Skepticism, Medicine and Science News

Back From The Dead

Ok, so it has been a while since I last posted, but there was the Christmas holiday, and the beginning of a new term etc. But never mind that, the important thing is that the blog is back! Or rather, I’m back! 

Since I last posted there has been some cool news items, so I thought I should start this years blogging by bringing up a few of them.

Well, first of all, the voting for this years Weblog Awards just closed, and I am appalled by who won in the science category. There were some great nominees there, like Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula and Neurologica. These are all fantastic science blogs, but do you think any of them won? Oh no, the winner this year was this horrible, horrible global warming denial blog. That is just sad… 

Just today I read about a cool study in the Journal of Proteome Research. Some scientists in Italy have found abnormal proteins in the saliva of autistic patients, and the hope is that this will eventually give us some clue about the pathological biochemical processes of autism. Also, it could potentially be used as a biomarker in saliva-based autism tests. 

Now, this next one is a sad story, but it is a good example of why evidence-based medicine really should be the only kind of medicine. Russel Jenkins is, or rather was, a healer in Australia. One day, he stepped on an electrical plug in his house, and the small resulting wound later became infected. Even worse, the infection then turned gangrenous. Gangrene is a horrible condition of necrosis of body tissue. It looks really bad, and smells even worse. Instead of seeking medical help, Russel, being a healer, decided he would treat his condition by applying honey to the affected area. Naturally, this did not work out so well, and he later died from the gangrenous infection. 

This is of course an extremely sad story, but I think it is important to emphasize the importance of evidence-based medicine. I really don’t care much for the term Complementary and Alternative Modalities (CAM), because then it sounds like it is a scientific alternative to conventional medicine, which it isn’t. I can not stress this fact enough, that alternative medicine really is just a collection of inadequately tested and unproven drugs. And calling it complementary? A lot of people fail to tell their doctors that they are using these alternative remedies, and a result of that could be that they interfere with their conventional treatments. Because, as I said, they are drugs. Calling them natural is just a sales pitch. 

Ok, so the first post of 2009 turned out to be somewhat of a downer. But the next one will be positive! Promise.


January 13, 2009 Posted by | General Science, General Skepticism, Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Perception of Pain

A recent study shows that pain hurts more of the person hurting you really means it (or rather, if the person being hurt believes the person really means it). The study was led by Kurt Gray along with Daniel Wegner, and published in Psychological Science

In the study, they paired up 48 participants with a partner who could either choose to give the other an electric shock or just play a audible tone for them. In the first set-up, the subjects received a shock when their partner chose this option (and to eliminate the factor of surprise, they were told in advance which option the partner picked). In the second set-up, the subjects were given a shock when the partner chose the tone, and vice versa. The resulting data showed that the subjects rated the pain from the intentional shocks significantly higher then that of the unintentional ones. This suggests that the perception of pain is closely tied with emotion, and that the latter can influence the first.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Medicine, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remember To Set Your Clocks!

This coming New Years Eve everybody needs to remember to change the time of their clock….by one whole second. It sounds daft, but this happens every three years because the earth gets too out of sync. When the clock strikes 00:59:59 on New Years Eve,  make sure to pause time for about one second, and then let it strike 01:00:00. The insertion of this leap second was prescribed by the International Earth Rotation Service in Paris due to the fact that the earth tends to lag behind the extremely precise atomic clocks. So, happy leap second-year!

December 10, 2008 Posted by | General Science | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teddies In Space

It sounds like a bad sci-fi movie from the 80s, but it is actually a really, really cool science project. Students at the University of Cambrige recently managed to put four teddy bears in space by using a weather balloon. The maximum altitude reached was about 30km, and to prevent the bears from freezing solid the students designed and built space suits for them to wear. This was really the main part of the project, and was an excellent way of teaching the students the principles of insulation, convection, conduction, radiation, pressure and loads of other exciting physics. Oh, and the students in question were actually aged about 11-12, and I think this is a wonderful way of getting young kids excited about science. I really hope other schools follow Cambridge’s example on this one. 

I mean, how cool is that!

December 8, 2008 Posted by | Astronomy, General Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medical Firearm

A US-based company,  Constitution Arms, claims to have received federal approval to market their most recent handgun as a medical device. It is a 9mm gun that cost about $300, and contrary to the company’s claims, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say they have not made any such approval. 

They call it the Palm Pistol, and it is intended for people who have trouble operating a normal handgun, like the elderly. As of yet the Palm Pistol is just a prototype, but the company president says they hope to start the manufacturing process soon. 

Now, I think it is perfectly fine to make a handgun that is easy for people with dexterity problems to use. There is certainly a market for it. However, to claim this is a medical device is just insane. Here is what the company president, Matthew Carmel, had to say about it:

It’s something that they need to assist them in daily living

Daily living? That is just absurd. I can see how it may give elderly people a bit more confidence when walking to the store for example, but I really don’t think it would help them much if they were to be robbed. If you cannot operate a normal handgun, what are the odds of you managing to fish this thing out of your bag in time to deter a would-be robber? Also, if the robber is armed, he/she will certainly be quicker on the draw than you, and trying to threaten him/her with this thing would most likely only get you shot. 

As mentioned, the company seems to have jumped the gun, no pun intended, a bit when it came to the FDA approval for selling the gun as a medical device. They actually claimed the FDA approved this as a “Daily Activity Assist Device”. You cannot help but wonder what exactly the elderly are supposed to be doing if their daily activities require the use of handguns.

December 5, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Medicine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Photons to Power Nanomachines

Photons are elementary particles and the basic units of light, and they are capable of exerting forces. Recently, this force was shown to be strong enough to power a small, mechanical resonator, in other words a proof of concept that may lead to a new way of powering nanoscale machines. The research was done by Hong Tang et al at Yale University. They designed and tested a device that was able to take advantage of the optical gradient force to create vibrations. The device channelled incoming light through an extremely thin passage, only about 110 nanometres wide, in a photonic circuit. This caused the material to resonate at right angles to the beam. Even though the force generated is extremely small, the researchers claim it is strong enough to power small-scale devices, and since light can easily be beamed at large areas at a time, several devices could be powered with little effort. 

A picture of the photonic circuit with one of the resonators highlighted. 

The full article can be found here.

November 29, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Physics | Leave a comment

Science Quickies 3

A new study in mice shows that increased calcium sensitivity in the heart can lead to an irregular heartbeat. 

Scientists have identified 13 new tumor-suppressing genes in liver cancer. 

Scientists have calculated what they believe is the fastest 100-meter sprint time humanly possible. This was done using a mathematical model, and the time was found to be 9.48 seconds. 

A meteor streaking across parts of Canada last week was caught on video:

November 28, 2008 Posted by | General Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Completely Random

Randomness is a tricky thing. It is easily found in the world around us, but if you want to actively generate, say, a random sequence of numbers, it suddenly becomes quite elusive. The more advanced hand-held calculators have a program that generates, seemingly, random numbers by using specific algorithms, but the fact is that this is not true randomness, but rather pseudorandomness. This means that although the number sequence generated may seem random to a person, a statistical analysis may reveal subtle patterns and skews in the data. For the applications of a pocket calculator, this is probably not a big deal. However, random numbers are a big part of modern cryptography, and are used in, for example, Internet banking. It would be inherently bad if your personal bank ID could be easily predicted by a large statistical analysis of ID-data, so true randomness would be an advantage for these applications.

One common pseudorandom number generator is the linear congruential generator (LCG). It uses the following algorithm to generate seemingly random numbers (click the link for a proper explanation of the equation): 

This is one of the oldest methods for generating random numbers, but it has several problems, and is subsequently not recommended when high-quality randomness is needed.  

A more recent algorithm is the Mersenne twister developed in 1997. It is by far more complicated than the LCG, but also produces a better result. It passes a lot of different tests for true randomness, including the Diehard tests and even some of the more rigorous TestU01 Crush randomness tests (go here for a brief description of these tests, and for the really daring, go here for a more….detailed document). 

To generate a truly random sequence of numbers, a hardware random number generator is required. These devices uses random processes in nature to generate randomness. These processes can range from radioactive decay, thermal noise, avalanche noise and atmospheric noise. These devices have been known to silently break over time though, and the true randomness of the numbers generated should therefore be tested from time to time. 

Another problem with these devices have been that they do not generate random numbers very fast. Typical existing devices only generate a random string of numbers with a speed of 10s-100s megabits per second. To deal with this problem, a new method for generating random numbers have recently been developed. According to the researchers, the method is capable of generating random numbers with a speed of up to 1.7 gigabits, which is 10 times faster than previous devices. The method was developed by researchers at Saitama University in Japan, and uses semiconductor lasers. The process itself is really quite simple, and consist of an external mirror that reflect some of the light back inside the laser. This feedback causes the light to oscillate randomly, and this is then converted into an AC current and further to a binary signal. In total, the process uses two of these lasers to produce a single, random number sequence. According to the researchers, Atsushi Uchida and Peter Davis, the system can be built into cryptographic systems for secure network links with very little extra cost.

November 24, 2008 Posted by | General Science, Math, Physics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Dolphin Species

Due to unforeseen, unwanted and, I presume, unintended events, the network at my flat died over night. This post will therefore be quite short, since I’m doing it from a public computer.

I’ll just inform everybody that a new species of dolphin have been discovered near southern Australia. It was discovered using DNA analysis, and has been given the name Southern Australian bottlenose.

The Southern Australian bottlenose dolphin. Credit: Macquarie University

November 21, 2008 Posted by | Biology, General Science | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition 2008

The 5th Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition has recently announced its winners and honorable mentions for 2008. According to the competition rules, all images must be of things that are, or once were, living, and light microscopy must be part of the imaging technique. A panel of judges then, well, judges the images, and the top 10 receives prizes. This years winners and honorable mentions can be found at the competition website. The winner this year was Spike Walker who captured this picture of a “Fairy Fly” Wasp taken using Rheinberg illumination:

This years winner. The wasp itself is only about 0.21 millimetres long. 

November 19, 2008 Posted by | General Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment