Wine tasting is bullshit. Here’s why. (from io9)


The human palate is arguably the weakest of the five traditional senses. This begs an important question regarding wine tasting: is it bullshit, or is it complete and utter bullshit?

There are no two ways about it: the bullshit is strong with wine. Wine tasting. Wine rating. Wine reviews. Wine descriptions. They’re all related. And they’re all egregious offenders, from a bullshit standpoint.

Exhibit A: Wine experts contradict themselves. Constantly.

Statistician and wine-lover Robert Hodgson recently analyzed a series of wine competitions in California, after “wondering how wines, such as his own, [could] win a gold medal at one competition, and ‘end up in the pooper’ at others.” In one study, Hodgson presented blindfolded wine experts with the same wine three times in succession. Incredibly, the judges’ ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. Via the Wall Street Journal:

A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.

Mr. Hodgson also found that the judges whose ratings were most consistent in any given year landed in the middle of the pack in other years, suggesting that their consistent performance that year had simply been due to chance.

It bears repeating that the judges Hodgson surveyed were no ordinary taste-testers. These were judges at California State Fair wine competition – the oldest and most prestigious in North America. If you think you can consistently rate the “quality” of wine, it means two things:

1: No. You can’t.

2. Wine-tasting is bullshit.

Exhibit B: Expert wine critics can’t distinguish between red and white wines

This one’s one of my favorites. In 2001, researcher Frédéric Brochet invited 54 wine experts to give their opinions on what were ostensibly two glasses of different wine: one red, and one white. In actuality, the two wines were identical, with one exception: the “red” wine had been dyed with food coloring.

The experts described the “red” wine in language typically reserved for characterizing reds. They called it “jammy,” for example, and noted the flavors imparted by its “crushed red fruit.” Not one of the 54 experts surveyed noticed that it was, in fact a white wine.

Exhibit C: We taste with our eyes, not our mouths

Actually, scratch that. We taste with our eyes, ears, noses, and even our sense of touch. We taste with our emotions, and our state of mind. This has been demonstrated time after time after time.

Research out of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab has shown that people will rate food as more enjoyable if it’s consumed in the relaxed atmosphere of a fine dining environment, as opposed to a noisy fast food restaurant.

A 2006 study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists, found that most people can’t distinguish between paté and dog food.

A recent New Yorker piece describes a followup to Brochet’s 2001 study, wherein he served wine experts a run-of-the-mill Bordeaux in two different bottles:

One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and “faulty.”

Exhibit D: Wine critics know wine reviews are bullshit

Here’s Joe Power, editor of the popular Another Wine Blogin a post titled “Wine Reviews are Bullshit!”:

Today, with apologies to messieurs Penn and Teller, I am going to stand up and shout, “Wine reviews are bullshit!”

If you are wondering if this is going to be some justification of why our reviews at AWB are just spiffy and everyone else is full of shit, you can stop wondering; ours are bullshit too. It is just the nature of the beast.

There is no hard science involved in reviewing wine, no real way to quantify results, no test cases, and certainly no verifiable set of standards that everyone adheres to. Everyone makes up their own processes for reviewing from Wine Spectator to us and all of the way down to the most recent person who just discovered how easy it is to set up a blog of their own.

When asked point blank what he thought of the aforementioned results from Robert Hodgson’s study (see Exhibit A) wine-maker Bob Cabral said he was “not surprised”:

In Mr. Cabral’s view, wine ratings are influenced by uncontrolled factors such as the time of day, the number of hours since the taster last ate and the other wines in the lineup. He also says critics taste too many wines in too short a time. As a result, he says, “I would expect a taster’s rating of the same wine to vary by at least three, four, five points from tasting to tasting.”

See? Horseshit.

Exhibits E – ZZZ: Countless other studies

In 1996, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that wine experts cannot reliably identify more than three or four of a wine’s flavor components. Most wine critics routinely report tasting six or more. The wine review excerpted in the top image for this post, for example (which is a real review, by the way – somebody actually wrote those words about a bottle of wine, in earnest) lists the following components in the wine’s “principle flavor” profile: “red roses, lavender, geranium, dried hibiscus flowers, cranberry raisins, currant jelly, mango with skins [Ed. note: jesus wine-swilling christ – mango with skins?], red plums, cobbler, cinnamon, star anise, blackberry bramble, whole black peppercorn,” and more than a dozen other flavors that I refuse to continue listing lest my head implode.

Fun fact: MIT behavioral economist Coco Krume recently conducted a meta-analysis of the classifiers used in wine reviews, and found that reviewers tend to use “cheap” and “expensive” words differently. Cheap descriptors are used much more frequently, expensive ones more sparingly. Krume even demonstrated that it’s possible to guess the price range of a wine based on the words used in its review. “From a quantitative standpoint,” Krume writes, “there are three types of words more likely to be used for expensive wines”:

  • Darker words, such as intense, supple, velvety, and smoky
  • Single flavors such as tobacco or chocolate versus fruity, good, clean, tasty, juicy for cheap wines
  • Exclusive-sounding words in place of simple descriptors. For example, old, elegant, and cuvee rather than pleasing, refreshing, value,and enjoy
  • Additionally, cheap wine is preferentially paired with chicken and pizza, while pricey wine goes with shellfish and pork

Using her scientific metric, Krume goes on to create the most expensive-sounding wine review ever penned: “A velvety chocolate texture and enticingly layered, yet creamy, nose, this wine abounds with focused cassis and a silky ruby finish. Lush, elegant, and nuanced. Pair with pork and shellfish.” If that sentence made you yearn for a glass of classy red, congratulations, there’s a very real chance you’re a pompous asshole.

The Exception

You want an exception to the wine-tasting is bullshit mantra? Here it is.

In 2008, a survey comprising more than 6,000 blind tastings found a positive correlation between price and enjoyment – for individuals with wine training. In other words: if you’re a wine expert, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper ones. HOWEVER, it bears emphatic mentioning that whether this suggests more expensive wines are objectively better (which it doesn’t) is irrelevant, because among amateur wine drinkers (which, let’s face it, you are), the survey found the opposite, i.e. a negative correlation between price and happiness, “suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” This lead the researchers to conclude that “both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.”

The upshot: screw the experts. Drink what tastes good/whatever you can afford. Or just have a beer – it’s unequivocally better, anyway.

Why Crows are awesome


Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

Crows are among the planet’s most intelligent animals, teaching their young to use tools for foraging and banding together to fight off intruders. Now, the first study of how abstract reasoning works in these birds’ brains could shed light on how intelligence works in a truly alien, non-mammal brain.

Illustration by Tiger-tyger

We’ve studied brain structure pretty extensively in mammals from humans and apes to whales and mice. But German neuroscientists Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder are the first to watch what happens in crow brains as these birds worked their way through a series of brain-teasers. They actually wired the crows’ brains up with electrodes, watching as individual neurons fired when the crows did a test that required abstract reasoning. What Veit and Nieder found reveals a lot about what intelligence looks like in a brain that’s nothing like our own.

The Evolution of Intelligence

The crow, and some of its relatives in the corvid family (such as jays and magpies), are among the only intelligent species we’ve encountered outside the world of mammals. But their brains are utterly different from ours. The mammalian seat of reason is in our prefrontal cortex, a thin layer of nerve-riddled tissue on the outside of the front region of our brains. Birds have no prefrontal cortex (PFC). Instead, they have the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is located toward the middle of their brains. You can see the different regions in the image, below.

Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

The thing that’s really interesting about comparing bird and human intelligence is that we did not evolve from a common, intelligent ancestor. Our last common ancestor with birds lived during the Permian period, about 300 million years ago, before the age of dinosaurs. It probably looked like a cross between a reptile and a rodent, and was roughly the size of a big raccoon.

This ancestor’s simple brain was ruled by instinct rather than higher-level cognition. Still, lurking inside its rather small skull was a brain part called the pallium, which over millions of years evolved into the PFC in mammals and the NCL in birds. That makes mammal and bird intelligence an excellent example of parallel evolution — both groups of animals developed intelligence independently of one another.

Despite all their differences, the PFC and NCL have a few features in common. Veit and Nieder write in Nature Communications that both regions are involved in “working memory, reversal learning and reward prediction.” The areas also “share important properties such as dense innervation by dopaminergic fibres and connectivity patterns with multiple sensory input, limbic and motor output regions.” What that means is that the NCL and PFC are both packed with neurons, or nerve cells, that respond to the crucial neurotransmitter dopamine. Its neurons are also connected to the parts of the brain that handle memory, emotion, and body movements. The PFC and NCL are brain command centers, synthesizing information from a vast array of inputs and outputs.

Testing Crows’ Ability to Reason

Given that the NCL is the seat of crow intelligence, the researchers decided to see whether they could actually watch in real time as a crow figured out a puzzle. They used crows that had been raised in captivity, and trained to do a test kind of like the Sesame Street “which one doesn’t belong?” quiz. The crows had to identify whether two images were different or the same.

First, the researchers put electrodes over the crows’ NCL, to watch each neuron firing. Then they would present the crow with an image. Next, the crow would be prompted to choose an image that matched or didn’t match that image (they had already been trained to do this with a sound or sign that either meant “match” or “don’t match”). Finally, the crow would be presented with two images and have to choose the matching or not matching one.

Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

This is a test that requires abstract reasoning, because the images change all the time and the crows have to apply the abstract idea of “match” or “not match” to a variety of inputs. In addition, this test reveals that the researchers defined intelligence as an ability to do abstract reasoning. Obviously there are many ways to define intelligence, and this is simply one way to do it.

What the researchers found was pretty amazing. They identified what they call “abstract rule neurons” which governed which answer the crows would give. Basically, the birds’ brains assigned one rule (match) to one neuron, then the other rule (don’t match) to another neuron. When the crows correctly matched an image, the match rule neuron would fire. When the crow gave an incorrect answer, or became confused, the abstract rule neuron fired only very weakly.

Veit and Nieder concluded that this was strong evidence that crows’ brains have developed to handle abstract rules, which is why the birds are good at learning and responding to a variety of situations in a flexible way. They note that “the ability to guide behavior by general rules rather than by relying on fixed stimulus-response associations constitutes a survival advantage.” This is the same survival advantage conferred on humans due to our intelligence. But our intelligence occupies a very different structure in our brains.

Alien Intelligence on Earth

What this experiment suggests is that two dramatically different species might have similar abstract reasoning abilities — even if their brains are completely unlike each other. If we imagine that intelligence can only dwell in a mammal-like brain, we may miss out on discovering smart life forms elsewhere. The crow brain may be the first truly alien intelligence we’ve been able to study.

The crow brain may also help us better understand what’s required to build an artificial intelligence, too. We can look at what the crow and human brain share in common, and speculate about what it might take to create an intelligence that resides in a non-brain structure. As I mentioned earlier, both the PFC and NCL contain many neurons connected to other parts of the brain, and they work a lot with the neurotransmitter dopamine. These regions also appear to deal in abstract rules.

Most of all, we can find hope in the idea that intelligence isn’t just a quirk of one type of brain. Many kinds of brains can become intelligent. We are not alone.

What’s Driving Chaotic Dismantling of Canada’s Science Libraries?

Scientists reject Harper gov’t claims vital material is being saved digitally.

By Andrew Nikiforuk, 23 Dec 2013,

Scientists say the closure of some of the world’s finest fishery, ocean and environmental libraries by the Harper government has been so chaotic that irreplaceable collections of intellectual capital built by Canadian taxpayers for future generations has been lost forever.

Many collections such as the Maurice Lamontagne Institute Library in Mont-Joli, Quebec ended up in dumpsters while others such as Winnipeg’s historic Freshwater Institute library were scavenged by citizens, scientists and local environmental consultants. Others were burned or went to landfills, say scientists.


[Editor’s note: This is verbatim text from a DFO scientist sent to The Tyee.]

The loss of seven out of nine DFO regional science libraries is a big tragedy.

Here is a link to one comment suggesting it was an act of“Libricide.”

The first step in the process was to move the libraries from Science into Information Management and Technology Services (IMTS) several years ago. At that point DFO Science became merely a client of another sector of the department for library services. It is not known whether DFO Science management put up any opposition to the cuts when IMTS announced their plans last year.

IMTS operates under a corporate business model. Under this model, one sector of government sells its services to another sector of government with the objective of providing the least amount of service for the largest possible service fee. This would seem to be a very bad business model for running a government department that has the prime objective of long-term public good — giving the public the best return possible on their tax dollar across all sectors of government though working co-operatively.

The decision to cut the libraries was made by executives within DFO rather than imposed by higher levels of government. It was done without any prior consultation with the DFO research community and researchers have been kept largely in the dark throughout the process. There has been very little information provided to DFO science staff or the public throughout the process.

The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.

Each of the seven regional libraries had thousands upon thousands of items in their holdings including unique valuable material of local regional significance documenting research into aquatic systems, fish stocks and fisheries carried out in the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as more recent grey literature such as laboratory reports, consultants reports, research vessel survey reports, reports of commissions of enquiries into fisheries etc.

The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever.

Local staff in the regions were given a brief opportunity to scavenge through the piles of books, journals and documents not wanted by the remaining two DFO Science libraries. Books and other library material already on loan to researches were never recalled, indicating a chaotic and haphazard process.

No explanations have been provided with regard to how the limited space in the remaining two DFO Science libraries will accommodate material from the regions deemed (by whom?) too important to destroy. One can only assume that the amount of material not being dumped is relatively small.

The official DFO statements have indicated that an “alternate service delivery system” is to be put in place to meet the library needs of the regions and that operations will not be affected by the library closures. To date this alternate service delivery system is not in place and no information has been provided on what form it will take.

The impact of the library closures on both the operations and the morale of DFO research staff have been immense.

Furthermore, the government is falsely claiming that vital content is being retained by extensively digitizing material from nine regional libraries that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) whittled down to two.

“The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever,” reports one DFO scientist who requested not to be named.

That picture of a taxpayer-funded treasure trove of information laid waste emerges from interviews by The Tyee with half a dozen prominent scientists, many of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear that their funding or other government support could be hurt if their names were connected with the concerns they were eager to share.

Some of the research scientists interviewed questioned the legality of what they saw happening, accusing the Harper government of “libricide.”

Not only has the Canadian public lost critical environmental and cultural baseline data more than 100 years old, but scientists have lost the symbolic heart of their research operations.

A DFO scientist told The Tyee, “The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.” (See sidebar.)

One scientist after another struggled to make sense of the shuttering of libraries devoted to water and fish in a nation that guards the world’s largest coastline and roughly 18 per cent of the world’s surface freshwater. Most saw in the actions a political agenda by the Harper government to reduce the role of government in Canadian society, as well as the use of scientific evidence in making policy.

According to an analysis by Bill Curry published by the Globe and Mail, the Harper government will reduce the size of the Canadian government to its smallest level in 50 years by 2015.

Closing libraries, stopping research

As reported by The Tyee earlier this month, key libraries dismantled by the government included the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg; the historic St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick (Rachel Carson, the celebrated environmental scientist, corresponded with researchers there for her book, Silent Spring) and one of the world’s finest ocean collections at Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

At the same time the government has killed research groups that depended on those libraries such as the Experimental Lakes Area, the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission and the DFO’s entire contaminants research program. The Freshwater Institute as well as the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) has lost much of their funding and staff, too.

Ken Lee, a world authority on oil spills and COOGER’s former director, saw the writing on the wall and tooka prestigious job in Australia.

In a private email originally sent to a colleague and then shared with The Tyee, one scientist compared the dismemberment of the Freshwater Institute library last week to a rummage sale: “I did manage to salvage a few bits and pieces, one of which was a three volume print version of the data that went into the now extinct DFO toxins database.”

The scientist suggested “that interested individuals should drop-in and loot [the] library before the bonfires begin.”

Kelly Whelan-Enns, head of media and policy research for Manitoba Wildlands, spent two days at the library trying to salvage maps from the 1900s and wildlife data from the 1920s.

“I saw a private consultant firm working for Manitoba Hydro back up a truck and fill it with Manitoba data and materials that the public had paid for. I was profoundly saddened and appalled.”

“It’s obvious that this government cares little for public discourse.”

The scene at the Freshwater Institute’s library shocked another scientist with 30 years of experience in the federal government.

“Hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore… anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what.”


Although some books have been transferred to libraries in Sidney, B.C., and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the dismemberment of priceless library collections has stunned freshwater and marine scientists and ordinary citizens.

“The fact that many materials were thrown away or given away is heartbreaking to those of us who are dedicated to this field of research [marine science and fisheries] and the history of science in Canada,” says Peter Wells, a prominent marine environmental scientist at Dalhousie University.

Wells, who is also an aquatic toxicologist, spent a career working as a public servant for Environment Canada (1974-2006) on a variety of environmental issues.

“That we as a society are condoning information destruction and core library closures in Canada is unbelievable, and in my view, undemocratic and probably criminal… that would be an interesting aspect to investigate,” adds the scientist.

“Through a misguided policy purportedly driven by the desire for cost savings in the public service, and I believe this was only one reason for this action, we have trashed a network of world-class marine and fisheries libraries, the envy around the world. The rest of the world cannot believe what is happening in Canada on this issue.”

Concludes Wells: “If I were still working for the government, I probably would be fired for being concerned and outspoken about the future of aquatic science in Canada and the impact of current federal policies.”

According to an infographic made by Environment Canada (another agency that has witnessed severe science cuts) “about 14 per cent of Canada” is covered by lakes, rivers, wetlands, marshes and the marine waters of estuaries.

Moreover “these fragile freshwater habitats, vital to the ecology and the Canadian economy, are under severe threat by drainage, land reclamation, pollution, overuse and development.”

Scientists blast claim material adequately digitized

A DFO website claims that the library closures and consolidation of nine regional facilities into just two central libraries somehow “allows for easier search and access to clients no matter their location.”

The site also defends the closures by claiming that few citizens ever used the libraries anyway, and that most material will be digitized.

An agency spokesperson did not answer a series of questions posed by The Tyee. Instead David Walters referred The Tyee to a government propaganda site.

Six scientists contacted by The Tyee all refuted various claims on the website.

They argue that DFO statistics show that only one out of 20 books in the department’s 600,000 plus collection have been digitized. Moreover records on library usage were overtly biased and based on who asked for help, said Burton Ayles, a retired director general for DFO who lives in Winnipeg and has used the Freshwater Institute library frequently.

“Most people that come in to the library don’t have to request help. They just use the material. Just look at any regular library.”

Ayles had no doubt that the closures will severely restrict public and scientific access permanently.

“Previously one could walk in, scan the shelf of such material, select one publication and see if it is relevant to one’s needs. Now you have to get an inter-library loan to even look at material that may be stored away in some vault.”

‘Losing libraries not a neutral act’: scientist Hutchings

The Freshwater Institute library held collections dating back 100 years, on the quality and state of freshwater systems in central Canada, the Great Lakes and the Arctic.

Acclaimed Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings, who recently chaired the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the future of marine biodiversity, calls the closures scientifically disastrous and an assault on civil society.

“It is always unnerving from a research and scientist perspective to watch a government undermine basic research. There are many materials online but just as many books and materials that are not. The idea that you can send an email to Ottawa and get a book somewhere down the road is a myth. The idea that all requests will be honored also won’t happen.”

“From a science and research perspective these closures will have no positive impact on the quality of research but they will have a negative impact. Losing libraries is not a neutral act.”

He notes that the closures have also demoralized researchers. “This is a department that has suffered cutbacks and been stripped of its responsibilities. For scientists, technicians and biologists, for people who have gone to university, the library symbolically represents knowledge and wisdom. It’s key to research. Taking it out of a building is not easy.”

‘It must be about ideology’: Hutchings

Hutchings said none of the closures has anything to do with saving money, due to the small cost of maintaining the collections. He, like many scientists, concludes that Harper’s political convictions are driving the unprecedented consolidation.

“It must be about ideology. Nothing else fits,” said Hutchings. “What that ideology is, is not clear. Does it reflect that part of the Harper government that doesn’t think government should be involved in the very things that affect our lives? Or is it that the role of government is not to collect books or fund science? Or is it the idea that a good government is stripped down government? ”

Hutchings saw the library closures fitting a larger pattern of “fear and insecurity” within the Harper government, “about how to deal with science and knowledge.”

That pattern includes the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of climate change research and the dismantling of countless research programs, including the world famous Experimental Lakes Area. All these examples indicate that the Harper government strongly regards environmental science as a threat to unfettered resource exploitation.

“There is a group of people who don’t know how to deal with science and evidence. They see it as a problem and the best way to deal with it is to cut it off at the knees and make it ineffective,” explained Hutchings.

“The other worrying thing is that no one seems to care a great deal about it. There is minimal political cost for doing these things just as there is no political cost to making bad decisions about ocean management.”

Many scientists, including Hutchings and world famous water ecologist David Schindler, compared the government’s concerted attacks on environmental science to the rise of fascism and the total alignment of state and corporate interests in 1930s Europe.

“You look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s,” noted Hutchings, “and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”

A recent Sunday editorial in the New York Times condemned the suppression and monitoring of environmental science in Canada by the Harper government:

“This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance,” said the editorial.

“It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush — the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences.”  [Tyee]

Scientists might have found the Higgs Boson

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 11:36 am Wednesday, Jul 4 via Boing Boing

Back in December, I told you that physicists at CERN thought that by this summer they might be able to say, once and for all, whether the Higgs Boson particle exists. As a quick reminder, here’s how I described that particle in a post from last year:

You know that reality is like a Lego model, it’s made up of smaller parts. We are pieced together out of atoms. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks. (Quarks and electrons, as far as we know, are elementary particles, with nothing smaller inside.) When you’re talking about the Higgs Boson, you’re talking about the mass of these particles. Here’s an imperfect analogy: A top quark, the most massive particle we know of, is like an elephant. An electron, on the other hand, is more like a mouse. And nobody knows for certain why those differences exist.

There is a theory, though. Back in the 1960s, a guy named Peter Higgs came up with the idea that all these particles exist in a field, and their mass is a reflection of how much they interact with that field. Heavy particles have a lot of interaction. Lighter particles are relatively standoffish. If this field exists, the Higgs Boson is the tiny thing it’s made of.

So that’s the Higgs Boson—what it (theoretically) is and why that matters. And now, scientists at CERN are saying that they might have found it. What’s that mean? Basically, they found a new sub-atomic particle that seems to fit the theoretical description of what a Higgs Boson should be like. The New York Times reports that scientists are calling it the “Higgslike” particle for now.

Meanwhile, all across the Internet, science journalists and bloggers are alternately celebrating the discovery, skepticizing the details, and cringing at the overuse of the obnoxious moniker “God particle”. Want to know more? Here are some great places to start:

• “We’ve observed a new particle. … We have quite strong evidence that there’s something there,” Joe Incandela, spokesperson for the LHC’s CMS experiment, said in the video, which was discovered by Science News on CERN’s website. “So, to ascertain its properties is still going to take us a little bit of time.” — Yesterday, MSNBC’s Cosmic Blog wrote about a leaked video from CERN that presaged the announcement today.

• “The Higgs has long been a mixed blessing for particle physics. In the early 1990s, when physicists were pleading—ultimately in vain–with Congress not to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, which was sucking up tax dollars faster than a black hole, the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman christened the Higgs “the God particle.” This is scientific hype at its most outrageous. If the Higgs is the “God Particle,” what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?” — At Scientific American blogs, John Horgan explains how the Higgs could screw physics funding. It’s been spun as THE fundamental particle, but it’s not really. And now, how do we convince governments to keep research going?

• “Is it the Higgs boson? That’s a surprisingly complicated question! The difficulty lies with our theories of fundamental particles: the Standard Model and its modifications (including supersymmetry). None of these theories provides a clear, precise prediction for the mass of the Higgs boson, and the mass ranges may overlap between different models. Some models predict the existence of more than one Higgs particle, so if any of those are true, then we have at best found a Higgs boson. And that doesn’t rule out the (slim) possibility that this discovery is a Higgs-mimic, a particle that acts kind of like the Higgs, but doesn’t play the same role. In other words, the work isn’t done.” — Physicist and blogger Matthew Francis talks about whether this discovery is a big deal, how big a deal it might be, and why Higgs Bosons are so damn confusing.

• “Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new Higgs particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version of the boson — and there are hints of some already — could open a gateway to new phenomena and deeper theories that answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model: What, for example, is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies? And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?” — The New York Times covers the basics and what happens next.

• “…Other physicists are preparing for disappointment. That’s because scientists have been secretly hoping all along that, when they finally found the Higgs, it would be an interesting particle with unexpected behaviors — even somewhat unruly. A perfectly well-behaved Higgs leaves less room for new, exciting physics — the kind that theorists have been wishing would show up at the LHC.” — Wired Science explains why finding a Higgs Boson isn’t the end of the story.

• “Seminars proper start at 9am Geneva time (3am Eastern time, midnight Pacific time, 5pm Melbourne time). One from ATLAS, by Fabiola Giannoti, and one from CMS, by Joe Incandela. Then a press conference after. Remember what we’re looking for: how significant is the signal, do the two experiments agree with each other, does the rate agree with the Standard Model prediction, are different channels mutually consistent with each other.” — Way early this morning, while most of us slept, physicist and blogger Sean Carroll was live-blogging the Higgs Boson announcement from CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. His live-blog offers a lot of great analysis and research detail.

• “For many of us, the most shocking revelation to come out of CERN’s Higgs boson announcement today was quite unrelated to the science itself. Rather, we were blown away by the fact that a team made up of some of the most undoubtedly brilliant people in the world believe that Comic Sans is an appropriate font for such a historic occasion.” — The Verge on CERN’s ongoing love affair with the much-reviled font Comic Sans. (They used the same font back in December.)

• “But for cosmologists, one of the most exciting things about the Higgs is that it seems to exist at all. The Higgs is a boson, which means that you can pack many of them into a single state, and therefore can be thought of as a field pervading all of space — photons, which make up the electromagnetic field, are also bosons. (This is in contrast to fermions, which cannot be brought into the same state and are thus more usefully thought of as individual particles of matter.) An even more precise categorisation of particles is via their spin: bosons can take on integer values (0, 1, 2, …) , and fermions half-integer values (1/2, 3/2, …). The known bosons, like the photons, have spin 1 and are known as vector particles. The Higgs, however, has spin 0, and is called a scalar.” — Astrophysicist Andrew Jaffe talks about what a real-life Higgs Boson might mean for other branches of physics.

• Finally, Ph.D. Comics explains the Higgs Boson for those of you who are already too drunk on 4th of July beer to read a long article.

Human Stem Cells Found to Restore Memory

StemCells Inc. hopes a clinical trial of its proprietary stem cells in rodents will lead to a clinical trial with Alzheimer’s patients.

by Susan Young via Technology Review

Last week, a California biotech company announced that its human stem cells restored memory in rodents bred to have an Alzheimer’s-like condition—the first evidence that human neural stem cells can improve memory.

The company, called StemCells, is betting that its proprietary preparation of stem cells from fetal brain tissue will take on many different roles in the central nervous system. The company and its collaborators have already shown that its stem-cell product has potential in protecting vision in diseased eyes, acting as brain support cells, or improving walking ability in rodents with spinal cord injury.

This metamorphic ability is not so surprising—they are stem cells, after all. But experts say the quality of scientists involved in StemCells and the interesting properties of its cells sets the company apart. “They’ve really been steadfast in their work to get these cells into clinical trials. That is a tough road and they’ve done it,” says Larry Goldstein, a neuronal stem-cell researcher and director of UC San Diego’s stem-cell program.

The company discovered the technique to isolate these cells from brain tissue in 1999 and has since spent some $200 million improving the technology. “Now we are really in the exciting phase, because now we are looking at human clinical data, as opposed to just small animals,” says StemCells CEO Martin McGlynn.

His company is not the only group bringing stem cells into the clinic. While much attention was paid to Geron’s departure from the world’s first embryonic stem cell trial (see “Geron Shuts Down Pioneering Stem-Cell Program“), many other groups have continued to push their non-embryonic stem-cell therapies forward for leukemia, colitis, stroke, and more. Meanwhile, Advanced Cell Technology continues its U.K.-based embryonic stem-cell therapy trials for blindness. Non-embryonic stem cells can come from a variety of sources—bone marrow, blood, as well as donated aborted fetal tissue, as is the case with StemCells and Neuralstem, another company focused on neuronal stem cells. In recent years, scientists have also developed methods for turning normal adult cells into stem cells (so-called induced pluripotent stem cells), but their safety has yet to be tested in humans.

So while StemCells is not a lone wolf, it may well be a pack leader. One of StemCells’ first human studies involved a small trial of young children with a rare and fatal neurodegenerative disease called Batten disease. In 2006, the company began the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration-authorized trial of human neural stem cells at Oregon Health and Science University. Through small boreholes in the skull, a neurosurgeon implanted as many as a billion neural stem cells into different locations of the brains of six Batten patients.

The trial has since suggested that the cells are safe and integrate into the brain. At first, the children received immune system-suppressing drugs to prevent their body from rejecting the cells. But after a year, that treatment was stopped. “A big question that we had, that science had, that the FDA had, was what happens to these cells when you withdraw immunosuppression?” says McGlynn.

The treatment, however, did not rescue the children from the effects of the disease, and some have since succumbed to the disorder. Some of the parents of the children who passed away gave permission for an autopsy, enabling the scientists to see that even after one and a half years with no immunosuppression, the transplanted cells had survived. The company wanted to try the cellular therapy in children at an earlier stage of the disease, but was unable to find eligible patients at such a point in the disease course and canceled the trial.

In another small trial, the cells have shown the ability to make functional changes in the human brain. At the University of California, San Francisco, four children with a genetic disease that prevents their brains from producing myelin—the insulating sheath on neurons that is necessary for proper electrical signaling—received the cellular treatment. In StemCells’ study, three of the treated boys had small but measureable gains in neurological function, while the fourth remained stable. MRI scans indicate that the boys’ neurons have gained more myelin sheaths, which remain even after immunosuppression is removed.

The company has also initiated trials in patients with spinal-cord injuries and macular degeneration, a disease of the eye that gradually destroys central vision. Its Swiss-based trial with spinal-cord injury patients, begun in 2011 at the University of Zurich, has so far enrolled three patients, two of which have reported changes in their sensitivity to touch. These patients each received a direct transplant of 20 million stem cells into the spinal cord. Last month, the company also announced the beginning of a trial for dry age-related macular degeneration, for which there are currently no FDA-approved treatments. A trial at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest in Dallas will test stem cells in the eyes of up to 16 patients.

But even with years of solid lab animal data and promising first starts in humans, success is no guarantee. “Animals only tell you a subset,” says Goldstein. “Who knows what’s going to work for which disease. When you get to clinical trials for people, all bets are off.”