Ripped from the headlines
Scientists have greeted with hoots and catcalls the claim that Jack the Ripper, the near-mythical late-19th Century London serial killer, has been identified from DNA as an immigrant Polish baker named Aaron Kosminski.
The DNA evidence is from a bloodstained shawl that maybe perhaps belonged to one of the victims. Besides the maybe perhaps victim’s blood, the shawl is said to also bear semen stains and an epithelial cell containing mitochondrial DNA that purportedly matches the mtDNA of one of Kosminski’s relatives.
It might be true that he did the Ripper murders. Kosminski was one of the top suspects at the time, was confined to an asylum three years after the last Ripper murder, and spent the rest of his life in assorted similar institutions. But Naming Jack the Ripper, the book recounting this hypothetical by self-described armchair detective and Ripper tour operator Russell Edwards, is not persuasive.
Any decent TV defense attorney would rip the shawl to shreds. It must contain dozens of DNA deposits from the many people who have handled it in the past century and a quarter. Svante Pääbo, who believes that as far as DNA analysis is concerned, cleanliness is lots better than godliness, would faint dead away. At Neurologica, Steven Novello is quite dubious about the meaning of the shawl and its contents and calls for independent replication of the results.
The evidence has not been published, and certainly not peer-reviewed. At the BioMed Central Blog, James Balm calls that omission a pretty important hurdle to ignore. The samples were not blinded. There appear to have been no controls. Etc.
In a Pacific Standard post, Ted Scheinman dryly notes that the provenance of the maybe perhaps victim’s shawl “remains semi-conjectural.” He quotes British geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys as pointing out that “no actual evidence has yet been provided.”
Novello also notes that there will be a lot of resistance to this idea, if only because the whole reason the Jack the Ripper tale–at least five brutal murders and maybe as many as 11–is so fascinating is that it’s a mystery. If it is truly solved, and solved in such a conventional way–a series of prostitute murders committed by a misogynist madman who was eventually locked up for good, instead of (as I believe one theory holds) the syphilitic Prince of Wales who became, briefly, King of England–well, that’s no fun.
At Comment is Free, historian Julia Laite wonders why Jack in particular commands so much public attention more than a century after the grisly murders. She thinks it has to do partly with how gruesomely savage they were, with parts of sexual organs–a uterus, a vagina–cut out and carried away. Trophies?
And the victims were whores, lost women from another world. It was possible to feel fascination without feeling empathy. She tells us that at least one of them, the lady of the maybe perhaps shawl in fact, was not a sex worker, and calls for more attention to the victims, not Jack.
More toxins galore
I can’t decide whether this makes me feel better about my slapdash housekeeping or not. It’s yet another Ooops! moment for the National Institutes of Health. More bad stuff has been found hither and yon in its labs, some of it said to date back to 1914. Plague, tularemia, botulinum–that’s Botox to you–and, oh yes, the deadly poison ricin.
These were found in a thorough search undertaken after the various finds of toxics stored higgledy-piggledy–some in Ziploc bags–in labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. I wrote about that here at On Science Blogs in July.
Jocelyn Kaiser’s account of the recent discoveries at Science Insider includes the text of a memo from NIH director Francis Collins. He conceded that the new finds highlighted the need for constant vigilance, but also said that the samples, while not stored properly, were sealed and never endangered anyone. To my mind, NIH gets at least a few points for going in for some serious housecleaning. Probably terrified of what it would find. Maybe relieved that it wasn’t as bad as feared.
At C&EN’s Safety Zone, Jyllian Kemsley predicts that more unsettling toxic finds may lie ahead. A White House memo dated August 18 recommends that government labs and nongovernment labs that get federal money do “an immediate sweep of their facilities that possess, use, or transfer human, animal, or plant infectious agent or toxin holdings to identify Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSA) and ensure their proper registration, safe stewardship, and secure storage or disposal.”
Kemsley has a theory about how this bad stuff accumulates. “Someone left without clearing their bench or their lab. Someone else took over. Instead of cleaning out, they pushed the samples to the back of the fridge or storage area. Repeat.”
Rosetta and 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
On Monday (September 15), the European Space Agency will announce the site where the Rosetta spacecraft will land on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November.
Josh Witten at The Finch & Pea republished tweets explaining why that’s a big deal: the Rosetta team has identified four potential landing sites, but all are riskier than had been hoped. Pamela L. Gay (@starstryder) explained: Landing site needs Sun 7-8hr/day for power, but want day-night cycle, also onsite gas&dust activity, organics, & not too sloped.
The multicolor pic came from Deborah Byrd at EarthSky, who explains,
“A preliminary map of morphologically different regions on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – as revealed by the Rosetta spacecraft – shows the comet to be a unique, multifaceted world. We now know that comets can have cliffs, depressions, craters, boulders or even parallel grooves.”
I just thought it was cool. Also, that’s the longest (and yet unintelligible) photo credit ever, heading for the territory occupied by authors on a physics paper or organismal genome sequence.
I’m off to family events, including a wedding, and will be on the road until the end of this month. Meaning it’s very likely I will not be posting here at On Science Blogs again until Friday, October 3. Unless I get inspired. Or bored. At a family wedding, though, bored is not likely to happen.