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395 posts categorized "Science"

September 14, 2009

Remembering the godfather of Green Revolution

Joe Pastry, one of my favorite food bloggers, remembers Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist and Nobel Laureate whose work on crop yields saved untold numbers of people from starvation. He died this weekend at the ripe old age of 95:

This weekend the world, very quietly, lost its greatest humanitarian. And I mean that literally. Superlatives like "greatest humanitarian" come cheap nowadays. Heck someone probably used the term on the podium at the MTV Awards last night. However I'm pretty sure no one in attendance there had really saved more lives than any human being in the history of the world. That was Norman Borlaug.

Who was Norman Borlaug? Well may you ask, since virtually no one recognizes his name anymore. Norman Borlaug was a poor Iowa farm boy who grew up during the depression. He spent his entire life finding ways to feed the world's poorest peoples. It's thanks to him that true famines don't exist on Earth anymore. Or at least not naturally-occurring famines. There are still plenty of politically-manufactured famines on Earth (Ethiopia, Durfur), but those are a topic for another day.

Borlaug is famous for developing semi-dwarf strains of wheat and rice, which increased yields six-fold. The head of the UN World Food Program remembered him as one of the great champions in the fight against hunger.

July 18, 2009

"We completely understand the public's concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population"

Defense contractors Robotic Technologies, Inc. and Cyclone Power Technologies, Inc. would like to address multiple media reports that they are using government money to invent a robot that feeds on the corpses of the slain enemies of the United States of America:

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO. “We are focused on demonstrating that our engines can create usable, green power from plentiful, renewable plant matter. The commercial applications alone for this earth-friendly energy solution are enormous.” (emphasis in the original)

June 18, 2009

Homeopathy FAIL, Parts I and II

FBI agents were sent to comb through a dumpster in Schenectady New York after receiving reports that the dumpster might contain anthrax.

The search was prompted by the discovery, somewhere else but the FBI wouldn't say where, of a vial labelled as a homeopathic "anthrax vaccine"--a product reportedly available on the internet. (I can't decide what's more disturbing, crackpots rejecting perfectly good vaccines administered by doctors or crackpots buying homemade vaccines online.)

The FBI was right to be concerned. Homeopathy is based on treating disease with massively diluted solutions of compounds that, in their pure form, cause the very symptoms that the tincture is supposed to cure.

Most homeopathic preparations are harmless ripoffs, since they are diluted so much that it's unlikely that even a molecule of the active ingredient remains. But if we've got self-styled homeopathic counter-terrorists diluting anthrax at home, that's seriously bad news.

And sometimes homeopaths skip the dilution step. The FDA is warning consumers to steer clear of Zicam, a zinc-based cold medicine that can permanently destroy the user's sense of smell by deadening the nerves in the nose.

The manufacturers of Zicam had to shell out over $12 million dollars in 2006 to settle 340 lawsuits lodged by alleged victims. Because Zicam was labelled as a homeopathic product, the manufacturers didn't have to get FDA approval before inviting cold sufferers to bathe their mucous membranes in zinc.

June 03, 2009

Plushie entomology

Motherly love, originally uploaded by weirdbuglady.

I just stumbled across an amazing artist on Flickr.

Weirdbuglady's plush work is a combination of crafting, cartooning, fiber arts, sculpture, and popular science.

Check out her plushie invertebrates, sea creatures, and reptiles and amphibians.

She's even got an Etsy shop.

May 28, 2009

Withdrawal study: Ur doin' it wrong

The conventional wisdom is that withdrawal is to contraception what bulimia is to weight-loss. Both methods have a certain mechanical plausibility, but no responsible physician would recommend either one.

Sex educators tend to regard withdrawal less as a form of contraception and more as an excuse not to use birth control. A researcher from the Guttmacher Institute and her co-authors are urging sex educators to reconsider, leading off a recent paper in the journal Contraception with the following bold hypothesis: "[Withdrawal] might more aptly be referred to as a method that is almost as effective as the male condom." (.pdf)

In the large print, the paper says the typical use failure rate for withdrawal is 18%. That sounds pretty good juxtaposed with the 17% typical use failure they cite for condoms. A footnote adds some additional context: "Notably, the typical-use failure rate for withdrawal is more variable, ranging from 14%-24%, compared to a confidence interval of 15%-21% for condoms." 

Continue reading "Withdrawal study: Ur doin' it wrong" »

May 15, 2009

Hudson River safari: Teredos and gribbles

New York Magazine surveys the lower Hudson River:

2. Teredos and Gribbles

Two kinds of hungry pests gnaw away at the pilings that hold up structures like the FDR Drive, the U.N. school on East 25th Street, and the Con Ed plant at 14th. Teredos, which start life looking like tiny clams, grow up to be worms “as big around as your thumb, and nearly four feet long, with little triangular teeth,” says commercial diver Lenny Speregen. Like underwater termites, they devour wood. And Limnoria tripunctata, a.k.a. “gribbles,” are bugs about the size of a pencil dot that look like tiny armadillos, and eat not only wood but also concrete. Speregen says he’s seen fifteen-inch-diameter columns that have been gnawed down, hourglass style, to three inches. The city has tried jacketing pilings in heavy plastic to keep the critters out, but it hasn’t worked well: Floating ice tears up the jackets in winter. “I never said this wasn’t a war,” says Speregen.

April 15, 2009

Thrill-seekers more sensitive to placebo effect?

Are adrenaline junkies extra sensitive to the placebo effect?

Researchers at McGill University set out to test that hypothesis by causing pain in the legs of 22 volunteers with a harmless saline infusion.

The subjects were told that they were getting an experimental analgesic cream on one leg and plain lotion on the other. In fact, they all got lotion on both sides.

The subjects were asked how much pain they felt in each leg. Those who said the "active" leg hurt less than the "inert" leg were deemed to be enjoying a placebo effect. The bigger the difference, the stronger the placebo for that person:

Not everyone got pain relief from the placebo, but those that did scored higher on tests that gauge sensation-seeking personalities. These characteristics explained about a third of the differences in placebo responses between volunteers.

"The fact that they show a pretty strong correlation between a personality trait and strength of placebo response, I do find interesting," says Jon Stoessl, a neurologist at the University of British Columbia, who has studied placebo response in patients with Parkinson's disease. [New Scientist]

This is the first study to link personality and placebo. Obviously, this research program is in its early stages. Still, the idea that subconscious motivation can boost the placebo effect is provocative both empirically and philosophically.

The authors of the saline study surmised that thrill seekers have greater subconscious motivation to achieve the placebo effect because they are more motivated to seek out rewards in general. Pain researchers have reason to believe that the brain processes pain relief as a reward in itself as opposed to simply registering the end of a punishment.

Stossel cautions that an individual's placebo sensitivity can vary depending on circumstances, which suggests that personality isn't the whole story.

March 20, 2009

Free baby penguins

Two baby penguins were released into the wild in Australia. The LA Times has the cute pictures

March 18, 2009

Monkeys may teach their babies how to floss

Primatologists think they've observed Thai monkeys demonstrating tooth flossing to their infants:

"I was surprised because teaching techniques on using tools properly to a third party are said to be an activity carried out only by humans,'' Professor Nobuo Masataka of Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute said today.

His research team observed seven female long-tailed macaques and their offspring and monitored how often the mothers cleaned the spaces between their teeth with strands of human hair, in a colony of 250 animals near Bangkok.

The study found that the frequency of teeth-cleaning roughly doubled and became more elaborate when the infant monkeys were watching, suggesting that the females were deliberately teaching their young how to floss, he said. [Daily Telegraph]

The researchers plan to follow up with the baby monkeys to see if these flossing displays actually help them learn.

February 28, 2009

Sen. Harkin: National Center for Alternative Medicine disproves too much alternative medicine

Careful what you wish for...

Sen. Tom Harkin, the proud father of the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, told a Senate hearing on Thursday that NCCAM had disappointed him by disproving too many alternative therapies.

"One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short," Harkin said.

The senator went on to lament that, since its inception in 1998, the focus of NCCAM has been "disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things."

Skeptics have complained all along that Harkin and his allies founded this office to promote alternative therapies at public expense, not to test them scientifically. Harkin's statement at the hearing explicitly confirms that hypothesis.

Harkin used his clout on the Appropriations Committee in 1992 to create the National Office of Alternative Medicine. In 1998 he co-sponsored legislation with Republican Bill Frist to upgrade the national office to a national center.

Over a decade later, Harkin's disappointed that the NCCAM's research is failing to confirm his biases.

Harkin doesn't seem to realize that by publicly pressuring an ostensibly independent research center to produce positive results, he's undermining the credibility of the center he worked so hard to create. If even if NCCAM does come up with positive results, Harkin's giving the scientific community an excuse to discount that research as tainted.

That's a shame, because if we're going to spend public money testing alternative medicines, researchers should be allowed to follow the evidence. Besides, ruling out therapies that don't work can be just as valuable as vindicating therapies that do.

A lot of modern medicine has roots in folk traditions. No doubt there are more therapies currently labeled as "alternative" that will eventually earn their rightful places in scientific medicine and the allied health professions when they are proven effective.

Video of Thursday's hearing on "integrative medicine" is available on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee website, here. Harkin starts talking about NCCAM's annoying habit of disproving cherished tenets of alternative medicine about 17 minutes into the hearing.