Archive: December, 2011
(Merry Christmas. Yes, I'm blogging, because it's traditional for me to return to California this time of year, and my circadian rhythm makes me want to get up at 5 am. What better thing to do with these lonely, dark, out-of-sync hours than read and write?)
The popularity of creationism in the United States has been treated as a failure of education, loss of science literacy, or reluctance of religion to adapt to the modern worldview. I saw it that way too, until I started reading Loren Eiseley’s Darwin’s Century. Now I see this the country’s divisions as much more interesting, and more deeply rooted, and more connected with political views about the way human beings should organize our society.
I’ve read a number of books about evolution, but nothing has compared to this used, yellowed paperback. There’s no review of high school biology to slog through – instead there are revelations on every page, starting with the first.
One attribute of science that makes it powerful is the ability to correct its own course. That’s crucial because individual scientists can be delusional, crazy, or even outright dishonest. A perfect illustration of scientific course-correction has been playing itself out over the last several years. Yesterday, it hit a milestone when a study that brought hope to victims of chronic fatigue syndrome was officially retracted by the journal Science.
When it was first published in 2009, the study raised hopes because it connected a virus, called XMRV, to chronic fatigue. Sufferers thought that once the cause was nailed down, treatments would follow. It came out in Science, which is a high-prestige journal, so the world took notice.
Soon, people with chronic fatigue began taking antiviral drugs, according to this fascinating story in the Chicago Tribune. It was just one study and even if the virus had been associated with the disease, that wouldn’t necessarily mean it was the cause. But there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the desperation of others.
It’s again that time when the Earth’s northern half tilts away from the sun, giving all the southern extremities a chance to warm up. The day of the longest noontime shadows marks the winter solstice, which falls today or yesterday depending on your time zone.
At the same moment around the world – about 12:30 am for us in Eastern Standard Time – we passed the turning point when Tierra del Fuego officially had its time in the sun, and the earth’s axis slowly began angling back to warm our side. It will take a while, and it will get colder before it gets warmer, but the days will lengthen until late June.
My friend Bruce Rawlings of Riverton, NJ created this lovely winter solstice lawn decoration a few years ago. The solstice is an astronomical event, so it can be enjoyed by all people. It looks like he got the date wrong, but it's correct for three out of four of the country's time zones. Read more about solstices here at EarthSky.
Harvey Rubin has been following closely the creation of a new, more contagious form of H5N1 – the bird flu that’s killed about 400 people worldwide. He studies infectious diseases as part of Penn’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR), which was set up after 9/11 to deal with issues of national security.
The normal version of the virus hasn’t yet become the terrifying pandemic some forecast because it doesn’t spread particularly easily from person to person. Most of the victims are thought to have contracted it directly from domestic birds. But now researchers at Ohio State University and the Netherlands have created a new form, mutated deliberately so it spreads easily between ferrets, an experimental animal whose reaction to the disease is thought to mirror our own.
What makes this modified H5N1 particularly dangerous is that in nature, viruses that become more contagious may also lose some of their lethal virulence, said Rubin. But this artificially mutated virus appears to be more virulent and more contagious.
We’re lucky the dangerous bird flu virus H5N1 doesn’t spread easily from person to person – yet. That could change thanks to the rapid pace of viral evolution. In trying to understand the course of potential evolution of H5N1, scientists in Ohio and the Netherlands modified the virus until they came across a version that does spread easily, according to news reports released yesterday. That’s important for scientists to know, but their work prompted an unprecedented move by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to request the recipe for making this virus be kept secret. The Washington Post and New York Times ran front page stories on this issue. Here’s how the Post story described the situation:
After weeks of reviewing papers describing the research, the NSABB said Tuesday it had recommended that the experiments’ “general conclusions” be published but not “details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”
“Censorship is considered the ultimate sin of original research. However, we also have an imperative to keep certain research out of the hands of individuals who could use it for nefarious purposes,” said Michael T. Osterholm, a member of the board who is also director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “It is not unexpected that these two things would clash in this very special situation.”
Big, gaseous planets are becoming a commonplace finding in our galaxy, but until now astronomers had never detected a body as small as our Earth orbiting another star. Two new planets announced today matter in the search for life because they are small enough to have a solid surface. They are too close to their sun to have liquid water, but astronomers are optimistic that more habitable worlds will be found soon.
On Tuesday I caught up with Villanova astronomer Andrej Prsa, who was part of the team announcing the planets. They were detected with a space telescope called Kepler, launched in 2009 with the express goal of finding other earths.
Prsa’s job is to make sure Kepler is detecting real planets and not reacting to false alarms. The astronomers don’t actually see any of these planets but indirectly detect their presence by monitoring stars for tiny periodic dips in brightness. These dips are indications that planets are passing in front and creating mini-eclipses. (The image is an artist's reconstruction)
Intriguing isn’t a word often associated with holiday decorations, but that’s the best way I can describe the Tree of Knowledge, created by Freethought Society founder Margaret Downey. Chester County commissioners have denied the society’s request to include it in a multi-cultural display alongside a Christmas tree, a menorah and other multicultural staples.
The tree’s current home is indoors at the Ethical Society near Rittenhouse Square.
At 9 feet tall, the Tree of Knowledge looks something like a Christmas tree, but it’s festooned with laminated jackets of books. It was impossible to resist walking around the tree to spot many books I'd loved and others I haven't read but should. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had a nice spot in the front. The tree included other evolution-themed books written by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. There were also books by Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Victor Stenger, Daniel Dennett and the much-missed Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62.
Biologists agree on the big picture when it comes to Darwinian evolution, but they're still working out many details. One longstanding puzzle is why there's so much variation from person to person, why some people like broccoli, for example, and others hate it.
There's evidence that people who hate broccoli are not being childish or stubborn. Some broccoli haters are reacting to compounds called glucosinolates, which are also present in brussels sprouts and other so-called cruciferous vegetables.
Some people taste these as intolerably bitter, and others can't taste them at all. The difference is genetic. The gene responsible, called hTAS2R38, comes in several forms, some of which enable people to detect this stuff.