Stories tagged Scientific Inquiry

Jun
11
2008

Why, I’m feeling improved cognition and creativity already!: Now we have scientific proof -- looking at scantily-clad young women makes men smarter.  And hungrier, somehow.
Why, I’m feeling improved cognition and creativity already!: Now we have scientific proof -- looking at scantily-clad young women makes men smarter. And hungrier, somehow.Courtesy Roro Fernandez

So, what’s the opposite of “the dismal science”?

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that men, after receiving a sexual stimulus – touching lingerie or even just seeing a woman in a bikini – seek immediate gratification.

Why can’t I ever get chosen for research like this?

(The lingerie, the report is quick to point out, was “not being worn during the test.” Still – dude – awesome methodology!)

Now, what’s all this about “immediate gratification”? I mean, we’ve all seen There’s Something About Mary, right? Well, get your minds out of the gutter, people. What they mean is, aroused men are more likely to try to satisfy any appetite – food, alcohol, money, whatever is at hand. So to speak.

To which men everywhere are saying “You paid how much to figure that out?”

It all has to do with the appetite centers in the brain. Seems it’s all one big giant Id. Once it’s aroused by some stimulus, the man seeks to satisfy it any way he can.

To which women everywhere are saying, “No duh.”

Apparently, the smell of fresh baked bread has the same effect, which would explain why you see so many pie shops right next door to strip clubs.

A group of test subjects tragically misinterprets the research findings: All in the name of science, I'm sure.
A group of test subjects tragically misinterprets the research findings: All in the name of science, I'm sure.Courtesy avlxyz

But, most interesting of all, we find, buried in the article, never explained, never elaborated upon, this little gem:

It wasn't that the men were simply distracted by their sexual arousal, which caused them to choose more impulsively. On the contrary, they exhibited improved cognition and creativity after exposure to sexy stimuli.

While this does not comport with the stupid pick-up lines one hears in bars every night of the week, nevertheless, there it is. I mean, this is science, right? Looking at pretty girls actually makes men smarter! Therefore, we should view beer commercials and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, not as crass attempts to move product by appealing to hard-wired neurological instincts, but rather as a public service, a selfless effort to increase intellectual activity and creative achievement by stimulating men’s brains.

But no. That’s not what the liberal media wants you to hear. Men bad. Men can’t control urges. Men barely better than animals. So what we get are prurient headlines, lascivious photos, and sly innuendo like “seek immediate gratification,” wink wink. Why, it’s enough to…

Gutter. Out. Now!

May
23
2008

Linnaeus at 68
Linnaeus at 68Courtesy Alexander Roslin; Royal Science Academy of Sweden
The Writer's Almanac reminds us that Carl Linnaeus was born 301 years ago today. Carl Linnaeus established the practice of using a unique set of two Latin terms to name a species, which became the common scientific naming system that we still use today.

The Almanac writes:

He was a botanist. He taught at universities. At a time when Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe, Linnaeus set out to import exotic plants and animals, hoping they could be raised for profit in Sweden. He hoped to raise tea and coffee, ginger, coconuts, silkworms.
......
His botanical experiments failed. The tea plants died. The coffee didn't make it in Sweden, and neither did ginger or coconuts or cotton. Rhubarb did though, and Linnaeus, late in his life, said the introduction of rhubarb to Sweden was his proudest achievement. But today we remember him for his contribution to taxonomy.

Oddly enough, I ate a rhubarb tart in celebration of a friend's birthday last night. I like to think it was in honor of good ol' Linné as well.

via Erin

May
20
2008

Focus, kiddo: By about number 18, it can be difficult for mouth and glass to match up, but what are you? A quitter? A little kid?
Focus, kiddo: By about number 18, it can be difficult for mouth and glass to match up, but what are you? A quitter? A little kid?Courtesy ian boyd
You know, I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time I get a PhD. I can’t see a downside to it: I could hang the certificate in my kitchen, maybe look into a professorship, and—until I get knighted—Doctor Gordon has a nice ring to it.

I was concerned for some time that there might be too much work and original thought required (I don’t enjoy either), but certain evidence makes me think that that might not be a huge factor.

Anyway, maybe I’ll sleep on it.

In other news, it turns out that boys and girls drink too much on their 21st birthdays.

Whoa! I screwed that up! What I meant to say was: Buckle up, Buzzketeers, because we now know that young people binge drink immediately after binge drinking becomes a legal option!

How could we possibly know this? Because if we know one thing about drunks, it’s that they are quiet and they keep to themselves. So how do we know? No, you’re wrong. We know because researchers at the University of Missouri figured it out. They cracked the code! Feel free to read this multiple times at your own pace, but the findings basically break down as follows: 1) Many college students drink to excess on their 21st birthdays; and 2) This can potentially jeopardize their health.

“This study provides the first empirical evidence that 21st birthday drinking is a pervasive custom in which binge drinking is the norm,” says the study’s lead author, a PhD holder. “This is my chair,” she continued. “I can sit on it, as can other people, assuming I am not already occupying it. Over here is the refrigerator, which keeps food cold. As you can see, many perishable items can be stored within the “fridge” for an extended period of time—hey, why didn’t the little light come on? Oh, I see, the little light bulb is burned out.”

Of the students surveyed, 34 percent of men and 24 percent of women reported consuming 21 alcoholic beverages or more on their 21st birthdays. The maximum number of drinks for women was 30, and 50 for men—awfully impressive, in a 21-year-old alcoholic kind of way. I don’t think I could drink 50 shots of water. But, were I drinking dozens of shots of water, I could probably be relied upon to count them accurately. And I would, because that’s something I would brag about.

Dude, I drank so much last night. Like, I need a new filter for my water pitcher. I was peeing for, like, hours.

Apr
25
2008

Death boat, but not murder boat: New medical testing done on remains from two women's bodies found in this Viking burial boat -- the Oseberg ship -- show no signs of foul play or murder. The ship is now on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.
Death boat, but not murder boat: New medical testing done on remains from two women's bodies found in this Viking burial boat -- the Oseberg ship -- show no signs of foul play or murder. The ship is now on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.Courtesy flappingwings
It took more than 100 years of research, but modern technology has been used to determine that injuries found on a woman in a Viking burial were not the result of murder.

The young woman is one of two people buried in the Oseberg ship, an ornamental craft measuring 72-feet long that was found in 1904 buried under a huge mound in Norway.

It’s believed that the ship was the burial chamber for a Viking queen, the other body found in the excavation. The younger woman had evidence of fractures on her collarbone, initially leading researchers to think she was the queen’s attendant who was also killed at the time of the queen’s death to serve her in the afterlife. The burial boat also contained a slain dog, other animals and a collection of household goods and furniture that were thought to be needed for the queen to continue her regal life in the afterworld.

Through closer inspection of the women’s bones, a little bit clearer picture is starting to emerge about their story. The younger woman, who was around age 50, indeed had a broken collarbone at the time of the burial, but it also showed several weeks worth of healing. So the impact that caused the collar to crack didn’t likely occur at the time of the older woman’s death. Also, the older woman, about age 80, was suffering from a form of cancer based on evidence collected from her bones. The women died in the year 834.

Researchers also think that they both might have achieved high status in Viking culture. While that was known for the queen based on her elaborate burial, new data collected from the younger woman show that she had a diet rich in meat (lower class Vikings ate mainly fish) and that she used a metal toothpick to clean her teeth, something that was only available to upper-class Vikings.

Still, a lot more questions than answers remain about the situation, researchers add.

Apr
15
2008

Hurricanes and global warming: The debate over their connection continues.
Hurricanes and global warming: The debate over their connection continues.Courtesy NASA

In 2005, Dr. Kerry Emmanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper claiming there was a link between rising global temperatures and increases in hurricane strength.

This year, Dr. Emmanuel has published another paper in which he reconsiders the evidence. He found that the models used to predict hurricane activity were not matching up with what was happening in the real world. The link between hurricanes and global warming may not be as strong as originally suspected, or may not exist at all.

This is precisely how science is supposed to work – examining evidence, coming up with theories to explain the evidence, testing those theories, and adjusting the theories if necessary.

In another three years, Emmanual may write another paper showing that he was right the first time. Or that the whole hurricane-warming link is a dead end. Or perhaps some other conclusion. But the important thing is to keep looking, and to report honestly what you find.

As economist John Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” A good approach to any debate.

Mar
30
2008

Graphene potentially 100x better than silicon

Graphene computer chips: The slightly darker purple area is the graphene, and the lighter purple is the substrate material (SiO2/Si).
Graphene computer chips: The slightly darker purple area is the graphene, and the lighter purple is the substrate material (SiO2/Si).Courtesy S. Cho and M. S. Fuhrer, University of Maryland
Graphene could replace silicon as the material of choice for many applications like high-speed computer chips and biochemical sensors.

Michael Fuhrer in a paper published online in Nature Nanotechnology explains that in graphene, the intrinsic limit to the mobility, a measure of how well a material conducts electricity, is higher than any other known material at room temperature.

If other extrinsic factors that limit mobility in graphene, such as impurities and lattice vibrations in the substrate on which graphene sits, could be eliminated, the intrinsic mobility in graphene would be more than 100 times higher than silicon.

The low resistivity and extremely thin nature of graphene makes it ideal for applications like touch screens, photovoltaic cells, and chemical and biochemical sensors. The research group was led by principal investigator Michael Fuhrer of the University of Maryland's Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials and the Maryland NanoCenter.

Better than silver or gold

Fuhrer said the electrical current in graphene is carried by only a few electrons moving much faster than the electrons in a metal like silver.

"Our current samples of graphene are fairly 'dirty' due to some extraneous sources of resistivity,"
"Once we remove that dirt, graphene, at room temperature, should have about 35 percent less resistivity than silver, the lowest resistivity material known at room temperature."

Roadmap for progress

Because graphene is only one atom thick, current samples must sit on a substrate, in this case silicon dioxide. The electron mobility within the graphene is effected by the substrate. Trapped electrical charges in the silicon dioxide (a sort of atomic-scale dirt) and vibrations of the silicon dioxide atoms can also have an effect on the graphene which are stronger than the effect of graphene's own atomic vibrations.

"We believe that this work points out the importance of these extrinsic effects, and creates a roadmap for finding better substrates for future graphene devices in order to reduce the effects of charged impurity scattering and remote interfacial phonon scattering." Fuhrer said.

Source:University of Maryland news release

Mar
27
2008

Science marches on: Members of B.U.G., the Beer Users Group, meet to discuss important issues of the day.
Science marches on: Members of B.U.G., the Beer Users Group, meet to discuss important issues of the day.Courtesy mrlerone

Does drinking beer impede scientific progress? Say it ain’t so! But a study published in a Czech journal indicates that the more beer a scientist drinks, the fewer papers they will publish, and the lower quality those papers will be. Given that most scientific discoveries – heck, most human endeavor in any field – is fueled by fermented barley and hops, this came as quite a surprise, and threatened to shake the scientific community to its very foundation.

Fortunately, Chris Mack, a chemical engineer in Austin, Texas, read the paper and found several flaws. First, he reminds us that correlation is not causation – just because two phenomena appear together does not prove that one caused the other. Second, he feels that the sample size in the study is small. But most of all, he notes that the weak correlation between beer drinking and poor publication comes almost entirely from a handful of scientists at the bottom of the scale. Eliminate them from the study, and the rest of the sample shows almost no correlation. As Mack states,

“[T]he entire study came down to only one conclusion: the five worst ornithologists in the Czech Republic drank a lot of beer.”

Our faith in the scientific method restored, we can all sleep easier tonight.

Mar
07
2008

Sometimes it’s best to just let the door close.: Keeping your options open entails some very real costs--sometimes more than the option is worth.
Sometimes it’s best to just let the door close.: Keeping your options open entails some very real costs--sometimes more than the option is worth.Courtesy George Karamanis

“Keep your options open.” Sounds like good advice, right? Turns out, it has hidden costs.

Professors Dan Ariely and Jiwoong Shin at MIT ran an experiment to test rational behavior. Test subjects played a computer game. On the screen were three doors. If they clicked on a door, it opened. Click on it a second time, and a number would appear, and they would earn that much money. Click on a different door and it opens, but the first door closes. Some doors had higher average payoffs than others. The object of the game is to get as much money as you can in 100 total clicks. (You can play the game—without the money, sorry—here.)

Obviously, the winning strategy is to find the door that pays the best, and then keep clicking on it. But then the evil professors threw a curve. They presented a second version of the game, where the doors shrank and eventually disappeared if you didn’t click on them. Subjects would waste clicks keeping the lower-paying doors from disappearing. On average, they earned 15% less for the privilege of keeping their options open.

Ariely and Shin hypothesize that players kept the less-valuable doors open, even though it cost them money, to avoid the pain of losing the door forever. We all hate to lose things. But sometimes the cost of keeping them around is more than they are worth. The game is a good lesson in the value of just letting things go.

Feb
20
2008

Researchers at Yale School of Medicine developed a blood test with enough sensitivity and specificity to detect early stage ovarian cancer with 99 percent accuracy.

Why is this important?
Ovarian cancer is (from the United States Cancer Statistics):

  • the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death in women in the United States
  • the leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths
  • one-tenth as common as breast cancer but three times more lethal
  • carries a 1:70 lifetime risk

The high rate of death due to ovarian cancer is a result of the lack of a good screening strategy to detect early stage disease. There is currently no proven screening test for ovarian cancer – no mammogram or Pap smear equivalent. It is this reason that women must become extremely diligent about understanding symptoms and talking with their doctors. Additionally, this makes ovarian cancer difficult to diagnose. The Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance and the Centers for Disease Control have more information about ovarian cancer.

What’s the test?
The researches looked at six different proteins in the blood of 362 healthy controls and 156 newly diagnosed ovarian cancer patients. Four of the proteins are related to the normal physiology of the ovaries and the levels of these proteins are maintained by a delicate balance in the body. They hypothesize that the abnormal or cancer cells alter this delicate balance producing the atypical amounts in the blood. They are not necessarily factors that are produced by the tumor (like the additional two proteins) but represent the body’s response to the cancer. The researchers go on to propose that significant levels of the tumor's products (the additional two proteins studied) could only be detected in the blood at later stages of tumor development. Therefore based on this study the protein panel identified can detect early stages of the disease.

Conclusion
This study was a phase II study – meaning more testing is needed. This test is better then the only currently available test, CA-125. The use of this test will enhance the potential of treating ovarian cancer in its early stages and therefore, increases the successful treatment of the disease (Vistintin et. al. Clin Cancer Res 2008:14(4) February 15, 2008). But it still isn’t good enough to use as screening test for the general population. The researchers for this study have begun a phase III evaluation in a multi-center clinical trial. In collaboration with EDRN/NCI and Laboratories Corporation of America (LabCorp), they are testing close to 2,000 patients (Yale news release).

Feb
12
2008

Since 1998 there has been a serious public health problem in South East Asia of counterfeit antimalarial drugs containing no or minimal amounts of the active antimalarial ingredient, this has led to deaths from untreated malaria, reduced confidence in this vital drug, created large economic losses for the legitimate manufacturers, and led to concerns that this antimalarial drug might cause resistance. As the situation continues to deteriorate, a group of police, criminal analysts, chemists, palynologists (people who study pores, pollen and certain algae), and health workers collaborated to determine the source of these counterfeits.

What did they find?
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.Courtesy cdc
They analyzed a total of 391 samples of genuine and counterfeit artesunate (the anti-malarial drug) collected in Vietnam (75), Cambodia (48), Lao PDR (115), Myanmar (Burma) (137) and the Thai/Myanmar border (16). They found sixteen different fake types of the drug. High-performance liquid chromatography and/or mass spectrometry confirmed that all specimens thought to be counterfeit (195/391, 49.9%) contained no or small quantities of artesunate (up to 12 mg per tablet as opposed to ∼ 50 mg per genuine tablet). Chemical analysis demonstrated a wide diversity of wrong active ingredients, including banned pharmaceuticals, such as metamizole, and safrole, a carcinogen, and raw material for manufacture of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘ecstasy'). Evidence from chemical, mineralogical, biological, and packaging analysis suggested that at least some of the counterfeits were manufactured in southeast People's Republic of China. This evidence prompted the Chinese Government to act quickly against the criminal traders with arrests and seizures. Go to PLoS Medicine for the full scientific article and a very well written editor’s summary.

What Do these Findings Mean?
From the PLoS editor’s summary…
The results were crucial in helping the authorities establish the origin of the fake artesunate. For example, the authors identified two regional clusters where the counterfeit tablets appeared to be coming from, thus flagging a potential manufacturing site or distribution network. The presence of wrong active pharmaceutical ingredients (such as the older antimalarial drugs) suggested the counterfeiters had access to a variety of active pharmaceutical ingredients. The presence of safrole, a precursor to the illicit drug ecstasy, suggested the counterfeits may be coming from factories that manufacture ecstasy. And the identification of minerals indigenous to certain regions also helped identify the counterfeits' origin. The researchers concluded that at least some of the counterfeit artesunate was coming from southern China. The Secretary General of INTERPOL presented the findings to the Chinese government, which then carried out a criminal investigation and arrested individuals alleged to have produced and distributed the counterfeit artesunate.
The collaboration between police, public health workers and scientists on combating fake artesunate is unique, and provides a model for others to follow. However, the authors note that substantial capacity in forensic analysis and the infrastructure to support collaborations between these different disciplines are needed.