Archive for August, 2013

How Science Learned To Love Religion

Posted by on Thursday, 29 August, 2013
Just being respectful


I received a  letter from a reader.

Dear MisterScienceAintSoBad,

My sister’s mad at me because she says I pick pick pick. Can’t help it though. She’s like my grandmother. God this and God that. God?  Don’t I have a right to challenge her dopey ideas? A-Boy

Dopey ideas? A-boy,  (I’m hoping the A stands for atheist and not a certain orifice) believers aren’t idiots (exceptions exist). They just believe in God.

It’s not a sin.

Doesn’t mean they DENY reality. They just have an extra one.

Most educated believers aren’t trying to prove Darwin wrong. Mostly, they know about fossils and other stuff that show how life evolved. Maybe they even know how the earth was formed out of cosmic dust over millions of years.

What about God? What about Genesis?

That too.

But you said..

Believe it or not, it is perfectly possible for an educated person to “get” the Big Bang – even string theory – and still open a bible once in a while. The interior of the human brain isn’t made for consistency.

Prayer and plain geometry. They can get along. Ask Isaac Newton – Hey –  Ask his spirit. Most people believe in God or something like. Even in Europe where religion’s less popular. Why is that hard? People believe. They want to. It feels good. It’s comforting. If I were you, I wouldn’t mess with it.

This makes me MISTER Science IS So Bad? I don’t think so. I’m just saying that it’s possible to be too literal minded. The human brain CAN have two different ideas at the same time. Most minds do. This is what we are and I’m sorry it’s messy.

This isn’t an apologia. There ARE plenty of zealots who say that the bible’s got all the wisdom we need and science just gets in the way; and there are uber-rationalists who wanna smack bibles out of the hands of the misguided.

A curse on BOTH their houses.

Or whatever.

Discussion about religion vs science  can be exasperating but it’s a chance for “worlds to collide”. Which isn’t such a bad thing if it’s done with respect. Science-minded folks need to have some respect for the very evolutionary processes that they defend. As human intellect evolved, there was a strong need to make sense of the world on a personal level. Science didn’t show up to add understanding until very late in the game. In the meantime, we needed something to make sense of the world. Religion did that for us. Today our religious heritage coexists in a delicate but, often sweet, tension with rational scientific thought.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad says that’s okay.

Note to regular readers. Yup. This article has been recycled with a fresh drawing (which is also a little recycled).  For technical reasons, I had to reformat it so it could be found.  Look at it this way: It’s not like the subject matter is suddenly out of date. 


Credit for above drawing to myself.

Biologists Grow “Human Brain”. Fuss Expected.

Posted by on Thursday, 29 August, 2013


Biologists working on brain



Austrian biologists grew human brain tissue out of stem cells. Which – if you don’t mind my saying it – was an amazingly dumb thing to do for a bunch of smart people. They didn’t know what the headline would be?


Seriously. They’re going to get unbelievable grief over this one. And it’s not like they didn’t see it coming. They went to some pains to suggest that the thing on their lab bench wasn’t  MUCH of a brain really.  “Nowhere near an adult human brain” More like in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. Pea-sized balls of white with “some of the complex features of a growing brain.”

What Jurgen Knoblich and his team accomplished (this is published in Nature Today, August 28, by the way) is scientifically very cool. They got brain tissue to self organize in some basic ways that have never been done before without nature directing the show.  How far they can push this has yet to be seen but, even at this early stage, they’re learning things that may help us understand what goes wrong in the beginning. Knoblich’s team hopes this work will provide an alternative to some animal experiments too.   Their “brain” is still primitive. It has no blood supply so very big pieces of it can’t be sustained. In other words, this is  complex tissue but  calling it a brain would be generous.

And foolhardy.

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That is my own brain. The drawing, I mean.



Posted by on Wednesday, 28 August, 2013




I get asked the craziest stuff.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad,  why are chemicals banned and yet  nuclear weapons aren’t?  What’s with that?

Dear boys and girls. Don’t look for a scientific explanation here, okay? People do what they do. The chemical ban was a reaction to some stuff during World War I when nuclear weapons hadn’t even been invented yet.  “Poison gas” did awful things to a lot of people including lots of civilians so an international ban was passed. Later, it was broadened  by a separate ban on biochemical weapons. Modern treaties (1972 and 1993) replaced the older language.

Now that we have even worse weapons why not ban them too?

Ha ha. Good one! It’s a miracle that we ever passed those first two. Not every country signed those accords. This is probably a terrible time to mention it, but Syria didn’t sign (although it did sign the older version so we get to claim they are still bound by the rules).

We won’t be passing other international bans anytime soon. Nuclear weapons are owned by the major nation states who are the self appointed custodians of the planet having nearly blown it up only once . Those combined nations don’t want chemical and biological weapons out there because they could fall into the hands of a single idiot who could  act even more irrationally than a  nation full of idiots.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Anyone with chemical weapons could use them as weapons of terror, threatening to release them in a crowded area such as a subway or a sporting event. Anyone with  biological weapons could eliminate complex life from vast reaches of the earth’s surface – no missiles or bombers required. You can see why there’s some concern here, right? Responsible nations with nuclear weapons feel comfortable with the status quo. Ban the other stuff and we’re good.

According to them.

I should point  out that the chemical and biological bans really apply to nations, not to individuals. So you can think of them as “See how serious we all are on this matter even though there’s no practical way to apply it to individual crazy people, just countries as a whole”.

If you’re the type that stays up all night worrying about things, I wouldn’t suggest turning in early.

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The drawing is mine. So is the shirt.


Posted by on Tuesday, 27 August, 2013



My article, “Airport Scanners: Good For Your Health” got looked at more often than anything else I’ve done. The article was about  an aborted  attack on Delta  flight 523 to Detroit where  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab started waiving around a home made bomb.  Some of his fellow passengers said “That’s so not happening on this flight” and grabbed his butt. Nobody got hurt but lots of people got worried about how good security was.

Seriously? You can walk onto an airplane with a bomb?

All of a sudden, body scanners started showing up in airports and, all of a sudden, passengers started to get nervous about who was seeing what. It is amazing how uptight certain people are about having somebody see the outlines of their impossibly perfect bodies.

Like the guys behind the scanner don’t have bellies of their own!

Well, anyway,  ever since I published that article, I’ve been trying to stay up on airport scanner technology. I wondered if authorities really understood that the people who sputter about their privacy were much more anxious about their bulgy parts than their private parts. The average passenger will choose vanity over safety every time.

I guess Homeland Security gets it because the old body scanners have been removed from US airports due to “privacy issues”. However, a new wave of scanners is coming that only shows a “standard” body outline (hides your particular endearing characteristics).    The entire technology is under review with special attention to safety. Here’s an interesting article on howstuffoworks on the subject.

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The cartoony thing above? That’s my own drawing.



Posted by on Sunday, 25 August, 2013





Narendra Dabholkar was a 67 year old doctor who thought religious extremism, black magic, superstitious ideas, and general ignorance were holding India back. He called out people who exploited the poor.  So – that’s right – of course somebody shot him. Why tolerate a loose canon who cares about others and tries to educate?

His scientific colleagues hit the ceiling when they heard about his murder. They’re furious and they are speaking out about it, decrying the act and  trying to get some new laws.  Maybe Dr. Dabhoklar will wind up a reluctant martyr but MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is very sad  about this. If the authorities in Pune are trying to figure out what to do with his assassins, I have an idea. Why waste lab rats when we have the real McCoy in a cell?

The details are in an article in The Guardian by Maseeh Rahman.

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Image above is by me


Posted by on Friday, 23 August, 2013
Sunbabthing risks



Dear Mister SASB, I’m white as a ghost. I use sunblock like crazy.  And I cover up on sunny days.  I’m getting a lot of static from my partner who says I am crazy.  But that’s her problem,  right? Could you just do me a little favor here and explain to her how nasty skin cancer can be?

Dear Ghost,  I’d like to oblige. I have a soft spot in my heart for crazies.  But you know?  You might be a lot better off with a tan line. Dr. Håkan Olsson (division of oncology at Lund University) studied 40,000 women.

Not even close.

The sun’s bad for the skin. Okay, we know that.  But there’s more to it than that.  The sun also makes your body produce vitamin D. And vitamin D does a lot of good things. Among them: it reduces blood clotting in the legs and protects against some tumors. Other studies have shown that it reduces blood pressure.  Add it all up, and  a reasonable amount of sun does more good than bad.

Go to the beach.


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The image? That’s my own.

Read more:


Posted by on Tuesday, 20 August, 2013



Remember me talking about driverless cars? You said  “Not in my bleeping lifetime?”

Well, Smarty Pants, what do you say to this?

It’s happening.

An article in CIO  (Evan Dashevsky) says trucks are ready. That’s because they already drive in  “convoys”, several trucks tucked one behind the other, to reduce the overall air resistance and  fuel costs. Dashevsky says you shouldn’t let the Google “hype” about autonomous vehicles confuse you. As he sees it, driverless cars are still on the distant horizon whereas, since nobody seems to want the long hours of a long haul truck driver (there’s a big shortage of qualified drivers)  trucks are the perfect place to try out the technology.    With a human in the lead truck, letting driverless vehicles follow suddenly seems less crazy, doesn’t it?  And the trucking companies have a whole lot to gain  if it works.




Meanwhile, in Singapore, a driverless shuttle bus will run back and forth over a two kilometer route from the campus to JTC’s Clean Tech One Building at Nanyank Technological University, another “walk before you can run” opportunity for autonomous vehicles.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad believes we ARE close to true self-driving cars – the kind that’ll take you wherever, whenever and that you can actually afford. Could be five years maybe.  Not a distant horizon at all.

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The drawings are my own.


Posted by on Tuesday, 13 August, 2013


Does California have its head up its butte? Elon Musk, the founder of Pay Pal and of Tesla Motors says so.

Why, he asks, is California spending 70 BILLION dollars to build a high speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles when, he, a guy with a big ego, can build a completely theoretical, unproven, and untried one between the same two cities for a mere 10 billion dollar?

A good question, right?

Musk’s plan is to put tubes on stilts between the cities. He would pump most of the air out of the tubes so that there would be relatively little air resistance and, using magnetic motors, he would propel the passenger pods to over 700 mph. This would move people (and possibly other things) at an average speed that even a jet airplane couldn’t match (considering everything including takeoffs and landings).

Did I mention the solar energy panels on the roof of the tubes? Green as grass. Energy self sufficient.

The PR machine for the hyperloop is impressive. The press loves it.  The illustrations are fabulous and the elaborately described ideas are tough to resist. Maybe we’ll get one  here in Rhode Island. It could get us between Providence and Warwick.  Fast, cheap, and fun to ride? Why the hell not?


Here’s the thing.

Even the inventors of the Segway, that two wheeled scooter that was going to “revolutionize transportation”, had the decency to make a couple of prototypes before they dropped the PR bomb.

Musk is a little over-the-top. I’m not having a fight with his physics.  But the engineering problems are real. A bunch of people stuffed into capsules inside evacuated cylinders, traveling at crazy  speeds? The chances for things to go bad are really high. Power failures, tube failures, mechanical problems. There isn’t much room for error. Just maintaining a vacuum reliably over all that distance. It’s never been done, right? Should that worry anyone? Not unless it’s YOUR head on the chopping block. The probability of getting this done on time and on budget?  Plus or minus about a million percent?

Is MISTER ScienceAintSoBad miffed about this? Not in the least. There’s nothing wrong with a serious person being outrageous every once-in-awhile. It shakes up the system. Which is a good thing, right? And – you know what? – if he’s right, and I’m wrong? You get to commute between two great cities fast. And you get to thumb your nose at MISTER ScienceAintSoBad for being so  cynical.

I hope it works.

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Image credits to myself. 



Posted by on Friday, 9 August, 2013

Happy pancreas


Sometimes my job sucks.

Occasionally, I hear from readers who say they’re sick.  “Science,” they say, “pah! Who CARES about ‘fascinating’ papers by science geeks ? I need a cure. Not a rat model.”

And- you know what? –  MISTER ScienceAintSoBad gets it.  He does. He knows “interesting” has to take a back seat to “it’s killin’ me.” How often do I find you a nice little pill to cure cancer? I don’t even have anything much for diarrhea.  I read through all kinds of crap about “breakthroughs”. Hah! Some breakthroughs! The mice feel better.  For humans? We’ll get back to you on that.

What a job!

Could be things are getting better. My last article, Alzheimer’s, Things Are Starting To Look Good, had little glitter balls of hope stuck all over it. And now  something about type 1 diabetes that could please you and add to my own optimism about less sick people to drag down Obamacare.  Seriously! It could happen faster than anyone thinks.

The Type 1 vs Type 2 thing

The thing about type 1 is that you can’t make insulin. The cells in the pancreas that  do this job get destroyed by the immune system  Without insulin your blood sugar climbs. If you don’t get yourself stabilized with supplementary insulin,  you won’t last. Even if you are a very good patient, you may have to work very hard at keeping your sugar level in a good range. If you are  lucky you may avoid some of the crappy complications but it won’t be easy. Type 2 usually comes on later in life and is because your body loses its ability to efficiently use the insulin that it produces. It’s not a lack of insulin; just can’t seem to use the stuff right. You wind up needing extra. You don’t want either type of diabetes but individuals with  type 1  often have a tougher challenge.  

What I saw was published in the journal Diabetes. (Dr. Jeffrey Bluestone, PhD and Dr. A.W. and Mary Clausen).  It’s about a drug called teplizumab which, in a very sophisticated way, keeps T-cells (the business end of the immune system) from going after the insulin producing cells on the pancreas. The strength of the results even surprised the scientists conducting the study; they were  “very excited by the efficacy”.


Well, here’s the thing. This IS exciting. (That’s what they said in the press release, right?) Great news. BUT these are only phase II trials on 52 kids under 15 years old. Half the kids did great. That’s why so much excitement. But what about the other kids? They didn’t do as well. The study says this might be because it works best where the insulin producing cells are still in fairly good shape. In other words,  where the disease hasn’t been active that long. But, come ON! These were teenagers with newly diagnosed disease. Obviously this part needs to be cleared up. Still. Such great results do justify moving right along to phase III. Great potential here.

By the way, this isn’t the only hope. There’s other research attacking the disease from other directions. That’s good. We don’t want to kick people under the bus just because they’ve been sick for a long time.

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Image credits: That’s mine.


Posted by on Sunday, 4 August, 2013



Effective and few side effects

This sounds like what we’ve been waiting for, a treatment for Alzheimer’s that works.  It’s being tested on humans right now.


Alzheimer’s costs the US about $200 billion dollars a year. Fix that – even put a dent in that – and “Obamacare” (Affordable  Care Act, if you prefer) would look  like a precision engineered government program that turns a profit every year.  Also, it could mean you get to have the seniors you love – really have them – in your life for much longer.


This has been tough sledding for researchers.   They’ve known for a long time that the  brains of people with Alzheimer’s look different. There are hard chunks of proteins outside of and around the neurons  (beta amyloid “plaques”) and more proteins (called Tau) tangled up inside the nerve “bodies”. As time goes on,  the connections between the nerves whither away. It took some doing to figure out why the  proteins form these plaques since their presence is a normal thing and they have every right to be there.  It’s just that some of these proteins – more and more of them – become elongated versions of themselves.  These very long proteins clump together and get trapped in cells and interfere with their function.  The result?  In a toe, this would be called a sore toe. In a brain this would be called .. I can’t remember what it would be called. Where DID I leave my glasses, anyway?

I tried, okay? But dementia isn’t funny. It’s sad.

Here’s the thing.

Patrick Fraering is the lead author on a study in the journal Nature Communications which describes the the use of drugs that cause an  enzyme to cut amyloid plaques shorter –  into pieces small enough so that they don’t cause problems for the neuron. It sounds simple but this has been a long time coming. If the clinical tests that are now underway go well, this could be the beginning of something unimaginable – an era where getting old carries a measure of dignity.


Is there a catch? Of course. There’s always a catch when you’re waiting for a medicine to be tested and then for the FDA (or its equivalent elsewhere). But if those close to the project are this encouraged, would MISTER SASB  be tossing cold water?

At MY age? Not on your life!

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Image credits: That’s my own – just a  stick figure drawing, but I kinda like it.