaic humans were the source of the HLA-B*73 gene type. In the last year they have found the answer in the genome sequence of a recently discovered human relative, the Denisovans, whose existence first came to light in 2008 with the discovery of an unfamiliar finger bone and tooth in a cave in Siberia...

Genes of extinct ancestor survive in modern humans

Global map of Denisovan gene frequency in modern human genomes
Genes of extinct ancestor survive in modern humans
By Brandon Keim,
Oct. 31, 2011

Genes inherited from long-extinct human ancestors may be more common than thought, suggesting a Homo sapiens origin story with more than a few evolutionary one-night stands.

The latest findings involve genes from Denisovans, a recently discovered member of the Homo genus who lived in central and eastern Asia until 40,000 years ago. Denisovans, humans and neanderthals last shared a common ancestor about 1 million years ago.

Earlier research found lingering Denisovan traces in genomes of people from Oceania. Now they’ve been found in southeast Asia, too.

“We haven’t been a very exclusive species, with a very narrow origin,” said Martin Jacobsson. Interbreeding with other members of the human family tree “is not a unique event. It’s a more complex story than we thought before.”

In a study published Oct. 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jacobsson and co-author Pontus Skoglund searched through 1,500 human genome scans from around the world for genes found in Denisovans but not chimpanzees or Neanderthals.

While the previous finding of Denisovan inheritance involved analysis of ultra-high-resolution human genome scans, of which only a few exist, Jacobsson used low-resolution scans. These are more commonly available and allowed the researchers to detect Denisovan signals in genomes from mainland southeast Asia. A signal also appeared in South America, but Jacobsson said that’s probably a false positive.
The 40,000 year-old tooth from which Denisovans were first identified in 2010
The 40,000 year-old tooth from which Denisovans were first identified in 2010
David Reich et al./Nature.

Beyond the fun of knowing that Denisovan genomes live on, the findings add to a growing sense of the richness of the human evolutionary story.

Until relatively recently, it was thought that human ancestors trekked out of Africa about 100,000 years ago in a single straight shot, descending without diversion into modernity. But what’s emerged from fossil findings in recent years is a picture of Homo sapiens and its near relatives flowing out of Africa again and again, with some populations vanishing and others surviving, often living side-by-side.

Now, thanks to well-preserved ancient genomes, it’s possible to look at mixing: Evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals in northern Europe was found, followed by the Denisovan studies. Critically, the new findings fit a genetic pattern suggesting multiple episodes of interbreeding with Denisovans.

“We were evolving for a little while, then isolated, then mixed again,” said Jacobsson. “It’s not so simple that you can say, there’s only been one admixture.”

“I find it really cool that people use the archaic genomes we produced to try to arrive at new insights,” said geneticist Svante Paabo of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, who originally sequenced the Denisovan genome from 40,000 year-old fingerbones found in a Siberian cave. “Of course one will have to see which of them hold up.”

As for what Denisovan genes do for people who have them, it’s hard to say. Unlike Neanderthal genes, which seem to have given human immune systems a boost, Denisovan gene function isn’t yet understood...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The birthers eat their own

The birthers eat their own
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post
October 21, 2011

Say what you will about the birthers, but don’t call them partisan.

The people who brought you the Barack Obama birth-certificate hullabaloo now have a new target: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a man often speculated to be the next Republican vice presidential nominee. While they’re at it, they also have Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana and perhaps a future presidential candidate, in their sights.

Each man, the birthers say, is ineligible to be president because he runs afoul of the constitutional requirement that a president must be a “natural born citizen” of the United States. Rubio’s parents were Cuban nationals at the time of his birth, and Jindal’s parents were citizens of India.

The good news for the birthers is that this suggests they were going after Obama, whose father was a Kenyan national, not because of the president’s political party. The bad news is that this supports the suspicion that they were going after Obama because of his race.

When I heard of the birthers’ latest targets, from a participant in my online chat, I figured it was a joke. But, sure enough, Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg Times reported that various bright lights of the birther community – Mario Apuzzo, Charles Kerchner and Orly Taitz – were casting doubt on Rubio’s eligibility.

“Senator Marco Rubio is not a natural born citizen of the United States to constitutional standards,” Kerchner writes on his blog. “He was born a dual citizen of both Cuba and the USA. He is thus not eligible to serve as the president or vice president.” A few months ago, Kerchner used the same logic to proclaim, “Jindal is NOT a natural-born citizen of the United States. His parents were not U.S. citizens when he was born.”

This relies on a rather expansive interpretation of “natural born.” At this rate, it is surely only a matter of time before birthers begin to pronounce candidates ineligible if they were born by C-section, or if their mothers were given pain medications during childbirth. Will Donald Trump demand to see their medical records?

The absurd accusations of the birthers by themselves won’t stop Jindal or Rubio from becoming president. There are far more serious impediments in their way — most recently a devastating report by The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia proving false the central narrative of Rubio’s political rise: that he is the son of exiles who fled Cuba under Castro. In fact, his parents left the island, apparently for economic reasons, 21 / 2 years before Castro came to power.

But the wild new turn the birthers have taken should serve as a timely reminder to Republican leaders that they need to push back more forcefully against the angry and the unstable in their ranks. Too often, they have done the opposite. Jindal, for example, encouraged the birthers this year when he announced his support for legislation that would require candidates for federal office to show proof of their U.S. birth before being allowed on the ballot in Louisiana. It was, as many pointed out, a sad gesture for a man born Piyush Jindal...

Name changers: 285 Indian girls no longer 'unwanted'

Name changers: 285 Indian girls no longer 'unwanted'
District hopes renaming ceremony will give girls new dignity, fight discrimination

MUMBAI, India — Hundreds of Indian girls whose names mean "unwanted" in Hifndi chose new names Saturday for a fresh start in life.

A central Indian district held a renaming ceremony it hopes will give the girls new dignity and help fight widespread gender discrimination that gives India a skewed gender ratio, with far more boys than girls.

The girls — wearing their best outfits with barrettes, braids and bows in their hair — lined up to receive certificates with their new names along with small flower bouquets from Satara district officials in Maharashtra state.

In shedding names like "Nakusa" or "Nakushi," which mean "unwanted" in Hindi, some girls chose to name themselves after Bollywood stars like "Aishwarya" or Hindu goddesses like "Savitri." Some just wanted traditional names with happier meanings, such as "Vaishali" or "prosperous, beautiful and good."

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"Now in school, my classmates and friends will be calling me this new name, and that makes me very happy," said a 15-year-old girl who had been named Nakusa by a grandfather disappointed by her birth. She chose the new name "Ashmita," which means "very tough" or "rock hard" in Hindi.

The plight of girls in India came to a focus as this year's census showed the nation's sex ratio had dropped over the past decade from 927 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6 to 914.

Maharashtra state's ratio is well below that, with just 883 girls for every 1,000 boys — down from 913 a decade ago. In the district of Satara, it is even lower at 881.

Such ratios are the result of abortions of female fetuses, or just sheer neglect leading to a higher death rate among girls. The problem is so serious in India that hospitals are legally banned from revealing the gender of an unborn fetus in order to prevent sex-selective abortions, though evidence suggests the information gets out.

Part of the reason Indians favor sons is the enormous expense of marrying off girls. Families often go into debt arranging marriages and paying for elaborate dowries. A boy, on the other hand, will one day bring home a bride and dowry. Hindu custom also dictates that only sons can light their parents' funeral pyres.

Fighting on behalf of girls
Over the years, and again now, there are efforts to fight the discrimination.
Advertise | AdChoices

"Nakusa is a very negative name as far as female discrimination is concerned," said Satara district health officer Dr. Bhagwan Pawar, who came up with the idea for the renaming ceremony...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In 1952, corporate taxes were 6.1% of GDP; in 2009, corporate taxes were 1% of GDP

50 Amazing Numbers About the Economy
By Morgan Housel
The Motley Fool
October 21, 2011

...In 1952, corporate taxes were 6.1% of GDP, and employment taxes were 1.8% of GDP.

In 2009, corporate taxes were 1% of GDP, and employment taxes were 6.3% of GDP...

Tea Party Nation tells small Business not to Hire

Tea Party Nation tells small Business not to Hire
Oct 21, 2011
By Schuyler Thorpe

The political organizations wants small businesses to go on "strike"

President Obama's jobs bill has been rebuffed by Republicans and now the Tea Party Nation has sent out a statement to its members requesting that they don't hire anyone in order to further hurt the president.

On the Tea Party Nation's website, Melissa Brookstone criticizes the president's administration and the Democrat-controlled Senate as being allied in forcing the United States into socialism and away from capitalism.

Jobs bill supporters estimate that the president's bill could create nearly 2 million jobs.

On the other hand, Brookstone not only alleges the president has assumed "dictatorial powers," but that the administration, Senate Democrats, "Progressive socailsts from all around the coutnry, especially those from Hollywood and the left leaning media" have colluded to create an "anti-business, an anti-free market, and an anti-capitalist (anti-individual rights and property ownership) agenda."

Brookstone charges that Democrats "have participated in what appears to be a globalist socialst agenda of redistribution of wealth, and the waging of class warfare against our constitutional republic's heritage of inidividual rights, free market capitalism, and indeed our Constitution itself, with the ultimate goal of collapsing the U.S. economy and globalizing us into socialism."

Brookstone continues to rail against President Obama, Democrats, liberals and, generally, anyone in support of their policies, but then in concluding her remarks, she adopts a stance that defies logic.

"I, an American small business owner, part of the class that produces the vast majority of real, wealth producing jobs in this country, hereby resolve that I will not hire a single person until this war against business and my country is stopped."

"I hereby declare that my job creation potential is now ceased," she writes. "I'm on strike!"

Regardless of one's political beliefs, it seems that finding a solution to the current high unemployment would benefit everyone.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Escondido immigrant turned over to ICE; four minor childen left at home

Escondido woman turned over to immigration after domestic violence incident
October 19, 2011

A woman who called the Escondido Police Department to report that she was beaten by her boyfriend was herself arrested and later turned over to immigration authorities after she was booked at the Vista jail, a case that critics say illustrates the problems inherent in local police getting involved in immigration enforcement.

Elena Cabrera, 36, said she came home tired from work on the morning of Aug. 20 and wanted to sleep a little. But her then live-in boyfriend, Jorge Melgar, 50, wanted her to do house chores and began beating her when she refused. When police arrived, he told the officers that she had also hit him, Cabrera said.

Cabrera said she did not hit him, but was arrested anyway. She had a bloody lip and bruises on her face, she said.

Escondido police Lt. Craig Carter said both people were arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and there were injuries on both of them. Carter said the department did not turn Cabrera over to immigration authorities.

After the couple was arrested, the couple's four minor children were left home alone, Cabrera said. Police are investigating the family's complaint that the kids were left without supervision, Carter said.

Bill Flores, a retired assistant sheriff and a member of the human rights group El Grupo, said Escondido's close working relationship with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hurts its ability to protect the community. He said police officers knew that Cabrera would be screened for immigration violations at the Vista jail and chose to take her into custody.

Incidents like Cabrera's hurt the department's relationship with the community, Flores said, making immigrants less likely to report crimes in the future.

"Everybody in that neighborhood found out what happened," Flores said. "She was a victim of domestic violence, she was taken to jail and she ended up getting turned over to ICE. All because she sought help from the Escondido Police Department."

After being arrested, Cabrera was taken to the Escondido Police Department and later to the Vista jail, where ICE placed an immigration hold on her, apparently as part of its Secure Communities program. Secure Communities links local jails to federal databases to identify illegal immigrants who are booked into the facilities.

"I never thought that this would happen to me," Cabrera said during an interview last week. "To me, it was a complete surprise."

A spokeswoman for ICE in San Diego declined to comment on the case.

Cabrera spent several days at the Vista jail before she was turned over to immigration authorities. Cabrera had an immigration petition pending as a victim of domestic violence related to a prior relationship. Under a law called the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, battered women who are married to U.S. citizens can apply for an immigrant visa.

Melgar, a legal resident, was not turned over to immigration authorities. He spent four days in jail before he was released.

Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego immigration attorney representing Cabrera, said having the visa petition does not necessarily mean that a victim is safe from deportation. However, under a new policy by the Obama administration, immigration authorities have discretion on when to pursue deportation procedures.

The Obama administration has said it wants to focus its resources on deporting violent illegal immigrant criminals, immigrants who have been ordered deported by an immigration judge and people who repeatedly have been caught in the country illegally.

"Given the new policy of prosecutorial discretion, ICE should have removed the hold (on Cabrera) once they ascertained she was a (Violence Against Women Act) beneficiary," Velasquez said.

The San Diego County District Attorney's office declined to file charges against either Cabrera or her boyfriend. She was released from immigration custody on Aug. 28 due to her Violence Against Women Act visa petition.

Critics say that the Obama administration's immigration policies, including Secure Communities, have created a dragnet that catches not only violent criminals but also people whose only violation is being in the country illegally. Those policies break families apart, tearing parents away from their U.S.-born children, critics say.

While she was detained, Cabrera's four children, ages 3 to 17 years old, were left in her Escondido home without supervision, she said. Her oldest daughter, Tayana Zarate, 17, said she had to care for her siblings while trying to figure out where her mother was being held and how to have her released.

Tayana said a neighbor helped her buy food and drove her around to find her mother.

"They never asked who I was, my name, how old I was, is there a grown-up in the house?" Tayana said last week. "They don't care."

The family filed a complaint with the police department for leaving the children without supervision. Tayana and her mother spoke with police detectives last Thursday night about the complaint.

Carter said the officers noted in their report that they left the children in the care of an "18-year-old female."

The department also came under fire last year when it announced that it had forged a new alliance with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowing several immigration officers to work out of its headquarters. Operation Joint Effort, as the program is called, is the only one of its kind in the county. It has been credited by the department with the arrest of over 400 criminal illegal immigrants since it started in May 2010...

Friday, October 07, 2011

The story of our holy Constitution

(Credit: Ian Huebert)

Oct 7, 2011
Introducing: A Tea People’s History
Exclusive read from the history book they won't teach in schools! The story of our holy Constitution
By Alex Pareene

We're exceptionally proud to bring you this excerpt from Salon's new e-book, "A Tea People's History," by Alex Pareene. You can buy the full e-book for $2.99 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The Continental Congress organized the new nation with a document called the American Rules of Acquisition, an early precursor to our Constitution. While the Rules — also known as the Articles of Confederation — wisely established a weak central government and powerful states’ rights, there was a certain spark missing — the spark of Natural Law, which was the Founders’ preferred phrase for the Ten Commandments.

Some argue that the Articles of Confederation created a federal government that was too small and weak, but in fact the primary problem with the Articles was that they were far too left-wing. Government bureaucracy killed nearly 2,000 soldiers at Valley Forge. It was apparent that a change was needed!

While planting some hemp one day, George Washington discovered an early draft of the Constitution, written in ancient Egyptian on a series of golden plates buried deep within the ground at Mount Vernon. James Madison translated and elaborated on the text, with the help of Thomas Jefferson and an angel. The excited Founders immediately called for a Constitutional Convention to officially ratify the document and formally make America the best country ever.

The Constitution was written with 74 essential guiding principles in mind, based on the principles of Natural Law as laid out by Polybius, Cicero, Thomas Hooker, Coke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith, Moses and Jesus. Some of them include:

Principle 6: All Men are created (by God) equal (before God).
Principle 7: The proper role of government is to protect equal rights, not special rights for cross-dressing Wiccans with ADHD and “the differently abled” and every other interest group under the sun.
Principle 10: Property rights are the most important inalienable right of all.
Principle 17: If anything ever goes wrong, it is not because of any flaws in the Constitution or with the Founders.
Principle 20: In fact, if something goes wrong, it is because America has strayed from the original glorious divinely inspired mission of the Founders.
Principle 21: But it’s OK, because they predicted that would happen.

In their wiseness, the Founders explicitly rejected the direct election of senators, progressive taxation, welfare and collective bargaining for public employees. In fact, Ben Franklin argued that public employees shouldn’t even be paid, at all. As he said, at the time:

“To bring the matter nearer home, have we not seen the greatest and most important of our offices, that of general of our armies, executed for eight years together, without the smallest salary, by a patriot whom I will not now offend by any other praise; and this, through fatigues and distresses, in common with the other brave men, his military friends and companions, and the constant anxieties peculiar to his station? If he can do it, should a mere instructor of youths not stop complaining about his recompense? They don’t even work all year! Can the public treasury handle giving a mere public carriage-driver half his salary upon his retirement at the age of thirty? I think not! Especially when your average carriage-hand is living to be nearly forty, these dayes.”

The Founders also explicitly designed America to be a Christian nation. After all, the Natural Laws that make every man equal are the laws of God. All of the Founders believed in God. All of them. They all believed in God and thought everyone should believe in God and worship Him. It’s just a fact. Get over it. Also Jefferson’s “wall” between church and state just meant that the federal government couldn’t interfere with churches, but in fact the Founders wanted all religions to be encouraged, because worshiping God makes us virtuous, and only a virtuous people can handle self-rule. This is why the Founders came up with the “In God We Trust” motto, which they put on all the money and in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was Ben Franklin’s idea, along with the eagle, God’s favorite bird. Madison is the one who decided everyone should be sworn in on a Bible.

After agreeing unanimously on all the Golden Plate-derived portions of the document, the Founders set about writing the BiIl of Rights. There is a friendly debate among historians about whether the First Amendment — which establishes the right of Real Americans to Speak Common Sense Truths without fear of getting attacked by America-hating trolls and the lamestream media — or the Second Amendment — which establishes the right of Corporations to bear automatic weapons — is more important, but the Founders truly believed that both were essential for Freedom.

Fun Fact: When Washington took office as our first president, not all the states had ratified the Constitution, and the Articles of Confederation said that no changes could be made without every state’s approval. This is proof that the Founders officially approved of seceding from the Union, and endorsed Rick Perry.

Buy the full “A Tea People’s History” for $2.99 on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Ridiculed crystal work wins Nobel for Israeli

Ridiculed crystal work wins Nobel for Israeli
An Israeli scientist whose work was once ridiculed for being out of line with received thinking won the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for discovering different ways in which atoms could be packed together in solid materials.
By Patrick Lannin and Veronica Ek
Oct 6, 2011
(Reuters) - An Israeli scientist who suffered years of ridicule and even lost a research post for claiming to have found an entirely new class of solid material was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals.

Three decades after Dan Shechtman looked with an electron microscope at a metal alloy and saw a pattern familiar in Islamic art but then unknown at a molecular level, those non-stick, rust-free, heat-resistant quasicrystals are finding their way into tools from LEDs to engines and frying pans.

Shechtman, 70, from Israel's Technion institute in Haifa, was working in the United States in 1982 when he observed atoms in a crystal he had made form a five-sided pattern that did not repeat itself, defying received wisdom that they must create repetitious patterns, like triangles, squares or hexagons.

"People just laughed at me," Shechtman recalled in an interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate, mounted a frightening "crusade" against him, saying: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook, the head of his research group asked him to leave for "bringing disgrace" on the team. "I felt rejected," Shechtman remembered.

"His discovery was extremely controversial," said the Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which granted him the 10-million crown ($1.5-million) award.

"Dan Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science ... His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.

"In quasicrystals, we find the fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns that never repeat themselves."


On Wednesday, Shechtman said he was "excited" but at pains to praise fellow scientists, many of whom once doubted him.

Nancy Jackson, the president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), called it "a great work of discovery."

Scientists had previously thought solid matter had only two states -- crystalline, like diamonds, where atoms are arranged in rigid rows, and amorphous, like metals, with no particular order. Quasicrystalline matter offers a third possibility and opens the door to new kinds of materials for use in industry.

Sometimes referred to as Shechtmanite in the discoverer's honor, hundreds of quasicrystals have been synthesized in laboratories. Two years ago, scientists reported the first naturally occurring find of quasicrystals in eastern Russia.

David Phillips, president of Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry, called them "quite beautiful." Interlocking arrays of stars, circles and floral shapes are typical.

"You can normally explain in simple terms where in a crystal each atom sits - they are very symmetrical," Phillips said. "With quasicrystals, that symmetry is broken: there are regular patterns in the structure, but never repeating."

An intriguing feature of such patterns, also found in Arab mosaics, is that the mathematical constant known as the Greek letter tau, or the "golden ratio," occurs over and over again. Underlying it is a sequence worked out by Fibonacci in the 13th century, where each number is the sum of the preceding two.

Living things, including flowers, fruit and shellfish, also demonstrate similar arrangements, which scientists associate with the efficient packing of materials into growing organisms.

Quasicrystals are very hard and are poor conductors of heat and electricity, offering uses as thermoelectric materials, which convert heat into electricity. They also have non-stick surfaces, handy for frying pans, and appear in energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and heat insulation in engines.

Astrid Graslund, secretary for the Nobel Committee for chemistry, said: "The practical applications are as of now, not so many. But the material has unexpected properties. It is very strong, it has hardly any friction on the surface. It doesn't want to react with anything -- they cannot ... become rusty.

"But it is more a conceptual insight - that these materials exist and we need to re-write all textbooks about crystals - it's a shift of the paradigm, which I think is most important."


Since Galileo was mocked by established scientists and persecuted by the church in the 16th century for observing that the Earth moved round the Sun rather than the reverse, overturning accepted wisdom has never been easy, as several of this year's Nobel prizewinners in science have shown.

Research that was largely ignored for years secured the medicine prize for the late Ralph Steinman and the astounding finding that the universe's expansion was speeding up not slowing down meant the physics prize for its joint discoverers.

But in a year when science is in a froth over whether particles may have been fired from Geneva to Italy faster than the speed of light -- apparently defying Einstein -- few in the modern age have had to battle disbelief as hard as Shechtman.

"He dealt with the skepticism in a very scientific and gentlemanly manner and answered his critics as every scientist should -- through science," Ron Lifshitz, a physics professor at Tel Aviv University, told Reuters. "There were also personal slurs but those did not warrant a response ... He believed in his own work and carried on with determination."

Interviewed about his Nobel by television in Israel, where the award was big national news for a small country with a long roster of laureates, Shechtman spoke of a photograph in his office that showed a small cat sipping water, surrounded by angry dogs; a biblical inscription read: "Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil."

"That's the way I felt for many years," Shechtman chuckled. "It accurately describes the situation, during that period."

He "trusted in his science," however, and came to see the criticism by the late Pauling, which Shechtman has described as "almost theological," as a positive source of strength:

"When you're a young scientist, and you're faced with perhaps the top international scientist, Professor Linus Pauling ... and he argues with you as an equal, and you know that he is wrong - that's not really such a bad feeling."

(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Ben Hirschler in London, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Dan Williams, Ori Lewis and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)

(The Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences corrects laureate's first name to Dan from Daniel)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

This American Life: A man who has searched 18 years for the right couch

Cat and Mouse
This American Life
Originally aired 02.24.2006

In most games of cat and mouse, you've got the chaser and you got the chased, right? And both of them are pretty much in constant motion. But here's a story where the mouse is not moving at all. In fact, the mouse is an inanimate object. And yet, somehow it cannot be caught. David Segal reports.

David Segal

I've known Eric for just about 20 years. And for nearly the entire length of our friendship, he's been hunting quarry that everyone else cornered a long time ago, something nobody really thinks of as the sort of thing you hunt.

I've been looking for the right sofa for about 18 years.
David Segal

Yes, he said 18 years. And yes, he said sofa. All of this started after Eric left graduate school. And briefly, it looked like it would be a fairly conventional shopping experience. He spotted a sofa he liked at Pottery Barn, an off-white number with a slip cover. And he had a matching pair delivered. But once they arrived, he knew he'd made a big mistake. The lines were all wrong. The fabric wasn't right. He returned the goods within a week. And after that, the shopping experience was never conventional again. His quest moved into what I call its "Ahab/Moby Dick" phase. He began to stalk his couch.

For years he'd subscribe to these high-end furniture magazines. And slowly, he started to build a clip file of advertisements and photographs. He learned the ins and outs of couch construction, the proper materials for the frame--

What they call kiln-dried hardwood.
David Segal

Invisible stitching. Cushion filling.

There's a firmness but a softness, which is actually not all that easy to achieve.
David Segal

The fabric for the covering--

The kind of the boucle that they do, which is the fabric that I was keen on.
David Segal

And of course, all important, the springs.

What's called eight-way hand-tied, I think, which is, they do eight-way hand tying of the coils.
David Segal

I should say, Eric's not this way when he's buying clothes. He's not this way when he's ordering dinner. He's not this way with a lot of things. But when it's something he cares about, he's methodical and he's relentless. But with the sofa, he went further than he ever had before. By the time his search entered its 10th year-- that's more than twice as long as it took scientists at the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb-- Eric was honing in.

He'd started shopping in these swanky boutiques, places that don't even have storefronts, places where someone has to tell you the address and then buzz you in. He had his eyes on the work of a sofa superstar named Jean-Michel Frank. And there was one piece in particular that he decided was the couch of his dreams. It was a $12,000 three-seater of Italian nutwood in a beeswax finish. Eric found the one place in the country where it was for sale.

A place called Ralph Pucci.
David Segal

So you walked around this place, and did you fall in love with any of the sofas? Did you hear the church music you were looking for?

Yeah, well, it's interesting. The short answer is, I didn't, which was kind of dismaying. When I saw it in person, I was actually a little underwhelmed.
David Segal

So you ultimately passed on all of the sofas that you came across during your 15- to 18-year search for the perfect sofa.

David Segal

Could you describe your current sofa?

That's just plain mean.
David Segal

Where did you get your current sofa?

So I got my current sofa for free. It was a donation from a friend that I was helping move out of his apartment. The polyester fill cushions have gotten flattened to the point where if you plop down, if you just kind of collapse into my sofa, you will actually hurt yourself.
David Segal

More than a few times in these past 18 years, Eric and I have tried to figure out what this sofa thing is really about. Perhaps it won't shock you to learn that Eric is single. He's had a fair number of girlfriends. With some he's even shared the story of his never-ending couch adventure. And guess what, they don't seem very amused.

Yeah. I mean, it kind of drives them crazy.
David Segal

To review. Just after college, he found something he liked, lived with it briefly, and then decided it wasn't good enough and sent it packing. He started pursuing exotic specimens that conformed to a narrower and more unattainable ideal. He subscribed to glossy, photo-rich magazines, which only reinforced his yearning for this unattainable ideal. And then, after years of searching, he finally came face-to-face with that ideal. He found it lacking. Do you see where I'm going here? Often, when I talk to him about his quest, I want to say, wait, are we still talking about a couch?

Do I hold out for one that really knocks me out or do I just settle for something that is-- that I can live with, but really doesn't knock me out?
David Segal

But does it not worry you that you might live a sofa-less, single life?

Yeah. I mean, absolutely. This is probably the thing that causes me more concern and dismay and questions as anything in my life. I really, really like being together. And I'm not all that crazy about being alone.
David Segal

One thing that's interesting about the tale of Eric's nonstop sofa safari-- which I've heard him tell more than a few times-- is that it ticks off nearly as many people as it amuses. Some are actually angry when he's done with the story. And I think I know why. Two radically different world views are clashing here, one in which life is all about seeking perfection, and the other in which you make normal compromises and settle for good instead of great. The settlers consider the perfection people to be babies and whiners. The perfection people see the settlers as strangely hostile milquetoasts who've given up, who aren't striving for greatness, who've been cowed into lowering their standards.

Personally, I know that part of me wants to tell Eric, don't yield. Do not surrender. Hold fast. Wait for that transformative moment, even if it means you're alone and drooling on a frat house futon for the rest of your life. And another part of me wants to tell him exactly what a former girlfriend once told him, and I quote, "Just buy a [BLEEP] couch."
Ira Glass

David Segal is a reporter for the Washington Post.