Stories tagged Scientific World View


Do you often find yourself watching those prime-time crime dramas on TV asking yourself, "Wow! I didn't know they could figure out whom the killer is based on a single carpet fiber sample found on the sidewalk outside of a crime scene! Can they really do that?!?" Well, some of the processes we see on TV may not be quick as quick and easy, or even possible compared to real life crime investigation.

Lisa Smith, of the University of Leicester School of Psychology, is doing some research to see how these portrayals of forensics on TV are affecting how jurors view forensic evidence in actual court cases. Jurors make their decisions based upon their knowledge, perceived understanding, and beliefs regarding forensic evidence. So the next time you are watching some evening television or even hear a news story regarding some forensic evidence, think twice about the validity of what you see!

Oh, and if you like, there is an online questionnaire for the study!


Take your time and think it through, guy: But don't worry about the MMR vaccine.
Take your time and think it through, guy: But don't worry about the MMR vaccine.Courtesy paul+photos=moody
Let’s be careful how we put our words together, everybody.

I mean, when I get dressed in the morning, I know that I want to get underwear, socks, pants, and at least one shirt onto my body. However, if I were to forgo all rules of dressing order and arrangement, I might give off the wrong message: i.e., I’m crazy, and possibly dangerous to be around.

Why would I take any less care with my precious, precious words?

Because I’m pretty lazy, I don’t generally read most (any) of the articles on science that I come across every day. Instead, I read only the headlines. Or, better yet, I have them read to me—that way I can rest my head on my desk while I’m taking in the news. It’s very important, then, that all headlines are clearly worded. Otherwise I could dictate a Science Buzz post that is even more factually inaccurate than my posts normally are. That’s dangerous territory.

Survey confirms parents’ fears, confusion over autism.”

I looked at that headline, saw the word “vaccine” in the body, and thought, “Oh, snap! Vaccines do cause autism?” Because, that’s what parents’ are afraid of, after all.

Nope. The existence of parents’ fear and confusion over autism is what has been confirmed here. The actual connection between vaccinations and autism remains non-existent.

A recent study found that a significant percentage of parents still believe that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine can cause autism, or are at least uncertain and fearful that such a connection does exist. This is despite the fact that scientists can establish no connection between early childhood vaccines and the development of autism.

The fear that early childhood vaccinations lead to an increased risk for autism originated from a 1998 study that linked autism to a particular mercury-based preservative in the MMR vaccine. It was later revealed that the study was based on bad research, and it was retracted by most of its authors and disowned by its publisher. In 2001, manufacturers of the MMR vaccine began removing the preservative from their vaccines anyway—and that’s probably not a bad thing, but it hasn’t led to any decrease in the occurrence of autism. And people are still worried about the vaccine anyway.

This confusion wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that the better-safe-than-sorry attitude towards not having children vaccinated has led to a resurgence in diseases that had essentially been eradicated in areas where the vaccine is available.

Science Buzz has had a lot of conversation on this subject already, and, if you’re interested, I’d recommend you check out some of the other posts on autism and vaccinations.


A big pyramid: Of pathetic, antiquated, and useless thought.
A big pyramid: Of pathetic, antiquated, and useless thought.Courtesy Pygo
Y’all know what a scientific paradigm is? Me neither. But I took a class about it once, and I seem to remember that it has something to do with the whole mindset with which we approach scientific questions. A paradigm frames how we might look at the whole of a scientific question—indeed, it doesn’t just determine how we ask questions, but what questions we ask in the first place.

When a paradigm shifts, something has occurred or been uncovered that completely changes the approach to the problem. With a new scientific paradigm, we don’t just ask questions that couldn’t be answered before, we ask questions that we never even considered before.

Let’s examine... oh, say, toilet paper. Thin. Usually white, or whitish. Used for wiping stuff. Two ply (sometimes one-ply, depending on the venue). What more can be done with it? Oh, I suppose we could make it softer somehow. Or make it rougher, maybe. Could we make it whiter? Larger squares? No, the discipline is dry; there is nothing new to be discovered in toilet paper now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

Wrong answer, chumps! How about… 3-ply toilet paper!

3-ply? 3-ply? There’s no such… Aaaaaaaaaahhhaaaaaaaaaaaahh!!!!

No, pull it together… I can get my head around this… 3-ply…Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!

Okay… Let’s just not think directly at that for a little bit.

So, “toilet paper researchers” in Wisconsin have created toilet paper that has… three layered… They’ve made two-ply toilet paper with one more ply.

It’s like the axis of the world has shifted so that it’s running right through my brain.

The new generation of toilet paper is being touted as “extra-soft,” although, industry analysts are skeptical, pointing out that an extra ply should only make TP tougher, not softer. Not to mention that it just plain seems impossible.

Nonetheless, the Wisconsin futurnauts fully intend to pursue this new three-layered science. The target market is reported to be women 45 and older who view their bathroom as a "sanctuary for quality time."

And so I salute you, 45+ female demographic. You dare what the rest of us can hardly imagine.


Hey, wait a second...: How could you ever balance one of those on a pencil? Bad science!
Hey, wait a second...: How could you ever balance one of those on a pencil? Bad science!Courtesy Matthieu ::
All y’all up on graphene?

I knew you were. You’re Buzzketeers, the best of the best, the biggest of the brains, the coolest of the cids.

There’s no need to explain graphene to this team (the Lil’ Professors), so it would be totally unnecessary for me to point out that graphene is a fancy material made of a single layer of carbon atoms attached to each other in a honeycomb pattern. It’s about as flat as can be, and when you roll it up you get those little things Science Buzz is so crazy about: carbon nanotubes.

Nanotubes are awesome, and if you click on the link above you can learn about all the awesome things they can do. But graphene…graphene itself may be pretty awesome too. The problem with testing just how awesome graphene is is that it has been exceptionally difficult to a) make a piece of graphene so small that it hasn’t got any of the imperfections that naturally come in large chunks of things, and b) make a device to actually hold the itty bitty graphene well enough to really test the stuff out.

But science has now done those things! Using a tiny sheet of perfect graphene (about 1/100s the width of a human hair) and a really tiny diamond…poker-thing (about 10 billionths of a meter wide), scientists have finally been able to find out exactly how strong graphene is.

So, how strong is it? It’s the strongest! That is to say, the strongest material measured so far. It’s about 200 times the strength of structural steel, or, says Columbia Professor James Hone, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”

This statement, of course, wins professor Hone July’s “Awesome explanation, Scientist” award. That’s a good mental image, and it shows a non-scientist like me how strong graphene is.

So…awesome explanation, Scientist! More of that, please!


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.


Enthralled science lecture crowd: Pretty soon they'll all be holding up their lighters.
Enthralled science lecture crowd: Pretty soon they'll all be holding up their lighters.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Back a century or so ago, if you didn’t feel like going out to dinner, or attending George Bernard Shaw’s latest production, you’d get all gussied up and go to…a public science lecture.

Historian Lisa Jardine has written a very interesting point-of-view piece regarding how, during the late 19th and early 20th century, science lectures at London’s Royal Institution held their own for attracting audience share.

Crowds of high-society types decked out in evening dress often filled the institute’s Faraday Theater for the celebrated lectures held there on Friday nights. One such event had Pierre Curie demonstrating his and his wife’s latest discovery, radium, before a sold-out throng of neck-craning attendees. Madame Curie was there too, seated in the front row among other distinguished scientists such as Lord Kelvin (at the time propriety and the Institution’s rules didn’t allow a woman to participate in a lecture, and Jardine goes a bit into to this, too). But the point is, the Curies were big stars and attendance was so overwhelming that for the first ever one-way streets were created to handle the carriage traffic.

The Royal Institution building - along with its celebrated Faraday lecture theatre - has been refurbished recently, and Jardine hopes that new science lectures to be held there will help re-ignite a severely lagging public interest in the field. There’s a ton more distractions out there to compete with but who knows, if done right, science demonstrations and discovery lectures could be the next big “thing to do”.

Although the Royal Institution’s mission has been "Teaching the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life", they also managed to make it enticing. After all, science can be both fun and amazing (the cryogenics demonstration put on here at the Science Museum of Minnesota still delights me even after seeing it at least 4 dozen times!)

You can read Lisa Jardine's piece here .


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.


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…


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.


I don't see any spikes at all: that a tiny flamethrower? Oh, no, it's just its little tummy.
I don't see any spikes at all: 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.