The Republican War on π

For those of us who use the month/date calendar convention today, March 14th, is “Pi Day.”

But while rooting around the intertubes for something neat to post today, I learned that the US House of Representatives passed a 2009 resolution (PDF) declaring today “Pi Day” to promote science and math among US schoolchildren. The resolution also recognized, “the continuing importance of National Science Foundation’s math and science education programs.”

However, the vote was 391-10 for the resolution. Yes, 10 congresspersons voted against the proclamation.

And guess what?

All 10 were Republican representatives.

Chaffetz, Jason, R-Utah, 3rd
Flake, Jeff, R-Arizona, 6th
Heller, Dean, R-Nevada, 2nd
Johnson, Timothy V., R-Illinois, 15th
Miller, Jeff, R-Florida, 1st
Pence, Mike, R-Indiana, 6th
Shuster, Bill, R-Pennsylvania, 9th
Poe, Ted, R-Texas, 2nd
Paul, Ron, R-Texas, 14th
Neugebauer, Randy, R-Texas, 19th

Details here. Read to the end – Chaffetz gets a pass from me.


Category: Mathematics | Comments Off on The Republican War on π

Dear Dad, With Love

This is a repost of my reflections on my father who passed away 15 years today. Another third of my life has happened since then.

I took 12 years to write the following eulogy and remembrance. While quite personal, I posted it here last year because I felt that my experiences were quite universal, shared by the families of the ten or twenty million loved ones with alcoholism in the US, and hundreds of millions worldwide.

Moreover, I wanted to provide a face for my colleagues who work in the area of substance abuse and a reminder for my clinical colleagues of the people behind those they may dismiss as drunks and junkies.

In becoming one my most most highly-read and highly-commented posts, I thought I would share it again this year, especially for the new readers who’ve come on board in the last twelve months.


This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 12 March 2009.

Today marks 12 years since you died.

Well, it might have been today, possibly yesterday, I hope not too many days ago.

You see, you died alone in your apartment you rented from your sister downstairs. Yet no one checked on you as your mail accumulated Monday and Tuesday. One of your drinking buddies from the Disabled American Veterans post told me proudly at your funeral that he probably had with you your last beer that Saturday night. So, maybe it was the 8th or 9th?

When I think back, though, I believe you died some eight years earlier, just after your 50th birthday party. For your wife, my Mom, it was even long before that – she is a saint for staying with you as long as she did – no offense, Dad – and I know she still loves you no matter what.

Our family runs rich with depression and alcoholism but you died exceptionally early; my Dad – the young, fit, handsome fella you were in those pictures with little me at the Jersey shore, at home, or with me in that horrible Easter outfit – had died back then and was replaced for the last eight, ten, fourteen years by someone else.

Continue reading »

Category: Drugs of Abuse, Free-Range Writing, Personal, REPOST | 5 Comments

Octopus Lungs for the #IAmUninsured campaign

During the wonderful outpouring of support for Kevin Zelnio and his family during his son’s bout with pneumonia, science artist Michele Banks (@artologica) offered one of her lovely watercolor paintings as a premium for donations to the medical fund.

Shortly thereafter, she wrote to me the following:

Octopus Lungs, original watercolor by Michele Banks, 2012, 11 x 14 matted.

I decided to make a special painting just for Kevin and his son. Because he had pneumonia, and because I had painted lungs before, I immediately thought of that, but I wanted to make it more personal. Kevin is a marine scientist, so I considered doing something with the idea of underwater breathing. Between that and the lungs, the image of the tentacles-as-bronchi came together immediately. I hope you will overlook its obvious flaws in both human and octopus anatomy, which I believe are overridden by its general badassery.

The full-size painting can be viewed here or by clicking on the image.

Michele had originally wanted to offer the painting as another premium for donations to the medical fund for Kevin’s son. We debated having an auction knowing that the marine science bloggers would be fighting all over themselves to win the painting.

But between my lack of blogging and late-night ruminations over her offer, I thought that the painting would best belong with the Zelnio family as a reminder of the worldwide generosity of the blogging and reading community that we have witnessed over the last month. Michele was kind enough to work with me to make sure this happened.

I strongly encourage you to check out her Artologica shop at Etsy and consider supporting her terrific talent. . .and general badassery.

Category: A TAD of Reader Love, Arts and Science, Blogging community, North Carolina | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

#IAmUninsured: An #IAmScience Story

Sorry – The premium below is now CLOSED

Update 19 Feb, 1:52 pm EST – A New Photographic Premium Offer!

(c) 2012 - Alexis Rudd

Alexis Rudd (@SoundingTheSea) sent me a note to generously donate some work for two lucky donors in her support of the Zelnio family:

One 7″ X 9″ matted portrait of a spinner dolphin (taken during her research in Hawai’i) will be sent to the first person who donates $75.

As a bonus, the person who donates $100 or more before the end of the day on Sunday will instead receive a 16″ X 20″ (unmatted) print.

Both prints will be on high quality, professional-grade Fuji Pearl photo paper (silver halide FTW!).

Thank you, Alexis!

Sorry – The premium below is now CLOSED

Update 17 Feb, 7:30 am EST: Here’s a special premium offer – yes, I sound like NPR – from painter Michele Banks:

How about we sweeten the deal a little? The next person who chips in $75 or more gets this original watercolor painting of cell division by Michele Banks (aka Artologica). It’s matted to fit a standard 11 x 14 frame and will look great in your lab, office or study.

I’ll monitor the PayPal line and set up the lucky winner with Michele for shipping details. Thanks, Michele, for offering your beautiful science art on behalf of the Zelnio family.

Update 2: The painting is gone but we understand that a new one may be arriving. Thank you, winning donor!

This isn’t news to my readers but the sorry state of employment-based health insurance in the US means that anyone is one catastrophe away from bankruptcy.

A rather personal example of this came home to roost today when several folks recommended that I read Kevin Zelnio’s post on his son Elliot coming down with pneumonia and a larger discussion of the 49.1 million uninsured folks in the United States. Therein, he uses his current experience to document what happens when a family with highly-educated parents can’t provide basic healthcare for their kids because they’re either unemployed or unable to afford insurance for the self-employed.

A good man. #IAmScience

Kevin gives a great deal of himself to our community. Beyond the music he plays and the encouragement he gives to students, writers, and his own discipline of marine biology, he’s also spearheaded one of the finest post-ScienceOnline efforts of the year: #IAmScience. his own emotional journey in encouraging others to do the same. The response has been overwhelming.

So, as they say, I’d like to help a brother out. If after you read Kevin’s post you feel compelled to throw a few doubloons in his direction, go ahead and tap the button below.

As Kevin sang in Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” at the ScienceOnline Open Mic night three weeks ago: “I’ve got me debts no honest man can pay.” But he does have a beautiful six-year-old son who is fortunately recovering from pneumonia. After the PayPal fees are deducted, I’ll pass along to Kevin and his family whatever you care to share.

#IAmUninsured Relief Fund

If the button doesn’t take you to the donation page, click on this link instead to go there directly.

In launching #IAmScience, Kevin wrote,

“Magical things can happen when you enthusiastically open your mouth on the internet.”

I hope so, bro.

Because you deserve to reap the love you sow.

Category: GoodPeople | 20 Comments

Misha Angrist’s Sea Cow: For North Carolina and the World

Tell Me Where It Hurts by Sea Cow. Click on link to buy album and download a few free tracks.

I just received a missive from my local creative genius colleague and fellow PLoS blogger at Genomeboy, Misha Angrist. You know, the one who wrote Here Is A Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics.

Well, the fine Dr. Angrist tells us:

My band Sea Cow will be on The State of Things on WUNC this Friday, February 3, 2012 at 12:40PM or so. Later that same day/evening, we will be soothing the savage beast inside The Cave, 452 1/2 W. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC…9:30PM-ish or thereabouts followed by the ageless Jeff Hart & the Ruins. We are continuing to celebrate the recent release of “Tell Me Where It Hurts.” We are feeling feisty and defiant and would love to see and imbibe with you.

You can livestream The State of Things (with superb journalist Frank Stasio) here at WUNC-FM (go to the far right at that page to “Listen Now”). I’ve even made a nice world clock table so you can see what time 12:40 PM on 3 February in NC is in your neck of the woods.

You can listen to some Sea Cow here at Bandcamp or ReverbNation.

And if you’re in Chapel Hill tomorrow night, you may even run into me.

Category: Awesomesauce, Blogging community, Music | Comments Off on Misha Angrist’s Sea Cow: For North Carolina and the World

2007 repost on intravenous milk thistle extract for amatoxin poisoning

To follow on our recent discussions of a European herbal extract with efficacy against poisoning with certain species of Amanita mushrooms, I pulled out this post that I wrote in 2007 about the outstanding work of Dr. S. Todd Mitchell. Depending on the amount of mushrooms ingested, patients can experience severe liver damage that can be lethal. In these cases – about 10 percent or so – the only real “treatment” is a liver transplant.

In searching for potential remedies for his patients who ingested amatoxin-containing mushrooms, he learned of an intravenous preparation from Europe (Legalon-SIL) containing a salt of silibinin, a pair of hepatoprotective compounds from milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council, has been questioning for over 15 years why the US FDA has not made this IV drug available in emergency rooms (personal comm.).

Although silibinin and its more crude relative silymarin are available in oral forms as herbal medicines around the US and the world, they lack sufficient bioavailability for emergency treatment. Mitchell gained emergency IND status (a waiver, actually) from the FDA for this intravenous formulation and subsequently saved several family members from what was likely to be certain death.

Another story appeared two years later in the Santa Cruz Sentinel where Mitchell had to retrace his steps to again procure the drug. In 2010, the Sentinel reported that he became sponsor of an open investigational clinical trial of Legalon-SIL in the United States. (This third article was also written by Sentinel reporter, Jondi Gumz.) This trial facilitates Legalon-SIL use by physicians anywhere in the US where qualified patients have suffered amatoxin poisoning. Such trials are most commonly led from large academic medical centers; that this one is from a community hospital speaks highly of Mitchell’s determination in providing widespread access to this drug.

Continue reading »

Category: Herbal and Botanical Medicines, Natural Products Chemistry, Natural Products Pharmacology, Pharmacology, Toxicology | 4 Comments

Private correspondence made public

An interesting discussion has arisen on Twitter regarding my post earlier today on an email conversation I had with a critic of a previous blog post.

At least one person has submitted that I should not have posted a private email conversation without seeking permission of the correspondent.

Did the writer deserve the courtesy of such a request? Or did the indication not to engage online grant me journalistic license to use the exchange. Or should I have taken his reluctance to engage online as a reason not to post the exchange?

Or was I just simply exhibiting bad taste in posting a conversation that one party thought would be private?

The email was not threatening or otherwise hate mail – it was, as one commenter stated, “a tactless complaint.” Does that matter?

Was I justified in posting the conversation as a discussion point following from some conversations I had at ScienceOnline and before? Should I have simply paraphrased the content of the email? Should I have not mentioned the writer by name (even though my promotion of his clinical trial was noted in the post he criticized.).

What say you?

Category: Journalism, Science Journalism | 20 Comments

I am not your [expletive] transcriptionist

While experiencing the crack cocaine & heroin-like stimuloeuphora of ScienceOnline2012 last week, I fielded one of my relatively rare email threads of blog buzzkill. The criticism of one of my blogposts as detailed below was particularly prescient in light of the closing session I had with Maggie Koerth-Baker, Seth Mnookin, and Bora Zivkovic: Check, check, 1, 2, . . .The sticky wicket of the scientist-journalist relationship.

In discussing the process of fact-checking and the need for accurate scientific representation by the science journalist, Maggie Koerth-Baker made the excellent point that the scientist should not expect the writer to simply act as a transcriptionist. Indeed, as I learned from Cornelia Dean this past summer at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, the responsibility of the writer is to the reader in crafting an engaging and still accurate story.

Well, I now know what Maggie was talking about. I received the following email last week regarding my post, Intravenous Milk Thistle for Mushroom Poisoning, for the principal investigator of an ongoing clinical trial:

Dear David,

Under most circumstances I would remain silent but with your background I assume that you wish to make your postings as accurate as possible. However, the story as written is so rife with mythology and gross misstatements that to the trained eye it comes across as simply silly.

Rather than posting on your blog I thought it might be better to contact you privately in order to give you the opportunity to edit and correct if you are so interested.

If you like we can speak when I have the screen open. There is a lot of misinformation up there on the web and so it is certainly understandable as to how you could have come up with some of this.

Please forward your phone number and we can go over it.

To which I politely responded:

Thanks so much for writing. Indeed, I strive to be as accurate as possible and am concerned that, “the story as written is so rife with mythology and gross misstatements that to the trained eye it comes across as simply silly.” I’d be delighted to have you post your concerns and corrections in the blog comments – the readership would greatly benefit from the wisdom of your expertise and having an on-the-record critique from the study director would be invaluable. No need to keep your concerns private – I find it valuable to teach my students that even the professor gets it wrong sometimes. (I’m also completely swamped with my role in the international ScienceOnline conference ongoing here in Research Triangle Park. I hope you understand.)

Thank you again for writing and I look forward to learning where you feel I got things wrong. Best wishes as you continue to investigate this remarkable intravenous preparation.

Warm regards,

Indeed, I really didn’t understand precisely his objections to the content of my post. I was truly interested in how far off I could be, particularly after having published about a dozen basic science and clinical papers on milk thistle. But I didn’t want to argue from a position of authority, particularly since I am not a clinician and the majority of my work was focused on anti-cancer effects of milk thistle compounds, not hepatoprotection from toxic compounds.

So, I went off to my week of ScienceOnline activities and pre-meeting events I was handling for my new day job when this came in:

Hi David,

Thanks for the reply. Will have to pass. If I corrected every blog on the web I would have no livelihood.

Be well,

So, this is interesting. The reader expected me to give him my phone number so he could tell me where the inaccuracies were in my post. But he couldn’t be bothered with providing details and objections in a public forum on my blog comment thread.

I honestly felt as thought I was doing a GoodThing with the original post, raising awareness about one of very few herbal medicines that have utility in an emergency situation and even promoting the site for enrollment in this individual’s clinical trial.

But I have my own questions. For example, why would a P.I. list their contact information for a clinical trial under a Yahoo! email account? And why would they object to the content of a blog post yet not be willing to publicly voice their objections.

After all, I am not your [expletive] transcriptionist.

Category: Clinical Trials, Natural Products Chemistry, Natural Products Pharmacology, Pharmacology | 40 Comments

The backstory of a touching moment at ScienceOnline2012

The SXSW and Burning Man of science communication conferences.

The past weekend saw about 457 science communicators of various venues, ages, and ethnicities gather together at the McKimmon Center of North Carolina State University for ScienceOnline2012. Many pixels have been and will be spilled on the unusual nature of this unconference, one with an environment that many of us thought would exist in academic research: mutual support, sharing, acceptance.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science was first out of the gate with a quick and sharp overview of what makes this conference so special, beyond the topics discussed, reiterating his description from last year:

You spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.

Indeed, I had the chance to revisit with old friends, make new ones, and participate in a community of writers, teachers, filmmakers, and artists who come together and share and teach the best they each have to offer. And the robust discussion, again, just as I expected from academia: respectfully challenging one another even when we disagree, all with the intention of improving the communication of science and engaging anyone interested in appreciating the wonder the world (and distant worlds!) have to offer.

As a local North Carolinian, I generally assist the co-organizers (Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic, and Karyn Traphagen) on a small number of auxiliary activities to show some down-home hospitality to our guests. My minimal contributions were primarily to arrange the Wine Authorities red and white selections for the Friday banquet and working at the new day job on the reception at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and the new Nature Research Center.

But I was truly excited to help Deep Sea News editor and marine biologist Kevin Zelnio and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg with a somewhat-more-formal-than-before open mic/talent show at Napper Tandy’s pub in Raleigh (thanks to manager Jen Labenz!).

Continue reading »

Category: Awesomesauce, Blogging community, GoodPeople, Music, North Carolina, ScienceOnline2012, Women in Science and Medicine | 4 Comments

Could tardigrades survive re-entry?

The latest from Phil Plait at his Bad Astronomer blog is that the “doomed Russian space probe” Phobos-Grunt will be crashing back to Earth within a half-hour of this post.

This concise summary was from his post on January 4th:

In November 2011, the Russian space agency launched the much-anticipated Mars probe called Phobos-Grunt (which means “Phobos dirt” or “ground”), which would go to the Red Planet, soft-land a probe on the tiny moon Phobos, and return a sample of the surface to Earth. Unfortunately, the booster that would take it from Earth orbit into a Mars-intercept trajectory failed to fire, stranding the spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Atmospheric drag has doomed the mission; it will most likely burn up sometime in the next two weeks.

I’ve been following this story a little bit since I learned about the ten species that were being sent up to the Martian moon to learn if living organisms could survive the 3-year, out-and-back journey.

Alas, they can be squished. (See Ed Yong comment below)

The Planetary Society very carefully selected representative prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and archaea as described in the table at their website. One of these was the remarkable tardigrade, represented in this plush toy gift we gave to our daughter this Christmas. My new boss, biologist Meg Lowman, wrote a nice article on the tardigrades for her weekly column in the News & Observer.

These are unusual microscopic multicellular invertebrates that can survive being dried out (dessication) and revived as long as a year later. Their ability to survive hostile conditions where any self-respecting organism would die is the reason they are called extremophiles.

K. Ingemar Jönsson at Kristianistad University in Sweden has been running the Tardigrades in Space (TARDIS) program since 2007 when several species of organisms were successfully returned to Earth from the FOTON-M3 mission and survived exposure to both space vacuum and solar radiation.

But I doubt very much that they will be able to survive directly burning up, sans spacecraft, as Phobos-Grunt disintegrates over the Pacific Ocean within minutes.

Requisat en pace, tardigrades.

Category: Astronomy | Tagged , | 4 Comments