Category Archives: Science

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Turns out planets are just every frickin’ place.  Excerpt:

Experts have long known that planets would not be confined to our galaxy, but this is the first time that a celestial body has been discovered outside of the Milky Way.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma used microlensing – an astronomical phenomenon that allows scientists to use gravity from huge objects such as stars to peer hundreds of billions of lightyears into the universe – to detect the planets.

The scientists say they have detected up to 2,000 planets beyond the Milky Way, in a galaxy around 3.8 billion light years away from Earth and ranging in mass sizes from the moon to Jupiter.

University of Oklahoma researchers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory and were even able to see a quasar – a large celestial object – up to six billion lightyears away.

Xinyu Dai, professor in the Homer L. Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Oklahoma College of Arts and Sciences, said: “We are very excited about this discovery. This is the first time anyone has discovered planets outside our galaxy.

“These small planets are the best candidate for the signature we observed in this study using the microlensing technique. 

“We analysed the high frequency of the signature by modelling the data to determine the mass.”

Microlensing, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is a technique based on gravitational lensing, which happens when light passes near to a super-massive object on its way to us; the massive object can bend the light, focusing it like a titanic telescope lens.

While this is a pretty cool technique, and assuming the detection of these planetary bodies are accurate, then it’s neat but not too surprising.  Our own galaxy is known to be chock-full of planets, so there’s no reason to think that other galaxies would be any different.

No aliens yet, though.  Could our galaxy be like the one in Asimov’s Foundation, Robot and Empire mega-series, where life is common but intelligent life is limited to humanity?  There’s no way to know at the moment; maybe one day we’ll find out.

Animal’s Daily Damned Bureaucrats News

There is at present a bill in Congress, H.R. 878, known as the “right to try” bill.  The summary reads as follows:

This bill requires the federal government to allow unrestricted manufacturing, distribution, prescribing, and dispensing of experimental drugs, biological products, and medical devices that are: (1) intended to treat a patient who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and (2) authorized by state law. The federal government must allow unrestricted possession and use of such treatments by patients certified by a physician as having exhausted all other treatment options.

A manufacturer, distributor, prescriber, dispenser, possessor, or user of such a treatment has no liability regarding the treatment.

The outcome of manufacture, distribution, prescribing, dispensing, possession, or use of such a treatment may not be used by a federal agency to adversely impact review or approval of the treatment.

The treatment must: (1) have successfully completed a phase 1 (initial, small scale) clinical trial; (2) remain under investigation in a clinical trial approved by the Food and Drug Administration; and (3) not be approved, licensed, or cleared for sale under the Federal Food, Drug, or Cosmetic Act or the Public Health Service Act.

Seems logical, right?

Well, a whole bunch of folks are against it.  Here’s why:

“Patients with terminal conditions who access unapproved therapies outside of clinical trials may be at risk of hastened death or reduced quality of the life that they have left, and deserve protections similar to patients taking part in clinical trials,” the authors wrote.

Andrew Powaleny, a spokesperson for the pharmaceutical industry organization PhRMA, which hasn’t taken a firm stance on the legislation, said, “It is crucial that any right-to-try policy proposals protect patient safety and the integrity of the clinical trial process along with U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight. PhRMA appreciated the opportunity last fall to work with Sen. Johnson on his proposal and is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with his office and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Walden.”

Honestly, (language alert) fuck these assholes.

If a patient is dying and has exhausted all other treatment options when it’s apparent that they have nothing else to lose, then the decision to try something else is up to them, not some bureaucrat in the Imperial City.  This is short-sighted beyond belief; I’m as adamantly against snake oil salesmen and Gwyneth Paltrow-style horseshit as anyone, but if a patient is dying and all hope is exhausted, then to hell with it – if there is some new treatment that hasn’t been through all the levels of red tape yet, I say let them try it.  These aren’t untried buckets of Paltrow-style woo that’s being discussed, after all.  The bill refers to treatments that have at least been through preliminary clinical trials with positive results.

Are these people afraid that the multiple levels of red tape required by FDA might be shown to be excessive?

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks as always to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the Rule Five links, and to blogger pal Doug Hagin over at The Daley Gator for the linkback!

There is plenty of woo going about with regard to “alternative medicine” and other such horseshit.  We’ve discussed nutbar Gwyneth Paltrow and her line of Goop garbage, but there are plenty of other purveyors of snake oil about; one of the more blatant lines of horseshit involves “pH balancing.”  Excerpt:

Alkaline Water

You can buy alkaline water or make your own. It is said to detoxify (a meaningless alternative medicine buzzword), hydrate (all water hydrates), oxygenate and act as an antioxidant (these are opposite effects: how could it do both?), change your body’s pH (no, it doesn’t), and enhance the immune system (based on the ridiculous claim that acidic foods cause the body’s cells to suffocate, break down and die, and this suffocation weakens the systems that support the immune system). Alkaline water is also said to help you lose weight, prevent diabetes, and cure psoriasis. None of these claims are supported by any scientific evidence. You can pay anywhere from 3.1 cents to $1.36 per ounce for alkaline water; even the least expensive products are a waste of money.

The Bob Wright Protocol

This protocol uses 11.5 pH water made with a Kangen machine. In this view, cancer is caused by microbes; there are many of these microbes in every cancer cell. They excrete highly acidic waste products called mycotoxins. When the microbes are killed, the cancer cells revert to normal cells. Killing them too quickly or too slowly are both counterproductive, and the Bob Wright protocol is designed to kill them at the optimum rate.3 I don’t think I need to point out how monumentally silly all that is.

Robert O. Young

All this nonsense about pH is more than just a harmless fad. Here’s where it gets really scary. Robert O. Young is a naturopath and author of the “pH Miracle” series of books. He says acid is the cause of all disease, alkalinization is the cure for everything, and there is no such thing as a cancer cell. Cancer surgeon and researcher Dr. David Gorski has debunked those ideas handily on the Science-Based Medicine blog.4 And on Quackwatch, Stephen Barrett has taken a critical look at “Dr.” Robert Young’s theories and credentials.5

Young appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show claiming to have cured a woman named Kim Tinkham of breast cancer. She died of breast cancer not long after she appeared on Oprah and told the world that she was cured. A number of other cancer patients have died under Young’s care.

Now, hot/crazy matrix resident Paltrow’s line of woo is, at least, mostly harmless.  It may separate rubes from their cash, but healing crystals and vagina stones aren’t likely to result in anything worse than a nasty yeast infection.  But the two assholes named above are doing actual, real, fatal damage, in promising to cure cancer with their horseshit.

I’ve made a good living over the years helping private companies deal with the heavy regulations FDA places on medical and pharma manufacturers (and no, I’m aware of the oddity of myself, a staunch libertarian, being involved in such work; the irony of that is not lost on me) and I would argue that in most cases the industry is too micro-managed by the Imperial government.  With that said, I’m honestly surprised that the FDA hasn’t cracked down on these utter quacks yet; if anyone ever comprised a threat to public health by dispensing bullshit, these two fit the bill.

The ideal solution would involve a bereaved family suing these shitheads into the next time zone.  Why hasn’t that happened yet?

Rule Five Video Game Friday

Worried about violent video games having an adverse event on American youth?  Worry no longer; a study done by the University of York has found no links between violent video games and violent behavior.  So far, at least; as with most actual science, there are conditions.  Science is, after all, tentative.  Excerpt:

In a series of experiments, with more than 3,000 participants, the team demonstrated that video game concepts do not ‘prime’ players to behave in certain ways and that increasing the realism of violent video games does not necessarily increase aggression in game players.

The dominant model of learning in games is built on the idea that exposing players to concepts, such as violence in a game, makes those concepts easier to use in ‘real life’. This is known as ‘priming’, and is thought to lead to changes in behaviour. Previous experiments on this effect, however, have so far provided mixed conclusions.

Researchers at the University of York expanded the number of participants in experiments, compared to studies that had gone before it, and compared different types of gaming realism to explore whether more conclusive evidence could be found.

The conclusion:

“The findings suggest that there is no link between these kinds of realism in games and the kind of effects that video games are commonly thought to have on their players.

“Further study is now needed into other aspects of realism to see if this has the same result. What happens when we consider the realism of by-standing characters in the game, for example, and the inclusion of extreme content, such as torture?

“We also only tested these theories on adults, so more work is needed to understand whether a different effect is evident in children players.”

I’m not a huge gamer but have played some; back when it was live I loved the old City of Heroes MMORPG, and I’m a fan of Skyrim and the excellent Witcher franchise.   CoH was comic-bookish by design, but the other two games are violent; swordplay figures heavily in both, with decapitations, flying gore, and in the Witcher series, prostitution and sexual acts.

Now I can only speak for myself, but I’ve never felt inclined to go out, take sword in hand, and start hacking away at folk on the street.  Nor have any of my kids, and three of the four are pretty hardcore gamers.

There’s another problem, though, and the same problem exists as when someone blames a crime on anything other than the perp:  It’s bullshit.  The only person, the only thing responsible for a crime is the person that committed that crime.  When we lose sight of that, the criminal justice system becomes… well, something like it is today.

Rule Five Sapiosexual Friday

Thanks to Darkness Over the Land for the pingback!

Moving on:  Yes, apparently this is a thing; for some folks, at least, brains are an essential part of what makes another person sexually interesting.  (I offer no speculation on the intelligence of today’s Rule Five girl; that’s not why she’s here.)  Excerpt:

To get to the bottom of the question, Gilles Gignac, a psychology researcher at the University of Western Australia conducted a survey of both undergraduate students in Australia and participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. He and his co-authors had them complete a questionnaire that asked whether they found high levels of intelligence attractive, in addition to more general questions about intelligence. Examples included “Listening to someone speak very intelligently arouses me sexually,” and “very high level of intelligence alone is enough for me to be attracted to someone sexually.”

Gignac also asked them directly whether they would find people with varying levels of intelligence attractive, ranging from well below the 50th percentile to the very top end of the intelligence spectrum. His study was published in the journal Intelligence, natch.

Tallying the data revealed that for most people, intelligence isn’t a significant factor in deciding whether someone’s hot or not. While it wasn’t totally insignificant, it’s likely that other characteristics override brains for most people. For a select few, however, it appears that a prodigious intellect did indeed serve to stir desire. Eight percent of the participants scored a 4 out of 5 on Gignac’s test, meaning they responded strongly in the positive to most questions that asked whether they were turned on by intelligence. He interprets this as evidence of sapiosexuality among a small subset of people.

Interestingly, it seems there’s a limit to how much intelligence people can handle. When asked to rate what level of intelligence they found attractive, most people stopped at an IQ of 120, which corresponds roughly to the 90th percentile of intelligence. Gignac, isn’t sure about why this is so, though he suggests that portrayals of extremely intelligent people as socially awkward, as well fears of compatibility problems, could come into play.

In addition, the participant’s own level of intelligence, as measured by a few common cognitive tests, didn’t seem to make them more attracted to smart people. In other words, sapiosexuality doesn’t seem to be relegated solely to the brilliant.

I’m a little skeptical about the whole thing.

I do find intelligence appealing.  Mrs. Animal is extremely intelligent; for twenty-five years now she has run the business side of all our small business ventures and managed her own small publishing company, all while raising four daughters.  She speaks several languages, and repeatedly demonstrates unfailing aptitude for almost any new project she takes on.  Yes, she’s a smart cookie.  I think I’m a pretty smart cookie too, and that’s one of the reasons our marriage has been so successful.

But where I think this article misses the mark is in shallowly confining the study to sexuality.  Compatibility in a relationship involves a lot more, including – perhaps too obviously – a certain amount of intellectual parity.  I could refer you to an acquaintance of mine, a man of above-average intelligence who for reasons unknown married a woman who I must in all candor describe as a drooling imbecile.  Not surprisingly, he’s unhappy in the relationship.

Sexual compatibility is important in a relationship, sure.  But more fundamentally, people have to be able to simply talk to each other.  That’s what this study missed.

Animal’s Daily Bat-Guano Crazy News

I know I’ve discussed this before, but here’s the latest from crazy town:  Gwyneth Paltrow is waaaaay out on the end of the hot-crazy curve.  Definitely in NO GO territory.  Excerpt:

Down the hatch, coffee can jumpstart a day. But, according to dubious advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s posh lifestyle and e-commerce site, Goop, the popular brew can also kick off a whole year—when taken up the bum.

Yes, Goop suggests that a coffee enema is a “clutch” way to “supercharge” your “annual goop detox” and start the year in tip-top health. In its latest guide for “deep detoxification,” the Goop team recommends a device called an “Implant O’Rama” for squirting coffee up your keister at home. The product, sold by Implant O’Rama LLC for a bargain $135, is merely a glass bottle with silicone tubing attached.

First things first, as we’ve noted before, there’s no need to “detox”—unless you have kidney or liver failure, and/or have been poisoned recently. When in good working order, your body naturally clears any toxins you might encounter. And there’s no evidence that any DIY detoxing cleanses or diets improve health. That said, there’s plenty of evidence that coffee enemas and colon cleanses in general can cause harm.

Never mind squirting coffee up your ass.  The bullshit gets deeper than that – far, far deeper.  Here’s the best bit of the linked article:  Scroll down to the bottom and go through the photo gallery of “Other ways Goop recommends detoxing.”  This gallery includes such gems as “UMA Pure Calm Wellness Oil,” An $84 dollar water bottle to infuse your water with “positive energy” from a crystal, an $85 “Shaman Medicine Bag” with “magically charged stones,” and a $68 “Detox Body Oil.”

Ring any bells, fans of American frontier history?

While it’s amazing that anyone stupid enough to buy any of this horseshit could possibly have enough brain power to maintain autonomous body functions, it’s even more amazing that Ms. Paltrow has the chutzpah to take advantage of drooling morons – her only possible target market – by charging such prices for absolute crap.

Is she an idiot, or just a con artist?  Thoughts?

Rule Five Amazing 2017 Friday

2017 was an amazing year where science and medicine were concerned.  Here is a breakdown of the year’s advances; some of my favorites, my comments, and some toothsome Friday totty follow.

There is a history of cancer in my mother’s family, and the Old Man was lucky to catch an incipient  colon cancer very early, so this one hits close to home.  Cancer is a horrible disease, but at its heart it’s a genetic disorder; a gene therapy that could destroy tumors would be earth-shaking.  Let’s hope this one is as promising as it seems.

I’m not sure what practical use this has, but it’s cool.  The thing about discoveries of this sort is that nobody really knows all the implications until the whole thing is not only discovered but analyzed and integrated into our current technology.  But I still like things like this just because they’re interesting.

Like a lot of folks, I have elderly parents.  The Old Man (94) has positional vertigo, which means he can lose his balance if he turns quickly or stands up suddenly; that could lead to a bad fall, and at 94, falls frequently mean broken bones from which there may be no recovery.  This kind of thing has big implications for quality of life for the elderly.

HIV is still a killer, although for most folks in developed nations the life expectancy of HIV+ patients has increased a great deal.  Still – this sounds like a cure.

See my comments above on cancer.  Cancer treatments have come a long ways in the last decade, and it looks like they will be going a lot further in the next decade or two.

  • December 11: Tasmanian tigers aren’t extinct (or at least they won’t be for long!) – Scientists unlock mysterious creature’s DNA – and plan to clone it bring the beast back to Australia.

Another one that’s interesting just because it’s cool.  And if we can do this for thylacines (the proper name for the Tasmanian ‘tiger’) why can’t we do it for, say, passenger pigeons?  Dodos?  Great auks?  Quaggas?  Mammoths?  Neandertals?  OK, that last presents a host of moral and ethical dilemmas, and that’s interesting in and of itself; if we cloned a Neandertal, what would that person’s status be?

It’s a fascinating time to be alive, True Believers.  It’s popular in some circles to wax nostalgic for the “Good Old Days” but in many ways the good old days weren’t all that good.  The Old Man still talks of the evening in 1928 when his younger brother died of pneumonia.  My Uncle Lee was three years old; today he probably would never have been in any danger, but then, he died.

What will 2018 bring?  Any guesses?

 

 

 

 

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Anti-GMO nutbars are causing poor people in Africa to go hungry – again.  Excerpt:

The resistance genes from sweet pepper have been studied for decades. Dr. Leena Tripathi and her team at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture then moved two specific resistance genes (called HRAP and PFLP) from sweet pepper into matooke. Years later, the plants are beautiful, standing tall, green and strong, even in the presence of the disease.

Standing beneath them is breathtaking. I stood and starred up at a cure for starvation. Maybe these plants would not feed the world, but they could bring desperately-needed security to the plates of East African small farmers.

It was in that canopy of disease-resistant plants that Dr. Priver Namanya told us the story of the modified matooke, and its success in conferring resistance to bacterial wilt. She kindly escorted us to the field, in flip flops and a bright flowered skirt, smiling the whole time as she showed us her work. You could tell she was proud of the solutions that she helped create and foster. She told us about the genetics that also fought off fungal diseases like black sigatoka, also endemic in the region. We stood beneath the proof that this food staple could be protected by a tweak from modern biotechnology.

But comfortable, well-fed Western loonies and the African government bureaucrats who listen to them can’t let that stand:

Today these solutions are frozen in place, unable to serve those they were intended to serve. The green, lush plants remain locked behind high fences, the tops wound with razor wire. The carefully designed plants stand behind an official sign that says, “For Research Purposes Only”. The fence, the security, the sign – it makes a heart hurt. These plants are the living options for people who are out of options.

The anti-biotech sentiments of the USA and EU resonate loudly in the African continent, as African officials contemplate why they should approve technologies that wealthy countries in the EU reject. There is well-earned suspicion of “western” technology. But in Uganda, where solutions to small holder subsistence farmers thrive behind the security fences and razor wire, there was not even a mechanism to begin to debate, to test, or to deregulate these solutions that their own scientists created.

There hasn’t been any indication that properly developed and tested GMO crops are harmful.  Every crop grown today, after all, has been genetically modified, by selective breeding and hybridization.  The difference is only one of technique.

Western busybodies are starving people in the name of pseudoscience.  That’s not just nitwittery; it’s criminal nitwittery.  I’ve gone on and on at this topic for years now, and it never ceases to amaze me how short-sighted people can be.

Animal’s Daily New Finch News

Science!

It’s been a long time since I made my living as a biologist, but I do try to stay current, and this is one of those stories that makes biology interesting.  There are four basic types of speciation:  Allopatric, sympatric, parapatric and quantum.  Now, on the Galapagos, biologists studying the iconic finches there have found an instance of hybrid speciation.  Excerpt from the story:

It’s not every day that scientists observe a new species emerging in real time. Charles Darwin believed that speciation probably took place over hundreds if not thousands of generations, advancing far too gradually to be detected directly. The biologists who followed him have generally defaulted to a similar understanding and have relied on indirect clues, gleaned from genomes and fossils, to infer complex organisms’ evolutionary histories.

Some of those clues suggest that interbreeding plays a larger role in the formation of new species than previously thought. But the issue remains contentious: Hybridization has been definitively shown to cause widespread speciation only in plants. When it comes to animals, it has remained a hypothesis (albeit one that’s gaining increasing support) about events that typically occurred in the distant, unseen past.

Until now. In a paper published last month in Science, researchers reported that a new animal species had evolved by hybridization — and that it had occurred before their eyes in the span of merely two generations. The breakneck pace of that speciation event turned heads both in the scientific community and in the media. The mechanism by which it occurred is just as noteworthy, however, because of what it suggests about the undervalued role of hybrids in evolution.

Know why this is interesting?  Look in the mirror.  If you, like yr obdt., is of mostly northern European or west Asian descent, you have some Neandertal genes, maybe as much as 3-4%.  What precisely happened to the Neandertal is still the subject of some debate, but the Neandertal genome has been sequenced, and we now know a little of them lives on in us.

That wasn’t a speciation event, though.  It was an absorption at best.  As far as I’m aware this hybrid event with the finches is new, and that’s interesting in and of itself.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks as always to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

In a bit of news from around the Arctic Circle, a film crew caught some footage of another starving polar bear.  Excerpt:

This year, biologist Paul Nicklen published a video online of an emaciated polar bear on Baffin Island rummaging through trash cans, looking for food. The polar bear was likely at death’s door when Nicklen captured the footage in late summer.
Nicklen, who founded the environmental group Sea Legacy, said he wanted to highlight the future polar bears face because of global warming. It worked, and the video has gone viral, sparking media coverage about a polar bear that’s a victim of a warming world.

“We stood there crying—filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” Nicklen said, National Geographic reported.

“When scientists say bears are going extinct, I want people to realize what it looks like. Bears are going to starve to death,” said Nicklen. “This is what a starving bear looks like.”

Yes, bears are going to starve to death.  Mountain lions are going to starve to death.  Wolves are going to starve to death.  It is a sad but inevitable fact in the lives of large predators that some of them never quite get the hang of surviving.  The death rate of young bears in many environments is appalling.

But that’s nature for you.

There are a number of questions that I’d like to have answered that might shed a little more light on the whole thing:

  1. Assuming the bear did die, and it does indeed look inevitable from the film, did anyone do a necropsy on the animal to discover if it was injured, infested with parasites, or diseased?
  2. How old was the bear?  Young bears, especially young males, are frequently injured by larger, older bears as they seek their own territories.
  3. Were any other emaciated bears observed in the area?  If the environmental conditions were the root cause of this bear’s condition, then other bears in the area would be suffering as well.
  4. Where, exactly, was the bear?  Near a human habitation?  Polar bears are creatures of the coast and pack ice, but one hanging out near human habitations may (again) be a young one still learning how to survive, and maybe doing poorly.

In other words, there are just too many possible explanations to just go off and go “RRHHHEEEEE!  Global climate change!  We must cripple our economy now!”  Large predators almost never die peaceful deaths.  They are killed in fights with other predators, they are injured trying to take down a prey animal, they die of disease or by accident, or they just plain starve.  It’s a damned tough world out there, and in the Arctic, it’s several quantum levels tougher.

Blaming this on climate change is some Olympic-level jumping to a conclusion.