Category Archives: Science

Burger Rot

My new best imaginary friend, Kenji Lopez-Alt, has completed a four-week experiment to determine what truth the “McDonald’s Burgers Don’t Rot” meme has behind it.  Most serious speculators assumed that the burgers and buns dried out in the air-conditioned interior of an average home. Surprise, surprise – that’s exactly what Kenji discovered. There’s nothing magical about it, just small burgers in a dry environment. Science!

Seed Magazine and Science Blogs

I recently noticed that it had been a while since I’d received a new issue of Geek Monthly magazine. Turns out, they went under six months ago.  Huh.  I guess I won’t be getting a refund of my remaining subscription fees. That prompted me to look at some of my other less-established magazine subs, and the only one that was missing was Seed.  Seed magazine was started four years ago as something of a spiritual successor to the 80s gem OMNI.  OMNI was a fabulous combination of science and science fiction, which in later years added far too much pseudoscience and then decided to jump into the “online only” realm before anyone was ready to read magazines online. They are sometimes missed. But this is about Seed.

Seed was pretty decent, actually. They had a lot of good writers working for them, and they seemed to understand the online world fairly well. They created a site which they used as something of cross-pollination project between print and blogging, the much-visited ScienceBlogs. A while back, they lost a few of their high-profile bloggers to Discover Magazine’s active blog portal. It appears that they shuttered the magazine last fall, with the promise that they weren’t going to quit publishing a magazine, they were just reducing the frequency and won’t you just wait until spring 2010 and you’ll get a new issue.  Um…yeah. Still waiting, and there doesn’t seem to be any official word (or at least not findable on their site) about where Seed Magazine went.

Last month, the ScienceBlogs folks noticed a new blog in their midst, one written by PepsiCo. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth, ending with Pepsi’s blog being dropped. This week, there is a bit more of a kerfuffle. It’s a bit vague around the edges, but it seems the need to make money has become more important to Seed Media than any respect they may have had for being a science media focal point. I’m not clear on why this all came to a head today, rather than during the Pepsi Challenge, but a new batch of bloggers have jumped from ScienceBlogs and it’s not looking good for the site as a whole.  Interestingly, the biggest SciBlogger, the one who accounts for over half of their total traffic, has decided to go on strike/haitus rather than quit, but maybe Seed Media can bring ScienceBlogs back from this brink that their own inept management has brought them to. At a minimum, they need to realize that without content, their advertising department is completely worthless.

Meanwhile, where can I get a refund for the remaining issues on my subscription?  Hello?  *knock knock*

Don’t Fund Placebo – NHS

After many years of being mocked by anyone with a modicum of understanding in medicine or science or reproducible results, homeopathy has been slammed by an actual governmental study in the UK.  I particularly like the line refuting the necessity to fund “traditional” medicine: “Witchcraft is traditional, so does that mean the MHRA should endorse that too?”

Gross Soda Fountains

When I’m on a road trip, or even just going to the park with The Boy, I grab a bottle of soda from a convenience store. I know that the fountain drinks are cheaper per ounce, but I justify this by telling myself I don’t actually need a half-gallon of any drink, and they seem to taste funny at times. There was this Arby’s my coworkers and I went to in Arizona – I’m sure the Mountain Dew was laced with some sort of detergent there.

Anyway, there is now a study which makes me glad I’ve been avoiding fountain drinks: they’re laced with bacteria. 48% have some form of coliform bacteria in the beverages. So, I’ll just keep getting my bottle of Vault and leave the e.coli for someone else. Ew.

2009 Predictions Revisited

One year ago, I made a series of 10 predictions for the new year.  Let’s see how I did.

  1. The right wing noise machine did find new and interesting ways to make themselves look silly while calling the new president a socialist, a communist, a nazi, and a racist – all at the same time. If President Obama were on fire, the GOP would call fire departments a socialist plot, as John Scalzi wrote this week.
  2. Windows 7 did not save the computer industry.
  3. Netbooks were a bit easier to find than I feared, so there’s one point against me. To be fair, the good netbooks were harder to get hold of, so maybe half a point.
  4. Yep, suck.
  5. No single sign-on system of any note, although Facebook is getting a lot of headway into “sign in with Facebook” on various sites.  Maybe we’ll count this as half and half.
  6. No crypto.
  7. DTV changeover was, although delayed yet again until June of 2009, not a crazy display of incompetence and weeping and gnashing of teeth. Got this one wrong.
  8. Politicians continued to line their pockets by picking ours, and gave as much largesse to their corporate overlords as possible. Sadly, I got this one right.
  9. Weather was much remarked upon. Denialists continued to deny reality. Climatologists turned out to sometimes be jerks, but that overshadowed that the science continues to be reinforced with evidence.
  10. Kit dropped me from her “LJ Friends” list after 9 years (no idea why), so I have no idea how amusing she is.

Let’s see, that gives me 6 of 10 completely right, 2 partly right, one completely wrong, and one I can no longer assess, so I can’t use it for any statistics. We’ll call it 7-2 or 78% accurate. I’m sure that beats all the “psychics” out there.  Now, what shall I predict for 2010? Stay tuned.

Missing Link Hyperbole Shattered!

Remember that adapid fossil from back in May? Turns out, all that breathless excitement over this “missing link” was premature and erroneous. Of course, most scientists would have told you the same thing in May, since the research was published on the Discovery Channel before it was peer-reviewed, the adapid line is actually not considered an ancestral family from humans, and a few other reasons too no doubt.

This is exactly why I dislike the automatic “missing link” verbiage that gets attached to any story about any prehistoric primate or ape. First of all, it’s ridiculously misleading to think of evolution as a series of links in some sort of chain. And, secondly, when your missing link turns out to have been on a different tree branch, the less-informed just use it as another bludgeon to hit the “ain’t no monkeys in my family tree” drum. Darwinius Masillae remains an interesting fossil and a remarkably well-preserved 45 million-year old find, but it’s not a human ancestor. Take that, premature publication!

On the other hand, this is a great example of why science needs to be better respected in this country. Unlike any other method of dealing with the world throughout history, science is willing (sometimes eager) to admit mistakes, and is always self-correcting. Every scientist wants to make a name for him or herself; proving your peers are wrong in a big way is a great way to do that. That it also advances human knowledge is a great thing for those of us not in the research world. Where would any of us be if previous generations had decided that any evidence contrary to “electricity is magic” was heretical and would be ignored? I’m rather glad to have this here electronic typewritery thingy.

I opened the window, and influenza

I was very heartened to see, when I went to the local grocery store yesterday, a massive crowd blocking my way to the frozen food. While normally I’d be much happier to see a virtually empty store, because people slow down my shopping, this week is different. The path to the freezers goes through the pharmacy. I’m happy to see so many people (mostly elderly from my quick glance, who are after all at greatest risk along with small children) lining up for their flu shots. Apparently, even here in the heart of wingnuttery, people still realize that vaccines have a long history of saving lives. Of course, it’s possible that the elderly are more likely to take vaccines because they remember the days before many of them were available. Telling someone whose elementary school was decimated by polio that vaccines are a hoax probably won’t fly. A person who is far too familiar with the iron lung won’t be swayed by some nutball hypothesis about ill-defined toxins and conspiracy theories surrounding doctors and pharmaceutical companies and government organizations.

Yay for common sense and actual facts.

Yet Another Missing Link

I hate the breathless and somewhat hyperbole-laden reporting of every new fossil find. This month, it’s Ardipithecus Ramidus, which the press is calling the “oldest pre-human” fossil. Um, wouldn’t the oldest pre-human fossil be the oldest fossil? This obsession with a “missing link” between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom is a bit tiresome. There are jillions of links, and there are undoubtedly going to be jillions more found in the future. Every time someone finds something from the primate branch, the media goes into a veritable frenzy.

Of course, we find anything which casts any light on our own branch of the tree much more interesting than the spectacular specimens of pre-whale fossils back in February. But to claim that this Ardipithecus shows that we didn’t evolve from chimps is ridiculous. Nobody claims we did. Some biologists and anthropologists may use the shorthand of saying we evolved from something that looked something like a modern chimp, but nobody ever said that we evolved and chimps stopped. Evolution doesn’t work that way. Everything is just as “highly evolved” as everything else. Each species occupies a niche for which it has become adapted over eons. That doesn’t in any way mean that humans are the most evolved form of life – we’re just the only ones who write about it.

Oh, and scientists have been writing about Ardipithecus since at least 1999, and even pointed out that it was a hominid but not a common ancestor with modern chimps back in 2001.


On August 25th, four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei showed his telescopes to the Venetian lawmakers. With the Galileoscope the Boy and I assembled this weekend, we observed the four satellites of Jupiter that are called today the Galilean moons: Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto.  Then the clouds covered them up again.

Although a bit later in the year than I’d hoped we have received our two Galileoscopes (no, I don’t know why I bought two of them, other than they were cheap so why not?), and they’re very spiffy. We’re using the basic 25x magnification right now, although we may put together the 50x eyepiece to peer at Jupiter more closely tomorrow. We should be able to see the Great Red Spot about 10:30pm this week. Not sure about how that will go. The Boy can’t seem to avoid bumping the scope, making massive changes in view far too common. The Woman, of course, was much better and caused no problems when she looked at Jupiter and its four moons.  Very cool night.

Somehow, the Boy convinced me to get up at 6am on a non-work day, so we could peer at Venus and Mars. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Experience the Planets

Although my Galileoscopes (ordered in February) stubbornly refuse to arrive, I’m still digging the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Here’s a really amazing set of images – artistic, not photographic – of the planets. Consider it a graphic version of the Holst piece.

This is an artist’s concept of a cyclonic vortex on Venus. Much higher resolution available at the site.


Click for 1280x800

BSG was right?

The intro to the original Battlestar Galactica said, “There are those who believe that life here began out there…”

OK, so this discovery is not in any way going to support the rather outre hypothesis of panspermia, but it’s interesting nonetheless, to see that perhaps amino acid creation is not as rare as some would have us believe. Unless, of course, this comet was once part of our planet, and then somehow achieved escape velocity without destroying all the delicate biological bits stuck in it? I’ll take Occam’s Razor for $1000, Alex.

Science is cool.

Good Environmental News

To prevent anyone from thinking that I focus only on things to be pissed off about, here’s a piece of good news from the journal Science. Some fisheries are beginning to recover from overfishing, due to more stringent regulation from governments and more public interest in fishing practices. I’ve been a big proponent of sustainable fishing for as long as I’ve known the term (thanks, MBARI), so it’s nice to see that there’s some good news out there. Of course, there’s a bit of bad news as well – Europe, for all its vaunted “better than America” rhetoric, is demonstrably worse in managing their fisheries. We’ve had Alaska as an example for decades, with their seemingly neurotic obsession with sustainability, and we’ve been expanding that down the coast now.  It looks like Europeans aren’t learning from the mistakes of the past, and they’re gonna kill off the bluefin tuna population if they aren’t careful.

Check out the map with the NPR article – all of the North American fisheries are either healthy or recovering; none are declining. We’ve got something to be proud of there. Regulations can be good.

Beware the Spinal Trap

(Note: this is an edited version of the infamous article on chiropractic that got Simon Singh sued. It is being reposted all over the web today by multiple blogs and online magazines. Why edited? English libel laws make Singh at risk if the full article were published even in the USA.)

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Missing Link!

This has been a great year for fossils (ironic, as it’s the International Year of Astronomy, not paleontology). Now we have a new adapid, Darwinius Masillae. Perversely, the fossil was uncovered over 25 years ago, but was kept away from paleontologists and biologists until 2007. What a delay!

Of course, the whole “missing link” discussion is so much nonsense.  It presupposes that evolution is a simple chain of events one after the other, and that we merely need to look hard enough to find every single species that led from amoeba to human. Gibberish, in other words. Darwin described a tree of life, with many branches that wandered and sometimes were pruned. Biologists since then have expanded this into more of a web of life, as there are examples of hybridization and DNA transfer between branches of the Darwinian tree. But, good luck getting a scientifically-illiterate journalist to discuss the latest in a long series of puzzle pieces that have made the theory of evolution one of the best-supported and most solid scientific theories of all time. No matter that my office mate just made some disparaging remark about how Ida is a big deal for those “Darwin believers” – I assume he meant, “any educated person.”

International Year of Astronomy

The Galileoscope is finally being produced, and it’s a bit later than most people had hoped. When you’re trying to get people into the “International Year of Astronomy” it may be helpful to get the telescopes out before the middle of the year.  That being said, it looks like the $15 telescopes are making an impact even before anyone has one – Celestron has brought out a $50 scope that is tied to the IYA and is much better at light-gathering than the Galileoscope, while offering a 75x objective compared to the 50x objective on the Galileoscope. Cool deal, if you can’t wait for June.

I’ve got two Galileoscopes on order, and I’ll definitely have photos of The Boy assembling and using one when they finally show up. Patience…

Fossil Day!

News from several fronts on fossils today.

First, there’s a great skeleton of a pre-whale about to give birth, fossilized with the fetus’s head facing out, which means the animal probably gave birth on land, even though the body is blatantly aquatic. Maiacetus must have been clumsy on land, but a great find. This was found in Pakistan, and is published in the Open Science journal PLOS.

Second, the remains of a 42-foot long snake dating from 60 million years ago, which would have weighed around 2500 pounds. This is the largest snake to ever be discovered; the titanoboa could swallow a cow. The snake was found in Colombia, the oldest rain forest on the planet.

Finally, sponges left fossil evidence as far back as 635 million years ago. This is 100 million years prior to the so-called Cambrian Explosion (an explosion that took tens of millions of years), and is the oldest fossil evidence so far. The fossils were found in Oman.

These last two stories are from the Feb 5 issue of Nature, a really expensive journal for professional working scientists. Wish I could afford the subscription some days.

Pause in the Global Cooling

Since there was great hue and cry recently over the completely unprecedented level* of cold that great parts of the United States have experienced this year, it’s reasonable to assume the same people are following this week’s weather news as well.

Unseasonable warm weather is causing flash flood warnings through much of the midwest. Gee, if “winter” is now considered to be a disproof of anthropogenic global warming, is “warm weather” proof? See also, “weather and climate are not the same word.”

* – by “unprecedented” we mean completely precedented in every reasonable way

Chemistry Sets are Scary

When I was 8 years old, I had two chemistry sets.  I went through all sorts of experiments, producing acids that I used to clean/destroy small objects, color-changing things, etc. I’ve seen several times over the past few years stories about the new chemistry sets, which apparently don’t contain any chemicals more interesting than tannic acid (tea extract). We don’t want our young people to grow up curious about science, obviously.

And then there is the curious case of Lewis Casey, who was arrested on suspicion of making meth in his garage. When it was proven rather easily that his chemistry lab was merely a chemistry lab (he’s a college chemistry major), the Canadian government charged him with making bombs instead. Have you ever heard the term “chilling effect” before?

Casey is no longer allowed to engage in chemistry experiments except under supervision in school labs. 

That’s insane.