Archive for category biology

Protect Yourself Against Nuclear Weapons

Posted by on Friday, 16 March, 2012



If you get a big dose of radiation (like some of the workers at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant) you’re hosed, aren’t you?

Not necessarily.

Here’s the thing. Radioactivity’s scary. If the blast don’t get you, the “vapours” will.

It’s invisible, insidious, and inevitable.

Until now, if you got overexposed to radiation, all anyone could do was to toss you in the shower, give you a pill (which didn’t do much good) and keep you comfortable while your hair fell out.



If  “the bomb” blows you up, no pill is going to put you back together again. But Rebecca Abergel (Berkeley Lab’s Glenn T. Seaborg Center) is doing great work on a decontamination pill. It’ll flush the actinides (the “nasty stuff”)  out into your urine before much damage is done.

Maybe bombs ARE being made under the mountains of your least favorite countries. But you can rest easy now with an antidote by your bedside.

Science. An answer for everything, eh? Snide comments aside, this is a terrific project with the potential to save lives; it deserves a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10 .

Thank you for the good work, Gleen T. Seaborg Center and Dr. Abergel.

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At The End Of WHAT Day???

Posted by on Friday, 27 January, 2012


Mister ScienceAintSoBad. What’s happening? My brothers and my sisters, my parents, the people on television? They keep repeating this THING. Over and over and over again. It’s annoying. They keep saying “At The End Of The Day”. I don’t know WHY they’re doing that or what it means. Can you help me out here? You’re a pretty smart guy (when you aren’t r-e-a-l-l-y clueless). RachelFromIdaho

Dear Rachel,

Thanks. Nice compliment.

The End-of-the-day thing? I hadn’t noticed. But I watched some TV and, like you say, they’re all doing it. Here’s an example of what I found: Mr Obama’s been able to combat some of the charges of his worst critics, but at the end of the day…

End of WHAT day? What are they talking about?

When I did my little TV experiment, I tuned to CNBC. The CEO of a company you probably know was on Closing Bell.  He was explaining why his company had such a bad quarter. Suddenly, he stopped and stared at Maria Batiromo and said “at the end of the day”. Then he ripped off the lapel mike, and left. Just like that!

An article in Neurobiological Sciences (Dr. Jaimes Dinwitter, Harvard Medical school) explains that this is a bug. It likes light and warm temps. TV studios are perfect (the lights). Broadcasters, in particular, seem to be infected. Public personalities, too.

It goes right to the brain.  Broca’s Area which has a lot of the functions of speech. And, here’s the thing. It plays you like a piano. At-the end-of-the-day, At-the end-of-the-day, At-the end-of-the-day . Nobody understands why that phrase. Nobody understands the mechanism behind the repeated vocalizations. Worse, nobody understands how this new bacterial strain can be defeated. Right now, according to the National Centers for Disease Control And Prevention, 24% of the adult population and almost all public figures have this supposedly harmless mental hiccup.

Mister SASB congratulates Dr. Dinwitter on figuring out what this is. At the end of the day, this may be an important first step to dealing effectively with an annoying and potentially serious pathogen.


Posted by on Saturday, 7 January, 2012



Dear Mister SASB, I live out in the woods with three dogs. I get a lot of ticks on me. No Lyme disease yet but it’s just a matter of time!!! Is there anything I should do? – WoodyLane5

There sure is, Woody. You should move to the city.

You’re right to worry. Lyme disease can be nasty.  And you can’t be hauling yourself off to the clinic every time a tick sticks its bloody proboscis into your sweet epidermis. But, if the tick bite  that you choose to ignore happens to carry a bacterium called lime borreliosis, suckiness will be knocking at your door. Soon you will have headaches, joint pain, and possible “organ damage”. How does THAT sound?

But a group of researchers  (Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology IZI in Leipzig and others) is testing a new gel. If a tick bites you, all you will have to do is  remove the tick (make sure you get the head) and slap their gell on the bite. After that? No worries.

I hope testing goes well. For Woody’s sake.


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Posted by on Monday, 26 December, 2011

Crossed Senses


Some people’s senses are “crossed”. One sets off another. The F key on the piano is baby blue in color. Chanel Number Five perfume sounds like a waterfall. Your smelly pooch?

Not going there.

It’s called synesthesia. People with this “problem” live in a special, often delightful, world  where a person’s senses  interact with each other in strange ways, turning life into a symphony/smorgasbord that others can only try to imagine. Intriguing scents  mix with visual cues, sounds with the sensation of touch. Sometimes just two senses combine, sometimes more. Taste and sight. Sound and sight and smell and touch. And, since adding colors or sounds or tastes or smells to a word does make the word (or number) more memorable, synesthetes have amazing memories. Very creative, too.

Degas, Mozart, Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington, Tessler, Sibelius. Even Richard Feynman and Marilyn Monroe were synesth…



In case you’re wondering, most synesthetes don’t think it’s so bad. Many don’t realize they’re different  unless someone points it out. And the memory/creativity thing is a nice plus.  A gift, some of them say.


So Dr Devin Terhune and Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh(Current Biology) were curious. They wondered why some people have this “gift” and others have to read about it.  They studied one of the most common forms – the one where words or numbers combine with colors.

Working with volunteers, the two scientists used magnetic or electrical stimulation to control the excitability of the visual cortex  – the part of the brain most associated with vision. They adjusted things just to the point where their subjects started to see light flashes. What the study showed, is that the visual cortex of a synesthete is more easily excited.

Much more easily.

Apparently, this shows that synesthete brains are in a sort of hyper excited state. A clue, perhaps.

This is boutique science. Five subjects. All synesthetes. Maybe that’s not enough to justify sweeping conclusions.  Since there’s no clamor for a pill to cure synesthesia there isn’t much money but, Terhune and Kadosh did good. This is interesting stuff and it does teach something about the brain. Change the excitability and  the colors disappear.

Could this technique be used in reverse ? Could it turn Mister ScienceAintSoBad into a synesthete ? Wouldn’t that be fun? For a little while?

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 7.




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Posted by on Friday, 16 December, 2011


Mr. and Mrs. ScienceAintSoBad are off on a trip to see relatives but, first, a short article.

I’ll try to make it good.


Dr. Phil Rice (University of London) looked at the results of 25 studies from different parts of the world about chickenpox. Do some regions have more chickenpox than other, he wondered?  And, if so, does it depend on humidity? Does it depend on temperature?

The amount of chickens?

Nothing,nothing and nothing.

Could it have something to do with the amount of sunlight?

Bingo! The more sunlight there is, the less chickenpox.

This isn’t news to people who are experts in this field. They figured this might be true. After all, UV light is used to sterilize stuff, right? But this is actual evidence. Science is an evidence game. Now it’s okay to say that chickenpox doesn’t like sunlight. And people who live where it’s sunny may escape the disease and its zitzs.


So Dr. Rice didn’t exactly fall all over himself being specific but he does say there must be some way that this could lead to new methods for reducing the spread of chickenpox.

I hear the motor running. I’ll see you next time.


Image credits to Hikingartist.comFrits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig and flickr.

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Posted by on Thursday, 8 December, 2011



Nobody has anything good to say about plagues so it’s probably good that antibiotics came along with their ability to knock off bacteria. Viruses are a whole other deal, though. They’re so small that bacteria couldn’t see them without a microscope.

If bacteria had eyes.

Viruses drift around acting dead which, I guess, they are since they don’t eat, excrete, make babies, and wriggle around like living things (such as bacteria) do. But they’re not quite as dead as you might like. They have a very obnoxious trick. If  the right virus happens to come into contact with a  cell, it can use its shape to fool the cell into opening up its protective membrane and letting it in. Which is the mistake of a lifetime for that cell since the virus quickly winds up in charge. The cell loses its right to vote. Even worse,  the virus starts making  copies of itself, using the cell’s equipment. If this happens to your cells, you “have” a virus. This is how people wind up with HIV, for example. (Please don’t tell me they have to take their clothes off first; I happen know that.)


There are many antibiotics that work against bacteria. Researchers keep trying to invent new ones. It’s a cat and mouse thing. We get a great antibiotic going and the bacteria figure a way to fool it.  It is true that there’s a  fear that we’re losing our edge over bacteria; some think that the miseries of ancient times will return but MISTER ScienceAintSoBad thinks that won’t happen.

Bacteria, however,  are old news. The new frontier is viruses; they have been a harder nut to crack. Only in the the last few years have there been any drugs at all. How do you get at the virus to kill it? After all, it’s living in your cells; you don’t want to kill THEM do you?

See the problem?

Todd Rider  (MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory) has a new approach. His drug, DRACO, goes after a type of RNA that’s only present in virus infected cells. DRACO would be a “broad spectrum” antiviral drug, meaning it would (or should) work against pretty much any virus. Which could mean the end of the common cold as well as the end of the common HIV infection and the end of herpes in all of its rotten forms and many, many other great, great things. Early results are exciting. With  luck,  licensing and human trials will follow.

How do we feel about this potentially fantastic development? ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10.

We’re wishin’ on your star, Todd Rider.


Credits for the above image? Mister ScienceAintSoBad created that work of art. My vision of a pink germ.


Posted by on Wednesday, 9 November, 2011




Remember how Doctor Spock and Captain Kirk, in the Enterprise, were always running into alien life forms? I don’t believe they ever explained, exactly, how the plug uglies they encountered happened to be up there (or maybe I missed that episode). Did they evolve from monkeys just as we did? Very homely ones? Were their planets colonized by refugees from Earth who, under the constant bombardment of gamma rays on Alpha Four, began to look like they had a case of bad stage makup?

Maybe there’s another explanation for how alien civilizations get their start. Two researchers at the University of Hong Kong say the “building blocks of life” are everywhere, waiting for the deft touch of nature (or, if you prefer,the finger of God) to turn them into living cells.

They (the researchers) say stars make a petroleum like substance which is full of complex organic molecules. Aromatic rings, even. This  “Star Goo”, eventually, spreads throughout space.

The last time we watched life get started – um that would be the first time too – it happened in the wink of an eye. A cosmic eye, anyway. Since we know there are lots of planets and lots of water out there and, now,  thanks to Kwok and Yong Zhang , we know that every star in every galaxy contains  an E Z STARTER KIT FOR LIFE , it’s a good bet that there are plenty of living creatures to be found.


Doesn’t that just suck?  Living creatures inhabiting biological niches throughout this busy universe, and, yet, we continue our lonely existence with no practical way to know who or what is out there? Life everywhere but “not a single drop to drink”?

As it were.

For a while, the SETI Project seemed like it might come up with something but it’s beginning to dawn on some that we’re probably barking up the wrong antenna. Our own civilization sends out very few stray radio waves anymore.  More underground cables. Less antennas. If it’s like that, upstairs, this is bad news for SETI.

Sad, I suppose, although, maybe it’s good for us to figure things out on our own. And, maybe, we’re better off without yet another higher power. Heaven KNOWS we’re having enough problems with the lower ones.

Get this though. There may BE a way to sniff out another civilization. Wouldn’t aliens, independently, come up with the idea of artificial light? Just like we did? It makes sense.   Abraham Loeb and Edwin Turner think so. Loeb (Harvard) and Turner (Princeton) feel that a well lit alien city could be detected with a sensitive telescope. It would have to be  more sensitive than anything we have now but, with the right filters, a new generation of telescopes might do the trick.

At least, that’s the theory.


Image by Mister SASB


Posted by on Saturday, 30 July, 2011

Ain't THAT Bad!


You never know when you’ll actually need a brain. When you’re fly fishing, gray matter and white matter help. I dunno about politics. Is brain meat actually an advantage there? Some say yes. Some say no.

One thing’s for sure. Liberal brains and conservative brains? They’re not the same thing. Ryoto Kanai (Current Biology) says he bothered to look at the brains of conservatives and found nothing at all.

All right, all right. He found stuff. But what? He found great big amygdalas (the part of the brain that, supposedly, recognizes danger). When he looked at liberals, he found a bigger cingulate cortex (which  handles conflicting information). He says his research is the first neuroscientific evidence for biological difference between liberals and conservatives.

Let me help you distill this scientific work cause it’s so darn important. He’s saying conservatives are cavemen. Liberals are critical thinkers.


Here’s the thing. Its not like neurology’s a dead zone. Scientists really ARE figuring out what’s going on in our skulls. Great things are happening on that front. But you gotta keep a wary eye out cause “science” (those WERE quotes) can put lumps in YOUR brain if you  believe everything you read. Dr. Kanai’s study showed a gross difference – a size difference – between two parts of the brain whose functions are “thought” (quotes again) to play a role in threat awareness vs information sorting. The author, himself, says it’s very unlikely that these differences “directly encode” political differences. He says that more grants.. uh.. I mean.. more studies are needed.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 3 Nothing wrong with looking at this stuff. Careful about yer conclusions though. Okay?


Thanks to x-ray delta one and Flickr for the cartoon.

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Posted by on Saturday, 2 April, 2011

Image credits: Comics at xkcd.


Just about everything that makes us human comes in small, medium, large, and extra large doses so it shouldn’t surprise you if I tell you we’re not all the same in the sex drive department.

Some people are a little over and some are under, there too.

Lots of people don’t have sex, of course.

Few of the readers of this blog do.

But are there people with no sex DRIVE? None at all? I am NOT asking (not interested, actually) in whether you are straight or gay or transwhatever. I’m asking whether ANYTHING  gets you interested, sexually speaking.


I did some research.

No not THAT kind of research. I looked for studies. Data, and such. And, well doggone! It’s true. Lots of people don’t GIVE A RAT’S BUTT ABOUT SEX AND  NEVER WILL!

Funny huh?

Anthony Bogaert (Brock University) started describing the phenomenon a few years ago.  Asexuals  constitute about 1% of the population. About 3,000,000 people in the United states. Naturally, they have an organization,the Asexual Visibility And Education Network, which is trying to increase awareness.

No reality show so far.

Media hyped groups do come in and out of fashion with regularity, of course. I guess we’re about finished Don’tAskDon’tTelling gay people, so we may have spare time for something new.  Would YOU be comfortable serving with them in the marines? Would asexuals  GET the  lusty humor? Would it be possible to behave honorably under fire without a sex drive?

Although asexuals aren’t attracted to either sex, many get married and dutifully try to satisfy their partners. No more complaints than you might expect, all things considered.

(Is this important science? You decide. I just keep the stories coming. )

More detail from Dan Childs (ABC News).


Posted by on Monday, 21 March, 2011



Conservative author Ann Coulter read an article ( Science Section of the New York Times) which, she says, shows how a certain  amount of nuclear radiation’s okay. Healthy, even.  She said most physicists are on board with this.

Which they’re not.

Coulter’s confusion (?)  isn’t hard to understand. Science is a slippery thing.

In an interview with Bill O’reilly, Ms Coulter says “It’s not me I’m citing, it’s a stunning number of physicists”. She said that there’s science going WAY back about how low doses of radiation may be a good thing.

What IS she talking about?


Ms Coulter is referring to a “scientific” idea known as hormesis. It is the brainchild of  Dr. Abraham Lessismore (Montgomery Junior College) who tried to poison some  geese which were despoiling his dock. Couldn’t get rid of them. Tried everything. Finally decided it was time to stop foolin’ around.

Lessismore, a graduate student in 1998, couldn’t afford the recommended 10 bags  of  Gretchen’s Goose Killer so he only bought one . “I figured it might not kill ALL a those sonna bitches but even two or three would make me happy.”

Lessismore spread the Goose Killer stuff  and watched the geese peck at it while he crouched behind his fake coyote to enjoy the dying paroxysms of these horrible creatures.

When they had finished eating the Goose Killer, they stood around. Lessismore, thought the fat one looked bad.

It wobbled.

Then it turned turned toward him, locked eyes,  and pooped.

Large one.

It  fluffed its wings, and waddled away.

After some time, it occurred to Lessismore that the poison hadn’t harmed the geese at all. If anything, the flock appeared sturdier than before. They had  more energy. The one with the growth on its neck? Was he imagining it? Each day, the growth appeared smaller. Eventually, the growth disappeared and that goose turned up leading a group of new hatchlings.

Undaunted by his failure to roust the geese, Dr. L turned to the scientific implications of what he had just witnessed. Giving the geese a reduced dose of a toxin didn’t result in reduced casualties and, instead, seemed to have some kind of curative effect. This, it seemed to Lessismore, could be a new scientific principle. Thus was born the idea of “Hormesis”.

(If you don’t believe my goose story, here’s another version of the thing.)


Are things that are bad  in large doses, good  in small doses? Sure. That’s why medicines have labels. A truck full of aspirin would probably give you a REAL headache, wouldn’t it?

Researchers such as Edward Calabrese   believe toxins in low doses stimulate some kind of protective reaction without doing real damage. The problem? The evidence is weak and confusing which isn’t surprising. There’s always a “signal to noise” issue when you’re measuring something very small.

And some of the researchers may be a little  “intense”. One wore a radioactive vest around for its health benefits . Enthusiasm amok.

Here’s the deal. There IS a lot of info about hormesis. If you google it, you get the impression that hormesis is the real deal.  In fact (and strangely) you don’t find much serious criticism. Not in the first 25 hits, anyway.  So I don’t blame Ann Coulter.

Not really.

Unfortunately, Googling isn’t always the best way to settle a scientific question. Sometimes you just need someone you trust and, yes, I do hope MISTER ScienceAintSoBad’s on your list.

The  basis for hormesis is pretty sketchy. Even if it is, ultimately, confirmed, it will only apply to some stuff.

What about radiation?

Let me put it this way, most physicist do NOT walk around wearing radioactive vests.

Trust me on that.