Archive for May 2009

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 31 May 2009 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Growing skyscrapers

Metal crystals that look mini cities? Very cool:

A small crystal city in the palm of your hand.
A small crystal city in the palm of your hand.

Frank Swain of the SciencePunk blog found these cool crystals made of bismuth, a metal similar to lead. Grown by Ken (first name only, it seems) you can actually win one by guessing its weight.

Building a CPU from scratch

I’d like to say I know my way around the innards of a computer, as I can change a harddrive or replace a broken fan without too much fuss. For Steve Chamberlin, however, these tasks are child’s play. Instead, he’s built an 8-bit CPU (like you’d find in a NES console) from 1,253 piece of wire.

Called the BMOW or Big Mess O’ Wires, when hooked up to a keyboard an monitor the CPU is a perfectly functioning computer, if practically Stone Aged when compared to modern machines. Capable of running programs like a Chess game, it’s a pretty amazing feat of ingenuity – and patience! If you’d like more info, Wired have an article and interview with Chamberlin.

Renaming the God particle

Ian Sample of the Guardian wants a new name for the Higgs boson, or “God particle” as it is often known.

Everyone’s favourite particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, will resume the search for the elusive Higgs once it is up and running again. In honour of Peter Higgs’ eightieth birthday this week, Sample suggests we find a new name meeting the following criteria:

1) Names should be serious and accurate
2) It is good to name things after people, but only if you can resist the pressure to hyphenate with two or three extra names
3) Names should be evocative and inspiring.

He says Higgs boson fails 3, whilst God particle fails 1 and 2. If you can think of a better name, submit it to the Guardian and you could win a copy of Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara. Personally, I think it should be something beginning with “C” – if only to fit in to the title of this post!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 May 2009 at 2:24 pm by Sam Wong
In Climate Change & Environment

Can you put a figure on the impact of climate change? Yesterday, the Global Humanitarian Forum, a humanitarian organisation set up by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, did. According to their report, climate change is already killing 300,000 people a year, mainly through environmental degradation. They put the economic cost of global warming at 125,000 USD a year. As The Times reports,

The research was carried out by Dalberg Global Advisers, a consultancy firm, who collated all existing statistics on the human impacts of climate change. The report acknowledges a “significant margin of error” in its estimates.

Given the unavoidably large degree of uncertainty in the estimates, I’m not sure putting a figure on the death toll is particularly helpful. We already know that climate change is a big problem, and these numbers are not going to persuade anyone who’s sceptical.

‘Copenhagen needs to be the most ambitious international agreement ever reached,’ Kofi Annan said. But yesterday others were warning that setting overly ambitious targets would scupper any chance of a global deal. Carlo Carraro, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Venice, cautioned that the kind of measures necessary to keep CO2 levels to 550 parts per million by 2100 would be viewed as overly restrictive by China and India.

What’s often overlooked in discussions about climate change is the simple things we can do immediately that cost us nothing, or even save money. This was highlighted by Steve Chu this week when he spoke at the Nobel Laureate Symposium in London this week (you can watch his speech in full here). Professor Chu is the Nobel-winning physicist who was appointed Energy Secretary by Barack Obama when he became president. It’s the first time that a career scientist has run the Department of Energy since it was set up in 1977.

Chu argued that we ought to be doing a lot more to ensure that buildings are designed with energy efficiency in mind. The most intriguing suggestion he made was that we give our cities a makeover with the aim of reducing the amount of sunlight they absorb:

If you replace all the building roofs today with white roofs, and you go to cement-style pavement instead of black-top style pavement, it would be a reflection of sunlight back into space that would be the equivalent of if you took off all the automobiles in the world for eleven years.

Chu’s claim was based on a study whose authors included Art Rosenthal, Chu’s colleague at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a member of the California Energy Commission. The study said that repainting a dark roof that reflects 20 per cent of sunlight so that it reflects 60 per cent of sunlight could offset 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions – roughly the amount produced by an average American household in a year.

Urged on by Rosenthal, California has led the way in introducing legislation to this effect: since 2005, state law has required all new flat roofs on commercial buildings to be white. From July, sloped roofs will have to be cool-coloured. Making roofs more reflective cools the building, saving energy on air conditioning, but also means less heat absorbed by the planet, reducing global warming.

We can’t make roads and pavements white, but Rosenthal’s study claims that making black surfaces cement-coloured offsets four tonnes of CO2 per 100m². Combine this with roof-whitening in the world’s 100 largest cities and you get reduction in global warming equivalent to cutting 44 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Making roofs and pavements more reflective saves on energy and makes cities more comfortable. The incentives are local; there’s no need for international agreement. What are we waiting for?

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 May 2009 at 9:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Just A Review, Physics

This review originally appeared in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science.

I’m writing this review as a break from revision, with the ideas of science philosophers Kuhn and Popper still swimming round my brain. Both men have their supporters, but with 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense Michael Brooks is definitely throwing in his lot with the Kuhnians.

Kuhn argued that science is framed by paradigms, established bodies of knowledge that define the scientific questions of the day. Eventually problems with the paradigm will emerge, and science will undergo a “paradigm shift”. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a compilation of problems with our current understanding of the universe, and Brooks suggests that solving any one of them could lead to a paradigm shift.

A classic example of such a change is the move from Newtonian to relativistic physics, and the book begins firmly in the physics camp. Over the first two chapters dark matter is put forward as a possible explanation for both the apparent “missing” mass in the universe, and the unexplained drift of the Pioneer probes. From there we move to the prospect of varying fundamental constants (like G, the gravitational constant) and a look in to the controversial subject of cold fusion.

Next we get six chapters dealing with the troubling subject of life. Where did we come from? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And why do we die? These are just some the questions that science doesn’t yet have an answer to, but Brooks lays out some possible explanations.

The end of the book deals with two ongoing controversies in medicine, the placebo effect and homeopathy. I was intrigued to learn about the concept of epitaxy, in which the molecular structure of one material can influence another without any chemical reactions taking place. In the same way that plasticine forced through a mould will take on a certain shape, is it possible that the molecular structure of water could be rearranged by homeopathic substances to produce healing properties? No one has done the research, so I remain sceptical, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

So far I’ve skipped over one chapter in this review; number 11, entitled Free Will. In it Brooks describes a device called a transcranial magnetic simulation, in which two electric coils create a magnetic field to induce currents in the brain. Neuroscientists can use such devices to cause unconscious bodily movements in their subjects, which Brooks experience first-hand.

It is with this evidence, along with other brain experiments, that he claims the concept of free will is nothing but an illusion. Maybe it’s just my fundamental philosophical objection to giving up free will, but I found this chapter to be on far less firm ground than the others. The experiments described just didn’t seem to say to me what Brooks wanted them to.

One dodgy chapter aside, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a very good read. The chapters are short and for the most part self-contained, making it easy to dip in to, and it’s refreshing for once to read a popular science book about what we don’t know. The book looks to the future rather than just recounting the past, and left me wondering when the next new discovery will allow us to whittle the list down to a nice even dozen.

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4 Comments » Posted on Friday 29 May 2009 at 3:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

It’s Friday, so many of you will probably be off to the pub this evening to wind down after a hard week’s work. As you sip your frosty pint on this warm spring evening, you might want to take note of how you hold the glass. According to new research by psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson, this small indicator can reveal much about your personality.

Only it can’t, because it’s a load of bollocks commissioned by the Walkabout bar chain to get them a bunch of free advertising. Dr Wilson, of King’s College, London, drew his conclusions by observing 500 patrons in bars – no doubt Walkabout owned – last month.

Splitting drinkers in to eight distinct groups by, I dunno, pulling them out of thin air, Dr Wilson tells us how we may be inadvertently broadcasting our unconscious intentions every time we take a swig:

“The simple act of holding a drink displays a lot more about us than we realise – or might want to divulge.

“When you’re in a crowded bar, often all you have to go on is body language.

“To a large extent, it’s an unconscious thing and just reflects the person you are and the type of social relationships you have.

“The next time you’re in a bar, it might be worth thinking about what you’re saying to the people around you, just by the way you’re holding your glass.”

If you really care about the categories, check out the links above for full details. They include The Flirt, “usually a woman, who holds her glass with dainty, splayed fingers and uses it in a provocative way,” and The Browbeater, “usually male, he prefers large glasses, or bottles, which he uses as symbolic weapons, firmly grasped, and gesticulating in a threatening, “in the face” kind of way.”

Dr Wilson seems to have forgotten a ninth category, The Bullshitter. This type of drinker makes up “science” as they quickly down their beverage before laughing all the way to the bank.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 28 May 2009 at 5:23 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

Imagine an unknown journey without now commonplace GPS systems. Ping a quick signal between a few pieces of high flying space hardware and you know exactly where you are. Now two astronomers believe they have an equivalent system, a sort of cosmic TomTom than can pin your galactic position down to the nearest metre.

Yet in deep-space dialling up a satellite in Earth orbit would be pretty useless, so instead the new system proposed by astronomers Bartolome Coll and Albert Tarantola uses pulsars. Pulsars are the rapidly rotating, super-dense relics of massive stars that give out very precise and regular signals of radio waves. By measuring the arrival times of these stellar pulses from four different pulsars you can work out where you are in relation to them.

On the vast scales that any future wider exploration beyond our Solar System would require, Einstein’s relativity comes into play and that is why four pulsars beacons are needed to map out space-time; three to cover the dimensions of space and the other to deal with time.

The only limitation to precision of the arriving signal is interaction with the interstellar medium but this only affects the pulses on the order of nanoseconds (billionths of a second) which translates into an accuracy of the nearest metre.

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3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 28 May 2009 at 3:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Saw this on the Twitterverse and thought I’d share. Channel 4 have commissioned a piece of research into the young peoples’ relationship with technology, and I found the results quite interesting. Obviously I haven’t seen the full report, amusingly entitled A Beta Life, but here are some stats on the average 12-24 year old.

  • They personally own 8 devices (including MP3 player, PC, TV, DVD player, mobile phone, stereo, games console, and digital camera)
  • They frequently conduct over 5 activities whilst watching TV
  • 25% of them agree that “I’d rather stay at home than go on a holiday with no internet or phone access”
  • A quarter of young people interviewed text or IM (instant message) friends they are physically with at the time
  • They have on average 123 friends on their social network spaces
  • And the first thing the majority of them do when they get home is turn on their PC

I was surprised to realise that the majority of these apply to me:

  • I’m scared to even count the number of “devices” I have, but it’s certainly closer to 18 than 8.
  • Geeky as it is, I’m not a huge fan of going on holiday, and lack of web access is a factor. Thank you, inventor of the internet cafe.
  • Who hasn’t texted their friend in the pub?
  • I’ve got 113 friends on Facebook and 61 followers on Twitter. There is certainly some overlap, so I can’t be much over 123
  • The first thing I do when I get up is turn on my PC. It’s already on by the time I get home again in the evening.

The only thing I can’t fathom is conducting five activities whilst watching TV. What are these activities? All I can think of is watching TV whilst perhaps surfing/IMing on a laptop, and texting on a phone. That’s just four. Any hardcore multitaskers care to enlighten me? My personal favourite is playing video games whilst on the exercise bike, listening to podcasts. If there is some super multitasking combo out there, I’m yet to discover it.

What will the effects of this increasingly connected generation be? It doesn’t seem to be a decrease in the amount of time spent physically with others. The research found that hanging out with friends and watching TV still take up most of young adults free time. It’s just that phones, Facebook, etc allow me and my contemporaries to stay in contact even when we’re apart.

Earlier this month Seth wondered Can web 2.0 technology change our nature? and I pretty much agree with his conclusion. Whilst I doubt Facebook gives you cancer, constant connectivity is certain to change our social structures and the way we lead our lives. After all, I probably wouldn’t have even written this if it weren’t for Twitter!

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 27 May 2009 at 11:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong

By now you’ve probably heard about Ida, the newly discovered fossil being heralded by many as “the missing link” in human evolution. Last night saw the broadcast of Uncovering our Earliest Ancestor, a documentary about the fossil narrated by an almost obligatory Sir David Attenborough.

As a student of science communication, I watched dutifully. I was not impressed. It felt like sitting through an episode of CSI or 24, with crash zooms and blinking maps featuring heavily. Scientists breathlessly compared the impact of Ida to “an asteroid hitting the Earth”

In the lead up to last night’s programme, Ida has been riding a hype wave that would be the envy of any Hollywood starlet. Unveiled by a press conference last week, and paraded around the media, Ida is big news. But is she big science? Anyone watching last night would certainly think so, but the scientific paper published in PloS One tells a slightly different story.

Ignore for a moment the fact that most biologists now question the need for a “missing link” in our evolution. The fossil record demonstrates the transition from early primates all the way along the evolutionary tree to humans. Although a somewhat outdated model of evolution – see New Scientist’s Darwin Was Wrong cover – the tree idea is still useful for thinking about how one species evolves in to another.

For us to be descended from Darwinus masillae, you would expect to trace a line down from Ida’s position on the tree to ours. That is what the documentary would have you believe, but as far as I can tell, it isn’t what the scientific paper says. As this diagram from New Scientist suggests, Ida belongs on the lemur track of evolution – although she herself was not a lemur.

Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.
Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.

I’m concerned by the extent to which Atlantic Productions, who made the documentary, influenced the science behind Ida. It is clear that they were involved from a fairly early stage – one scene in the documentary is a suspicious looking “home video” of the first discovery of Ida by lead scientist Dr Jørn Hurum. Scientists working on the fossil were asked to sign contracts and NDAs and some have even complained of being forced to work to media schedules. “It’s not how I like to do science,” said co-author Dr Philip Gingerich.

What would Atlantic have done, if Ida was shown to be a fairly uninteresting example of a lemur? Can the documentary, and lose their investment? Or would they have pressed for the scientists to reconsider their decision, to find the story? Worryingly, it appears this might be what happened.

At the end of the day, Ida is an amazingly complete example of such an ancient fossil. She is a great find for science, but unfortunately just does not deserve the hype afforded to her. And whilst Darwinus masillae is certainly related to us, as all animals are in some way related to us via the very earliest life forms, Ida cannot possibly be our earliest ancestor. For one thing, she died before ever reaching sexual maturity, and thus never bore any children. But on a broader scale, she zigged when our ancestors zagged. Somewhere out there might be a fossil that directly relates to us both, but even that does not deserve the label “missing link”. Of course that won’t stop another media circus, should it ever be discovered.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 8:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

So far, astronomers searching the universe for planets outside of our solar system have mostly discovered gas giants, like Jupiter. If you want a planet that can support life, something a bit smaller and wetter is in order. Now scientists believe they have found such a planet. It’s called Earth.

Well, obviously they haven’t only just comes across it. Using Deep Impact, a probe launched by NASA in 2005 to study a comet by smashing in to it, researchers devised a new planet-hunting method by re-discovering Earth. By imagining themselves as aliens hunting for planets like our own, they were able to ‘discover’ that Earth does indeed have liquid surface water.

By making two separate 24-hour observations of Earth’s light intensity, in wavelengths from near ultraviolet to near infrared, the researchers were able to monitor the changes in brightness as the Earth rotates and cloud-cover shifts. These changes show up as deviations from an average colour. Two wavelengths were dominant: red for long wavelengths and blue for short.

Interpreting red as land masses and blue as ocean water, the team were able to make colour maps of the planet as it rotated. Comparing this to the real Earth, the oceans became crystal clear. Nicolas Cowan, a University of Washington doctoral student, explains:

“You could tell that there were liquid oceans on the planet. The idea is that to have liquid water the planet would have to be in its system’s habitable zone, but being in the habitable zone doesn’t guarantee having liquid water.”

Cowan, who is lead author of a paper explaining the research and due to be published in Astrophysical Journal, hopes that their new technique will guide the construction of future Earth-hunter telescopes. Just don’t expect to be going for an extrasolar dip any time soon.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 6:42 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Health & Medicine

“Nice jeans.” She pauses and gives the semi nude male on the bus stop poster a proper look. Then she spots the slogan at his feet: “MAYbe you’ve got Chlamydia.” She quickly stop looking and hurries on, hoping all those people waiting for the bus don’t think she has Chlamydia.  

Those behind the MAYbe screening programme this month in West London should be congratulated on a very effective ad campaign. Prompted by high rates of the infection in the capital, the MAYbe campaign hopes to increase awareness and encourage more Londoners to get tested for Chlamydia.

It might seem like Chlamydia is just a public health issue; we know how it works, how to treat it and now we just need to stop it spreading. But this week a group of UK scientists published research showing how these bacteria can still surprise us.

In Sweden in 2006, a new variant of Chlamydia appeared: one that was invisible to the tests used at the time. The new study reveals why this happens.

A single bacterium grew without part of the DNA code normally found in the plasmid – floating DNA, not part of the bacteria’s chromosomes. This bit of code was exactly what Swedish labs used to test whether an infection is Chlamydia or not.

“It turns out that this piece of the DNA is not essential to the Chlamydia. Therefore, an accidental deletion of the DNA won’t kill the bacterium, but it will stop it being identified,” explained Helena Seth-Smith, co-author of the study and researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

She said that they had never seen this kind of mutation before. Most cell mutations occur because of interaction between bacteria. But Chlamydia grows inside human cells. And so, bacteria have little chance to interact with one and other. 

The new type of mutation is a warning for tests on other bacterial infections. If the bacterium of another disease undergoes a similar test, “it’s possible that another chance deletion could make that bacterium invisible.” 

The researchers also identified what they think are the essential parts of the Chlamydia DNA. These make more reliable targets for diagnostic tests because if they mutate the bacterium is unlikely to survive anyway. Seth-Smith is hopeful that future tests will be better designed as a result.

This new research shows just how much we can still learn about diseases we thought we already understood. And it shows how useful these lessons can be for keeping the diseases under control.

Of course, public awareness drives are necessary. And maybe screening campaigns will help London lose its label as the UK’s ‘Chlamydia capital’. But the lesson from this study is that Chlamydia is not just a public health issue. Posters featuring designer jeans still need to be backed up by detailed genetic research.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 25 May 2009 at 2:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

A recent survey suggests that the UK public doesn’t trust scientists to tell them what causes or cures cancer. A YouGov poll of 2,400 people on behalf of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found more than half thought scientists constantly changed their minds about cancer. Over a quarter also said that advice was constantly changing, and the best approach was to ignore it.

Is it any wonder that the public feel this way? Since starting Just A Theory I have written about many media reported cures or causes of cancer: oral sex, shampoo, Facebook, cannabis, beer and the Large Hadron Collider. These are just the few stories that I’ve actually picked up on. With so much conflicting media advice, how is anyone meant to make informed decisions? Most of the causes/cures barely change your absolute risk of cancer anyway, so perhaps ignore all advice completely really is the best option.

Not so, say the WCRF. Their advice has stayed the same for over a decade: eat balanced diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight. All fairly bog-standard, boring advice, but the WCRF say that around a third of the most common cancers could be avoided by following it. Richard Evans, head of communications for WCRF, explains:

“It is a cause for concern if people are not listening to cancer prevention advice because they have the impression that scientists are always changing their minds.

“The fact is that WCRF and other cancer charities agree on the best ways of reducing cancer risk and this advice has stayed broadly the same for quite a long time.

“A decade ago, we were recommending that people eat a plant-based diet, be physically active and maintain a healthy weight and this is still the case today.”

Yet, the Daily Mail continues its ongoing mission to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into those that cause or cure cancer, and other newspapers do the same. If media advice on cancer is leading people to ignore the WCRF recommendations and thus leaving them more susceptible to cancer, maybe you could argue that actually the media “causes” cancer. Hmm.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 May 2009 at 3:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Flying carpets…in space!

I pretty much never get tired of that headline.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata has demonstrated a “working” flying carpet aboard the International Space Station, as part of a series of experiments submitted by members of the public.

A whole new world...
A whole new world...

He had to cheat a little bit, however. Wakata’s feet were stuck to the carpet with sticky tape, which if you ask me doesn’t really count.

The Science News Cycle

Courtesy of PhD Comics, the Science News Cycle:

Strange measurements of science

The BBC have an article on some of the more interesting measurements made in the name of science. From the bluest sky to the crunch of a fresh biscuit, they’re quite strange. All were requests to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, which is responsible for defining and standardising units in the UK. Sounds like quite a cool job, and last Wednesday they celebrated World Meteorology Day in honour of their meticulous measuring.

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2 Comments » Posted on Saturday 23 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

A policewoman has come up with a formula designed to increase public confidence in the police. I would have gone with catching criminals and not accidentally killing members of the public, but then what do I know about policing?

Chief Constable Julia Hodson of the Nottinghamshire Police suggests that her formula CE+CI+CS+VCxC = PC is the solution to policing problems. A quick run down of the variables:

  • CE: Community Engagement
  • CI: Critical Incidents
  • CS: Customer Satisfaction
  • VC: Volume Crime
  • C:Communication
  • PC: Public Confidence

You know the drill. Like all “formula fors” we have unquantifiable variables, nonsense algebra, and a completely useless equation. Hilariously, the Daily Mail describe the formula as an “Einstein-style mathematical equation”. Maybe it’s all the “C”s? Who knows.

If you could somehow measure all of these variables, the formula still doesn’t make sense. Why do you multiply Volume Crime by Communication? What on earth is that meant to mean? Hodson has degrees in both law and social policy, but along with everyone else offering “formula fors”, she could probably do with retaking GCSE Maths.

My new friends, the TaxPayer’s Alliance, have also criticised the formula. They make a bit more sense than when they were quacking on about ducks, with TPA Research Director Matthew Sinclair offering this:

“With the high crime rates in Nottinghamshire the Chief Constable’s time might be better spent working out how to bring criminals to justice rather than concocting dodgy algebra that wouldn’t pass muster even in a grade-inflated GCSE exam.

“This is exactly the kind of nonsense that makes the public wonder whether the police share their priorities, and undermines the public confidence which the formula is supposed to bolster.”

The TPA seem to be worming their way in to a number of news stories at the moment. An organisation to watch out for I think.

As for Chief Constable Julia Hodson and her nonsense formula, it appears that Nottinghamshire police are currently looking for a Scientific Support Manager Opportunity. They want someone to “drive the strategic direction of scientific support and deliver continuous improvements in the quality of forensic service provided to colleagues and the people of Nottinghamshire.” Perhaps providing a few maths lessons on the side wouldn’t hurt either.

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 23 May 2009 at 5:20 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Let me begin by saying that sneering at the Daily Mail is not big and it’s not clever. But 2.2 million people read it every day, and it has a lot to say about how they should look after themselves, so it’s only reasonable that its coverage of stories relating to health should be subjected to scrutiny. Here are a few of the questionable articles I found this week.

Monday: Neuroimaging as a crystal ball

I know she looks like a crystal ball reader, but actually Mail hack Wendy Leigh is the one who’s having her fate revealed in this scene. The silly-looking headgear is part of the setup for a procedure called brain electrical activity mapping, or Beam: ‘the latest health trend’ in America.

The theory behind it is that measuring the electrical activity of the brain reveals its ‘true’ age, speed and ability, pointing to the likelihood of certain conditions.

Wendy learns that her acetylcholine levels are high, meaning that she has a low risk of Parkinson’s and dementia. Using imaging technology to predict neurological conditions early is an appealing idea, but are we really able to do this already? I found reliable answers surprisingly hard to come by on the internet, but it doesn’t look like there’s good evidence for quantitative electroencephalography, as it is more properly called, having high predictive value for this kind of use. The article admits as much towards the end:

Dr Richard Henson, of the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, says while recording brain waves is a well-established technique, it’s unlikely the results could provide meaningful information about what the brain’s neurotransmitters are up to.

Still, Wendy reports that after three weeks, she’s sleeping better and her sugar cravings have lessened, so let’s keep an open mind about it.

Tuesday: Fat = Fit

Overweight heart attack victims should stay fat as they are more likely to live longer, say researchers.

Given the massive health risks associated with being overweight, that’s a pretty dangerous piece of advice. Are there good grounds for it? The story is based on a review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. I couldn’t access the article myself, but according to NHS Choices, the authors actually said that although a paradox exists, the data still support “purposeful weight reduction in the prevention and treatment of CV [cardiovascular] diseases”.

Wednesday: Forget dieting, have a biryani

If you did decide to reject the Mail’s advice and lose weight, how to go about it? I’m not going to have to eat salad for dinner am I? Not according to this article: ‘Why eating a curry could STOP you from putting on weight‘. It seems that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, suppresses the growth of fat tissue. Mice fed on a high fat diet gained less weight if their food was supplemented with curcumin. They still gained weight though. Will takeaway curries become the latest fad diet. Since curries (combined with the associated naan, rice, poppadoms, chutney etc) are quite high in calories, I suspect a salad might still be a better option.

Thursday: Hang on, forget the biryani, go to bed

You wait ages for a more appealing weight loss strategy than eating less and exercising, and two come along at once. This time: ‘Why sleeping more could help you lose weight‘.

Researchers in the US analysed the sleep activity and energy expenditure of 14 volunteer nurses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC.

14? That’s your sample size? And all doing the same job in the same place? Alright then, what did you find?

Those identified as ‘short sleepers’ had an average body mass index (BMI) of 28.3 – classed as overweight – compared with 24.5 – classed as normal – for ‘long sleepers.’

Oh, for crying out loud! Surely we don’t have to go over the whole correlation/causation thing again? Maybe fat people don’t sleep well because they sink into the mattress too much, or because they can’t stop thinking about cake.

Friday: Swigging from plastic bottles will make you strangely self-conscious about your thighs

Drink from plastic bottles can raise the body’s levels of a controversial ‘gender-bending’ chemical by more than two thirds, according to tests.

Experts have been concerned about the possible health effects of bisphenol A (BPA) – an everyday chemical used in many plastic food and drink containers and tins as well as clear baby bottles – which is officially classified as toxic in some countries.

A study found that participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles showed a 69 per cent increase in their urine of BPA, which mimics the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Gosh, this all sounds very scary. Maybe our increasing tendency to drink from plastic bottles is what caused the whole ‘metrosexual’ thing.

Once again, NHS Choices provides a pretty thorough discussion of the limitations of this study. Most significantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the levels of BPA seen in the participants have any significant effects on physiology.

I promise to write about some good science next week. If I kept doing this, I’d probably tear my hair out.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 May 2009 at 7:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Scientists can act as advisers to the public, but advice must be framed in such a way that the public will want to receive it. So when I read the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) advice on teenage drinking, I couldn’t help but think You’re Doing It Wrong.

The AAAS, as part of their Science Inside Alcohol Project, offer parents and their teenage children five reasons why drinking at your high school prom may not be a good idea:

  1. You might not remember the night.
  2. You might do something you don’t want to.
  3. You might get in to a fight.
  4. You might be sick.
  5. You might get a hangover.

Along with each reason is a scientific explanation as to why alcohol has these effects. For example, the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for storing memory, is not yet fully developed in teens. Thus, say the AAAS, even a small amount of alcohol can cause teens to forget the previous night or even black-out completely.

Well yeah. But these things don’t just happen to under-age drinkers – anyone who has drunk more than they should has probably experience at least one or two of the things from the list. As such, it comes off as a little patronising.

I’m not suggesting that teenagers, or indeed anyone, need to drink alcohol in order to have a good time. Teenagers will drink though, especially if drinking is seen as a dark and forbidden activity. Simple spouting “alcohol is bad, m’kay?” like South Park’s Mr Garrison is not the way to promote responsible drinking.

Much better would be encouraging parents to introduce their teenagers to alcohol in a safe and controlled environment – wine with a meal, for example. This is just my own opinion of course, as after a bit of time searching I’ve failed to find any studies that support my viewpoint. Part of the problem is that Googling anything about under-age drinking brings up so much anti-drinking propaganda that it’s hard to find a balanced and reasonable approach.

Alcohol is a drug that can have dangerous and even lethal effects. It’s also enjoyed responsibly by many adults and even some teenagers. The US’s puritanical approach to alcohol is far too extreme – how a drinking age of 21 but a voting age of 18 is in anyway justifiable, I’ll never understand. It seems that the AAAS hasn’t really considered the usefulness of its advice, instead choosing to play it safe with “Just Say No”. Which always works so well.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 May 2009 at 5:10 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

A pioneering project linking together millions of computers around the world, all in the name of finding out whether we are alone in the universe, turned ten this week. SETI@home (SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) was launched on 17th May 1999 and broke new ground in harnessing your idle computer time to crack some of science’s greatest questions. The internet is now awash with similar projects such as or the World Community Grid but SETI@home was the first such scientific distributed computing project.

The project regularly farms out data from signals captured by the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico straight to your desktop. Then when you pop out for a quick cuppa it uses your computer to trawl the radio waves for signs of artificial messages sent by alien civilisations.

Unsurprisingly the search thus far has been fruitless. The usual needle and haystack analogies just don’t cut it when it comes to what the project is looking for. For a more in depth look the current state of SETI, including where astronomers are looking and how likely they are to find them, you can read my account of it here. To borrow a quote from it, what the astronomers behind SETI@home are doing is “casting their nets a few times into a vast ocean of interstellar signals, searching for a minute bottle that may, perhaps, contain a tiny piece of paper.” That’s the thing, we don’t even know if what we are looking for exists, let alone exactly where to look for it.

However, we shouldn’t give up hope of receiving an interstellar phone call from our galactic cousins. The work SETI@home continues to do, based wholly on charitable donations, could yet provide the most momentous discovery in the history of science. Happy Birthday SETI@home!

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7 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 May 2009 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

Doing the rounds this week is a story about a £300,000 government-funded research project that took three years to establish that ducks like water. Sounds like a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money, but is it? The newspapers certainly seem to think so:

Ducks like water study ‘waste of £300,000 taxpayers’ money’ – The Guardian
Boffins’ £300k study finds ducks like rain – The Sun
Farmers condemn £300,000 Defra ducks survey – The Telegraph
Just quackers! Government spends £300,000 on three-year study to show ducks like rain – The Daily Mail

The study in question, Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare, was published nearly a year ago in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers, from Oxford University, aimed to investigate the welfare of ducks reared for meat, as there is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide the waterfowl access to bathing or swimming water. Many ducks only contact with water is in the form of drinking water from so-called “nipples” – basically a small tube.

Depriving ducks of water is a bit like the much vilified battery-farming method of rearing chickens. By placing the animals in an environment very far from one they would find in the wild, farmers sacrifice animal welfare in order to make a profit.

This is not the most glamorous of scientific studies, but it could have wide-reaching implications. Approximately 18 million ducks were reared for their meat in 2006, so the welfare of a large number of animals could be affected.

With this in mind, researchers tested the effects of four different water sources on ducks. The birds had access to either a bath for swimming, a trough for dipping their heads in and splashing water on their bodies, or an overhead shower. The fourth group’s only access to water was through the nipple drinkers, which were also given to the other three groups. Over the course of a month or so, the ducks were inspected to monitor the conditions of their eyes, nostrils and feathers, as well as their behaviour and ability to walk.

The results showed that the ducks deprived of bathing water were not as healthy as the others. The condition of both their bodies and plumage were affected – surely quite important if you’re trying to rear healthy ducks for the dinner table. It didn’t seem to matter what form the ducks’ access to water came in – baths, troughs or showers all did the trick. The researchers recommend that farmers stick to showers, as they are easier and cheaper to maintain.

So yes, you could say that with help of £294,027 from Defra, (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) scientists were able to conclude that ducks like water. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you actually bother to research the details then you no longer have a news story. Journalists could have gone and read the paper, which is easily understandable even to the layperson, or perhaps looked up the Defra report. But they didn’t. With the media calling for MPs’ heads to roll over the current expenses scandal, another opportunity to attack wasteful government spending is always welcome. This story isn’t really about science – it’s politics.

Piecing together the background of this story, I suspect that it has been engineered by the TaxPayers’s Alliance. This organisation campaigns for lower taxes, and criticises wasteful spending of public money.

The TPA have their own take on the story, written as if it were a response to a report in the Daily Star. Curiously though, the Star piece has a quote from Susie Squires, the TPA campaign manager. Squires appears in many of the other newspapers’ reports as well.

Despite claiming to be an “independent grassroots campaign” against “politicians of all parties”, the TPA have a distinctly Conservative streak. Two of its founders, Andrew Allum and Florence Heath were both leaders of the Imperial College Conservative association, and Allum was previously a Conservative member of Westminster City Council. The other, Matthew Elliot, has received numerous Conservative awards.

It appears to me that this “story” has been manufactured by the TaxPayer’s Alliance in order to attack the Labour government whilst it is still reeling from the expenses row. The scientists who carried out the original research have unfortunately been caught in the cross-fire of a political battle, that has little to do with the actual subject of the study.

In the grand scheme of things, £300,000 to improve animal welfare is a small amount of money. In 2004, when this research began, Defra had a budget of £3.153 billion – meaning this research accounted for less than 0.01% of the total cash available. It’s easy to mock scientific research like this, but perhaps journalists should do some research of their own before writing up their stories.

JONES, T., WAITT, C., & DAWKINS, M. (2009). Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116 (1), 52-57 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.07.008

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 20 May 2009 at 11:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Everything from electric cars to mobile phones could soon be powered by air. A new type of battery promises ten times the energy storage of current designs by sucking in oxygen to recharge.

Research led by scientists at the University of St Andrews and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has resulted in new battery design that is both ligher and smaller than its predecessors – a definite plus for electric cars.

The STAIR (St Andrews Air) cell, designed with the help of partners in Strathclyde and Newcastle, uses porous carbon as a replacement for lithium cobalt oxide. This change of material, combined with a more compact size, means that the new batteries will be much cheaper.

The battery is charged as normal, but as its energy is drained oxygen from the air is drawn through its surface. Then, the oxygen reacts with the pores in the carbon to create more energy and recharge the draining battery.

Oxygen drawn from the air reacts within the porous carbon to release the electrical charge in this lithium-air battery.
Oxygen drawn from the air reacts within the porous carbon to release the electrical charge in this lithium-air battery.

Leading the four-year research project is Professor Peter Bruce of the St Andrews Chemistry Department:

“Our target is to get a five to ten fold increase in storage capacity, which is beyond the horizon of current lithium batteries. Our results so far are very encouraging and have far exceeded our expectations.

“The key is to use oxygen in the air as a re-agent, rather than carry the necessary chemicals around inside the battery.”

You won’t be running on air just yet though, as further investigation in to the chemical reaction of the battery is needed. The team hope to build a small STAIR cell prototype soon, with the intention to power small devices such as mobile phones or MP3 players.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 8:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Today marked my first appearance on Imperial College radio, on Mission Impossible, the official sci-comm radio show. Joining me from the blog was Sam, and the role of producer lay in Colin’s capable hands. If you’d like to have a listen, you can stream the show here – it actually begins about 4 minutes in, after some music. Presenting this week are Tim and Felicity, with Adam on the mixing desk. The show consists of:

  • A run-down of the latest science news.
  • Discussion with our studio guest of the week, PhD student Christina.
  • Report from the British Association of Planetaria conference
  • Scientific version of Call My Bluff.
  • Interview with Professor Wendy Barclay about her recent bird flu research.
  • Preview of Emergency in the Womb, a documentary on Channel 4 later this week.
  • Interview with P.D. Smith, author of the book Doomsday Men.
  • And finally, a roundup of the latest Web2.0 news.

Mission Impossible is broadcast every week, although myself, Colin and Sam will only be on fortnightly. The other weeks are handled by another team, including Seth and Jess. If you want to check out their first show from last week, you can stream it here.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy

On the Guardian website last week, George Monbiot launched an all out attack on UK science funding entitled ‘These men would’ve stopped Darwin’. The men he is attacking are current research council bosses, as well as Lord Drayson, minister for science and innovation. Monbiot accuses them of damaging economic interference in science funding.

Last month’s budget ringfenced £106 million for science that showed “economic potential”. This was accompanied by a new mandate from research councils, asking that all new grant applications include a rundown of the research’s economic implications.

UK science is certainly becoming more business savvy. And this is changing how science is done. But it is not necessarily damaging it. Monbiot jumps from arguing that economic aims should not control scientific funding to the conclusion that scientists’ imaginations alone should have that job. For him, proper science is when scientists are free to pursue their passions; “it is about wonder and insight and beauty”.  He puts an absolute divide between scientist-led science and business-led science. If economic interests encroach on science funding, then, according to Monbiot,  scientist-led science will disappear.

But this is going too far. There is no great chasm between what scientists aim at and commercial aims. There is certainly tension between the two, but they are not distinct. Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York uses one particular example to illustrate this. Research into the biological processes behind cancer has been productive in recent years. So much so that work at the level of cell-processes is almost complete. In order to increase our understanding in this area, and perhaps develop new treatment, we do not need more medicalresearch but better computer-modelling. We need more mathematical research. If mathematicians working in abstract areas had not been publically funded over the last few decades, then we would be much further away from the relevant models.  The economic potential of new cancer treatments is huge. Whichever mathematicians get there first will open up the road to large-scale commercial possibilities. But this could not have been foreseen. IT was serendipitous.

Lord  Drayson’s response on Sunday made this point. Unfortunately, it was lost alongside both his defense of his own commercial record and forceful, pro-Labour concluding remarks. 

Drayson agreed that scientific serendipity is a necessary part of how science works, and that this scientist-led science should be protected. But this does exclude asking scientists to consider the economic implications of their work. Nor does it make it any easier to ask for more science funding from Alastair Darling’s already tight budget without promising the money to projects with economic potential.

Public spending on science is justified in one of two ways:

(1) Science is an academic discipline that finds out wonderful things.

(2) Science is part of the foundation of a knowledge economy and it’s output will help improve the economic climate.

Neither fully captures the real need for continued spending on science – that is a mixture of the two. But what Monbiot fails to acknowledge is the importance of the second. If you are in the business of convincing politicians to give more money to science, then talking in terms of economic outcomes looks like the more profitable route. And so that is the rhetoric that Drayson et al needs to use, even if they know in reality science doesn’t quite work like that.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 6:18 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Musings

The other day Jacob wrote about Susan Greenfield’s claim that Facebook can make you fat. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Internet can change the structure of your brain. However, it seems fairly self-evident to me that web 2.0 technology is offering us ways to change how we live and think.

We have greater freedom to express our thoughts and opinions to both friends and strangers through Twitter, Facebook, comment forums and blogs like this. Even Gordon Brown has got in on the action by broadcasting on YouTube.

The Internet offers better medium for dialogue than traditional print or broadcast media. Do web 2.0 technologies have the potential to change the fundamental structure of our society?

Brian Appleyard, writing for the Sunday Times, doesn’t think so. He argues that it is historically ignorant to believe that technology can fundamentally change society:

“”The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passé . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

Edgerton is the world expert in tech dead ends. Fifty years ago, he points out, nuclear power was about to change the world; then there was supersonic passenger flight, then space travel. The wheel, he concedes, did change the world, as did steam power. The web is not in that league.”

I’m not really convinced by this argument. I agree that there are a plethora of ‘revolutionary’ technologies which failed to change the world, but communication technologies (like television, radio or newspapers) did change the very structure our society. The extent to which they did is difficult to articulate because of the difficulty for us to imagine our lives without them.

Similarly, I don’t think that blogging, twittering and the like are an optional fad which will simply be incorporated into our existing cultural framework. In western society we live a culture intensely interested in celebrity. Web 2.0 technology offers a way for people to express their need to be recognised and acknowledged by a wider audience than just the people they see in the pub.

I recently attended a talk at the dana centre (Dinner@Dana: Social Surveillance) which questioned whether sites like Facebook endanger our privacy. I don’t think this is the question we need to be asking. We should instead be asking how new technologies will change the way we think about privacy itself. If new generations grow up micro-broadcasting and making their lives public to others it seems likely that our current notions of ‘privacy’ will gradually be replaced by a very different animal.

So, whilst I don’t think the Internet has the potential to change our brains, I think it does have the potential to change the way we think.

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13 Comments » Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Despite the tobacco industry’s many decades spent telling us that cigarettes are perfectly fine, nowadays everyone understands that smoking is harmful. Research using cells from mice has found an interesting twist however: cigarette smoke may help prevent allergies.

Scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands extracted mast cells from mice and treated them with a cigarette smoke-infused solution. Mast cells play a key role in the inflammatory process and the body’s response to allergens.

The cigarette smoke prevented the release of proteins associated with allergic reaction, without interfering with the mast cells’ other functions. The researchers are confident that the same effect would be observed in human cells, but caution against taken up smoking to cure allergies.

Perhaps we’ll actually be seeing more people give up smoking, thanks to another study published in the June issue of Prevention Science. Researchers investigating the effect of smoking bans on employment in bars and restaurants found that so-called “clean indoor air” policies did not harm people’s jobs.

Scientists at Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota looked at eight cities in Minnesota with smoking bans, and two with no such laws. Some of the bans prohibit all workplaces, whilst others exempt bars.

They found that over a 45-month period, there was little change in the levels of employment in bars and restaurants. This puts quite a dent in smoking ban opponents, who often claim that such businesses would be aversely effected by anti-smoking laws. Lead author Elizabeth Klein is assistant professor of health behaviour and health promotion at Ohio State University, and hopes that her study will be of use in future policy decisions:

“In the end we can say there isn’t a significant economic effect by type of clean indoor air policy, which should give us more support for maintaining the most beneficial public health policies,

“The public health benefit clearly comes from a comprehensive policy where all employees are protected from exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.”

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 May 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Were Neanderthals wiped out by our stomachs?

Bit of a strange one this. A study published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences suggests a possible explanation for the disappearance of the Neanderthals – we ate them.

A Neanderthal jawbone appears to show marks similar to those found on deer remains from the early Stone Age. Lead researcher Fernando Rozzi, of the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris, believes that this idea has been suppressed in the past. “For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.”

I’m not sure eating Neanderthals is technically cannibalism, as they are a different species, but they’re human enough to make it pretty creepy. Urgh.

Beware the “super rats”

The governing principle of natural selection is that the fittest survive. In the case of rats, those with a genetic resistance to poison will survive attempts to exterminate them, and pass on this immunity to their descendants. Before you know it, we’ll be over-run by super rats.

Ratcatchers in Swindon are reporting a 500% increase in rodent populations, and Professor Robert Smith of the University of Huddersfield thinks that Darwin is to blame:

“Natural selection means that when you have a rat population in your town, poison will kill the ones that aren’t resistant, the ones that survive may have the gene, they then have babies who can receive the gene themselves,” he said.

“There are mutations and changes in their DNA that alter the ability of rats to deal with these poisons. It appears to be moving west and has now been located in Swindon and Bristol. It is a warning of things to come.”

An appropriate photo for Sunday

You may have already seen this image circulated around the press, but it’s worth another look:

The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)
The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)

Earlier this week astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis undertook a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, and photographer Thierry Legault managed to catch them in the act. The spaceships appear as tiny dots in front of the vast Sun, but you can just make out the iconic shape of the Shuttle. More pics available here.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 16 May 2009 at 4:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Whilst we are all more focussed on swine flu these days, the threat of avian influenza or “bird flu” is still present. New research from Imperial College and the University of North Carolina suggests we may not have to worry however, because our noses are just too cold.

It sounds strange, but the 32° Celsius of the human nose is not a high enough temperature for avian influenza viruses to survive, according to the study published in PLoS Pathogens. The viruses normally infect the guts of birds, typically a warmer 40° Celsius, so the researchers suspect that our lower temperature protects us. The avian influenza viruses normally enter the human body through the nose, so are unlikely to infect people and cause illness.

There is also the possibility that a human influenza virus could mutate by adapting proteins from an avian influenza virus. The study shows that a virus of this form would also struggle to take hold at 32° Celsius, just like the regular avian influenza virus, so we would be safe unless the virus mutated further.

Thankfully, no one had to catch the flu to conduct this research. Cells from the human airway were grown in the lab and then infected with a selection of human and avian viruses. Whilst the human varieties thrived at both 37° Celsius, our core body temperature, and at 32° Celsius, the avian viruses could only grow well at 37° Celsius.

Professor Wendy Barclay, one of the authors of the study from the Division of Investigative Science at Imperial College said:

“It would be impossible to develop vaccines against all 16 subtypes of avian flu, so we need to prioritise. By studying a range of different viruses in systems like this one we can look for warnings that they are already beginning to make the kinds of genetic changes in nature that mean they could be poised to jump into humans; animal viruses that spread well at low temperatures in these cultures could be more likely to cause the next pandemic than those which are restricted.”

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 15 May 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

The mainstream media just cannot get enough of Facebook, Twitter, and all that Web 2.0 jazz. Baroness Susan Greenfield seems to have cottoned on to this fact, and now seems to make regular media appearances to warn us all about the dangers of such things.

Her latest claim is that Facebook makes you fat. We’ve had cancer and poor grades in the past, but now Greenfield says that computer games and social networking sites could be altering our brains to make us eat more.

She blames the lack of consequence in virtual worlds for “‘infantilising” our brains, leading to people eating too much because they don’t think about the ramifications. You can’t make this stuff up – unless you’re Baroness Susan Greenfield of course. Speaking at a science seminar in the House of Lords, she also blamed computers for the rise in ADHD:

“This is just a suggestion, I am not saying it is a causal relationship. But surely if we are exposing our brains to an environment that has a short attention span, if that happens to you in your first few years of life for long periods of time, might it be the case that when they go to school and are asked to sit still for half an hour, might there not be some cases of fidgeting?”

Essentially, she’s saying ‘Look, I haven’t done any research in to this, but I’ve got to be right. It’s science, and I proved it. Only I didn’t.’

The mainstream media listen to Greenfield because she is director of the well respected Royal Institution. I cannot fathom how she remains in this position whilst also spouting her own opinions as scientific fact. Perhaps if my mind hadn’t been horrible addled by computer use, I’d be able to understand.

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 15 May 2009 at 5:47 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology

About a month ago, I wrote about the surprising finding that energy drinks could improve performance in cycling time trials without even being swallowed, only tasted. This week the papers have been awash with articles deriding sports drinks as overpriced, and no more effective than cereal.

Milk and cereal as good as expensive sports drinks in boosting performance‘, claims the Telegraph. ‘Forget your costly sports drinks, try a bowl of corn flakes instead‘, advises the Mail. ‘Gym fans are better off skipping costly sports drinks for a bowl of cereal after workouts’, The Sun tells us.

The source for this story is a paper in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (which you can see yourself for free here). The authors had 12 cyclists fast for 12 hours then do two hours of moderate exercise, after which they were given either wheat cereal with milk or a sports drink. As the Telegraph tells us:

They found that the traditional breakfast was just as good at replenishing blood sugar and insulin levels and that protein production was even better than with the so-called energy drinks.The milk also helped reduce lactic acid levels in the blood, the compound that causes stiffness after exercise.

I’m not quite sure how those results led to the headline about ‘boosting performance’, but never mind. The results don’t seem especially surprising. You go without food for 14 hours, the last two of which are spent exercising, you eat something, and blood sugar goes up. Insulin goes up too – it generally follows blood sugar pretty closely. Milk, unlike energy drinks, is rich in protein, so it’s not surprising that protein synthesis was boosted, too. I would imagine that you’d see a similar effect on these parameters if you eat anything with carbohydrate and protein in it under those circumstances. Why did the University of Texas team want to show us the benefits of eating cereal?

The answer can be found in the acknowledgements section of the paper: ‘This project was supported by Wheaties and the General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition’. General Mills, if you weren’t aware, is the giant food company that produces various cereals, including Cheerios and Wheaties.

Newspapers are supposed to be struggling for advertising revenue. It’s not surprising when they publish editorial content that gives companies a more ringing endorsement than anything they might pay the paper to put in as an advert. All General Mills had to do was cough up 12 bowls of cereal and have some scientists publish a tiny study in a not-too-scrupulous journal.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 15 May 2009 at 1:40 pm by Emma Stokes
In Health & Medicine

A team at Yale University have used incredibly small plastic particles to smuggle therapies into cells. Their paper, published this week in Nature Materials, has possible implications for the treatment of HIV.

Small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules have proved effective at stopping the HIV virus from reproducing in animal models. They can inactivate genes in the cells that HIV infects, so the virus is unable to enter these cells and spread. Lead author Kim Woodrow explains how the aim of this study was to produce a way of delivering these particles using nano sized plastic beads that was “safe and effective, and much easier than getting an injection of vaccine”.

To investigate whether the nanotechnology approach would work, they used an siRNA which inactivates the production of a green fluorescent protein. They then packaged the siRNAs into the plastic nanoparticles, and administered them into the vaginas of mice engineered to produce these fluorescent proteins. This gave them an easy way to track how well the delivery system worked, by simply checking the level and location of fluorescence.

The nanoparticles successfully penetrated the cells below the surface of the vaginal wall, spread through the reproductive system, and remained effective for up to 14 days. Crucially, the mice did not show signs of irritation, where as mice given the treatment by a traditional method did.

The results indicate that this method of delivery could be used to produce a topical cream containing the siRNA’s to prevent the HIV virus spreading from the source. However, the team have yet to test this method against an actual virus. Senior author E. Mark Salzman is hopeful though, and is planning ahead. He said “our next step in research will be to test this approach directly in disease models – for example in the HIV model mice.”

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5 Comments » Posted on Thursday 14 May 2009 at 6:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

We complain about it all the time. Journalists take a small study with some preliminary findings and write it up as the story of a century. The sensationalising of science news is certainly a problem in the media, but a new study suggests perhaps we are too quick to blame the journos.

A paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examines the content of 200 randomly selected press releases from 20 academic medical centres in the US. The analysis by lead authors Drs Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz shows that press officers are just as bad when it comes to exaggeration.

The press releases split in to 113 that focused on human research with the remaining 87 covering animal or laboratory research. On the human side, 40% reported on studies limited by factors like small sample sizes. Of the same group, 42% failed to provide caveats explaining the limits of the research.

Things get worse for the animal and laboratory studies press releases. Despite the majority claiming the relevance of the research to human health, 90% failed to mention potential difficulties in extrapolating the results to people.

In total, 29% of releases were rated by the authors as exaggerating the importance of research. Animal research was more likely to be exaggerated than human. It’s not just the press officers grandstanding however. Most press releases contain quotes from the scientists involved, and 26% of these were found to overstate research importance.

The authors admit that their findings would be stronger if backed up by an analysis of the press coverage resulting from these releases, but say the study is still important because press releases are known to be influential. A previous study suggests that as many as one third of news stories rely mostly or completely on a press release.

S. Woloshin, L. M. Schwartz, S. L. Casella, A. T. Kennedy, & R. J. Larson (2009). Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 613-618

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 13 May 2009 at 9:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Men prone to exaggerating their suffering when struck down with a cold often jokingly refer to “man flu” – the implication being that the illness is much more severe than anything their unsympathetic wives and girlfriends might catch. Perhaps men are owed an apology however, as a Canadian study has shown that male immune systems may not be as strong as women’s.

Scientists at McGill University discovered that the female sex hormone oestrogen can stop an enzyme from interfering with the body’s defences against bacteria and viruses. The enzyme Caspase-12 stops the natural inflammatory process which works to fight off infections, so the researchers used mice to find out how it works.

By implanting the human gene for Caspase-12 in to mice they discovered that the males became more prone to infection. The females however retained the natural resistance of mice without the Caspase-12 gene. Lead researcher Dr Maya Saleh and her colleagues concluded that oestrogen in the female mice were responsible for the difference.

“These results demonstrate that women have a more powerful inflammatory response than men,” she said. The team are confident that their research will also apply to humans, because they used a human gene.

They suggest that women could have evolved a better immune system because their health is key to being able to reproduce, a view shared by Dr Lesley Knapp, of the University of Cambridge:

“Women are well known to be able to respond more robustly to infections, and to recover more quickly than men.

“In evolutionary terms it only takes one male to reproduce with lots of females, but females are much more important in terms of producing offspring.”

The research could lead to new immune system aids through genetic manipulation. But then how would men complain when they got the sniffles?

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 May 2009 at 5:07 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Evolution, Physics

Like Jacob, I wrote for two outlets. It’s quite interesting to see how the story changes almost entirely for each outlet. 

For British Beekeepers Association News…

Bumblebee flight continue to astound scientists

There is an old myth that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. The maths just doesn’t work. A new study from scientists at Oxford University shows that bumblebee flight is indeed more about power than finesse.

The researchers trained bees to fly along a wind tunnel erected between their hive and pollen-rich cut flowers. Smoke in the wind tunnel is disturbed by the flight, making visible the way that bees disturb the air around them. A high-speed camera captured the flight, and those images were analysed to develop a model for the motion of bees in flight.

The idea is very similar to the computer modelling used by swimmers to examine how efficient their stroke is through the water. But unlike athletes, bumblebees have not developed to move efficiently. In fact, the new study shows that the movement of air around the bee betrays a very uneconomical flying technique.

‘We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient,” said Dr Richard Bomphrey, co-author of the report. He explained how a bee’s left and right wings do not flap in sync. And nor does the air flow around the two sides meet up, which would help make the flight more aerodynamic.

His colleague, Professor Adrian Thomas offered a possible reason for the evolution of such a disastrous technique: “a bumblebee is a tanker-truck, its job is to transport nectar and pollen back to the hive. Efficiency is unlikely to be important for that way of life.”

So the flight path between flower and hive resembles the slow lane on the M1 and not a quiet stretch of the Autobahn. But the brute force bees need to keep themselves going is spectacular in its own way. They are the powerhouses of the insect world, defying the mathematics that says they shouldn’t even get off the ground.

For Physicsworld…

Can bees teach us how to fly?

Scientists have shown that bumblebees use a unique technique to propel themselves through the air. In a study published in May in Experiments in Fluids, a team from the Zoology department in Oxford examined the air flow profile of a flying bee. The pattern of vortices created in the air surrounding the bee in novel.

Unfortunately, this novelty is unlikely to be useful for physicists and engineers interested in biomimetic developments in flight technology. The bee’s flying technique only makes it less efficient.

Like other insects and like aeroplane wings, a bumblebee creates a leading edge vortex during flight. It separates the air flow coming towards it at the front edge of its wings and flies by exploiting the resulting pressure difference above and below the wing.

But most insects also create other vortices, called root and tip vortices. The bee does not. Other insects and birds also co-ordinate right and left wing motion to maximise their propulsion. The bee does not do this either.

“We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient,” said Dr Richard Bomphrey, co-author of the study. He added that the technique could have evolved to make bumblebees more manoeuvrable in the air – a facet that might be more valuable for bees than speed through the air.

So, although bees are inefficient flyers, their propulsion technique could be useful for research in other areas. If bees can be shown to have increased control over movement, then they offers a potential model for improving the control we have over airbound vehicles such as helicopters.

More research is needed before we can know if there is any application. But there is a possibility that the bumblebee, the famous example of an animal that flouts the engineering principles of flight, could help us improve our air technology.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 May 2009 at 11:25 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

This post is my first assignment for the Print module of the Imperial course. We had to write up a press release for a typical news outlet, as well as providing a second opening paragraph for alternate view on the same story.

For The Times

Bacon, sausages and pork chops are all mainstays of British cuisine, and in the last decade pig farmers have been breeding animals with less fat. Whilst this is good news for health-conscious shoppers, it comes at the cost of the meat’s flavour. Now, a new research project at the University of West England (UWE) intends to let us have our pork and eat it by breeding pigs with both healthy and good tasting meat.

Working with the Institute of Biosensing Technology, scientists at UWE intend to create a genetic test that will allow breeders to select the best pigs. Pigs bred using this test would not be genetically modified, but merely identified and then reared in the usual way.

Such a test could be widely used, according to statistics released by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2005 showing pork makes up almost half of the world’s meat consumption.

The project is entitled ‘Genetic control of fat partitioning in pigs’ and will be undertaken by PhD student Duncan Marriot, who explained the need for his research:

“Pigs need to be leaner to produce healthy meat but to carry sufficient intramuscular fat to maintain good eating quality.

“My challenge is to identify the genes controlling both the intramuscular and subcutaneous fat content in different breeds,” he said.

These two types of fat govern the quality and healthiness of meat. Subcutaneous fat is undesirable and unhealthy, but intramuscular fat gives pork its tenderness and juiciness. Without this intramuscular fat, commonly known as “marbling”, meat tends to be dry and tasteless.

For the Natural Law Party

Scientists have announced a new research project to genetically engineer British pigs. The Institute of Biosensing Technology will allow student Duncan Marriot to genetically test pigs in order to make them taste better.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 11 May 2009 at 3:15 pm by Seth Bell
In Inventions & Technology

It didn’t work out so well for the three little pigs, but it turns out that houses made of straw may be more resistant to huffing and puffing than the old fairytale makes out. Tests have been carried out at the University of Nevada to see whether houses made mainly of straw can remain stable during serious earthquakes. And they can.

The houses, designed by the team at the University of Nevada and the non-profit organisation ‘Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building’ (PAKSBAB), were tested at the Large-Scale Structures Laboratory at Nevada and subjected to seven simulated earthquakes of increasing magnitude. The houses remained standing even after the final and most powerful test.

Admittedly the houses are not just made of straw. The straw is used as a load-bearing component and for insulation, whilst the foundations rest on clay and gravel. Importantly, the houses are relatively simple to build and all the additional materials are cheap and locally available in developing countries, giving them an advantage over existing straw house designs.

There have already been nine such houses built in Mansehra in Pakistan, a region devastated by an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale in 2005, which left over three million people homeless. The results of the earthquake tests are encouraging and may help minimise the impact of future earthquakes in countries such as Pakistan. PAKSBAB already runs a programme which helps local residents learn how to build the houses.

Meanwhile in the UK, North Kesteven District Council in Lincolnshire has recently announced that they too will soon be building straw houses as a way of providing affordable housing. The straw provides such good insulation that the houses will not require a central heating system.

Straw houses are showing a lot of promise in both developing and developed countries. Who thinks those three little pigs will be moving back to their old digs?

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 11 May 2009 at 8:02 am by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

I was going to write about the AQA exam paper today, but decided to push ahead with it yesterday because people were asking to see the paper. As such I’ve only got a little “bonus” link on offer for you this morning: the MegaPenny Project.

People often have difficult wrestling with big numbers like a million or a billion. It’s very hard to picture a billion of anything, but billions and even trillions are tossed around the news all the time these days. I found the MegaPenny Project a number of years ago, and it’s really great for visualing these types of large numbers. Starting with a single US penny the site builds to a massive quntillion, 1 followed by 18 zeros, in pennies by using handy comparisons like a person, a school bus, or the Empire State Building. A bit more than a small chunk of change then.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 5:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Daily Mail have reported that the Government are indoctrinating children into supporting the MMR vaccine. It seems that in the January 2008 Biology GCSE paper pupils were awarded marks for criticising the controversial Andrew Wakefield paper on the link between MMR and autism.

The paper was set by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) exam board, who have since “apologised for any misunderstanding” and removed the exam from their website despite it being nearly 18 months old. I managed to track down both the paper and it’s accompanying mark scheme with a little Google sleuthing.

Question 5 is the relevant one. Part (a) asks pupils to explain how the MMR vaccine protects children from measles, mumps and rubella, whilst part (b) focuses specifically on Wakefield and his 1998 paper in The Lancet. Pupils must read the following passage and then answer some questions:

Autism is a brain disorder that can result in behavioural problems. In 1998, Dr Andrew Wakefield published a report in a medical journal. Dr Wakefield and his colleagues had carried out tests on 12 autistic children.

Dr Wakefield and his colleagues claimed to have found a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Dr Wakefield wrote that the parents of eight of the twelve children blamed the MMR vaccine for autism. He said that symptoms of autism had started within days of vaccination.

Some newspapers used parts of the report in scare stories about the MMR vaccine. As a result, many parents refused to have their children vaccinated.

Dr Wakefield’s research was being funded through solicitors for the twelve children. The lawyers wanted evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers.

The questions are:

(i) Was Dr Wakefield’s report based on reliable scientific evidence? Explain the reasons for your answer.

(ii) Might Dr Wakefield’s report have been biased? Give the reason for your answer.

For question (i) the mark scheme requires an answer of “no”, along with any two of the following: “sample size small / only 12″, “conclusion based on hearsay from parents”, “only 8 parents linked autism to MMR”, and “no control used”. The answer to question (ii) is given as “yes, being paid by parents / lawyers”.

The Daily Mail received the following response from Wakefield:

“The thought police appear to be saying, “To pass this exam you have to adopt this particular point of view.”

“We didn’t make any claims that MMR was the cause of anything. The exam question completely misrepresents what we said. The Lancet study received no funding whatsoever.”

Unfortunately for Wakefield, the lack of a link between MMR and autism is not just a “particular point of view”, but scientific consensus backed up by numerous studies contradicting his original in The Lancet. The exam question gives an accurate (if simplified) account of what happened.

This “controversy” over the exam is actually a complete fabrication by the Daily Mail. Their story tells us the Goverment has been accused of using the exam paper as indoctrination, but fails to mention who’s doing the accusing. It seems quite possible that the story’s author, Beezy Marsh, is also its subject. She is a well known opponent of MMR, as documented by Ben Goldacre.

It’s worth discussing though whether a question like this belongs on a GCSE Biology paper. Should pupils merely demonstrate that they know a bunch of scientific facts, or should they be awarded marks on their ability to understand scientific controversy?

I’d say the latter is an important part of the curriculum, and the Wakefield saga is definitely a suitable topic for the classroom. As a specific exam question however, I’m not so sure. The details behind the incident require an explanation more complicated than the few dotted lines provided by AQA allow.

It’s also incredibly cowardly of AQA to remove the paper from their website the moment “controversy” rears its head, which is why I’ve upload it to Just A Theory (scroll up for the link) for anyone to read. They’ve clearly thought about the response to the question though. An AQA report on the exam paper, which remains on their site for now at least, evaluates pupils answers.

In part (b) many candidates did not seem to appreciate the difference between bias and reliable evidence, often transposing the answers to (b)(i) and (b)(ii). In part (b)(i) many candidates offered ‘small sample’ and many others ‘reliance on parents’ opinion’, but only 10 % identified both ideas. In part (b)(ii) it was surprising that only half of the candidates recognised that payment by solicitors could lead to bias.

The fact that only half of the thousands of students taking the paper thought money changing hands might influence Wakefield’s decision shows that this is definitely a topic that should be covered in the curriculum. I’m just not sure that this particular exam question is appropriate. As for the Daily Mail’s accusation of “brainwashing”, perhaps a GCSE English retake is in order.

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Oxygen never looked so cute

Here is a really nice computer animation produced by Christopher Hendryx for his graduate thesis. It shows the interactions that an oxygen atom can have with other elements in the periodic table. I hope he makes more!

Just be glad they’re really tiny

An amoeba is a single-cell organism that floats around eating other smaller organisms like bacteria. It’s a bit like PacMan. Sounds pretty harmless you might thank, but I challenge you to watch this time-lapse video of an amoeba in action without recoiling in terror.

A chocolate-powered racing car

Slightly more useful than a chocolate tea pot, a team at Warwick University have constructed a car built from vegetables and powered by chocolate.

Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.
Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.

The unusual construction materials were created by blending vegetable fibres with resin, in order to demonstrate that green cars don’t have to be slow. Unfortunately the car is not eligible to enter the Formula 3 races it was designed for, because chocolate fuel fails to meet regulations.

5 Comments » Posted on Saturday 9 May 2009 at 12:44 pm by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

Quite understandably, Jacob loves to rant on these pages about the bullshit scientific formula stories that reduce complex processes into a nice-looking arrangement of a few variables, contributing precisely nothing to the sum of human knowledge. But when it comes to the regulation of body weight, the equation is both incontrovertibly true and cruelly simple:

Weight gain = Energy intake – Energy expenditure

If you want to lose weight then, it’s a simple matter of eating less and doing more exercise. Meanwhile, the alarming rise in obesity levels in developed countries in recent decades can be put down to some combination of eating more and doing less. For those concerned with halting the upward trend, the question of which side of the equation to focus on has been a matter of debate.

To address this issue, scientists at the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Australia studied 1,399 adults and 963 children to find out the rate at which they burn calories in daily life. From this, they worked out how many calories an adult needs to eat to maintain a stable weight and how much a child needs to eat to follow a normal growth curve. Based on these numbers and data on food consumption in the United States since the 1970s, they calculated how much weight they would expect the average American to have gained in this time if energy expenditure had remained unchanged.

In children, the expected weight gain exactly matched the actual figures, suggesting that diet alone could account for the rise in childhood obesity. In adults, the expected weight gain was 10.8kg, compared with the actual figure of 8.6kg. It seems then, that increased food consumption could account for the rise in obesity in the adult population as well, and in fact an increase in energy expenditure might be offsetting the average American’s overeating to make for a less substantial weight gain.

The centre’s director, Professor Boyd Swinburn, presented their findings at the European Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam yesterday. He said that the results would be similar in other developed countries. ‘To return to the average weights of the 1970s, we would need to reverse the increased food intake of about 350 calories a day for children (about one can of fizzy drink and a small portion of French fries) and 500 calories a day for adults (about one large hamburger),’ he said. ‘Alternatively, we could achieve similar results by increasing physical activity by about 150 minutes a day of extra walking for children and 110 minutes for adults, but realistically, although a combination of both is needed, the focus would have to be on reducing calorie intake.’

I think the use of simple maths like this to figure out something important is great. Now we must think about how to make people eat less, which we know is tricky because we’ve been trying to do that for a while. Food labelling, as Jacob discusses in the previous post, certainly has a role to play. Education is important too, but clearly there are no quick fixes to the obesity epidemic.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 9 May 2009 at 12:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

How should you decide what to eat in order to stay healthy? You could listen to your supposed “angel and devil“, but a more sensible approach is to look at nutritional labels on food packaging. Two recent and independent reports reveal that the “traffic light” system for food labelling is the best approach from consumers. The food industry is resistant to this system however, so government regulation could be required.

The traffic light system
The traffic light system

UK readers will be familiar with these types of labels from supermarkets like Sainsburys. Each segment gives numerical information about the food’s nutritional value, but you can get a very quick idea of how healthy a product is by just glancing at the colours. Green represents low values of fat, sugar and so on, whilst amber and red are medium and high values respectively. Everyone has an intrinsic understanding of what these colours mean, so this easy to use labelling scheme is the Food Standards Agency (FSA) preference.

A study conducted in Australia supports the FSA position. Bridget Kelly, a nutritionist at the Cancer Council, New South Wales in Australia, and colleagues examined four different labelling schemes. She found that those participants shown the traffic light labels were five times more likely to identify healthier foods compared to percentage daily intake labels.

The Guideline Daily Amounts sysem.
The Guideline Daily Amounts system.

These labels are known as Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) in the UK. The system was developed by food manufacturers and retailers, and is used by supermarkets such as Tesco.

GDA represents a food’s nutritional information as a percentage of a typical adult’s guideline daily amount. It makes for more accurate comparisons than the traffic light system, but can be harder to use. It is the preferred industry method because it avoids an overload of red traffic lights – a complete turn-off for any health-conscious shopper.

“The food industry tends to favour the percentage daily intake method (known as Guideline Daily Amount in some countries), but our research indicates that the traffic light system is the most effective and that a consistent labelling approach across all food products is needed. This is unlikely to be achieved without government regulation,” said Kelly

An independent report for the FSA this week published similar findings. The research was carried out by the British Market Research Bureau in association with the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

They agreed that consistent labelling would be of most benefit to consumers, and that combining the high, medium and low traffic light colours with the GDA percentages would create the best system. The research also found that all of these schemes are valued by shoppers in helping them eat healthily.

The importance of proper labelling is highlighted by another recent story. Food perceived as healthy thanks to clever marketing are sometimes quite the opposite. A report last month from Which? on the nutritional value of breakfast cereals illustrates this, with the finding that “brands thought of as healthy, such as Kellogg’s All Bran, Bran Flakes and Special K contained high levels of salt and sugar.” The Which? report also criticised the use of GDAs over traffic lights.

It seems that support for a single labelling scheme is growing then. Andrew Wadge, the FSA Chief Scientist, said yesterday he was pleased that pressure was mounting on the parts of the food industry not providing this important labelling information.

He also promised to use this research to advise Health Minister on the way forward. They’ll probably be pretty grateful – Department of Health figures indicate that if our eating habits continue as they are, 90% of the adult UK population will be obese by 2050. It’s time for the traffic lights to change.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 8:52 pm by Emma Stokes
In Health & Medicine

How many times have you heard don’t judge a book by it’s cover? Recently we’ve witnessed the judgement of Susan Boyle on the way she looked on Britain’s Got Talent. Lucky for her it turned out that she had an amazing voice, and everyone quickly apologised, or pretended they didn’t judge in the first place.

But, lets be honest, as humans we build up an opinion of people pretty quickly after meeting them, and a lot of this initial impression has to do with how they look. Of course these impressions change over time, but never the less they’re always formed in the first few minutes of meeting or seeing someone.

Take Connie Culp for example, this week there have been numerous articles about her, as she has become the first US woman to have an almost-total face transplant.  After being shot at point blank range by her husband in 2004, she was left without the middle section of her face. She was lucky to survive in the first place, and has been unable to eat or breathe without a tube in her wind pipe.

She has been afraid to leave the house for four years, as she has been scared of people’s reactions to her.  The clinic’s psychiatrist, described an incident in the street where Ms Culp had overheard the child telling its mother: “You said there were no real monsters, mommy, and there’s one right there.”

In the past face transplants have been criticised for being carried out for more cosmetic reasons than life-saving ones.  The issue of psychological problems has also been raised, in that people could find it difficult to adjust to someone else’s face. However, in Connie’s case, it’s difficult to argue that any psychological problems she could have due to her looks would not have been improved after the surgery.  Then there’s the fact that the transplant will allow her to eat and breathe normally, without the use of a tube in her throat, which will significantly improve her quality of life.

Of course the surgery wasn’t easy, since the shooting she has had six major reconstructions, with a total of thirty operations prior to the face transplant itself.  Her journey is far from over either, as it is thought she will require a further two to three operations to remove excess skin and tissue, along with life-long immunosuppressive drugs.  The methods used stem from traditional plastic surgery techniques, along with some pioneering new technology and skilled surgeons. Without people having plastic surgery for purely cosmetic reasons, the field is unlikely to be as developed, or as well funded as it is now.

Face transplants are complex, carry numerous risks, and result in life time reliance on immunosuppressants. But, as much as they are criticised, they are an impressive medical development that has come out of plastic surgery.  And so what if they’re for cosmetic reasons? If the disfigurement is as severe as Connie’s, and seriously affects her quality of life, then surely nobody can argue against them?

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 10:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

Last month it was widely reported that a study had found Facebook users have lower grades. At the time I had my doubts about some of the conclusions newspapers were drawing. Now a new study criticises the original, and finds no link between Facebook and grades.

The authors were unhappy that although the previous study, which they refer to as “FG”, only looked at simple correlation, ‘Facebook harms grades’ became an established fact as it disseminated through the media. They found 500 references to this in three day span, despite the “unpublished and inadequately reviewed” FG study being merely reported in a press release.

It’s not just the media at fault though. They say the FG study used a sample of convenience which did not adequately reflect the population it sought to examine. It was heavily weighted to graduate students with only six first- and second-years, making it “unrepresentative of any university population at all”. Other aspects of the FG study, such as a lack of control for demographic variables, also come under fire.

Not content with mere criticism, the paper also describes a new study lead by Josh Pasek, a Ph.D. candidate in political communication at Stanford University. The researchers looked at three groups of students. One consisted of 1,060 first-years at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), whilst two others were drawn from a larger study, the annual National Annenberg Survey of Youth (NASY), for another 1,250 participants.

In all three groups there was no negative link found between grade point averages (the typical US measure of academic performance) and Facebook use. Results were mixed, either showing no correlation or a small positive one – Facebook users were more likely to have slightly higher grades. This increase was not statistically significant however when limiting the sample to just university students, as the previous FG study did.

The researchers are quick to point out that their results should not be used as a definitive answer to the question of Facebook’s effect on grades. They warn that since Facebook only emerged in 2004 it could be too early to tell, and predictions are difficult because of our “constantly evolving media environment”. They also point out that excessive participation in any activity, be it browsing Facebook or otherwise, will have an “extreme time replacement effect”. As I said in my post on the FG study, procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can.

Interestingly, published alongside the paper in online journal First Monday is a response from the author of the FG study, Aryn Karpinski of Ohio State University. She defends her study as “merely planned…for a conference”, and makes the fair point that she was a victim of media sensationalism.

Karpinski in turn criticises the new study’s methods, particularly their choice of samples. She argues that the UIC sample of first-years is not representative of the country as a whole, and the NASY survey is invalid as it only had a 45% response rate. It could be that those who didn’t respond are negatively impacted by Facebook use. The statistical methods used in the study are also attacked.

It doesn’t end there. In the same issue of First Monday Pasek et al respond to Karpinski’s response to their study, which was in turn a response to her original study. Perhaps it would have been easier simply to have the discussion on their Facebook wall-to-wall. They defend themselves of course, and ultimately “look forward to a continued rigorous academic dialogue on these issues”. Quite.

Josh Pasek, Eian More, & Eszter Hargittai (2009). Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data First Monday, 14 (5)

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 7 May 2009 at 9:11 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

What were you doing when you were eleven? I was just starting high school having broken my wrist the night before Princess Diana died. Whilst stumbling bleary eyed into my parents bedroom, sporting a plaster cast, and breaking the news of the car crash is still very much a vivid memory it is hardly anything to go down in the annals of history.

The same can’t be said for Venetia Phair who died on the 30th April aged 90. In 1930, aged just eleven, she became the unlikely heroine of world astronomy when she offered the name for a newly discovered planet. Pluto was named over the breakfast table. The story goes that a young Venetia was in Oxford having breakfast with her grandfather Falconer Madan, the retired librarian of The Bodleian Library in the town. In a highly middle class moment the tale tells of Madan reading The Times and relaying the fact that a new planet had been discovered and was yet to be named. The young Venetia who, in an interview with the BBC in 2006, said “I was quite interested in Greek and Roman myths and legends at the time,” suggested that that the planet should bear the name of Pluto, The God of The Underworld. And it stuck.

Venetia Phair, the woman who named Pluto.

Madan just happened to be chums with Herman Turner, Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, who also just so happened to be attending a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society who were discussing possible names for the newly discovered celestial body. Venetia’s suggestion was eventually passed to Clyde Tombaugh, the original discoverer of the planet and Pluto was officially adopted.

What was her reward for such a landmark moment? Five pounds in pocket money from her granddad. It might not sound like much but one estimate puts that at roughly £230 in today’s money, not too shabby for a quick comment over the breakfast table. There was some suggestion that she had named the planet after the Disney character Pluto but it was subsequently proven that her suggestion came first.

Then in 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto’s rank, robbing it of planetary status, instead relegating it to the lowly newly coined group of dwarf planets. All Phair had to say was “I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

What happened to the only woman to ever name a ‘planet’ and only the third person to do so in the history of modern civilisation? She went on to study Mathematics at Cambridge and went on to lecture in economics.

So next time you are having idle chit chat over the morning papers, tread carefully, if you’ve got the right connections you may just find yourself indelibly marked on the pages of history.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 7 May 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Long time readers of Just A Theory will be well aware of my hatred of a well-worn science journalism trope, the “formula for” story. This vile being has a sibling which I’m surprised to realise I’ve never written about: the “gene for” story. In a way this variety of nonsense is much more dangerous, allowing people to blame their genetic makeup for their faults and vices.

A perfect example of this is a recent story in The Telegraph: “Why risk taking runs in the family – scientists find gene that makes you gamble“. The gist is scientists at University College London have discovered that people with the “short” version of a particular gene are more likely to take a gamble than those with the “long” version. In fact, that’s not what they found at all.

Suppose we play a game. I offer you £50, and a choice. You can either keep £20, and give the rest back to me, or you can take a gamble with a 40% chance of winning the whole £50, and a 60% chance of losing everything. If you don’t like that game, we can play a different one. This time I offer you £50, but if you don’t take the gamble you lose £30.

The two games are actually the same, but just framed differently. “Keep £20″ is the the “gain frame” whilst “Lose £30″ is the “loss frame”. The researchers at UCL were investigating the way this “frame effect” can influence the decision making process. Previous research suggests that the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in processing emotions, shows activity when making decisions involving the frame effect. This new research demonstrated that variation in the serotonin transporter gene, which is thought to influence the amygdala, can also influence frame effect decisions.

Thirty participants were split into two groups, those with the “short” and those with the “long” version of the gene, and both groups played a number of games like those described above. Despite being aware that the “gain” and “loss” frames were identical, all participants were more likely to gamble if presented with the loss frame. Those with the “short” gene variant were the most suscetible to the framing effect.

This does not mean that “short” gene participants are more likely to gamble! In a paper published in The Journal of Neuroscience the authors noted “there was no difference in overall risk-seeking behavior” between the two genetic groups. Dr Jonathan Roiser from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, lead author on the paper, explains:

“This doesn’t mean that people with the short variants are risk takers,

“In fact, they were risk averse in the ‘gain frame’ whilst risk seeking in the ‘loss frame’, which implies inconsistency in their decision-making.”

The gene variation isn’t even that important of a factor in making frame effect decisions. Dr Roiser again:

“This one gene cannot tell the whole story, however, as it only explains about ten per cent of the variability in susceptibility to the framing effect. What determines the other ninety per cent of variability is unclear. It is probably a mixture of people’s life experience and other genetic influences.”

Whilst “formula for” stories tend to be what Charlie Brooker called PR-reviewed, with little basis in actual science, “gene for” stories are more normally inaccurately simplified accounts of genuine research. This is the case here, and it’s dangerous. Compulsive gambling can be incredibly destructive, and “it’s not me, it’s my genes” could allow gamblers rationalise their behaviour instead of seeking help.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 6:23 pm by Jessica Bland
In Education, Happenings, Musings

CP Snow’s proclamation of a rift between the two cultures of arts and science is fifty years old this week. His Rede lecture in 1959 caused a global response in both the media and academic circles. Last night, The Royal Society in London held a public debate assessing the relevance of Snow’s comments to today’s cultural landscape. The debate was recorded and is available online here.

I was lucky enough to attend in person, quite a thrill for a science communication geek; Melvin Bragg was chairing, and Marcus du Sautoy, John Denham, Sian Ede and Stefan Collini sat on the stage with him. The directors of The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and South Bank Centre spoke from the floor.

But, from the opening speeches, it was clear that each of them had interpreted the theme of the evening quite differently. This does not have to be a problem in a debate, but it was in this one. We spent an hour arguing about culture, but the notion of what a culture is seemed to be different for almost everyone. And so, or as well, why science might be distinguished from the arts also seemed to be different for everyone. Why this is might have made for an interesting discussion. Instead, we ended up with some cross-purpose interchanges, which achieved very little. Stefan Collini summed this up well, saying that the topic of two cultures is just a vehicle for whatever particular grievance people have about science.

What Snow meant by two cultures was very specific. He argued that the academics in science and literature occupy separate spheres with very little interaction. Moreover, in England, the scientific sphere was seen as inferior to the literary sphere. This was, according to Snow, due to the stubborn remnants of the prevailing attitude of a previous age; a clever boy would go to Oxford to study Classics. A slightly less clever boy would move into the sciences.

Snow saw science as providing his country with a secure and prosperous future. But if science continued to be stigmatised with intellectual inferiority, this future would not be possible. New science and technology would be developed elsewhere. Leaving England with Shakespeare scholars, but little else. The Times reviewed his lecture the day after its first presentation. Their argument backs up this interpretation of Snow’s position. At that moment, Britain’s fall from empire to island was of huge public concern. Any way to aid a graceful fall was of interest. The Times article points to science and technology as just such aids. It argues that Britain should bolster funding in science education and research. The country should fight to retain its position as world leaders in this field, fending off the threat from the new planned economies in Russia and China.

In ‘The Two Cultures’, Snow demarcated science from literature as a device for promoting science: for promoting a certain kind of academic pursuit that he felt was dangerously overlooked. The cultural division, even the very mention of culture is slightly beside the point. It is a vehicle for Snow’s complaints about science’s funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

In this way, the discussion yesterday at the Royal Society echoes Snow’s original point. Admittedly, it explored how science and literature are professional cultures, how they are perhaps one joint culture of human curiosity and why science is not part of our current definition of ‘culture’. But these uses ideas about culture were mainly frames for complaints about the status of science funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

Although these complaints followed similar themes to Snow’s, their content had moved on. Today, some scientists are accorded higher social status than classicists. But state-funding of science is more widely questioned. School education now addresses scientific controversy and concentrates on creating citizens who are aware of the processes and practices of science. And there is wider access to university science courses. Yet, science numbers at A-level are still dropping. Questions at the debate did not centre on whether everyone can recite the second law of thermodynamics – Snow’s example of the lack of scientific literacy he found amongst his peers. They were instead concerned with our current buzz phrases: dialogue between scientists and the public and deliberative models of science policy making.

These are the same complaints we hear at philosophical, political and media-related discussions of science. They were just framed around a notion of culture. And this framing confused the conversation. The mutual rhetoric tangled together distinct issues so that questions and answers missed each other’s points. And Denham, as the politician in the corner, was even able to squeeze in a speech from his swine flu-related soap box.

It was a shame that the hype surrounding the anniversary of Snow’s lecture did not lead to anything new. But then his lecture was not, at its time, about anything new. It was a vehicle for his insightful analysis of problems faced by British science. Last night, unfortunately, the idea of culture was again just such a vehicle.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 8:13 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

Any fan of The Sopranos will know that the Mafia is supposedly in the business of “waste management”, as disposing of rubbish makes a good cover for other more nefarious dealings. Now it appears that even the Mob are going green, as a Sicilian investigation into Mafia links to wind power gets under way.

Subsidies from the EU and Italian government combined with the world’s highest wind power rates of €180 (£160) per kwh produced has seen the Mafia getting into the business of renewables, with disastrous results.

According to Roberto Scarpinato, the anti-Mafia prosecutor in charge of the investigations, sham companies set up by organised crime bosses dominate the Italian wind power sector. He accuses the Mafia of controlling wind farm permits by manipulating their business and political connections.

Wind farms built by companies with suspected Mafia links have not produced power for the past couple of years, despite receiving taxpayer money to fund their construction. The Mafia is also suspected of protecting their interests by destroying two rival wind towers as they lay in storage.

It seems there is at least one honest man in the industry, however. Salvatore Moncada owns the largest Sicilian wind power company, Moncada Energy Group. His five wind farms produce around 100 megawatts, but the Mafia have been a constant threat. He refuses to pay “pizzo” – extortion money – and has pulled out from projects he believes to be Mafia controlled. He required a 24-hour police escort for 18 months, but believes the danger is now over.

Italy’s problems aren’t though, as the Mafia’s control over wind could have wider-reaching implications. Despite being fourth in Europe for installed wind power capacity, Italy is not on track to meet EU emissions targets by 2020. The science and technology to fight climate change might be in place, but once again it seems that people are the problem.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 5 May 2009 at 7:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Yes, But When?

Would you accept an organ from a sheep? The Times reports from Tochigi in Japan that these genetically engineered animals could solve the country’s organ donor shortage.

Currently Yutaka Hanazono and team at the Jichi Medical University has only created sheep with organs suitable for chimpanzees. Stem cells extracted from chimps are grown in a sheep to create fully-formed organs such as a spare pancreas. He believes that within a decade or two the technology could be extended to create human organs as well.

“We have made some very big advances here. There has historically been work on the potential of sheep as producers of human blood, but we are only slowly coming closer to the point where we can harvest sheep for human organs,” Professor Hanazono told The Times.

That will be too long for many Japanese patients seeking donors, as the legal system in Japan has created a deficit in organs. Death is defined at the point when the heart stops, at which point organs will begin to degrade from lack of blood flow. Brain death, where all brain activity has ceased but the heart and lungs can be kept functioning, allows more effective harvesting of organs, but Japan does not allow this.

The result is an extremely low rate of donation in Japan. The US has about 27 organ donors per million people, but in Japan this figure is less than 1 donor per million people. This forces many patients to seek organs abroad, but even this “transplant tourism” will become difficult as international rules on organs become more strict.

The Japanese people have a complicated moral choice ahead of them. Either they must revise their laws defining death, or accept the possibility of growing organs on demand. Both options have serious cultural and ethical implications, not just scientific ones, but something must be done to alleviate the organ shortage.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 4 May 2009 at 3:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

Scientists have discovered evidence of a tsunami in New York City. If it happened today, Wall Street would be completely flooded. Thankfully for the bankers, the giant wave is thought to have hit around 2,300 years ago.

Evidence in sedimentary deposit samples taken from over 20 spots in New York and New Jersey suggest that the North East coastal region of the US saw massive upheaval in 300 BC. It could just have been a large storm, but researchers now believe the culprit to be a tsunami – a rare occurrence for the Atlantic Ocean.

Steven Goodbred, an Earth scientist at Vanderbilt University, examined sediment cores from the region and found large gravel, marine animal fossils and other strange deposits. He said that such a formation would only be formed fast waves and strong currents that a storm could not produced. “If we’re wrong, it was one heck of a storm,” he said.

Scientists are still debating the cause of such a tsunami, and such information is important in case a similar event could occur today. Some believe that an submarine landslide could have generated the massive wave. These undersea earthquakes are common in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, because continental plates collide at these locations. The Atlantic however is more stable, meaning that Atlantic tsunamis are rare and understudied.

Dr Goodbred plans to rectify this by collecting more cores from around the New York region, but he’s got competition. Another group, led by Columbia University geologist Dallas Abbott, believes that an asteroid impacting from space could be the answer.

Evidence found in New Jersey and the Hudson River contain carbon spherules, shocked minerals, and nanodiamonds – all materials common to asteroid impacts. Dr Abbott suggests that an asteroid hitting the water off the cost of New York would either generate the tsunami directly, or trigger Dr Goodbred’s submarine landslide. Dr Goodbreed and others are sceptical, thinking that the asteroid is an unnecessary complication. “The tsunami story stands on its own without the impact,” he said.

Figuring out just what caused the 2,300 year old tsunami is a pretty tall order. Radiocarbon dating can place the date of the debris to the nearest century, but the common nature of the material – wood, sand, shells and rock – make identification tricky. Whether the origins of the New York tsunami are in outer space or underwater, I’m just glad it happened a couple of millennia ago!

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 3 May 2009 at 5:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Hand-drawn holograms

This video from William Beaty, the self-styled Science Hobbyist, demonstrates a rather interesting concept: hand-drawn holograms.

Holograms are traditionally created using lasers, but these ones use just a compass and some copper. There appears to be some debate about whether they are really holograms, but I think they’re too cool to worry about silly definitions.

How much sugar?

It’s interesting how simply communicating things in a different way can change their meaning. If I tell you that a can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, what does that mean to you? Probably not much. If I show you this picture however, you might think twice before reaching for a Coke:

That's a lot of sugar!
That's a lot of sugar!

You can find this image along with many more at Sugar Stacks, a website dedicated to revealing the “hidden” sugar in drinks and snacks. It’s US focused so there are a lot of things I don’t recognise, but you get the idea. I wouldn’t snack on one sugar cube, let alone the 10 in a single can of Coke, so perhaps I’ll avoid the stuff from now on!

Compulsory bicycle helmets might hurt more

An Australian mathematician has concluded that legally requiring cyclists to wear helmets could actually increase healthcare costs.

Piet de Jong of Macquarie University in Sydney reasoned that requiring helmets leads to a decrease in the number of cyclists, so more people miss out on the health benefits of cycling.

There is a bit of debate around this, with various figures for the increased health costs and reduced number of cyclists being thrown about. To solve the problem, de Jong created a model that could be adjusted for a variety of values.

It was only under extreme circumstances that mandatory helmet laws resulted in a net benefit. Head injuries must make a up a large proportion of cycling accidents, a small number of people must stop cycling due to helmet laws, and the benefits of cycling must be low.

With that in mind, de Jong hopes that this model will lead to more informed policy, but he doesn’t discourage the use of helmets:

“I go to Holland and places like that, and I don’t wear a helmet,” he says. “I used to live in London, and I wore a helmet all the time.”

3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 2 May 2009 at 6:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

This past week, I’ve been struggling to come up with something interesting to say about swine flu. Sam wrote yesterday about The Daily Mail’s approach to the risk posed by the virus, and whilst I agree with him that we shouldn’t dismiss swine flu as a media scare story, I think the issue is a bit more complex.

With the threat of pandemic looming, the important responses come from scientists and politicians. The scientists must act fast to track the virus as it spreads, and work to create a vaccine. The politicians must make decisions regarding border controls and the distribution of healthcare. So far, this seems to be happening.

What about the media and the public? The media have a responsibility to report accurately and to avoid sensationalism. For the most part this has been the case, despite as Sam says, the prominence given to possible death tolls.

That leaves the public. What can you or I do to avoid catching and spreading swine flu? Staying indoors and away from anyone else would work, but the country would grind to a halt. Personal hygiene is important, but if people are too lazy to regularly wash their hands then leaflets telling them to will probably have little effect. And face masks are pointless.

All this means that I’m happy to basically ignore the risk of swine flu. I have little-to-no power to avoid an infection, so fretting about it makes as much sense as worrying about being knocked down by car and killed. The World Health Organisation report 1.2 million deaths every year due to road traffic accidents, but we don’t spend our lives thinking about it.

Swine flu is a problem, and even if the latest news suggests that we’re not headed for pandemic, it is still important that scientists and politicians work to contain it. It’s just not something that you or I should be scared of. And don’t even get me stared on some of the crazy theories out there.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 5:28 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

What was that story about the boy and the wolf? It seems that the Daily Mail, who, over the years, have been more concerted in their efforts to terrify the public than George A. Romero, have got to the point where their own writers are numb to the possibility of genuine danger. This is what Christopher Booker had to say about swine flu:

Too many people seem to have a vested interest in talking up these panics beyond what the evidence can support, from scientists dependent on promoting scares for their funding to politicians who recklessly use scares to show their concern for our welfare. We in the media, it is only fair to add, are far from blameless in this respect.

What a generous concession he makes in that last sentence! If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s previous output, you’ll know that he has form when it comes to dismissing danger. Booker wrote dozens of articles claiming that white asbestos is completely safe, even alleging that it is ‘chemically identical to talcum powder’. His vociferous denial of climate change has led George Monbiot to dub him ‘The Wikipedia Professor of Gibberish’. The man’s complete inability to assess risk makes you wonder how he has managed to live to the age of 71 without stepping in front of a bus.

The last occasion when our Government was panicked into sending a health warning to every household in the country, for instance, was in 1987, when Edwina Currie sent out such a pamphlet, Don’t Die Of Ignorance, warning us of the terrifying threat of Aids.

No one can doubt that HIV/Aids has remained a serious problem, to date responsible for some 18,000 deaths in the UK. But back in the late 1980s we were being solemnly warned that, as early as 1990, we could expect the death toll to reach a million.

Compared with the 9,000 people who die in NHS hospitals every year just from MRSA and C.difficile, even those 18,000 deaths in 20 years can now be seen in a rather more sensible perspective.

It’s remarkably easy not to be scared of Aids, isn’t it? It may be extremely deadly, but it’s also extremely easy to prevent. I’m not sure on what grounds the distribution of pamphlets can be characterised as a ‘panicked’ reaction to a deadly infectious disease whose spread can be prevented if people know what simple measures to take. Perhaps the government’s ‘panic’ was instrumental in keeping the death toll in the UK as low as 18,000.

Booker is not the only columnist at the Mail who is snorting at the threat of swine flu. Martin Samuel had this to say:

More people won the Lottery last week than contracted swine flu. And do you know anyone who won the Lottery?

This used to be a country that was healthiest in adversity, almost irritatingly cheerful when the chips were down. Now, some poor soul gets a cough in San Diego and half of Swindon goes to the doctor.

Professor John Oxford, a virologist at St Bart’s hospital in London, warned that swine flu might travel south and mix with bird flu to form — get this — Armageddon flu. The end of the world, in other words: although no doubt it could be averted with an increase in his research grant.

It is time to get a grip. Swine flu, bird flu, Armageddon flu? Yes, and pigs might fly, Professor.

I have a lot of time for Martin Samuel as a sports writer. I used to enjoy his football coverage in the Times a lot – as his many awards testify, he was always able to offer a much more insightful analysis than what you get from the legions of ex-players who stumble into the media upon retirement. But when it comes to epidemiology, I think his analysis is a little wide of the mark. Lotteries, unlike infectious diseases, don’t pick more and more winners every day.

This is not some tabloid fantasy. We are on the brink of a pandemic. That’s not to say that some of the media’s coverage hasn’t been irresponsible. One thing I particularly disagree with is the prominence some papers have given to projected numbers of cases or deaths. Given the degree of uncertainty in such estimates I really don’t think they should be the basis for headlines. But swine flu is undoubtedly a serious cause for concern, and it’s tragic that many people have become so sceptical of the news media that they are happy to dismiss the current situation as a scare story. I can’t help but think how messrs Booker and Samuel might feel if their loved ones become casualties.

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 2:10 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Good news for the appearance-conscious this week, as it is announced that an ‘anti-ageing’ cream produced by Boots, ‘No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Beauty Serum’, really does reduce wrinkles. And it is not just Boots who are claiming this, but qualified scientists from The University of Manchester who have given their seal of approval of the product by publishing a double-blind, randomly sampled test of the cream in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The test is essentially a clinical trial: Thirty people were given the product, whilst another thirty people were given the vehicle – the base moisturiser with the suspected anti-ageing agents absent. The participants were not told which product they were using. After six months their wrinkles were examined and compared to their previous degree of wrinkling. At this point it was revealed which product subjects were on and they were given the opportunity to keep using it for a further six months, after which time their wrinkling was examined again. The cream was shown to noticeably reduce wrinkling.

Sceptical? Well I was at first; after all we are all used to the beauty industry relying on “scientific” studies to advertise their products. But this study is published in a reputable journal and does seem to represent a genuine attempt to explore the science behind anti-ageing products. The analysis at least relies on real statistics rather than consumer surveys.

The results show that after six months 43% of people using the product show an improvement compared to 22% of people who were using the vehicle, however the authors of the paper point out that these results are statically insignificant. After twelve months the results become statistically significant, where 70% of people showed an improvement using the product compared to 33% using the vehicle.  So, strictly speaking, the authors of the study are claiming the benefit of the anti-ageing effects are only noticeable after twelve months (despite this, the BBC, The Sun and The Guardian all report the statistics for the results after six months rather than twelve.)

In 2007 No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum became Boots’ fastest ever selling product after it was shown on BBC2 Horizon, demonstrating that science as a brand can have enormous influence on consumer attitudes.

Does it work then? Well, to be honest, I’m still not completely convinced. The results are based on photo comparisons such as the one below. I cannot really observe much improvement, but then I’m not a qualified dermatologist. In addition, the difference between the product and the vehicle may be as a result of an inherent difference to the way a person’s skin reacts to moisturiser.

But despite this I’m genuinely encouraged by this study. The comments section of The Guardian article provides an amusing read: amidst the petty abuse some have complained that this study does not constitute proof, that peer-review is not a foolproof process. I agree with the claim that peer-review is not foolproof, but at least Boots (who provided funding for the study) are making an effort to scientifically investigate their products. Author Professor Chris Griffiths points out that Boots were taking a gamble:

“We did this in a purely independent way. Either way this paper would have been published otherwise we would have not entered into the study. I suppose Boots were confident or foolhardy, whichever way you want to look at it.”

And even though I’m not convinced by the findings, I don’t’ begrudge Boots their increase in sales on the basis of the study. Consumers are more media savvy than they are usually given credit for and will understand that, even if the results are taken at face value, the product has a chance of improving their wrinkles but that there is no guarantee.  If it doesn’t work for them, they’ll end up trying another product. I think it is more hope than science which will drive people to Boots.

Terms like ‘anti-ageing agents’ do conjure up an image of beauty-treatment advertising jargon, which many of us hold a long-enduring scepticism toward. But a cream which reduces wrinkles is not particularly pie-in-the-sky compared to other achievements of mankind. I’m fortunate enough to be wrinkle-free at the moment, but am hopeful that an anti-ageing cream will be scientifically proved to work in the future. We’re not there yet, but I think this study is a least a step in the right direction.

Watson, R., Ogden, S., Cotterell, L., Bowden, J., Bastrilles, J., Long, S., & Griffiths, C. (2009). A cosmetic ‘anti-ageing’ product improves photoaged skin: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial British Journal of Dermatology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09216.x

Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 1:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Psychology

A paper in this week’s Science describing research in to parts of the brain related to self-control reports that two regions come into play when making such decisions.

The research team offered participants a variety of foods, and asked them to rate the food for taste and health benefits. These ratings were used to pick an “index food” for each person, with average taste and healthiness. Participants were then asked to pick between eating this index food or another of their choice.

Activity in a region of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has previously been shown to relate to value-based decision, such as what food to eat. If activity goes down when choosing a food item, the person is likely to say no, whilst if it goes up they probably want to eat it.

This study found that in people with good self-control – those able to pick healthy food over tasty – another brain region comes in to play. Activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) increases when exercising self-control, influencing the vmPFC to incorporate health benefits into decision making.

That’s the science. But it’s not quite how it was reported by The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun. All three papers ran stories about the “angel” and “devil” parts of the brain, no doubt to invoke the classic image of the sort on the left.

It’s a nice concept, but I find it strange that all three papers that covered the story used the same angle. Where did it come from? My first assumption was an enterprising press officer had come up with the analogy to help get the story printed, but the press release shows no sign. I haven’t read the original paper (stupid access problems as always) but I’m assuming such an embellished metaphor doesn’t feature, as such language is typically frowned upon in journals.

It could be that all three reporters just happened to invent the analogy independently. I’m pretty sure however that they all come from one source. Contrast the phrasing in these two passages from The Telegraph and The Daily Mail respectively:

Participants with strong self control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods. Those whose “angels” did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

Participants with strong self-control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods, the journal Science reports.

But those whose ‘angels’ did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.

I guess Science could have sent their own press release to the newspapers, but the story isn’t highlighted on their website. If Science doesn’t view it as important enough to pick out on their own, why would they go to the trouble of getting the mainstream media to?

I’m not suggesting there is some vast media conspiracy going on here, I just find it interesting to figure out the way in which our news is constructed. Anyone else got an idea for the origin of the devil/angel take on this research?

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