Science Roundup: We're Back

Long, long ago on a website far, far away (OK, 2006 on Blogcritics.org) before I joined ScienceBlogs, I used to do weekly or biweekly roundups of science, health and tech in the news.

In these I would make no attempt whatsoever to interpret or even accurately represent the articles involved. Sometimes they were even funny.

Funny or not, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed writing them, so I think I am going to bring them back.

So here is your Science Roundup for February 9th, 2009.


Soon WiFi will be available on airlines, but not everyone is pleased with the convenience:

But the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 55,000 employees at 20 airlines, though not Delta, views Wi-Fi as a potential threat to flight attendants' ability to keep order in the cabin, said Corey Caldwell, a union spokeswoman.

"Our duties involve securing the safety of the cabin, not acting as censor police," Ms. Caldwell said. "It just adds another layer of duties inside the cabin, which take away from the main requirement that flight attendants are on board for."

Ms. Caldwell said the flight attendants' union also feared that terrorists plotting a scheme on a plane could use Wi-Fi to communicate with one another on board and with conspirators on the ground.

Terrorism? Whatever. More significant is going to be the fanboy sitting next to you who is screening new additions to his porn collection. And we are not talking normal "she's naked and presenting like a mandrill" porn. We are talking furries.


Jelly takes a dramatic lead in the PB&J wars as salmonella in some peanuts scares consumers in to going without:

Given the steady stream of headlines since mid-January about one of the largest food contamination scares in the nation's history, the companies whose products are not being recalled could have a difficult time winning over people like Guadalupe Vasquez.

On Friday, she and her three young children kept walking past shelves of peanut butter at a grocery store in Bellaire, Tex. "The news shows say don't buy it and I won't buy it," said Ms. Vasquez, adding that she normally buys a jar each week for her family. "I'm very fearful of salmonella."

Take that Peter Pan! I knew you couldn't be trusted.


Researchers use sunlight and nanotubes to produce methane:

The researchers filled steel tubes with carbon dioxide and water vapour, covered the end of the chambers with a film of their nanotubes, and capped the containers with a quartz window to let light in. The closed chambers were then set outside on on the university campus on sunny days from July to September 2008.

When light falls on the nanotubes, they release energetic charge carriers, which split the water molecules inside them into two reactive components -- hydroxide radicals and hydrogen ions. The hydrogen ions combine to form hydrogen gas. The researchers don't yet understand exactly what happens next, but they think that the carbon dioxide also splits to form oxygen and carbon monoxide, which then reacts with gaseous hydrogen to form methane and water.

Funny. All I need is Taco Bell.


India has a drug problem, and I am not talking about the population of India. The actual land of India has a drug problem -- or more precisely the rivers below drug production plants:

In 2007, however, a team led by environmental scientist Joakim Larsson of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden published results from one waste-treatment facility, Patancheru Enviro Tech Ltd (PETL)2. Around 90 companies in the region that manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients, or assemble final drug products, send their waste to PETL. With permission, Larsson's team sampled the waste exiting the plant; they found drugs including the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, at concentrations of up to 31,000 micrograms per litre, and the antihistamine cetirizine, at up to 1,400 micrograms per litre. The team estimated that the amount of ciprofloxacin entering the river from the plant could amount to up to 45 kilograms a day -- the equivalent of 45,000 daily doses, says Larsson.

With that much Cipro, it may very well be safe to drink the water.


One in 200 human genes is totally superfluous:

The team studied variations in the genetic code of more than 1000 people from around the world. They focused their work on single-letter changes (called SNPs) that disrupt proteins, leading to versions that are either shorter or completely absent. One might intuitively expect that such a change - called a nonsense-SNP - would be harmful to the person.

"We knew that these mutations existed and that many have been associated with genetic diseases, but we were amazed to find that they were so common in the general population," said Bryndis Yngvadottir, lead author on the study. "We found that 167 genes could be inactivated by nonsense mutations, and that individuals carry on average at least 46 such variations. For 99 of the genes, both copies could be lost in adults living a normal existence."

Human DNA contains approximately 20,000 genes: the total of 99 genes with nonsense-SNPs means that at least 1 in 200 genes is dispensable. Some harmful nonsense-SNPs were also present among the 167 genes studied: 8 are listed in the Human Gene Mutation Database which catalogues disease-causing mutations.

One in 200 genes is superfluous, and all of those genes are in my wife. Bah boom chick! I am here all week, Folks.



New "natural orifice" surgery
emphasizes how much better it is to take a kidney out of your vagina than out an incision in your back:

You make a six-inch incision in the back of the vaginal wall and insert one flexible tube that contains four channels through which you insert surgical instruments and cameras. Then you dissect upwards toward the kidney, which is located midway up the back. Dissecting means you are using scissors to open up layers of tissue, called fascial planes, to get to the kidney. Separating these layers of tissue feels like peeling away layers of cotton candy. Once you get to the kidney, you identify blood vessels supplying it with blood, put clips on the vessels so they don't bleed, and cut them free from the kidney. (The clips are actually left in the body after the surgery.) To remove the organ, doctors might use the "Roth Net" retrieval net, which is like a collapsible butterfly net. You thread the Roth Net through the tube, which opens up on the other side and "catches" the kidney like a net capturing a butterfly. Then kidney is pulled through the vaginal incision.

1) That's a beautiful metaphor: catching a butterfly with a light airy net on a Spring afternoon. Now every time I think of that, I am going to think of vaginas giving birth to human organs. 2) I must be using a radically different definition for the word "better." 3) Researchers is ongoing on how to pull a liver out the male urethra.


To illustrate the importance of malaria treatment, Bill Gates released a horde of mosquitos at a tech gathering in California:

Bill Gates did release a jar of the insects at an elite tech gathering in California. "Not only poor people should experience this," Gates said. A picture and blog post from the event is here.

Gates released "several" mosquitoes, thinking it would be a good way to draw attention to the issue of malaria, since that was part of his talk, says a Gates Foundation spokesperson, adding that the mosquitoes were not carrying malaria.

It wasn't clear whether the mosquitoes came from a nearby lab or flew to Long Beach in a private jet. One commenter suggested they would starve in a room full of bloodless technocrats.

Unfortunately some people are allergic to mosquitos like people are allergic to bees, and one of those people was at the gathering.

This is nothing compared to Gates' next trick: releasing a horde of hepatitis-infected prostitutes at Comic-Con to illustrate the importance of safe sex.


The first author of a study that initiated a vaccine scare in Britain, Andrew Wakefield, has been revealed to be a big, fat liar:

The UK-based Sunday Times has a potential bombshell on their site; they claim Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who started the whole "vaccines cause autism" garbage, faked his data to make that claim.

About 10 years ago, Wakefield published a study dealing with children who were autistic, developing symptoms shortly after getting their shots, and linked this with irritated intestinal tracts. This study came under a lot of fire, and eventually most of the authors retracted the conclusion that autism was associated with "environmental factors", that is, vaccinations. By then, though, it was too late, and the modern antivaccination movement was born.

The Sunday Times investigated Wakefield's original research, and alleges that the symptoms Wakefield reports in his research do not match hospital records of the 12 children studied at the time. In only one case were there symptoms that arose after the injection; in many of the other cases symptoms started before the children had been vaccinated (in fact, there have been allegations for some time that neurological issues occurred in the children before they had actually been vaccinated, casting doubt on Wakefield's work). Also, hospital pathologists reported that the bowels of many of the children were normal, but Wakefield reported them as having inflammatory disease in his journal paper.

Let me just tell you: it is really hard to light someone's pants on fire. First, they very rarely stand still. Second, unless they are wearing synthetic, it is hard as hell to get cotton going with that really steady burn that teaches them to never do that again.


Puzzling sentences in science writing:

A new study sheds light. In both situations - resting with eyes closed or sleeping - electrical activity continues in the brain, but the activity is represented by slow electrical fluctuations, rather than the bursts of activity that occur when you're awake with eyes wide open. The resting oscillations, as the scientists call them, were found to be most pronounced during deep sleep, as might be expected.

The slow fluctuation pattern can be compared to a computer screensaver, say the researchers at the Weizmann Institute. (Emphasis mine.)

Metaphor: FAIL.

If this activity were a screensaver, wouldn't I be seeing little flying toasters?


That's all I got folks. Check back next week.

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So you're a phud-mud. Having spent the last millenium in graduate school, i decided that 2 years was plenty to do medical school.

One of my medical students once suggested that I had wasted my time getting a PhD. No, i think differently that you ever will.

But all that lounging around in the lab comes with a price, namely brain damage.

People think i'm odd because I a) enjoyed organic chemistry and b) find basic science interesting enuough to be seen eplaining carbon nanotubes to the guy behind me in line at Starbucks. The fact that I didn't know his name is meaningless..

And you start to hear voices and have flight of ideas..

oh, look a butterfly...

By james jones md, phd (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink

Re natural office surgery:

Having done medicine now for 20 years, i've learned a few things. Listen up.. Just because you can does not mean you should.

This is sort of like the natural childbirth fanatics who seem to forget that the goal here is to have a healthy baby. And besides we haven't delivered underwater in a million years or so. Natural Childbirth is having it out in the parking lot under a tree, provided it's a dirt parking lot...Anything else is a copout, or what we like to call modern medicine.

The goal here was to remove a healthy kidney and so you can save someone's life. That's #1. #2 which follows closely is not to hurt anyone. #3,4,5 which include showing off your your collegues and getting yet another paper published is NOT EVEN ON THE SAME FREAKING PAGE.

When you do finally get the MD to balance off the PhD, just remember to repeat this every morning when you drive to work... IT's not about me, it's not about me...

you'll be fine..

By jim jones md, … (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink