Trust me, my friends: if we are indeed now inventing slingshots that fire circular saw blades, and building sword-fighting robots that can survive beatings with baseball bats, and enabling the first generation of space-traveling squid (cephalonauts!) … then no good will come of it. Consider yourselves warned.
It's a poster for a fantasy movie, not a documentary.
If a news story about human evolution mentions Raquel Welch or One Million Years B.C. in the lead paragraphs, you should lower your expectations for the rest because it is shallow and hackneyed. If it mentions The Flintstones, you should probably skip the rest because it is juvenile. But if it mentions both Raquel Welch and Wilma Flintstone twice in the first six paragraphs, you should sigh with relief: because you will never read anything more stupid in the rest of your life.*
Kudos to Paul Harris and Fiona MacRae of the Mail Online, then, for establishing that standard with this journalistic masterpiece:
Methane hydrate: the ice that burns. (Image: National Research Council Canada)
If the next Tom Clancy were writing a techno-thriller about the future of natural gas, then the frozen solids called methane hydrates—a.k.a. “the ice that burns”—might be the perfect “macguffin” plot device to set the melodrama in motion. Scientific adventurers could dash around the planet after these exotic materials, which represent a gigantic and long-overlooked energy source. International intrigue could hinge on the potential of methane hydrates to make countries such as Japan suddenly energy independent. The heroes could strive to turn a nascent, ingenious technology for exploiting the hydrates into a weapon against disastrous global warming, while diabolical forces would threaten to use the hydrates to unleash an environmental Armageddon.
Reality, alas, has a poor sense of theater. Methane hydrates could indeed become important parts of the world’s energy infrastructure over the next couple of decades. But the twist is that old-fashioned supply-and-demand economics, not some new sci-fi tech wizardry, will ultimately determine whether methane hydrates can really save the day.
It's 6 p.m. Do you know where your Rapture is? (via Wikipedia; Free Art License)
So much has already been written and ridiculed about the prediction that this coming Saturday, May 21st, will be the Christian Rapture that I’m loath to add more, especially on this blog network that is largely dedicated to science. But apparently I am, because amidst all the other parts of this belief that seem preposterous to unbelieving, atheistic me, one part stands out as particularly nutty. (I know; don’t even start.) Chalk this up as a commentary on the nature of irrational beliefs.
Many of us who so fondly remember the late science writer JR Minkel were probably a bit startled to find his byline in the “7 Radical Energy Solutions” feature in the May issue of Scientific American. Long publishing lead times, particularly for monthly magazines, can sometimes play such tricks. JR had contributed a short piece on quantum photovoltaics to that package; I imagine it was probably one of the last things he wrote professionally before he died.
That feature is currently still behind SciAm’s firewall, so I can’t yet provide a direct link to JR’s part of it. (If that changes, I’ll update this post with that link.) [Update (5/16): But an interactive version of the feature is here; look for the part marked "Quantum Photovoltaics" and read the text that JR wrote.] However, If you would like to read some of JR’s other writing for the magazine, here’s a page of links to his work in its archives.
More important, though, I’m glad to say that another body of JR’s writing that had briefly disappeared from the Web is now back up. JR’s distinctive voice and sensibility—and maybe the best hints of who he would have become as a writer and thinker—were clearest in his posts at his Fistful of Science blog. Back in April, the registration for his domain lapsed, however, which rendered his work inaccessible.
Thanks to requests by his family and friends, and an intervention by the folks at WordPress, the JR’s Fistful of Science blog is now back online at fisfulofscience.wordpress.com. Read and enjoy.
Scientific developments worth blogging about pile up faster than I can find time to write about them. But rather than watch yet another heap of these worthwhile stories die of old age in my queue, I’m shotgunning a bunch of them here for your exploration. Today’s topics: blood substitutes, the latest on Neandertals, whale peregrinations, better prosthetic arms and a phone app that helps the blind.
FAKE BLOOD AND REAL DONORS. Because blood for transfusions is almost always in short supply, especially for rare types, biomedical scientists around the world have sought an artificial blood substitute for decades. Witness, for example, this University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill write-up from last January about work its researchers have done on making hydrogel particles that could function like artificial red blood cells. That effort has now passed an important milestone with the news that HBOC201, a synthetic substitute made from cow plasma, has saved the life of an Australian car-wreck patient whose religion forbade her to receive transfusions, as Clay Dillow describes for Popular Science. Still, blood substitutes won’t be in routine medical use for a long time to come, and the need for blood won’t wait. All the more frustrating, then, that U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules prevent blood banks from accepting donations of blood and marrow from gay men, even when their blood represents little or no real threat from HIV. Cassandra Willyard has that story at The Last Word on Nothing.
Your bed bug buddy, Cimex lectularius (Content Providers: CDC/ Harvard University, Dr. Gary Alpert; Dr. Harold Harlan; Richard Pollack. Photo Credit: Piotr Naskrecki)
Bed bugs, those blood-sucking assassins of tranquility, have most often been seen throughout history as pests with a small “p.” Their itchy bites can be profound nuisances, and the thought of them infesting mattresses and crawling across us during sleep can provoke shudders, and the turmoil they cause can turn a household upside-down. But we have at least had the consolation that unlike, say, mosquitoes with malaria or dengue and sand flies with leishmaniasis, bed bugs do not kill or cause disease. That is certainly the commonplace wisdom, as mentioned by Amy Maxmen in her good new review, “Bedbug 2011: What You Need to Know.”
Yet disturbingly, that reassuring fact might not hold true in the future. As Maryn McKenna reports on her Superbug blog, Canadian researchers Christopher F. Lowe and Marc G. Romney announce in the June issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases that three hospitalized patients from Downtown Eastside, a very poor neighborhood in Vancouver, were infested with bed bugs that proved to carry drug-resistant bacteria. Specifically, the bacteria were vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE), which often causes serious hospital-acquired infections, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), staph organisms that can trigger lethal infections in people with weakened immune systems. The spread of such antibiotic-resistant germs is one of today’s most urgent infectious disease threats.
Jamie L. Vernon, who has been a terrific recent addition to Chris Mooney’s The Intersection as a guest blogger, has a new post that should intrigue any of us who have been exasperated by the deep-seated anti-scientific denial that plagues discussions of climate change, evolution, vaccines and autism, and other topics. In “‘Deathers’ Offer a Unique Case Study for the Formulation of the Denialist Mentality,” Jamie considers the idea that we seem to be watching a new species of denial in its birth throes: refusal to accept that Osama bin Laden died in the assault on his compound last week. The precise details of that denial can vary; some say that bin Laden is still alive but being held in secret custody, while others think that bin Laden is dead but not under circumstances in any way resembling those that have been officially released. (Those details have been getting revised, of course, which certainly helps to feed the suspicions.) As Jamie writes:
Queen honeybee and a drone mate on the wing. (from NOVA's "Tales from the Hive," cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler)
Today, with seemingly all the English-speaking world abuzz over the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, let us turn to royal couplings I actually care about—as should you. After all, the future of the British monarchy may rest with Will and Kate but the future of much of the world’s food supply depends on these others: the honeybee queens and the lucky, lucky drones that they take as their kings (for a few seconds of airborne lovin’). The bees can’t rival the royals in the sheer spectacle of their nuptials, but we humans could still learn a few things from them about organization and breeding.
The Hapsburg family tree. (Graphic: The Independent newspaper)
Traditionally, royal European families such as the Hapsburgs arranged marriages with one another to consolidate their political alliances. Good statecraft made for bad genetic hygiene, however, as the level of inbreeding gradually increased, leading to high rates of hemophilia, physical deformities and other problems. In the 18th century, Charles II, the last of Spain’s Hapsburg kings, suffered from so many abnormalities—not to mention a highly protrusive “Hapsburg lip”—that he was nicknamed “the Hexed.”
Honeybees might at first seem predisposed to a similar inbreeding problem. Three days after emerging from the cell where she was nurtured, a young virgin queen bee flies out of her hive in search of mates; during mid-air couplings, she may collect sperm from a dozen of them, which she will portion out to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life. (The drones die immediately after mating with her because their penises are torn out of their bodies in the process.) But of course, the first males the queen might encounter could easily be her own sibling drones, who have also gone a-courting. Such matings do sometimes happen, but they seem to yield unusually few offspring.
Dr. Oz (left) speaks with Dr. Novella.
Dorothy: You’re a very bad man!
Wizard: Oh, but I’m a very good man! I’m just a very bad wizard.
—The Wizard of Oz (1939)
That snatch of dialogue comes to mind whenever I think about Dr. Mehmet Oz, whom I previously pilloried for his credulous and harmful coddling of self-proclaimed psychic John Edward. Dr. Oz may be a well-intentioned man at heart, but as a reliable source of trustworthy medical information, he’s no wizard.
But recently, Dr. Oz did offer some exceptionally sound information on the subject of alternative medicine—by having Dr. Steven P. Novella on his show. Steve, whom I consider a friend, is a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, founder of Science-Based Medicine, president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog. In short, Steve is an anti-woo wizard, and one who has been highly critical of Dr. Oz in the past. Even so, to his surprise, he was invited to participate in a segment entitled, “Why Is Your Doctor Afraid of Alternative Medicine?”