Stories tagged Scientific World View

Jul
02
2008

Who will be next to go?: The greatest loss of marine diversity is due not to habitat destruction, but clerical error.
Who will be next to go?: The greatest loss of marine diversity is due not to habitat destruction, but clerical error.Courtesy mattneighbour

No, not extinct. Just re-named. See, a species can have lots of common names -- for example, groundhog, woodchuck, marmot, ground squirrel, and annoying little beggar who keeps digging up my garden -- but only one scientific name -- in this example, Marmota monax.

But it seems the researchers who go about naming marine species got a little carried away, giving more than one scientific name to a single species. Sometimes it was an honest mistake. Sometimes it was due to individual members of the same species taking on widely different forms, fooling researchers into thinking they were separate species. And sometimes it was due to “splitters” – taxonomists who seize on any tiny difference to declare a new species.

But a new survey of all named sea creatures has found that 31% -- some 56,000 so far – are, in fact, duplications. Some invertebrate species had as many as 40 different scientific names. More duplicates are sure to be uncovered, as the project is only about half-way done.

Jun
30
2008

What does this even mean?: Science! Or, like, shower curtains? Secret cancer fat? Whatever.
What does this even mean?: Science! Or, like, shower curtains? Secret cancer fat? Whatever.Courtesy I_vow_to_you
Psyche! Y’all been duped, Buzzketeers! There ain’t no “green sex fat cancer secret”! Or maybe there is, but you’re not going to find it here. No, this is simply a lesson in critical thinking (or something like that).

But, JGordon, why would you of all people do this to us? You, who we turn to you for all that stuff we aren’t that interested in when we’ve already read all the other posts on Science Buzz. Et tu, JGordus? Et tu?

Yes, me tu, y‘all. This is part of your training. Like, remember when Luke Skywalker was learning from Yoda in the Degobah System, and Yoda would be telling him to focus his chi on some rock, and then he’d wallop Luke in the junk with his little walking stick? It was all to teach Luke to protect the jewels, even when he was focusing his chi. This is exactly like that: protect your stuff (intellectual integrity, we’ll say), even when you’re focusing your chi on some rock (i.e. trying to do some learning on the internet).

See, not so long ago, a press release was picked up by ABC (and ultimately several other news outlets) reading “Toxic ties to ‘New Shower Curtain Smell’ Evident,” or something along those lines. It was all about how shower curtains are constantly farting dozens of toxic chemicals, and it came with some pictures of a young mother holding her young baby in a bathroom (presumably to get farted on by their shower curtain?). Google it, jokers.

Some news organizations ran with it, some went about debunking the story; some people continued on with their normal lives, some people began showering out in the open, and, for some people, that was their normal life (weirdoes). Eventually, the Consumer Products Safety Commission stated that there were some serious problems with the original study’s testing methodology, and that the issue deserved some more research before people start getting too scared of their shower curtains.

Whatever the case (the authors of the study at the Center for Health Environment & Justice stand by their research), the point here is that news organizations went bonkers over the story, and people were all about it. The New York Times, then, wrote this article on the situation, pointing out that writers of press releases are well aware of the language that will get people fired up about their dumb, and perhaps questionably accurate stories. Some of the key words to snag a reader’s interest? “Green,” “sex,” “fat,” “cancer” and “secret.” Who isn’t intrigued by green sex fat cancer secrets?

It was interesting to me, too, that so many of those terms are science, or quasi science related. “Green,” sex,” “fat” and “cancer” all seem to qualify. Certainly they’re important issues, if you expand them beyond buzzwords, but some of their importance comes from their ability to get our attention. They get our attention because they’re important, but they’re important because they get our attention. It’s perhaps a worthwhile thing to consider when looking at what science developments are getting a lot of notice in the press, and eventually in public policy. What I’m getting at is this: write your representative and tell her or him to vote “no” on the Fat green cancer/secret sex initiative (prop 401). We don’t need that added to our water.

Jun
16
2008

Silent and sinister, they sneak up and attack when you least expect. It's ... the TREES!: Wait a minute…didn’t I see this same plot in Day of the Triffids?
Silent and sinister, they sneak up and attack when you least expect. It's ... the TREES!: Wait a minute…didn’t I see this same plot in Day of the Triffids?Courtesy sjarvinen

OK, so I, like, never go to movies. Nine bucks for the pleasure of driving for miles, sticking to someone else’s timetable, buying over-priced popcorn, sitting through previews, and crowding into a dark, poorly-ventilated fire trap with a bunch of loud strangers? I fail to see the appeal. Unless the movie features a truly spectacular acting talent, such as Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Aniston. Then I’m all over it. Otherwise, I’ll just wait for the DVD.

And that goes double for science fiction. Is there a more useless genre? Science is fascinating precisely because it’s true. I walk into a sci-fi flick, and within five minutes I can actually feel myself, everyone around me, and the entire Universe, getting dumber.

(I may be the only person in America who has never seen even one of the Star Wars films, and have not even the slightest desire to ever do so. If that makes me a better person than everyone else, I can live with that.)

Well, apparently there’s this film out now called The Happening, in which trees decide to rebel against mankind by emitting poison gas or something. I probably should have said “Spoiler Alert” up there, but, seriously, I’m doing you a favor by discouraging you from wasting your money on this dreck.

Anyway, a bunch of scientists with a selfless love of humanity and far stronger stomachs than I have viewed this alleged “film” and reported back on five major scientific flaws, which, with any luck, will spoil the film for everyone for all time.

To which the critical mind responds: "Only five?"

Meanwhile, the magazine The New Republic ignores the science and looks at the moral world of the movie and declares it the most reprehensible film they’ve ever seen.

Though Zooey Deschanel is kinda cute…

Jun
01
2008

Another dismal post about the dismal science.

Today, we look at The Copenhagen Consensus. A group of economists are presented with a thought experiment: let’s say you had $75 billion to spend on solving one of the world’s problems – how would you allocate your funds?

Economists, being the dismal people that they are, take no account of what is “moral” or “right” or what “ought” to be done. They just try to figure out where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Their answer? Micronutirents for kids. Providing vitamin A and zinc to 80 percent of the 140 million children who lack them would provide almost $17 in health benefits for every dollar invested.

Other items in the top ten:

  1. Micronutirents for kids
  2. Expanding free trade
  3. Fortifying foods with iron and salt
  4. Expanding immunization coverage of children
  5. Biofortification
  6. Deworming
  7. Lowering the price of schooling
  8. Increasing girls' schooling
  9. Community-based nutrition promotion
  10. Support for women's reproductive roles

The majority of the most-efficient solutions deal with health, thus proving the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The least-efficient proposal was a plan to mitigate global warming. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling noted that that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits.

Economist Richard Nordhaus, in his book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, draws a similar conclusion. Projects to massively reduce greenhouse gases end up costing more than they deliver—in some cases, many trillions of dollars more. OTOH, investing in alternative energy (wind, solar, etc.) and bio-engineering can produce great results for the amount spent on them.

The economists at Copenhagen felt funding research and development of low-carbon energy technologies was worthwhile, and ranked it 14th out of the 30 proposals they considered.

Other items at the bottom of the priorities list are proposals to reduce air pollution by cutting emissions from diesel vehicles; a tobacco tax; improved stoves to reduce indoor air pollution; and extending microfinance. These are not necessarily bad ideas. It’s just that other proposals provide more bang for the 75 billion bucks.

May
22
2008

I don't see any spikes at all: Wait...is that a tiny flamethrower? Oh, no, it's just its little tummy.
I don't see any spikes at all: Wait...is that a tiny flamethrower? Oh, no, it's just its little tummy.Courtesy rcoder
Well, I think robots should be scarier, anyway. And I mean classically, empirically scarier. A robot shouldn’t get a press release unless it could be nicknamed “crusher,” or “mecha-death,” or “slaughterbot.” Some crap like that, anyway. Even if a robot’s sole purpose is to, say, drop eggs into a carton, it should still have a buzz saw arm installed on it. For the sake of appearances.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t scary robots out there. There are scary robots out there, very scary robots, but they’re full of the wrong kind of scary. Check out this little dude. For those of you who can’t access links, or something, here’s the dope: we’ve got a horrible little robo-creature that makes me think Casper the friendly ghost has been having sex with Volkswagen Beetles. iCub is what they call it, which is short for “iCub is designed to lay eggs in your mouth and burst out of your chest. iCub!” Ostensibly it’s designed to learn human language from the ground up, like a human baby, but look at the thing: those big eyes already have language, and they’re saying “I can’t wait to get my ovipositor down your esophagus.” Brrr.

No, I’ll take the T1000 over that any day.

Or, here, we have a little robot that was clearly designed to relate to its human coworkers. How can you look at a face like that and not think, “Oh, here’s something I can talk to.”? You can’t. But this robot will keep staring at you long after the interaction becomes uncomfortable, and then it will whisper things to you, like how it knows where you sleep, and how sad you’d be if something happened to your dog. Don’t argue—I’ve seen the schematics.

Now, with the new generation of walking robots we’re just starting to move in the right direction. Not this little guy, obviously. Robots that are just learning to walk should try to take attention away from the fact that they can barely do something that I’ve been able to do by myself for, like, ten years. The little MIT robot (linked to above), however, looks like something I might “accidentally” back over with my car. Whoops! Back to the drawing board.

A new robot out of the Netherlands seems to be stumbling towards where I want my robots. The name, “Flame,” needs some focus grouping, but it has potential, despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, there is no actual flame involved in the machine. It’s head looks sort of flamey, but they again so do teardrops. : (

Flame is upright, however, and approaching human size, both good signs. Again, though, its sole purpose is learning how to walk smoothly, which isn’t super scary. Unlike the stumpy shamble of man y other walking robots, Flame employs the human walking style of “falling forward in a controlled fashion” (how’s that for a metaphor for life). The hope is that Flame will provide insight on the mechanics of human walking; that it might aid in treatment and rehabilitation in people who already have leg injuries. Ironic, really. Not because humans should be teaching robots to walk, but because robots should be crushing their human creators, not teaching them how to walk. What a funny world.

Still, we can always dream.

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
17
2008

The mouse knows why: But she's not telling.
The mouse knows why: But she's not telling.Courtesy d ha rm e sh
News broke this week that the Kremlin guard—the security service of the Russian government—has been looking to acquire 3,200 female mice.

Why? They aren’t saying. “If [the mice] were ordered then that means they are needed,” was all a Kremlin guard official would reveal. That, at least, is a relief. I’d hate to think what they’d do with all those mice if they didn’t need them.

Some Russia/mice enthusiasts guess that the mice may be intended for feeding the Kremlin’s falcons, which are kept to scare off crows from the government seat. Others think that the rodents will be used to test toxic chemicals, or as indicators for the presence of dangerous gases. I am inclined to believe that the Kremlin is simply attempting to corner the world mouse market.

It was revealed Friday that the Kremlin has already found a mouse supplier, and will be paying approximately $20,000 for the rodents.

Strange plans are afoot, Buzzketeers. Any thoughts on just what they might be?

Mar
05
2008

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

  • Malaria is both preventable and curable.
  • A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds.
  • More than one million people die of malaria every year, mostly infants, young children and pregnant women and most of them in Africa.

A recent article in the NY Times discussed if it is possible to eliminate malaria. They need more money, better health systems and a vaccine. Some experts feel the big push to eradicate malaria is counterproductive or even dangerous. Dr. Arata Kochi, the W.H.O. malaria chief stated in the article that, “… enough money, current tools like nets, medicines and DDT could drive down malaria cases 90 percent. But eliminating the last 10 percent is a tremendous task and very expensive.” He doesn’t want people to have false hope.

A new vaccine
In spite of the debate, research is progressing to reach the goal of eliminating malaria. The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI) is home to one of the largest malaria research programs in the United States. SBRI's Malaria Program is focused on vaccine discovery for malaria during pregnancy, severe malaria in children and liver-stage malaria. SBRI scientists are working on a vaccine that uses genetic engineering to render malaria parasites harmless. According to an article in the Seattle Times SBRI is looking for volunteers to be bitten by malaria-infected mosquitoes to aid in the quest for new vaccines and drugs. Scientists will analyze blood from the human volunteers to learn more about the body's immune response to the disease.

What do we do?
Economists believe that malaria is responsible for a ‘growth penalty’ of up to 1.3% per year in some African countries. When compounded over the years, this penalty leads to substantial differences in GDP between countries with and without malaria and severely restrains the economic growth of the entire region. Malaria costs Africa $12 billion every year in lost productivity alone.

What do you think? Where should we be putting our resources?

  • Developing a vaccine (the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation alone has spent $258 million
  • More money to distribute long-lasting insecticidal nets (each net costs $5-7)
  • Mosquito control with indoor residual spraying like DDT (costs nearly $4 per person)
  • Getting effective drug treatments to the infected (effective therapy costs $2.40 for a round of treatment)
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.