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How Depressing

< single gene can take all the credit for causing all the symptoms of depression. But scientists did recently isolate a gene, called MKP-1, which may be the key to depression’s onset. This makes the gene an important target for new drug treatments. In honor of the scientists making headway against depression, but mostly because I’m feeling ornery, here is some depressing science news that I’ve been following this week.

Remember when I discussed the exoplanet (the term for any planet outside our solar system) that scientists found a couple weeks ago? The planet called Gliese 581g, in the Goldilocks zone of a long-living sun, can support water, and perhaps life. Or not.

A single American team detected Gliese 581g by measuring the amount that its sun is pulled about by the orbiting planets. Based on the sun’s wiggling, they calculated the presence of five planets. But an Italian team recently came forward with the claim that the evidence does not point to a fifth planet. Because neither team’s data is precise enough to prove or disprove the existence of Gliese 581g, it will take more observations, which may need to be gathered over the course of a few years, to resolve the discrepancy.

This is a huge bummer for any readers (like me) who heard about Gliese 581g and began dreaming of a new era in space exploration, the colonization of new planets, and the general fulfillment of sci-fi pipe dreams. Yet hope isn’t lost yet! The number of confirmed planets outside our solar system continues to climb, and is expected to reach 500 by the end of October, and 1000 in a few years. Among those planets, some will be habitable. Even if Gliese 581g doesn’t exist, the discovery of a habitable exoplanet should be confirmed in less than one year.

Plus, a team at the University of Arizona has managed to take optical images of exoplanets. Because suns are much brighter than the planets that orbit them, detecting these planets visually can be well-nigh impossible. Yet the University of Arizona astronomers managed to reduce the star’s glare enough to take a picture of one of its planets. Now, if only they could take a peek towards Gliese 581…
In more depressing news, we’re terrible at voting. Pleasant as it is to believe that we vote with our heads, weighing each candidates policies and leadership abilities before making a decision, psychologists have known for a long time that charisma, looks, and media portrayal influence voters’ decisions more than we’d like to think. Now, it turns out that grammar plays a role as well.

If one news story reports that a politician “was taking bribes,” and another states that he “took bribes,” it shouldn’t make a difference to voters. But a new study reports that negative actions in the imperfect aspect (“was taking”) come across as more negative than behavior reported in the perfect aspect (“took”). Students had to rate how politicians on their electability after reading stories about the statesmen’s philandering, or corruption, or bad government, reported in either the imperfect or perfect tense. Those who misbehaved in the imperfect were far less electable than those whose misdemeanors occurred in the perfect tense.

This finding really disappoints me. Do we really respond more strongly to some political scandals than others, merely because of the form of the verbs in the report? It definitely chips away at the image of humans as rational creatures.

Even one of my favorite dinosaurs, the great Tyrannosaurus rex, managed to depress me this week. The king of the dinosaurs is undeniably cool, no matter what dirt archaeologists dig up on it. But tooth marks on T. rex fossils indicate that a big carnivore was gnawing a dead T. rex, in a geographical area where the only big carnivores were other tyrannosauruses. In other words, T. rex was a cannibal. Although this could be sort of awesome, the fact that the cannibalism occurred after the victim’s death brings up the image not of an intense T. rex versus T. rex battle, but rather that of a hungry T. rex, too lame or lazy to attack living prey, gnawing on its uncle’s corpse. Ew.

Last, but not least, the great Benoit Mandelbrot died this week. You may be familiar with a Mandelbrot Set, an image of a rounded shape covered in bumps, like a mutated cactus. If you zoom in to one of the bumps, you see it has the exact same form as the larger image, and you can find the same shape if you zoom in to one of the bumps on the bump, and the bumps on those bumps. No matter how far you zoom in, you find the same shape at every level. Fractals are amazingly cool, and Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry can be used to study clouds, physics phenomena, economics, and other fields, as well as to create pretty, pretty pictures.

Are you depressed yet? Want to ward off sinking feelings of pessimism? Well, they may not have used the new finding about that depression gene to make treatments yet, but there are some easier possibilities. Check out some Youtube videos zooming in on Mandelbrot sets. Dream about space travel. Read about the newly freed Chilean miners. And remember that next week, scientists will probably discover something new and spectacular and not nearly as depressing as this week’s news.

-Sophie Bushwick is a Carletonian columnist.

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