Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hey guys, you might want to keep track of this stuff

Last week, two vials of anthrax spores went missing from a New Jersey laboratory, where they had been stored since the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed four in a Hamilton, New Jersey, post office. But health officials don't see this as reason to panic they admit to FOX News that the loss is most likely the result of a counting error. Oops.

Similarly, last September, a Newark lab lost track of three mice that were suffering from bubonic plague, the disease thought to be responsible for the Black Death. Plague epidemics usually start with rodent infestations, so losing a few infected mice isn't such a swell idea. But again, authorities say we shouldn't worry it's likely that the mice were either eaten by other animals in the lab without anyone noticing, or that the "loss" is really a paperwork error.

I don't know about you, but I think that potential sources of bioterrorism should be monitored pretty carefully. If facilities don't have the resources to ensure that paperwork is kept up-to-date and that valuable (and dangerous) property is counted properly, then my guess is that no one is taking the time to guarantee that these things don't get stolen, either.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

You got somethin' to say to me?

Yesterday, a friend of mine told me that my settings require you to join blogger.com in order to leave comments. Oops, sorry! I've just changed them so that anyone can comment. Now you have no excuse fire away!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Is this the beer of tomorrow?

In 10 years, will we still go out for drinks after work, or will we just pop a designer pill? Check out my post today on Stochastic, the Seed blog. I've just started working at the magazine as an intern and am loving it. If you don't know Seed, check out their website!

And don't worry, dear readers I won't neglect you. I will post to this blog frequently too. I promise!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

He's grown into a pain, all right

Got a half hour to waste? Check out the video "Science and Evolution," a ridiculous attempt at evolution-debunking starring Growing Pains' Kirk Cameron and New Zealand evangelist Ray Comfort.

The two go about disproving Darwin by grilling strangers about the details of evolutionary theory. Because the people stopped on the street can't rattle off all the answers, Cameron and Comfort conclude that evolution must, of course, be a lie.

What might be even more funny than the video itself is this article about it appearing in the religious magazine Across Pacific. The magazine quotes Comfort as saying that "The graphics on the cover of this DVD have been designed so that there is no indication that it is for evolution or intelligent design, so that readers can watch it with an open mind." An open mind, huh? Ray, the the only type of mind you want watching your video is the stupid and ignorant type.

Thanks to Scienceblogger Ed Brayton,whose post today on Dispatches from the Culture Wars introduced me to this video phenomenon.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Whom can we count on?

We have all probably wondered what WE would do if a flu pandemic hit hot-foot it to a deserted island? Pop whatever anti-viral pills we could scrounge from our medicine cabinets and local drug stores?

Researchers recently asked health care professionals the people we need most at such a time what they would do during a pandemic. Apparently, over 40 percent of them said they would not show up to help out at all, according to a study released today by scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

"The public health workforce will play a critical role in managing an influenza pandemic, but the workforce is not yet prepared for this crisis. We need more training for public health workers, particularly for those in technical and support roles, so they clearly understand the importance of their work in the event of a pandemic," said Johns Hopkins researcher Daniel J. Barnett in a prepared statement.

Until then, be ready to take care of yourself, I guess.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Carnival of the Godless

I'm very excited to learn that my post on Intelligent Design, "Nope, Not Science!," has been featured on the 38th Carnival of the Godless — ironically, on Easter Sunday. Check out this week's Carnival picks here.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Star light, Star bright

Wow. The red star in the center of this beautiful image is the erupting supergiant V838 Monocerotis, surrounded by circumstellar dust. It's located about 20,000 light-years away from earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros (the unicorn), on the outer edge of the Milky Way. During its outburst, the star became more than 600,000 times brighter than our sun.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The fries come from afar, and the orders do, too

Just when you thought the fast food industry couldn't get any more impersonal: the person taking your drive-thru order may, in fact, be sitting in an office hundreds of miles away. (Not to imply that you, dear readers, are avid fast-food consumers. I daresay most of you aren't.)

Indeed, for the past 18 months, McDonald's has been experimenting with long distance order processing, according to this
piece in the New York Times. Specially-trained employees at call centers around the country take and process orders from drive-thru customers and then immediately e-mail them to the franchises, who put together the meals and hand them to their oblivious customers. This system is designed to save a few seconds on each order and make more $, of course, for Micky D's.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Try to save the earth, and what do you get?

To reward fuel-efficient drivers, the California government grants them access to carpool lanes, even when they aren't carrying any passengers. But according to an article in today's L.A. Times, other drivers are beginning to get pissed off by the fact that the lanes are frequently clogged by Priuses and Honda hybrids. They also accuse the hybrid drivers of intentionally driving slowly in order to maximize fuel efficiency, and argue that, as a result, the advantages of using carpool lanes have all but disappeared.

I applaud the California government for its attempt to reward environmentally conscious drivers, but I do wonder if there might not be a better solution. Road rage doesn't seem like much of a "thank you."

Saturday, April 08, 2006

There's more than just chicken here, my friend

Preservatives: We rely on them daily to keep our food and medicines fresh. Without them, unwanted microbes would thrive and we would constantly be fighting illness. But preservatives aren't perfect little angels, either. Things that are bad for microbes can be bad for us, too.

For the past few weeks, I've been working on a story about the controversy over the addition of thimerosal, a toxic mercury-containing preservative, in vaccines. While I'm not quite ready to share my story with you yet, check out this New York Times article that my friends Adam and Dave pointed out to me. It covers an eerily similar controversy. So how much arsenic did YOU eat this week?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Nope, not science!

Since I started writing this blog, I have struggled with whether to write about Intelligent Design. Many scoff that it shouldn’t be given a voice, and that writing about it does science a disservice.

While it’s true that the issue is not exactly controversial within scientific circles, there is substantial controversy among the American public. So, after having the opportunity last week to interact with one of ID’s strongest proponents, I decided to devote a piece to Intelligent Design and evolution.

Darwin’s theory, as I’m sure we all remember from high school science class, explains the evolution of life via two processes: random mutation, or changes in one’s genes, which give organisms different characteristics; and natural selection, in which those organisms with more useful or adaptive characteristics are more likely to survive, reproduce and pass on those characteristics to their offspring.

Intelligent Design, often referred to as ID, is the controversial “alternative” idea that life is too complex to be explained by Darwin’s theory and that it must have been made by God or some other intelligent cause or designer.

The Intelligent Design movement gained momentum last fall in a landmark court case against the Dover, Pa. school district, which wanted to teach ID alongside evolution in its science classes.

But it suffered a blow when U.S. District Judge John Jones III handed down his ruling last December, saying that Intelligent Design has no place in the science classroom. Jones described ID as “an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion.”

Let me begin by saying that I do not reject the legitimacy of Intelligent Design, or religion, for that matter, as a social construct. I think that ID might, in fact, deserve to be discussed in school — just not in science class. I agree with Joel Cracraft, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who told an audience at Columbia University in February that there is an unfortunate misunderstanding among Americans that “evolution, in general, threatens people’s religious beliefs.” I don’t think it has to.

But I do firmly believe that Intelligent Design is not science.

As defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, science is “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”

I’m sure you at least vaguely remember learning about the scientific method in high school. After a problem is identified or a question is asked, the scientific method requires “the formulation and testing of hypotheses,” or potential answers, via data collection “through observation and experiment.”

The value of science stems from its grounding in the scientific method, which essentially serves as the “check” that keeps science as objective as possible. It also ensures that scientific explanations remain naturalistic and observable.

Let’s therefore think of Intelligent Design as a hypothesis, or possible explanation, for the origin of life. To prove the validity of this hypothesis, the next step would be to create experiments to test it.

So last week, I asked Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and decidedly the most famous scientist in support of Intelligent Design — he wrote the bestseller, “Darwin’s Black Box” — about the experiments he conducts in his lab. What has he done, and what does he plan to do, to test the Intelligent Design hypothesis?

“I don’t really do lab work anymore,” Behe replied. He explained that he cannot get funding for scientific research on ID, and admitted that, anyway, “I don’t think anything that I came up with would persuade anybody.”

He went on to say, “There is no magic bullet experiment that shows Design.”

Hmm. Okay.

The crux of Behe’s argument is this: Life on the microscopic level, such as that of the human cell, is too complex to be explained by Darwin’s theory. When something in life achieves a level of complexity that Behe terms “irreducible complexity,” evolution can no longer fully explain how it came to be.

I concede that there are scientific questions about the development of certain systems that we cannot yet answer using the tools of evolutionary biology. If we could, there would be no reason to pursue scientific research today.

Massimo Pigliucci, the associate professor of ecology and evolution at State University of New York at Stony Brook, agrees.

“All scientific theories are incomplete,” said Pigliucci, who spoke at an NYU round table discussion last Wednesday with Behe and New York Times national religion correspondent Laurie Goodstein. “It’s good that they are incomplete, or else I’d be out of a job.”

Behe, however, believes that we will never be able to explain the origins of such complex processes using evolution.

“We infer design whenever parts appear arranged to accomplish a function,” he said. In other words, just by observing a cell’s structure, Behe thinks it is possible to determine that it was designed — and that it could not have evolved.

But Behe is substituting inference for the scientific method. He admits that he cannot design an experiment that would convince anyone of Intelligent Design, so he is instead substituting what he sees as a lack of evidence for one theory (evolution) as proof of another theory (Intelligent Design). But science doesn’t work that way.

“The basic claim [of ID] is that if the theory of evolution fails, there must have been an Intelligent Designer. The point is, if evolution was wrong, it would imply exactly nothing about the existence of a Designer,” Pigliucci told the audience. A hypothesis has to be tested itself before its scientific validity can be determined.

Evolution, on the other hand, is science precisely because a number of experiments have confirmed it, including Darwin’s data, fossil record studies and comparative genetics. Evolution can even be observed directly, when, for example, bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics.

If Intelligent Design is to be considered a scientific movement rather than a religious or social one, then its proponents need to design and carry out experiments to prove its legitimacy (assuming, of course, that’s even possible). Pointing out gaps in our understanding of evolution really does nothing.

Science is based on hard, reproducible experimental evidence, and ID, to this date, has none. Until it does, Intelligent Design won’t merit a moment’s attention from the scientific community.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mmm, beer!

I always knew beer was a good thing and now a new research study agrees with me! Beer may help prevent heart disease and make you happy, according to this article in New Scientist. But, like all things, it's probably best in moderation... *hic*

Monday, April 03, 2006

Could this deadly virus save the earth?

Something strange appears to have transpired at the Texas Academy of Science last month. University of Texas evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka, named the Academy's 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist, apparently gave a speech in which he advocated the spread of airborne Ebola to wipe out 90% of the world's population.

Why would he want so many people to perish? It's the only way to save the earth, Pianka told the audience, according to this account by Forrest M. Mims III, the editor of The Citizen Scientist, a webzine published by the Society for Amateur Scientists.

According to Mims, Pianka then suggested that Ebola, the deadly virus from the Congo, would achieve these ends perfectly, since it is estimated to have a 90% fatality rate. (It would also achieve these ends messily; before death, Ebola victims bleed from every bodily opening. Yuck.)

The speech was followed by "loud, vigorous and enthusiastic applause," said Mims, who later wrote: "I still can't get out of my mind the pleasant spring day in Texas when a few hundred scientists of the Texas Academy of Science gave a standing ovation for a speaker who they heard advocate for the slow and torturous death of over five billion human beings."

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Should you go veggie?

Vegetarians tend to be healthier than meat-eaters, according to a study published in Nutrition Reviews today.

The researchers, who reviewed and compiled 87 studies on the subject, found that vegetarians weigh between three and 20 percent less than meat-eaters and are less likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other obesity-linked conditions.

They also found that people who switch to low-fat vegan diets lose about one pound per week, even without changes in exercise habits or limits on portion sizes, calories, or carbohydrates.

"There is evidence that a vegan diet causes an increased calorie burn after meals, meaning plant-based foods are being used more efficiently as fuel for the body, as opposed to being stored as fat," says Dr. Neal D. Barnard, a co-author of the study and member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in a prepared statement.

Should you decide to "go veggie," you may want to check out this USDA
website, which has suggestions on how to keep up with dietary requirements for nutrients like protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12.