Our pick of the week’s science and technology stories include Microsoft’s big launch, the genetics of stupidity and a highly contentious earthquake case.
It was a busy week for product launches in the tech world. Arguably, the most historic of the bunch was the release of the first personal computer made by Microsoft. Mat Honan thought the company's new Surface tablet was "extremely well-designed, meticulous even... certainly better than any full-size Android tablet on the market." Against the iPad, he rated it both better and worse, depending on what you value most; good for video, less so for close reading of text. In time, when more applications become available, it'll be a viable alternative to its Apple rival, he says.
"Where does intelligence come from? How is it built? Researchers have tried hard to find the answer in our genes." And they haven't got very far. Which raises a question: What if they were looking for the wrong thing? What if instead of trying to identify the genetic dynamics that build intelligence, they looked for those that erode it? Should we stop trying to parse the genetics of intelligence, and turn our attention to the "genetics of stupidity" instead? One neurogeneticist tells Dobbs he's doing just that.
Why did a court in Italy convict six scientists of manslaughter in connection with their predictions about an earthquake in l'Aquila in 2009 that killed 309 people? The verdict caused dismay in the scientific community, with some commentators warning that it could lead to meteorologists being tried for inaccurate weather forecasts. In this corrective, Ropeik explains that the case was not about science or seismology or about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes, but about how risks are communicated to the public.
Can animals be moral? There's plenty of evidence of apparently moral behaviour in animals, as Rowlands explains. But how should we interpret that evidence? For example, could there be other, non-moral explanations for what appears to be moral behaviour? Notwithstanding the dangers of anthropomorphism, "a growing number of animal scientists are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally".
On the historical importance of milk. There was a time when we were all lactose-intolerant. But about 10,000 years ago a genetic mutation took hold in what's now Turkey and we rapidly became, "in the coinage of one paleoanthropologist, 'mampires' who feed on the fluids of other animals". Why did it happen? Geneticists still don't have a complete answer but it does appear that "Western civilisation, which is twinned with agriculture, seems to have required milk to begin functioning".
Scientists are experimenting with different ways to enhance humans. What's possible? What may be possible in the future? And what ethical questions arise? The Browser has collected some of the most interesting writing on the subject in this special report on human modification, from controversial cyborg rat tests to whether we should erase painful memories.