Archive: May, 2012
When psychologist Johan Lundstrom decided to test whether there really was an “old people smell” he got good news and bad news. Unfortunately, he found, people can tell the difference between young, middle-aged and old peoples’ body odors. The good news is people aren’t very good at telling which odors came from which age group – they could only tell they were different. Also in the bright side: women smell no worse as they age and men get nicer smelling after 75.
Lundstrom, who works at the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, said he decided to investigate this matter when giving a recent talk at a retirement home near Philadelphia. He smelled something familiar that took him back to his childhood. “As soon as I stepped in the home I recognized an odor that I’d smelled in Sweden when my mother was working as a nurse in a retirement home,” he said. How, he wondered, could you have the same odor in two different populations on two different continents?
At first, he did what most of the rest of us do – he used Google. That turned up some anecdotal reports about old-age smell, and the fact that the Japanese even have a word for it – kareishu.
In a video clip that's made the rounds lately, Richard Feynman puts the essence of science in a nutshell: If your idea doesn’t agree with experiment or observation, it’s wrong. The sound bite was clipped from a much longer lecture, in which the famous physicist offered some important insights into the process of science.
And indeed, getting at the truth is complicated because it's not always obvious what agrees or disagrees with nature. If it were clear-cut, you’d never see two titans such as Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson in raging disagreement. But they are.
The Dawkins/Wilson war is over the roots of cooperative and altruistic behavior. I touched on the controversy more than a year ago in this column. There, I took on a question of more general interest: Do humans need to believe in God to be good? Both sides agree that we don’t. We’re social animals and we evolved to be cooperative and, to some extent, altruistic.
Here's my weekly column, which will also run Monday on the cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Health and Science section:
There was no hanky-panky involved when a fairy-tale white foal was born to two brown Standardbreds at the Four Winds Farm in New Jersey. DNA tests confirm that the snowy foal, born May 6, is a mutant, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. So are most humans, according to a new analysis.
Geneticists and veterinarians say this unusual foal’s lack of color comes from a spontaneous or “de novo” mutation — a spelling error in the DNA carried in either the sperm or egg from which he was conceived.
Think you're smarter than a doctor? If you get this right, you are way ahead of the curve when it comes to medically relevant statistics.
Toxicologist Dave Cragin sent me this question after we had been discussing risk, probabilities and the controversy over PSA testing for prostate cancer.
It's a question he poses to his students. I was relieved to find I'd gotten it right, since it's part of my job to communicate health information. According to an article in Science, 23 out of 24 doctors get it wrong:
I'm starting to see what it takes to get a science story on the breaking news column of Philly.com. This exciting bigfoot story is from AP, and somewhere I think something was misconstrued. It’s possible the AP writer is in on the joke and trying to be funny too, but it’s hard to tell:
"If the Yeti is real and somebody has found bits of their hair, you should be able to tell from the DNA in the hair if this is actually a Yeti," said Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London. He is not connected to the Bigfoot project.
But Thomas was unsure how likely it was anyone might have actual Yeti hairs. Some scientists theorize Yetis are either a distinct hominid species, or a mix between homo sapiens and Neanderthals or other species. There is already evidence of interbreeding between homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
The mystery quote in yesterday’s post was from the incomparable writer H.L. Mencken. Below is the complete quote, which is part of a series being posted on the blog Why Evolution is True. In this particular passage, Mencken refers to Robert Millikan, a famous physicist who constructed a clever experiment to measure the charge of the electron for the first time.
Millikan was also a devout Christian and apparently too much of a church lady for the taste of H.L. Menken, who argued that the pious can’t be real scientists. Mencken used the dismissive term “technicians” to describe religious scientists.
It’s not all that easy to encapsulate the essence of science in a sound bite. Physicist Richard Feynman appears to do it in the little clip of a lecture attached to this post. The late great Feynman describes science as a comparison between ideas and observations or experiments. If your idea doesn’t agree with experiment, you’re wrong.
But that doesn’t explain what makes a scientifically valid observation or experiment, or how we can be sure we’re properly interpreting what we observe. Feynman expands on all this in the rest of the lecture. I’m not sure his aim was to define science in a sound bite. His attention-getting witticisms and wry observations punctuate his lectures in a way that keeps the students riveted. The verbal spice is best enjoyed and understood as part of the whole lecture.
Here’s another famous person’s nutshell account of science. I clipped this quote from biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True:
It’s become a kind of mantra that scientists are failing at explaining science to regular people. But I don’t think this is the real problem. Some scientists excel in theoretical work, others at designing experiments, and still others at teaching. If there’s any problem with scientists, it’s that the scientific community tends to revere research and not give enough respect to great teaching.
I would give University of the Sciences chemistry professor Fred Schaefer an A+ in science explanation. He not only enjoys teaching students, he volunteers a serious chunk of his time to demonstrate chemistry to kids of all ages. The demos happen every month at a restaurant/brewery in Germantown with the memorable name Earth, Bread and Brewery. (Disclaimer: This post might be biased because Fred is a fellow Laser sailor and always brings a growler of some incredible “Earth” invention to drink when we’re finished racing.)
I acted as his assistant during the Science Festival last month, when he spent hours demonstrating the magic of reality - sending electrical currents through gases, using dry ice and indicators to create dramatic color changes, and performing various reactions that foamed, bubbled or occasionally exploded. The best part was seeing the astonishment and wonder on the faces of the little kids. May they never lose that natural curiosity.