Courtesy COPUSThe Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) kicked off Year of Science 2009 (YoS2009) -- a national, yearlong, grassroots celebration--this week in Boston at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. COPUS, which represents more than 500 organizations, is celebrating how science works, who scientists are, and why science matters.
YoS2009 participants—museums, federal agencies, K–12 schools, universities, scientific societies, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations from all 50 states and 13 countries—will host events in celebration of YoS2009. Regionally connected YoS2009 participants are bringing science to their local communities in innovative ways. To learn about YoS2009 events near you click here.
A special web site will help the general public learn more about this yearlong, national event. Highlights from the dynamic YoS2009 Web site include the integration of components from the newly launched Understanding Science web site, Flat Stanley explorations of science, the opportunity to name a new species of jellyfish or adopt a species for the Encyclopedia of Life, and a contest to build the most scientific pizza.
All of these events and activities foster innovative new partnerships that will bring science and the public closer together locally, regionally, and nationally—all in a growing celebration of science!
Forty years ago the crew of Apollo 8 delivered a live, televised Christmas Eve broadcast after becoming the first humans to orbit another space body.
"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth," Lovell said. Wired
Speaking of famous Christmas eve broadcasts, it's worth remembering that Reginald Fessenden made what is generally recognized as the first public voice-over-radio broadcast on Dec. 24, 1906.
Courtesy Michael Dunn Pope Benedict XVI chose today's winter solstice to remark that the 400th anniversary of Galileo's use of a telescope is soon upon us. Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for supporting Nicholas Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized, saying that the denunciation was a tragic error.
Benedict said understanding the laws of nature can stimulate understanding and appreciation of the Lord's works. Newsvine
2009 has been designated International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I recommend checking out the International Year of Astronomy website for news and events.
The vision of IYA2009 is to help people rediscover their place in the Universe through the sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery.
The first presentation, “Mesopotamia: The Beginning of Civilization,” will focus on the archaeology and cultural history of Iraq. It will take place on Wednesday, November 12 from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in Sundin Music Hall, on Hamline University’s Saint Paul campus.
The second presentation, “Looting of the Iraq Museum: The Loss of a Nation’s Memory,” will focus on the status of the Iraqi museum, the restitution of antiquities from other countries, and the ongoing looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites. A panel discussion will follow. It will also take place on November 12. It will be held from 6:00-8:30 p.m. at the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.
Both events are free and open to the public. More information about the events can be found here.
Courtesy bryankennedyFollowing the results of an evaluation by a panel of experts at the University of Minnesota, the magazine New Scientist published an article last week announcing that some of the data used in a groundbreaking study on adult stem cells had been falsified.
The study, performed at the University of Minnesota under the supervision of Catherine Verfaillie, is part of a line of research that seemed to indicate that adult stem cells, taken from bone marrow, are pluripotent—that is that they have the potential to develop into any type of cell. Previously, only embryonic stem cells were thought to be pluripotent, and Verfaillie’s research looked like it could eventually offer an alternative to the ethically complicated use of embryonic cells for research (which requires the destruction of an embryo).
Unfortunately, other scientists had trouble replicating Verfaillie’s results, which were published in the journal Nature. New Scientist began examining the research done by Verfaillie and her team, and found that key images in the research appeared several times in papers for different experiments, and, in the case of a related study in the publication Blood, were used twice in the same paper, but had been visually altered slightly, and flipped 180 degrees. New Scientist reported their findings to the University, which began a formal investigation of the matter.
The University just recently completed the investigation, and found that data in the blood article had indeed been falsified (the images in particular), by a former PhD student of Verfaillies’, Morayma Reyes. The University and Catherine Verfaillie have asked Blood to redact the study.
Verfaillie has stated that she was unaware of the problems with the published study, and while she didn’t believe that the data was deliberately falsified, she takes ultimate responsibility for the errors.
Reyes, who now works as an assistant professor at the University of Washington, denies that the images represent deliberately altered data, and blames the errors on inadequate supervision and training. She claims that she had neither the equipment (photo editing software) nor knowledge required to alter the images. The differences in the reoccurring images were likely the result of the inadvertent use of the image adjusting tools built into lab equipment, she says, and the duplication of a figure within the Blood paper was accidental. Reyes also feels that she has been treated unfairly by the University, and that the expert panel in the investigation demonstrated a clear “lack of expertise” in the field of stem cell biology.
The altered images, Reyes asserts, shouldn’t change the results of the paper, but the whole incident brings up some interesting issues on the process of vetting science. While the errors in the paper never should have made it past Verfaillie and the rest of her team, the process of peer review should have caught them anyway. Generally, before research is published in a scientific journal, the editors select several scientists in the particular field of the paper to evaluate and comment (often anonymously) on the paper. The review panel is meant to confirm that the methodology of the experiments and the interpretation of the results are sound. Research can then be recommended (or not) for publication.
Publishing research essentially formally submits it to the scientific community, and it’s common for other scientists to attempt to replicate experiments, especially if a study makes particularly striking claims (like adult stem cells being pluripotent). The work of other scientists in replicating results is, obviously, essential to the scientific method—in this case is was what finally drew attention to some of the irregularities in Verfaillie’s team’s work.
Reproducibility can be a tricky thing, though—difficulty in repeating results doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t reproducible. (Here’s a good article on repeating and reproducing results.) But the problems in reproducing these results drew attention to the questionable data, which brought up another aspect of scientific vetting: the University’s investigation into academic misconduct. If the problems with reproducibility seem to come from data being changed, added, or omitted to strengthen a conclusion, then there could be a serious problem. This sort of misconduct undermines scientific progress, and can call into question the reputation of the institution it came out of and the validity of other research performed there. And if Morayma Reyes seems a little extra defensive in her letter, it’s understandable, because being accused of academic misconduct is a big deal, and no good for your career and future work.
The subject of the research further complicates the situation—this isn’t the first time issues of academic dishonesty have come up with regards to stem cell research. In 2006, a Korean scientist’s claims that he had cloned human embryos (thereby eliminating the need to destroy new embryos for stem cells) turned out to be based on lies. There’s a fear that the potentially huge medical payoff of stem cell research, as well as the ethical debate surrounding the use of human embryonic stem cells, could lead to science that is less than completely thorough, or even situations like the Korean controversy. And that’s bad for science in general. There’s also the thought that errors that are unintentional (as may be the case with Reyes’ images) could be the result of “pathological science,” where results are steered in a particular direction by scientists because of “subjective effects, wishful thinking, or threshold interactions.” It doesn’t have the same ethical problems, but pathological results aren’t a whole lot better for science than straight-out misconduct, and it’s a serious potential pitfall with the benefits of stem cell research waiting out there as temptations.
So there you go. It looks like things are, for the most part, being handled appropriately in this situation, but it’s an interesting window into scientific process.
Any thoughts? Does it seem like the vetting process of science is lacking in some way? Or is it maybe too thorough? Professor Reyes, I imagine, would argue that too much has been made of this situation, and there are many who argue that the process of peer review limits the communication and dissemination of scientific ideas.
Or, even better, does it seem like I got something wrong here?
Let’s have it, Buzzketeers.
Courtesy Julia Margaret CameronI believe I have mentioned this film before - but have you ever seen the documentary "Flock of Dodo's"? It is a well made (imho) film that creatively and sometimes humorously, discusses the evolution vs. intelligent design debate. The thing that I find most interesting about this film is that it shows something that I think is important. While I may think people who support intelligent design or creationism are wrong, many scientists who argue with them act like uppity jerks. Its not likely a debate one side is going to "win" but we can all at least accept that and be civil.
Now, if you want to be ready to argue for evolution, Scientific American has put together a nice little web feature that covers the topics of creationism in the classroom, a state by state breakdown of the creationism in schools controversy, 15 answers to creationist nonsense (again, could be a bit less harsh in the language here) and a discussion about how scientists ought to approach religion and its followers.
CSI: The Experience will open here at SMM on October 15.
One aspect of crime scene investigation is forensic entomology: the use of insects found on or near a body to help determine the time, manner, and location of death.
And we're fortunate that Valerie Cervenka, the first female board certified forensic entomologist, lives here in St. Paul. She's our Scientist on the Spot right now, so you can read about her work and get her answers to your questions.
And, Buzzketeers, do we have something "special" for you... Lots of forensic entomology studies are done using pigs, because (according to Jessica Snyder Sach's Corpse:
"The soft, near-hairless skin of a domestic pig closely duplicates that of a human, and that the torso of a luau-size porker parallels that of a 160-pound man."
Courtesy Liza Pryor
That is, the skin, muscle/fat ratio, and other characteristics of pigs are reasonably good approximations of humans'. In death, what happens to a pig, and when, is pretty similar to what happens to human corpses. (If you think that's unpalatable, consider that the other way we can calibrate insect evidence is to do controlled studies at places like Tennessee's "Body Farm," where researchers observe what happens to people instead of pigs. You can search Buzz for the term "body farm" if you're interested in that: we've done a few stories.)
So we've obtained a young pig. (Don't worry: the pig died of natural causes.) And we've put it in a cage, with a webcam, and we're letting it decompose. The camera records a still image every 15 seconds, and we'll eventually turn all those photos into a time lapse, which Val Cervenka will help us interpret. Pretty cool. Pretty gross. And all in the interest of science.
Why didn't we wait for the exhibit? Well, insect activity slows dramatically or even drops off to nothing once the outside temperature gets to about 50 degrees. To follow the pig through most of its stages of decomposition, we had to get it going now.
Want to see what's going on with the decomposing pig right now? Click here. But don't say we didn't warn you. It's graphic.
We're back in business here at the Science Museum (although the building is still closed to the public until next Friday), just in time to report some good news.
The CDC reported yesterday that 77.4% of US children between the ages of 19 months and three years received all their recommended vaccinations in 2007. That's a slight improvement over the 2006 statistic. There are big regional variations in coverage, and children living below the poverty line are slightly less likely to be fully vaccinated, but overall less than 1% of US kids received no immunizations at all.
What are the recommended shots?
Some folks don't vaccinate their kids--particularly against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)--because they worry that the vaccine is linked to autism. That theory has been debunked many times, in many countries, but it persists. On Wednesday, researchers from Columbia University and the CDC offered up another study showing zero causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism (or gastrointestinal problems.) So kids, roll up your sleeves at those back-to-school physicals and get your shots. It sucks, but it beats getting measles.
On the other hand, evidence is mounting to show that flu shots don't work well to protect people over 70. Older people have a lesser immune response to the vaccine and don't develop as much immunity. But the very old and the very young also account for the highest number of flu deaths. So what to do? According to the NT Times article:
"Dr. Simonsen, the epidemiologist at George Washington, said the new research made common-sense infection-control measures — like avoiding other sick people and frequent hand washing — more important than ever. Still, she added, “The vaccine is still important. Thirty percent protection is better than zero percent.”
Another way to protect the elderly is to vaccinate preschoolers. Not only are they likely to pick up the flu before other members of the family, but there's some evidence that preschoolers are actually the drivers of annual influenza outbreaks. Stop the flu in young kids, and you might just stop it for everyone else, too.
Courtesy Library of CongressProtect your grills, everybody, because the future is looking to get all up in them again!
Well, not all the world. Just the parts with computers and access to the Internet, and just those people who know and care that the Dead Sea Scrolls are available for public study. So not all the world at all.
The first of the scrolls were discovered accidentally in a cave in the West Bank by a goatherd in 1947. Over the next thirty years, more scrolls—about 1000 documents in total—were found in 11 caves in the area. The documents include texts from the Hebrew Bible, dating to before 100 AD. The scrolls are also reported to contain an astonishing number of recipes and very dirty jokes.
The thousands of fragments of the scrolls were photographed in their entirety (up to that point) only once, in the 1950s. Many of those photographs are now crumbling, and so, despite the arguments of some Luddites who are no doubt on the way out themselves, scholars are taking advantage of this amazing time we live in (the future), and are subjecting the whole of the scroll collection to some fancy pants scanning.
The images of the texts will be taken in very high resolution and with varying wavelengths of light, highlighting details not readily visible to the naked eye.
The physical scrolls will be beginning a tour of the United States next month at the Jewish Museum of New York.
Courtesy Mark RyanOut on the High Plains of Wyoming about 50 miles northwest of Laramie you'll find one of the wackiest constructions in the world, a museum built entirely from fossilized dinosaur bones!
Known today as Fossil Cabin Museum, the structure sets smack dab on the border of Carbon and Albany counties near the nose-end of the Como Bluff anticline. It still operates as a museum, but access to it is spotty, depending on whether anyone’s around to let you in.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe oddity was built using 5,796 dinosaur bones fragments, more than 50 tons of them! At the time of construction traffic flowing past the site was heavy with motorists on their way east or west along Highway 30, the popular Lincoln Highway route.
Thomas Boylan, the guy who put together this strange museum, came to Wyoming from California, and established a homestead on the site in 1902. Boylan’s land was within walking distance of Como Bluff, an historic dinosaur graveyard from which 30 years before many of the first Jurassic-aged dinosaurs were dug up and introduced to the world. Boylan spent a lot of time hunting for dinosaur fossils and after 15 years had amassed quite a collection bone fragments. His dream was to construct an entire skeleton out of them.
“At first I planned to get enough of them together to mount a complete dinosaur skeleton, however erecting such a skeleton is a long and costly task for an individual to undertake so I abandoned the idea and proceeded to use them the best I could,” Boylan said.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionCost and time weren’t the only reasons Boylan abandoned his dream. After consulting with paleontologists at the University of Wyoming Geological Museum he also learned that although he certainly had a boatload of dinosaur bones, they were from a large variety of species and didn’t amount to an entire skeleton of any one creature. Whatever the case, he and his son Edward (who for a time would serve as the museum’s curator) spent late 1932 and early 1933 constructing the building out of his collection.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionNearby, they also built a residential home that - while not constructed out of dinosaur bones - was intentionally built to approximate the length of a Diplodocus in order to give visitors an idea of the size of one of the larger creatures extracted from the nearby dinosaur pits. Boylan also operated a service station alongside the roadside attraction, filling visitors’ cars with gasoline, as his museum filled their heads with science.
In 1938, Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” fame mentioned the museum in his syndicated newspaper feature calling it "The Oldest Cabin in the World". But the museum has gone by several other names including Fossil Museum, Dinosaurium, Creation Museum, and Dinosaur House. Boylan often referred to it as “The Building That Used to Walk”.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe Boylans operated the roadside exhibit throughout the 30s and 40s, playing host to tourists and the occasional paleontologist revisiting the historic fossil fields. After Tom died in 1947, his wife Grayce continued the operation until the new interstate was built through Laramie in the late 1960s and tourist traffic past the museum all but disappeared. Nearby towns like Bosler, Rock River and Medicine Bow faded as well. In 1974, Mrs. Boylan sold all the property to Paul and Jody Fultz, who tried to keep the attraction going, but the Fossil Cabin’s glory days had passed.
I’ve visited the area a few times and only once was anyone around to let me inside the museum. It looked closed, but I walked up to the nearby residence and knocked on a door framed by two large sauropod femurs. A young kid appeared, and was kind enough to allow me inside the museum for a $2 admission fee. As I “toured” the museum, he explained in a western drawl how he and his dad were living on the property, watching over it for the owner who had moved to Medicine Bow. They worked mainly as hunting guides for animals a little more current than what made up the museum’s exterior walls.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe displays inside had seen better days, and I regret not taking photographs. A couple dusty glass cases held some large dinosaur bones, minerals, and marine fossils found around Como. A few faded and out-of-date science posters hung in tatters on the otherwise bare walls. Generally, it was a shambles. Which is too bad, because it could be a very nice little museum, and probably was in its time.
If anyone’s interested, the property is currently for sale. I know if I won the lottery it’d be the first thing I’d buy. With a little paint and wallpaper, and a pullout bed or futon, it’d make a nifty summer cabin for visits to Wyoming. Or a pleasant addition to the Dinos and Fossil gallery here at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
I should mention that this building is not the first of its kind. Bone Cabin Quarry, a rich dinosaur fossil site located along the Little Medicine river about 10 miles north of Como Bluff, was named after a sheepherder’s cabin built in the late 1800s. The cabin’s foundation had been created from the abundant dinosaur bones found in the region.