Stories tagged science

Sep
10
2008

A ragtag band of scientists marches into the future: right past the LHC department, to the venom cream section.
A ragtag band of scientists marches into the future: right past the LHC department, to the venom cream section.Courtesy StevenM_61
This truly is a season to remember. Scientific endeavors are being undertaken that will live on for a hundred generations in human memory.

Snake venom facial cream, for instance, is now for sale in London department stores.

If you were concerned that your face wasn’t feeling quite envenomated enough (and why would I even write “if”?), give your hideous frown lines and forehead creases a much needed rest. Science has synthesized the venom of the Asian temple viper, and put it into cream form. And, Science’s work done, Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly stands by the product.

According to the manufacturers, the product gives temporary, Botox-like results by “stunning” the skin in a way “similar to a snake bite.” Hmm. Interesting. Let’s look beyond my initial reaction to the prospect of getting bit in the face by a snake (which is, to be clear, a resounding “Yes!”)

The temple viper is named so for its high population in the Temple of the Azure cloud in Malaysia. It is a species of pit viper, and so a cousin to American rattlesnakes. The venom of the temple viper is a hemotoxin, and affects blood and muscle tissue (as opposed to the faster acting neurotoxins present in some snake venom, which affect the nervous tissue). Hemotoxins contain enzymes that destroy red blood cells, and cause general havoc in nearby organ and tissues. Prey killed with hemotoxic venom is easier for snakes to digest, because it tends to break down the tissue in the region of the bite. This means that, even if a victim is not killed by a bite, it is possible to lose entire limbs to necrosis from hemotoxins.

But I hear that it is positively delightful when applied to the face. Pots of snake science are now available for $105 at Selfridges department store in London.

Oh, also, the Large Hadron Collider was turned on today. Apparently that’s sort of a big deal in science too. But it doesn’t do anything for crow’s feet.

Professor Julius Sumner Miller educated and entertained generations of Australians on television with his TV series called "Why is it so?"
Now you too can watch some "enchanting experiments" with the good professor! Both dialup or broadband connections available (click the link above for dozens of episodes).

Geoscience in the middle
Geoscience in the middleCourtesy eigenFACTOR
Eigenfactor is a search engine for scientific journals. They have an interesting interactive way to browse through the various branches of science based on citations in these journals.

Static map
Static mapCourtesy eigenFACTOR
They've taken some of the richest connections between the different disciplines and produced a static map that shows these connections weighted by citation. It shows some interesting flows of information between, Medicine, Cell Biology, Ecology, and Crop Science for example. Now I just need to figure out what "Control Theory" is.

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.

Apr
13
2008

NASA Science website is an awesome resource

NASA Science website
NASA Science websiteCourtesy NASA
To show how useful this site can be, here are links to pages I found as I dug deeper into just one of the many areas on the NASA Science website.

Science for different levels of learning

The NASA Science website provides learning opportunities for four learning groups.

Earth, sun, planets, and astrophysics

The NASA Science website is divided into these parts.

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.

Nov
20
2007

A humpback whale throws itself from the water: in its enthusiasm to give its life for science.
A humpback whale throws itself from the water: in its enthusiasm to give its life for science.Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
I mean, I think I’d have guessed that the best way to gather scientific data on whales would be to observe them, and maybe toss some electronic tracking tags on them. But then again, I’m no scientist, so I’ll leave cetacean biology up to folks like those on the Japanese “scientific research whaling” fleet, which disembarked on Sunday with the intention of catching 1100 whales to study the whales’ “population, age composition, sex ratio, and natural mortality rate.” Then, in accordance with the regulations of the International Whaling Commision, these 1100 research subjects will be butchered and sold as food.

It seems a little goofy, I know, killing all these whales in the name of science, but you know what they say: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few thousand whales.”

This hunt (we’ll call it a hunt, for simplicity’s sake) is just another episode in a decades long debate over whaling rights and practices. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on all whaling, in response to severely depleted whale populations. This cessation of whale hunting had just a couple exceptions: aboriginal subsistence whaling, which allows small scale whaling by aboriginal groups with a tradition of whaling, and the scientific research whaling, which says that whales can be taken for scientific purposes. The harvested whales can then be sold for consumption.

Japan has a cultural tradition of whaling, dating back a thousand years at least. Whaling became particularly important, however, after WWII, when whales became “a cheap source of protein in the Japanese post-war diet.” Whale consumption peaked in 1962, and has since declined in popularity, to the point where it is now a subsidized industry. The for-profit company behind the research expeditions sells about 60 million dollars worth of whale products each year.

The Japanese government maintains their country’s whaling is done for scientific purposes alone, although critics point out that the scientific whaling uses the exact same boats, crews, and equipment as was used for commercial whaling prior to the moratorium.

This year, the Japanese fleet plans on catching 1000 minke whales, a relatively plentiful species of small baleen whale, as well as 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales, which are vulnerable and endangered species, respectively. Geenpeace plans on intercepting the fleet with their flagship Esperanza, and then, I don’t know, yelling a lot. It promises to be an exciting expedition, especially for the whales.

Oct
13
2007

Science Town, USA: Also the place where the zipper was invented.
Science Town, USA: Also the place where the zipper was invented.

A panel of scientists has produced a list of the ten most significant scientific achievements developed in the Chicago area:

  1. The first controlled nuclear reaction
  2. Invention of the cell phone
  3. Hormone treatment for prostate and breast cancer
  4. Invention of magnetic recording
  5. Developing treatment for malaria
  6. The first skyscraper
  7. Discovery of the top quark
  8. Discovering chromosome abnormalities in cancer
  9. Inventing carbon-14 dating
  10. Discovering how the human body makes insulin

(Not sure if I consider #2 a noteworthy achievement, but there it is...)

Chicago also has an annual program called Science in the City. Wouldn't it be cool to do this for the Twin Cities, too?

Sep
13
2007

Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.
Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.

Discussions of global warming almost always include some allusion to “scientific consensus” – the idea that many / most / almost all scientists agree that the warming is real, is caused by humans, and/or will have catastrophic effects on the planet.

There have always been two problems with this:

  1. “Consensus,” while a wonderful thing in politics, is meaningless is science. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with a statement; all that matters is whether or not the statement can be verified by independent observation or experimentation.
  2. The “consensus” is not as universal as has sometimes been presented. Scientific studies that proclaim “we’re all doomed!” naturally get a lot more attention than those that say “everything is normal.” Unfortunately, this imbalance of attention has led some people to conclude that the scientific argument is one-sided, when this is far from the case.

Yesterday The Hudson Institute issued a press release counting 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers disputing some aspect of the global warming hypothesis. According to the report,

More than 300 of the scientists found evidence that 1) a natural moderate 1,500-year climate cycle has produced more than a dozen global warmings similar to ours since the last Ice Age and/or that 2) our Modern Warming is linked strongly to variations in the sun's irradiance. … Other researchers found evidence that 3) sea levels are failing to rise importantly; 4) that our storms and droughts are becoming fewer and milder with this warming as they did during previous global warmings; 5) that human deaths will be reduced with warming because cold kills twice as many people as heat; and 6) that corals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate.

What is The Hudson Institute?

Let’s not mince words: The Hudson Institute is not a scientific organization. It is a political think-tank; it supports conservative policies; and it receives funding from some major corporations. It is easy to imagine they simply reviewed thousands of published reports and simply picked the ones that happened to fit their world-view.

(Of course, Al Gore is not a scientist either; he has a liberal political agenda; and he gets money from political contributions. What’s more, the Clinton-Gore administration funded many of the reports he now uses to support his global warming hypotheses.)

None of that matters, though. The Hudson Institute isn’t claiming to have done any original scientific research. They are simply pointing to research that has already been done by other scientists which dispute some aspects of global warming, and thus undermine claims to “consensus.”

So, where do we go from here?

Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg has a new book out called Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming He has recently been interviewed by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed caused by human activity. But he argues that the dangers have been over-hyped, and that “Anti-warming policies (like those of the Kyoto Protocol) that require energy taxes or other checks on economic dynamism are inefficient and even harmful.” For example:

Mr. Lomborg cites studies showing that by implementing Kyoto--at a cost of trillions of dollars--we might be able to achieve a 3% reduction in fluvial and coastal flooding damages. If we instead adopted smart flood policies--e.g., an end to public subsidies that encourage people to settle in flood plains, a shrewder use of levees--we could achieve a 91% reduction in damages at a fraction of the Kyoto cost.

So, if global warming demands a response, it must be a clear-headed one – both scientifically (using all the information at our disposal, and not creating an artificial “consensus”) and socially (making rational decisions based on costs and benefits). As the Journal article notes, “[r]ather than governments imposing costly energy taxes to little benefit, Mr. Lomborg argues, they should fund research programs aimed at finding breakthrough technologies.”

* Tip of the hat to Douglas Adams

I like science, but I'm not a fan of "The Simpsons." But this story shares how a researcher has found scientific principles being shared and explained in episodes of the popular cartoon show.