Fun fact of the day

Take a quick look around a world map and you may just figure out the location of a magma hot spot. Hawaiian Islands The island chain of Hawaii, for example, was born via this way. As the Pacific plate moves, hot magma beneath the Earth’s crust pushes through, forming new land over millions of years. This process has given us the 4 main Hawaiian land masses in addition to well over a hundred tiny islands. Other areas of the world where we see this include the Galapagos islands and the peaks of Kilimanjaro.

Fun fact of the day

As the Earth rotates, the Sun appears to rise over the horizon. As its rays become more and more directly overhead, there is less distance for them to travel through the atmosphere in order to reach us. (This longer travel is what creates wonderful sunrises and sunsets; light is refracted at a greater rate, allowing us to see a variety of frequencies and thus colors.) Keep this in mind if you like to tan. It’s best (i.e., healthiest) to catch your rays in the morning and evening since less ultraviolet light can reach you.

And, as always, don’t believe the quacks who say sunscreen is bad for you. If you’re tanning in the middle of the day, wear it. Cancer is bad, ya know?

Should we ask our politicians specific science questions?

Every time a politician is asked if he believes in evolution or how old he thinks Earth is, there is the inevitable complaint from the right: “It’s a gotcha question!” It’s as if to say the whole point is to make certain people, usually Republicans, look stupid during their run for public office. I’ve got to disagree, though.

I find these sort of questions to be valid for at least two reasons. First, it gives us a very general idea of the background of the person. Someone who says he rejects the fact of evolution is almost certainly a young Earth creationist, and I think that’s important to know. (It’s important even if he’s an old Earth creationist.) We expect just about every politician in the U.S. to express some religious piety (unfortunately), but it’s hard to believe at least a few them aren’t mailing it in. The ones who actively reject significant fields of science, though, are probably sincere. I want to know that so I can be confident in my vote against them.

Second, this can give us a general gauge on intelligence. Now, I’m not saying people who reject evolution or global warming or any other scientific fact are stupid. I wouldn’t be so clumsy as to play into such an elitist caricature. What I’m saying is we can get a grip on the scientific literacy of a person based upon some of these questions. Of course, this is sort of a one-way street: A person who reject science can be deemed to have low literacy, but a person who accepts the facts of a few key issues is not necessarily engrossed in science. Regardless, these questions do often correlate with other facts in a useful way. For a prime example, look up anything the likes of Sarah Palin has said about fruit fly research and funding.

I think people should have a pretty good idea about a lot of theses issues, such as evolution or the age of Earth, but even if they’re ignorant, that’s no crime. If someone running for office is asked how old the world is and he doesn’t know the exact number, it would suffice to say something like, “Millions or even billions. I’m not sure.” He would get corrected, but no one would make that big of a stink about it. The stink only arises when a politician starts spouting off things about 6,000 years and ‘no missing lin’k. There’s just no excuse for that sort of stuff.

HPV vaccines do not lead to greater sexual activity

For quite some time now we have been hearing counter-common sense arguments that claim the administration of HPV vaccines will make young girls more likely to engage in sexual activity. One recent study shows those arguments to be bogus:

Adolescent girls who get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine are no more likely to show signs they may be engaging in sexual activity than girls who do not get the vaccine, according to a new study that challenges a widely held belief…

Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta followed electronic data of nearly 1,400 girls aged 11 and 12 between July 2006 and December 2010 to see whether they received at least one dose of the vaccine within the first year and whether they were later counseled about contraception, acquired a sexually transmitted disease or became pregnant.

More than a quarter of girls ages 15 to 17 report being sexually active, according to the CDC.

The study followed the girls to the age range where sexual activity would have been initiated, according to the researchers.

The nearly 500 girls who received at least one dose of the vaccine were no more likely to be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, discuss contraception or become pregnant than the nearly 900 girls who did not get the vaccine, the study found.

“We couldn’t directly look at sexual activity, so we looked at external outcomes that would suggest sexual activity,” said Dr. Robert Bednarczyk, clinical investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research Southeast, and lead author of the study.

The sort of arguments that inspired the above study are of the same sort that inspire studies which show that abstinence-only education is an abysmal failure. Again and again, social conservatives and overly worried parents will claim or wonder if the exposure to greater information will cause their children to become sexually active at a young age. Only the wonder is justified; over and over we are seeing that access to proper information and sound medical protections are the correct path to take.

David Pogue and NOVA scienceNOW

Every so often David Pogue, a technology writer for The New York Times, will host an episode of NOVA, now in its 40th season. He is routinely excellent at the job, so it comes as no surprise to me that he is now the season 6 host for NOVA scienceNOW. (Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted last season.) The primary difference between the two shows is that the former explores a single issue whereas the latter looks at a general question and goes from there; it’s sort of like the difference between a research paper and a review paper. For instance, the episode of NOVA scienceNOW I watched earlier tonight asked what makes us human. It then looked at the evolution of language, tool making, and even the different ways the great apes laugh. (Surprise, surprise, the vocalization and style of laughter amongst our ape cousins gets closer to sounding human as they get closer to us in genetic relatedness.) On the other hand, I currently have a new episode of the original NOVA in my DVR that is all – and specifically – about viking swords.

I have found myself enjoying NOVA scienceNOW (and regular NOVA) regardless of the host, but it definitely helps that David Pogue is signed onto this season. I think he does a great job and I look forward to seeing him more.

Marijuana, new evidence, and changing views

I haven’t written about the legalization of marijuana very much on NBS, but I have long been in favor of it. No study has ever established a causative link between marijuana and cancer (or any other major disease), and I don’t think it is particularly detrimental to society to allow people to smoke it. Moreover, criminalizing the plant only creates an atmosphere of violence and real crime, not to mention the creation of criminals from the non-criminals who get locked up for using or selling it. That said, however, some new evidence has forced me to reel my views back at least a little:

Researchers found persistent users of the drug, who started smoking it at school, had lower IQ scores as adults.

They were also significantly more likely to have attention and memory problems in later life, than their peers who abstained.

Furthermore, those who started as teenagers and used it heavily, but quit as adults, did not regain their full mental powers, found academics at King’s College London and Duke University in the US.

Those who started later in life – usually during their college years – also experienced a drop in IQ, but were able to recover relatively soon after quitting.

I don’t particularly have a horse in this race – believe it or not, I do not smoke anything and I have no desire to ever start – but I’ve seen plenty of promising people lose track of their lives because of weed. Some have gotten things back on track and the others certainly could do the same, but that’s lost time and productivity. I think the world would simply be a better place with legalization and regulation of marijuana, especially where minors are concerned – and there’s good evidence behind that view.

The nature of science

I’ve said time and time again that solid science does not come from individual studies sitting all by their lonesome. Rather, it comes about as a result of a body of evidence. That isn’t to discredit any individual study that may be released, but instead to point out that the very nature of science is to discover and expose and correct for flaws. That cannot possibly be accomplished if one person or group comes up with a finding and everyone says, ‘Oh, good. Let’s just go with that.’ And that brings me to this recent study on children who live with dogs in their first year of life:

The study of nearly 400 children found that dogs were especially protective, and the babies who lived with dogs during their first year were about one-third more likely to be healthy during their first year, compared to babies who didn’t have a pet in the home. Babies with dogs in the home were 44 percent less likely to develop an ear infection, and 29 percent less likely to need antibiotics than their petless peers.

“Children who had dog contacts at home were healthier and had less frequent ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than children who had no dog contacts,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician who worked at Kuopio University Hospital, in Finland, at the time of the study.

There is no reason to doubt the methodology of this study, as far as I know. There is no reason to doubt its integrity. This isn’t a highly complicated paper about kin selection or something of that nature where the logic can get quite counter-intuitive. This is a relatively straight-forward study, by all accounts. However, that does not mean it actually is better to have dogs around infants:

Previous research on pets in the home has suggested that animals, and dogs in particular, may provide some protection against the development of asthma and allergies. But, other studies have found that household pets may increase the number of respiratory infections in children, according to background information in the study.

Yet, on the flip side once again, this doesn’t mean it’s bad to have dogs (unless the child has allergies, of course). What this means is that there are some interesting results, both of which fit well into independent theories. For the previous studies, we know that animals carry plenty of germs and disease, so it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that they tend to transmit that sort of stuff to babies – basic germ theory. However, for this recent study, we also know that the immune system tends to do better when exposed to diverse environments early in life. That gives it a chance to build a working ‘knowledge’ of what it must resist. So which is the correct model?

We don’t yet know.

I personally lean towards it being better to have pets in the home, in part because dogs and cats are linked to greater happiness, which in turn is linked to a healthier body, but I’m not staking a claim to anything one way or another. The scientifically responsible thing to do here is to wait for a more robust body of evidence.

That’s how this whole thing works.

WHO issues warning about tanning beds

This is from 2009 (though it should be from 1995), but I just came across it:

In July, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a working group of the World Health Organization, added ultraviolet (UV) radiation-emitting tanning devices – tanning beds and lamps – to the list of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation. It joins an assembly of hazardous substances including plutonium and certain types of radium, as well as radiation from the sun.

The IARC report cited research showing that tanning is especially hazardous to young people; those who use sunbeds before age 30 increase their lifetime risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 75 percent. The authors also pointed to studies showing a link between UV radiation from indoor tanning devices and melanomas of the skin and eyes. Melanoma will kill an estimated 8,650 people in the US this year alone. And melanoma isn’t the only problem: people who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma kills an estimated 2,500 Americans a year.

I am absolutely convinced that people do not appreciate the tenacity and seriousness of cancer. There seems to be a it-won’t-happen-to-me attitude that pervades society. Or maybe quacks have lulled people into a false sense of security. Just take some garlic, laxatives, and a little black elderberry and you’ll be fine! For Christ’s sake. I recently developed a small splotch on my nose. It wasn’t a blackhead and it didn’t go away after a couple of weeks, so I made an appointment to get it checked out (alongside a physical). I figured it was nothing given its color and shape, but why take risks? It matters how quickly these things are identified. It turned out, as I figured, to be nothing more than a new freckle (probably a result of my time in Haiti or some of the nicer days we had not too long ago). I’m fine this time, but who knows about next time? I’m not somehow magically exempt from how biology works. Neither is anyone else. I am, however, exempt from a 75% increase in getting melanoma. Also, think about this:

Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell

Richard Owen was one of the great jerks of history. He also happened to coin Dinosauria, from which we get “dinosaur”, he made a number of important scientific discoveries, and he did a great deal in making museums what they are today by way of organizing the Natural History Museum in London. Taken together, we still look back on him with fair acknowledgement for his accomplishments. But, boy, was he ever a jerk.

The man’s heyday was the middle of the 19th century alongside greats like Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell. People tended to recognize Owen’s quality of mind, but they also couldn’t help to notice how petty and vindictive he could be. Cross the man and he would make your life as awful as he possibly could. Just ask Gideon Mantell.

Gideon Mantell made his splash in the sciences long before Owen came on the scene. He discovered the first bits of Iguanodon, a major genus of dinosaur, and is credited with kick starting the study of the ancient monsters before the 19th century had even reached its 25th anniversary.

At first Owen and Mantell were friends. For reasons now lost to time, though, they parted ways, becoming bitter enemies – Owens the more bitter of the two. They both were quite remarkable in their discoveries and descriptions of dinosaurs, giving title to many of the dinosaurs commonly recognized by the layman today. Unfortunately for Mantell, little could keep him from poverty.

As time wore on, Mantell’s health and focus waned. He was a doctor by training – and an excellent one, at that – and he had once run an incredibly successful practice, but his geological and paleontological research got the better of his time. Soon his wife left him, then he found himself suffering from spinal damage after being dragged by a carriage. He was forced to turn his home and all its fossils into a museum to pay his bills, but fearing his status as a gentlemen was in danger he would tend to wave the entrance fee. He eventually sold off most of his collection to the Natural History Museum.

Throughout all this, though, Mantell still wrote and published a number of papers. Unfortunately, he was unable to publish as many as he would have liked because the head of the Royal Society was none other than Richard Owen. Owen did all he could to have Mantell’s papers cast aside. It wouldn’t be long until Mantell could no longer bear the pain of his spine and the burden of Owen’s hatred.

Gideon Mantell took his own life in 1852. His obituary soon followed in the papers and although there was no byline, no one doubted its uncharitable nature was due to Richard Owen. In fact, Owen even transferred claim of a number of discoveries from Mantell to himself. Then, as a final act of indignity, Owen had Mantell’s spine placed in a jar and put on display at the Royal College of Surgeons of England where Owen taught.

Of course, no man could come to be known as one of the most hated and reviled men in scientific history without finding some black mark on his career. For Owen this mark came when it was found that he had failed to credit another scientist with a discovery – a discovery for which Owen had already accepted a prestigious award from the Royal Society. Moreover, he had an ongoing dispute with Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog. Huxley tended to win the specifics of their dispute, often showing Owen as deceptive in many of his claims. This lowered Owen’s standing as a gentlemen and, in 1862, Huxley managed to have him voted off the Royal Society Council. Few members of the scientific community were saddened.

It was at this point, Mantell long dead, that Owen turned his full attention to the Natural History Museum in London. He continued with his plans to make the museum appealing to the general public rather than simply the scientific community and its followers. It was perhaps some of his greatest work, despite not being the most prominent of his career. He remained at his post in the museum, controversy diminished in his life, until his retirement late in the century.

As for Gideon Mantell’s spine, it was destroyed by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1969 due to the distressingly fitting reason that more space was needed.