Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana an undercover agent, Beatrice, is sent from London to assist Wormold.  On her first night in Cuba she goes out to the most popular nightclub in town and douses a prominent policeman in soda water.  When our (anti)hero chastises her for making herself so conspicuous, she replies with a wonderfully insightful piece of human observation: “Nobody will ask questions any more about who I am. They have the answer.”

Just as Beatrice became “the woman who siphoned the policeman”, Beatrix Potter is the author of the Peter Rabbit books, and Florence Nightingale is the “Lady with the Lamp”. Right?

However, there is more to these two famous women than is commonly known: both of them were talented scientists.

Beatrix Potter didn’t only draw rabbits in blue jackets, she also made careful drawings of her observations down the microscope – at the time the only way to record microscopic images. Through careful observation and experimentation she was one of the first to discover that lichens – those flaky, crusty things you see growing on tree bark and rocks – are not one organism, but two organisms, a fungus and an alga, living in a close, symbiotic relationship.

Unfortunately, she was seriously discouraged in her career by the scientific establishment. As a woman she was not permitted to present her own work to the Linnean Society and had to send her uncle in her stead (the Linnean Society eventually apologised in 1997 for how they had treated her). Beatrix put away her microscope, and focussed instead on her children’s stories.

Florence Nightingale’s story is different in that she was recognised during her lifetime; it seems it is only in retrospect that we have simplified her biography to “Lady with the Lamp”.

The woman who invented nursing did much more than dab an occasional brow and console the dying.  She revolutionised hospital care and crucially demonstrated the importance of hygiene and sanitary practices in patient outcomes. This was at a time when reputation and standing were the most convincing attributes someone could possess, neither of which Ms Nightingale had in abundance.

How could this unconventional person, who happened to also be a woman, persuade the medical establishment to alter their practices?

Florence Nightingale harnessed the undeniable truth and clarity of carefully collected and presented statistics to demonstrate the clear benefits of proper sanitation. It sounds obvious to us today, trained as we are from childhood, that washing your hands, keeping wounds clean, and household sanitation are important for good health, but at the time it was not accepted that there were microscopic things on your hands and on other surfaces that could make you sick.

Florence Nightingale’s work collecting, analysing and presenting statistics was brilliant, and succeeded in convincing the skeptical medical establishment of the importance of santitation.  In recognition she was made the first ever female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and we continue to benefit from her careful work today.

I was delighted to learn all this, only quite recently, and to discover that these women, whom I thought I knew so well, were far more inspirational than I had realised.  Both of them unconventional, intelligent, and ahead of their time.

Occasionally it’s worth remembering to look beyond the simple biography.

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Patrick Holford’s appearance on the Late Late on Friday was televised to the nation as a gospel proclamation: come see my magic works and repent, oh ye of little scientific understanding. I presumed that this would be the part of the show where RTE trot out someone to allow the audience to snigger at their conspiracy theories or visions. Not so with Mr Holford, who was introduced as a world leading nutritionist.
Lets start with the title and work our way downward, Patrick Holford, or, to give him his proper title, ‘pill salesman’, has no qualifications. He has built a business on selling supplements to anyone that will buy them. He is not a medical practitioner, scientist, researcher or expert for a number of reasons.

1: Qualifications from a recognized third level institution :0
Most people agree that qualifications from recognized institutions are a prerequisite to taking medical advice from somebody. The letters after your G.P.’s name denote years of study and examination, something Mr Holford has conveniently sidestepped.

2: His peer reviewed publications : 0
Part of being a scientist is putting your findings out there within the scientific community for peer review. This involves having every minute aspect of your findings interrogated, criticised and if necessary; rejected. It’s a soul destroying process, and why would anyone willingly submit to it? The reason scientists do this is to protect the public, to produce work based on the best evidence available and to advance understanding.

3: Nutritionist is not a protected title; in other words, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. I can call myself one and recommend daily snickers and bottles of Lucozade to beat the winter blues. My next bestseller will be ‘The Barbarians Nutrition Bible’, brought to you by Creme Eggs.

4: His ‘honorary diploma’ was awarded to him by The Board of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, which is an educational trust that HE founded in 1984. The same as if I opened ‘The Barbarian Center for Barbarian studies’  and awarded myself a PhD from it. That’s Doctor Barbarian to you.

Moving swiftly on, his first contention that women have less serotonin than men and thus are far more susceptible to depression. That’s quite a statement there Patrick, so let’s see what you left out?
What he fails to mention is that serotonin –which he refers to as the ‘happy’ chemical’  – is also serotonin the ‘aggression’ chemical. So yes, we have less of that particular chemical than our larger male counterparts, evolution has yet to catch up on the need for greater amounts of serotonin in males. But to claim that this is why women present with greater rates of depression ignores the under-diagnosis of male sufferers, it ignores the greater pressures and burdens on women in society and it ignores the social aspects of women’s as opposed to men’s lives. Outside of the fact that the serotonin hypothesis of depression is but a part of the neurochemical reasons for depression and correlation should not be read as causation. There are other chemicals at play in the depression etiology, but Patrick did not feel like talking about those.

Why would he say this? As stated earlier, Patrick Holford is a pill salesman, carefully targeting the audience at home, in particular the ladies. They might be sitting there on a Friday night patiently awaiting the next ‘cure’, ready to go out shopping for it on Saturday. By appealing to women with half truths he reached his market, EPIC WIN for Patrick, 100 points off the bat, uncontested by the host. At this stage I was having a full John McEnroe freak out, hollering ‘you cannot be serious maaaaaannnnn’ at the TV. Holford was allowed ride roughshod all over Ryan, his facts, cherry picked from obscure sources, citing trials but failing to mention participants, full findings or financial backing involved. For, as Mr. Holford loves to points out, there are forces at play in big pharma, forces that want to manipulate the facts to suit themselves, but that’s not the way science works. The slow but steady erosion of confidence in science continues unabated, with the portrayal of massive organisations working to keep you hooked, unhappy and dependent. As opposed to ‘Alternative Pharma’ with such constraints. No one mentions how the humble supplement is now a multimillion pound industry in its own right.

The problem with manufacturing medicine is all the damn procedures! Peer reviewed publications in general science are open to criticism and stringent testing and retesting before they can be marketed to the general public. If you want to manufacture a supplement it’s much simpler:  all you need is one small link between two things, causal or correlation-we don’t care. Bang them in a bottle, stick the ould ‘may help’ claim before any claims, and bob’s your uncle.

Minute effects based on the interaction of cells in petrie dishes are lauded as proof of the efficacy of drugs. None more disturbing than Mr. Holford’s marketing of Vitamin C as a cure for AIDS in Africa. Ah yes, Tubs, you forgot to ask him about that, forgot to mention that inconvenient fact.

For facts have very little to do with Mr. Holford’s business. For a man who claims to be interested in improving the lives of people, of making people happy, could you really ignore that this man was recommending that people avoid using tried and tested drugs for the treatment of AIDS?.

I leafed through one of the few remaining copies of Holford’s book in the local bookshop Saturday evening, with chapters about how medicine is out to get you and how his pills will cure you. While a small minority of people will achieve placebo effects from Holford’s claims, the majority will not. Yet more will be negatively biased towards medicinal treatments for depression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as favorable as the next person to proper help and supports as well as environmental and social interventions to aid depression recovery. I am not, however, about to throw the baby out with the bath water; your G.P. is not there to dispense items which they know don’t work.

I only wish that our esteemed Late Late show host could find time in his busy schedule to read the background check on his guests and ask hard questions. One can only hope that a scientist turns up with Tubs next week to redress the balance. Learning a little about science can save you a fortune, it can save you from false promises and it always strives to save lives. I heartily recommend Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science; it’s a tenner you won’t waste, as it will pay for itself 100 times over when you find yourself reaching for the next ‘magic diet pill’ or ‘collagen rich cream’.

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I talk about science at parties. Now, I know what you’re thinking – scientists don’t go to parties. Well, sometimes people invite us, and we try to behave ourselves as well as anyone else. The thing is, I often end up discussing evolution or genetics or any other aspect of science when I’m out in company. I don’t go out with an agenda to Spread the Word, but sometimes it just happens.

It can start in the most innocuous ways. Like the time I was in the garden of a friend’s house, and a guy, for some reason that must be related to a lull in conversation, said “Could my jacket be more red?”, to which two of us instantly replied, “Your jacket is orange”.  I suppose in most circumstances the conversation would end there and we’d move on to something more entertaining. But that would be a different party.  Now, I still maintain that the jacket is orange, and given my friend’s confident initial declaration, I doubt that he has changed his mind either.  The interesting, and even exciting thing here is thinking about why we had distinctly different experiences of the same jacket.  There’s only one jacket, so who is right? Is it red or is it orange? It turns out that that is a much more subjective question than you might initially think. Sure, the jacket reflects a particular wavelength of light which is unambiguously measurable, but the name we give to that colour depends on our genes.

An extreme and familiar example of this is colour-blindness, where an individual is missing one colour receptor gene, so that everything that falls broadly in the red-green part of the spectrum looks the same and gets just one name instead of two (or perhaps both names are used, but differently from the majority of people). But there are much less extreme examples of differences in colour perception that probably go unnoticed by most people most of the time.

Genes frequently vary but by quite small degrees – small changes that result in differences much less obvious than colour-blindness.  We detect colour because proteins made by our colour vision genes react to particular wavelengths of light. We have three types of these proteins each sensitive to red, green or blue wavelengths. If your “red” gene is sensitive to a slightly different wavelength from mine (which is actually a quite common occurrence), then the colour that you perceive as pure red will be different from the one I perceive as pure red. It is differences like these that lead to two people disagreeing on the colour of the same jacket, not to mention the differences between the sexes in their genetic capacity to distinguish colours (women have more, but you knew that already), and all the neurogenetic differences that can lead to different processing of that same visual information by the brain.

It’s fascinating. And I hope the others at the party agreed, because they ended up listening to all that.

So, should I feel ashamed of myself for nerding-up my friends’ parties? Well, I think not. Not only is it actually interesting to talk about these things on occasion, but I believe that it is also important that there is a stronger culture of scientific reasoning and critical thinking.

If you disagree with me, then think of the MMR scandal. Some shoddy science led to a safety scare regarding MMR vaccines. The initial scare was widely reported, and fear is a very powerful emotion – many people stopped vaccinating their children. The vaccine uptake rates continued to drop even after subsequent research revealed the flaws in the initial study. The general public was ill-equipped to digest the scientific information, especially because it was, and still is, usually phrased in terms of probabilities and risk factors – these can sound frighteningly insecure.  However, the real fright came from the outbreak of measles in populations that now had lower than necessary numbers of vaccinated individuals, and ultimately the first deaths of children from measles in Ireland and in the UK for over a decade.

The power of scientific knowledge often rests upon the understanding and acceptance of that knowledge by the wider public.

It’s good to talk.

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No use crying about it

Much of what modern science does, and why, baffles me, so I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn about studies which show that women’s tears have been shown to reduce male sexual arousal. It’s the scent of the tears apparently, rather than any visual cues that might affect his testosterone level – and only real tears, rather than saline, will do.nomoretears

While the researchers plan on studying the effect of men’s tears on women and men, their reduction of sexual arousal to hormone levels and brain activity in the rather strange environment of sniffing tears while looking at a series of female faces seems a little dubious, as does the notion that a sympathetic response to someone crying may be now read as an involuntary physical response on the part of men.

Given the small sample (24 men took part in the study) it isn’t particularly scientifically relevant, but it seems to make good news – plenty of opportunity for one-liners about having found “one good man crier” or talking about how red noses are already enough of a turnoff for men.

I haven’t found an article yet which poses the question of whether a crying woman might actually want a man to find her sexually attractive or not. Funny that.

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Quick science update. Two stories caught my eye – or maybe nose? – over the last couple of days. The first was that bacteria smell. And no I’m not talking about the pong of your bashed-up runners or the bin full of rotting vegetation in a heatwave. I mean they actually seem to have a prototype sense of smell – they detect volatile, airborne compounds that you or I would classify as an odour. In this case the bacteria in question sensed some ammonia being given off by other bacteria nearby and they responded by producing slime and changing colour. You just have to love how bacteria don’t hold back in letting their neighbours know how they feel. The study was carried out in Newcastle University and it’s published in Biotechnology Journal if you really want to check it out. As an aside, some commentators have been getting a little sniffy about how reports of the findings talk about bacteria having a ‘sense of smell’ rather than just detecting airborne chemicals, so apologies to anyone offended by the reek in that inference.
The other smell-related story that popped up on my radar got pushed under my nose late last night when an editor I work with emailed me the link. I can see how he had been intrigued by the headline – Breath Test Could Reveal Cancer. Using a test based on gold nanoparticles scientists were able to detect levels of airborne compounds that increase in cancer patients, and the preliminary study showed the electronic nose could distinguish between healthy and malignant breath. Malignant breath? Yikes.

Claire O’Connell

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L’Oréal loves to talk up the science. From its skin-and-hair labs in Paris to Jennifer Aniston steadying her gaze into your living room and warning that “the science bit” is coming, they revel in the white-coatedness of it all. But it’s not just the men in those white coats, no. The cosmetics empire also wants to give women a nudge along scientific research trajectory.

And so two Dublin-based women are packing their bags to go to London tomorrow to represent their dreams of advancing a scientific idea.
Dr Lourdes Basabe-Desmonts, a research fellow at Dublin City University, is developing a surface-based technology to measure how stem cells develop in the lab. Meanwhile Dr Rachel Evans from Trinity College Dublin is looking at a new way to create small-scale organic electronic devices.
They are among eight short-listed candidates for this competition, of which four will receive a 2010 L’Oréal UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science Fellowship that provides £15,000 in funding to further their work.

Now to those of us living in NAMA-land whose ears are tuned into the millions and billions, that amount doesn’t seem very much. But it all counts. And the prestige that goes with a L’Oréal UNESCO award is not to be sniffed at. A 2009 winner of one of their international fellowships (they only gave out 15 worldwide), Dr Lydia Lynch, now divides her time between University College Dublin and Harvard. She is looking at how obesity messes with the immune system and can put people at higher risk of developing cancer. Lynch is definitely on my ‘one to watch’ list and best of luck to the two candidates in the Ireland and UK competition tomorrow.

Claire O’Connell

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node3So apparently NASA want you to name Node 3, a new part that is due to be added to the International Space Station. All sounds terribly easy, particularly as they give you several options and the chance to submit your own. You can choose from the rather dull ‘Earthrise’ (sounds like a space age alarm clock), ‘Venture’ (too internet business-y), ‘Serenity’ (must be some Joss Wheedon fans in there) or Legacy (meh, boring). Or there’s the opportunity to use your own imagination… which coud be very interesting if you read up on what Node 3 will consist of. The showers and bathroom will be housed there and it will also contain:

“A Water Recovery System (WRS) and Urine Processor Assembly (UPA), which take waste water from the station’s shower and toilets and purify it, separating any contaminants and making it safe for the crew to drink.”

What’s that now? A place to purify pee? That will then be treated and drank again? Holy kidney purification Batman!

Not only does that sound altogether icky, I’m only hoping that some bright sparks will draw on this information as inspiration for Node 3’s new name. No doubt the powers that be will go for something named after a letter from the Greek alphabet or something from mythology, but I’ve already helpfully thought of some names. Here’s my shortlist.

1) Captain’s Bog
2) Dionypiss (you know, like the Greek God)
3) Instead of pinching Joss Wheedon’s ‘Serenity’ title – call it ‘Weed-on’ after the man himself.

Any more suggestions? Indulge me, it’s Friday and I’m feeling juvenile and scatalogical.

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