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Category Archives: science

Nuns!

From 1967 to 1995, Creighton University conducted a study which became “one of the longest-running, continually supported projects in the history of the National Institutes of Health“. The test subjects were all nuns “representing six mother houses and all between the ages of 35 and 45 when they started” and took part in a study that “literally wrote the book on the operation of the calcium economy in mid-life women”.

For the study, the nuns would eat the same foods in exactly the same portions every day for eight days. The diets were designed to match, within 5 percent, their usual food intake in terms of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus. Creighton researchers then meticulously gathered data to identify factors that influenced how the women’s bodies absorbed calcium, utilized it and excreted it.

Among the findings resulting from the Creighton research: Healthy adult women in midlife require 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day; and calcium absorption is influenced by such factors as body size, vitamin D, estrogen levels, age, race, calcium source and other nutrient interactions.

Though the study officially ended in 1995, the nuns “now in their 70s and 80s – continue coming to Creighton for calcium absorption measurements and bone-density scans.”

The findings have greatly increased science’s understanding in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.

Other studies involving nuns have been well documented. In 1986, David Snowdon, Ph.D. spearheaded a pilot program to investigate brain diseases in the elderly to “determine the causes and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, other brain diseases, and the mental and physical disability associated with old age”.

Each of the 678 participants in the Nun Study agreed to participate in annual assessments of their cognitive and physical function, medical exams, blood drawing for genetic and nutritional studies, and brain donation at death for neuropathologic studies. The Nun Study represents the largest brain donor population in the world. In addition, the sisters have given investigators full access to their convent and medical records.

Since many Alzheimer’s patients are unable to provide accurate information regarding their past, due to the pronounced memory loss associated with the disease, these convent records provide an invaluable tool to study the long term health factors in each patient.

All in all, studies such as these, and others, allow scientists to further our medical understanding in the hopes of increasing the quality of life for all of us. Too often we hear about the divisions between science and faith, but there are probably many, many more stories about the two disciplines working together for a greater good.

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Artists impression of Gliese 581 C

50% bigger and about 5 times as massive as our own earth, a new planet has been discovered within the “Goldilocks” zone of the star Gliese 581. The planet is a little over 20 light years away from our own solar system and given its “prime” orbital distance from the parent star, this new planet (Gliese 581 C) may have liquid water. Since liquid water is believed to be a key ingredient in life, Gliese 581 C has quickly become the latest and greatest candidate for harboring life off of the earth.

Should this planet have the ability to support life, scientists, free thinkers, and otherwise sane individuals will begin the trans-solar migration immediately. Old earth will be left behind to the religious fundamentalists, war mongers, politicians and bureaucrats. Scientists believe old earth will die out quickly once all rational life leaves its shores though some of the migrating scientists may experience a brief yet painful period of severe withdrawal due to the lack of red tape which previously restricted their scientific research back on old earth.

Also, the new earth will most likely have a much stronger gravitational pull than that of old earth so humans will need to adapt to weighing nearly five times as much as they currently do. However, it is believed the oppressive weight of extremism and religion is far greater than any gravitational force on Gliese 581 C so everyone should get over it pretty quickly.

Huichol Indians

When the white man first arrived in the America’s he brought with him the light of God. That light was usually reflected off the end of a sword or musket barrel and was probably the last thing millions of Native Americans saw before they were murdered. Today, many hundreds of years later, the white man is still bringing light to the indigenous peoples of the continent but in a much different and far more useful form.

An organization known as the Portable Light Project has been visiting the Huichol Indians (pronounced we-chill) of west central Mexico in an attempt to “address the need for affordable electrical lighting that would require no fixed installations”. The Huichol live high in the Sierra Madre’s which is a few days journey by foot from the nearest city and they have no access to Mexico’s power grid. The Portable Light Project devised a method of supplying the Indians with solar rechargeable LED’s powerful enough to illuminate an entire room. Since many of the Huichol earn a living by making and selling crafts, these small but brilliant light sources allow them to sew and paint well into the night and it also allows the children a few more hours to do their homework.

The overall goal of the Portable Light Project is to “optimize existing semi-conductor technologies and create new applications to serve the large number of people—more than 2 billion—who do not have access to electric light or power.” So far about 50 solar packs, which the Huichol carry on their backs during the day, have been given out and the project plans to distribute many more in the future. Should the idea catch on the project hopes to bring this technology to many more people around the globe who have no access to electricity.

One of the community leaders of the Huichol’s stated that the LED’s are plenty enough light for them. They do not want power lines running into their villages for fear that commercial factories would soon follow and ruin their culture. This is probably a sentiment shared by many native peoples around the world who wish to benefit from modern technology but have no desire for the industrialized world to encroach any further upon their way of life.

(Listen to more of this story which was broadcast April 4, 2007 on the BBC’s “The World” radio program.)

I came across an interesting post that got me thinking about the implications of science.

c. 1767-68

The above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) and is titled “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”. Here, Wright has captured a moment in history where enlightened civilization is beginning to understand how the natural universe works and how we can manipulate it to our own ends. Sir Isaac Newton (and others), who lived during the earlier part of the 18th century heralded in this new age of discovery and scientific research. Man’s relationship with nature was beginning to move away from that which could not be explained to that which will soon be understood and Wright’s painting gives us a glimpse into the birth of this new age.

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpA hundred years previously the experiment in this painting may have seemed like magic (or worse, devilry) so the artist has tempered this demonstration with two clever juxtapositions. First, and most obvious, is the young girl who is upset that the bird has become the focus of a scientific demonstration. What is interesting is that hers’ is the only face we do not see clearly, she hides her tears with her hands. Is the artist telling us that science outweighs emotional attachments and that they should be hidden away shamefully? Or is Wright demonstrating the devastating loss this poor girl must feel by not showing her face to force us to empathize with her grief and thus lead us to believe we should find science dispassionate and ugly?

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpNow observe the young boy at the far right of the painting. He is the only figure not part of the circle, your eye must seek him out at the edge of the composition. Notice that outside the window he is standing next to the only natural light source in the painting – the moon. For all of human history man could only see at night by the light of the moon; fear and evil lurked in the darkness of a moonless night. In the enlightened age, man had overcome this obstacle and his evenings could now be spent reading by candlelight or entertaining guests with a scientific demonstration.

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpThe boy is also one of only two figures actually looking at the viewer; the old man carrying out the experiment is the other. The old man holds the fate of the bird in his hands. He is taller than any other figure in the circle and he seems to have an expression similar to that of a professor giving an instruction we must all understand. The young boy, on the other hand, holds the draw string to close the curtain, thus attempting to block the moon (a metaphor for the superstitious past) and is looking at us expectantly as if he is waiting to see if we will take the side of science and progress (the old man), or that of passion (the young girl). A choice must be made by the viewer because the artist has only presented the problem.

At stake in the painting is but a child’s bird and though I too would be as upset as the girl if someone did the same experiment on my dog, science has carried out far more upsetting observations which one could say rivals that of the crusades.

 

When the scientists at Los Alamos were ready to test the first nuclear device they actually took bets on the chances that the splitting of the atom would set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire. Though we now know that such an event is impossible, at the time there were serious concerns about that very possibility and yet the experiment was carried out anyway. For the sake of winning World War II, the US government was willing to put the fate of every living creature on this planet at grave risk.

A shoe-fitting fluoroscope

From the 1930’s to 1950’s a device known as the shoe-fitting fluoroscope could be found in many shoe stores. Customers could determine their exact shoe size by looking into the device and actually see the bone structure of their feet. The device emitted x-rays directly into people’s feet at rem rates hundreds of times higher than that allowed for nuclear power plant workers for an entire year! At the time there were scientists who had an idea of how harmful radiation could be but when faced with the devastation in Japan and the horrible side effects caused by radiation, scientists were able to study these effects on the mass population.

The shadow was all that remained of this Japanese victimRadiation burn victimThe initial victims of the nuclear age probably never knew what happened because they were vaporized instantly in a light so bright and hot all that remained of them were their shadows burnt onto walls. Those who survived suffered a much crueler fate. “For no apparent reason” the survivors “health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth”. Doctors “gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died”.

Other experiments were being carried out during the middle of the 20th century that were just as cruel. In Germany a man named Eduard Pernkopf was working on his “Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy“, an atlas detailing human anatomy to a degree not seen since the similar works of Leonardo da Vinci. Though Pernkopf’s work was seen as a landmark for human biology, “speculation and indirect evidence have led to the conclusion that Pernkopf used the murdered bodies of men, women, and children from the Holocaust for his atlas of anatomy.” True, his work provided doctors with an invaluable tool with which to study the human body (and possibly help cure patients in the long run) but at what cost to those who died like lab rats?

There are countless other examples.

So is science, for lack of a better word, better than religion? Do the dispassionate observations of the scientist achieve a morality more acceptable than that of an Islamic suicide bomber? History is filled with rational, scientific minded persons who have lobbied for their discoveries to be utilized in an ethical manner. Einstein was asked to take part in the Manhattan Project and though he refused for moral reasons, he was intrigued by the research because it lay at the heart of his own interests in science. Einstein even believed America should harness the atom because he was afraid Germany might be doing so as well. Leonardo da Vinci made good money designing weapons of war for his own government. That list too goes on and on.

Religion, in theory anyway, attempts to see the universe through the lens of morality. Gods are invented to make sure people are being ethical even when nobody else is looking. Science, on the other hand is interested mainly in observation. The ethical dilemmas that arise because of those observations are dealt with later. Each individual scientist must consider his or her own morality against their ambitions. Ironically, it is often the scientist who is naive and allows people with strong religious tendencies to corrupt their work for war and murder but this is not always the case. The scientists at Los Alamos may have been more interested in discovering the mysteries of the atom then making bombs, but at the end of the day they still knew they were making bombs.

In closing, science is not free of the terrors that have been usually attributed to religion. Science may help us gain a keener insight into the actual workings of the universe, but science has done little to advance the human species enough to know how to use that information responsibly. Personally I do side with rational, scientific thinking but I also understand that knowledge without ethics and morality is dangerous and does not outweigh the possible benefits that may arise from that knowledge. Science is not without blame and scientists should hold science to the same critical standards that religious leaders should point at their own beliefs.

The 'eyeball of an A-bomb victim who got an atomic bomb cataract. There is opacity near the center of the eyeball.'

Money, it's a crime ...

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are interested in science and you want to learn more about it. Maybe you’re tired of creation vs evolution debates and you want to do the research yourself, or maybe you just want to become a more informed citizen. Whatever your reasons, you have a few options but none of them are all that appealing.

First, you can obtain most of your information online (as most people do). This includes subscribing to the various RSS feeds such as National Geographic, Scientific American, Space.com, and the PLoS journals. Now, aside from PLoS, what you can expect from these services is a wide assortment of scientific news written for the average lay person by a professional writer or journalist. Many of the topics will be media friendly because each site makes money off of online ad revenue and will not be very in depth. You will get a decent overview of the topic at hand but often you will notice that further reading is required.

The PLoS Journals are unique in that they are professional, peer reviewed journals that scientists pay to publish in. They are really no different than other professional journals and are often quite good. PLoS, hopefully, is the wave of the future, but we’ll get back to them a little later.

Your next option would be to subscribe to a print magazine. Again, much of what you can find online will also be found in the magazine, but sometimes the articles are slightly more in depth. Over the years I have subscribed to National Geographic, Scientific American, Astronomy and others. Lugging around boxes of 10 year old magazines (heavy, I might add), can be allot of trouble but at least you can hold them in your hand. Once more, the magazines make money from the advertising contained within so the articles are usually written for the lay person, though on occasion you might come across something with some meat in it (though not often). The real difference is that you have to pay $20-$40 a year for 12 issues of a popular print magazine.

The final option is to go right for the jugular and subscribe to a real peer review scientific journal. These are not called magazines because they are not condensed news and are written by the scientists who actually did the research (well, usually some poor grad student typed it up, but you get the idea). The language can range from well written (a scientist with some liberal arts influence) to downright cryptic (a scientist who expects to only write for other scientists in their field). In other words, very often you will need a degree in the subject you are reading about. The largest hurdle to a peer-reviewed journal is the price. A subscription to Science or Nature is double that of Scientific American, but you do get 52 issues per year. Other journals are much more expensive – in some cases costing thousands of dollars annually. I’ve compiled a list below of some of the more popular and well regarded journals:

General Science : Science : $99.00 (weekly, online only)

Astronomy : The Astrophysical Journal : $1525.00 (weekly, online only)

Chemistry : Journal of the American Chemical Society : $3589.00 (weekly)

Physics : Physical Review : $40.00 (monthly)

Biology : Cell : $179.00 (bi-monthly, 26 issues)

Medicine : New England Journal of Medicine : $99.00 (weekly, online only)

Total Annual Subscription Rates : $5531.00 (does not include shipping rates or ISP fees)

For a real, in depth journey into the bowels of scientific research, you can expect to pay nearly $6000 annually to stay up to date on the latest, greatest discoveries (a few of which may even remain relevant in the face of newer research for a year or two).

Ouch!

So, what is the concerned, scientifically minded citizen to do? Personally, I get allot of my information off of the web and through books at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. Trouble is, that even though I have a good mind for science and I can usually weed out the bollocks from the real stuff, it’s hard to really know if what I’m getting is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unfettered, un-hyped, un-sensationalized truth.

About 100 years ago (or more), it would have been possible for one person to stay atop and even contribute somewhat to the scientific process. One person working alone in his basement could perform experiments, make observations and create new technology that might better the world in some way. Back then, science was seen as a new frontier and a ways with which humanity could finally pull itself from the medieval ooze of religious darkness into the great enlightenment of a bright and useful future. Everyone, from old ladies to young people were excited about the possibilities of progress and science because it seemed that finally the mysteries of the universe were at our fingertips and all we had to do was muster the courage and imagination to forge ahead with our grand ideas.

Today, however, that is simply not the case. While it may be possible for the lay person to make a breakthrough (such as an asteroid hunter making an astronomical discovery), the chances of you or I contributing in any significant (or even insignificant way) to the scientific process is pretty much nil. The cost is simply too high. Even a decent telescope such as a 10″ Meade reflector (though I prefer a good refractor because I’m old-school and I appreciate quality optics) will set you back thousands of dollars.

This high cost of science is a major contributing factor to the decline of the popular scientific process and it’s no wonder that science and scientists are not held in any high regard by a major portion of the American population. People are skeptical of science because it’s practically impossible for the average Joe or Jane to independently verify the results or even comprehend the findings in print format. What we are left with is relying on paid professional journalists to “dumb down” the science in such a way that it’s readable but also very often misleading. These journalists may only focus on one aspect of a discovery and totally disregard the other research solely because it is “boring” and won’t sell magazine subscriptions. To compound the frustration, when these journalists “get it wrong” people become even more skeptical. I’m sure most of you can easily count how many times you’ve read a retraction or addendum to a major discovery.

Science, then, has become such a foreign culture to our lives (even though we so heavily rely on it), that we just don’t think about it anymore. Many people not only don’t think about, they outright don’t trust or believe it. Think about how many people believe global warming is a hoax, or that the moon landing was faked, or that evolution is a lie. Now imagine if the scientific process was more accessible to the average person. Do you think we would still have this mistrust of science in general?

PLoS Online Scientific JournalsI spoke earlier about the PLoS journals and I want to point to them as a reason for hope. PLoS is freely available to the general public, and though the language can be very daunting in each article, it is not impossible for a fairly intelligent person to make sense of what they are reading about, even if some of the details are a bit fuzzy. My hope is that in the future, we will see more of this type of publication so that more people can gain access to a very important part of the personal education.

However, scientists themselves must also be responsible for what they publish. Though it would be impossible to write a full paper dealing with the quantum fluctuations of the atomic structure of the nitrogen atom in a superheated state without relying on some “thick” language, it should not be written in such a way that someone with a good mind can’t read it either. The other main reason why science is not trusted anymore is because nobody knows what the hell scientists are talking about. Yet scientists are really just teachers, right? They explore the unknowns of the universe and report their findings, yet when they (or their grad students) type up the paper, they too often forget that they need to be writing in a style that is assessable to more than just the 5 other people in their field.

Science has a responsibility to the people who will ultimately benefit from the process – you and I. Though I would never require scientists to “dumb down” their findings for the average citizen because it is also our responsibility to raise our own intelligence as well, it should never the less be a requirement that scientists never forget why they are doing the research in the first place. Science must be held accountable to not only present their findings in a clearer and more concise manner, but they should also explore every possible alternative to publish those findings so that the majority of people have reasonable access to them. $6000 a year for journal subscriptions just is not going to cut it anymore.

Scientific journals need to stop stealing the science away from the average citizen because they have been a major reason why people have wandered off to study Intelligent Design and Young Earth theories. I mean, think about it, do you see this fake research being sold to Christians for $1000 annual subscription rates? Of course not because if that were the case, nobody would read that crap either. Yet the people who wish to dabble in falsehoods and fake science, understand economics much better than the real scientists do. They know that if they keep the cost down, they can reach the brains of millions more people and influence their thinking.

I’m not saying science should be free, but science can no longer be practiced for such a high cost because if it does, we will only see even more people put their faith in the cheaper sciences (psychics, faith healers, creationists and the rest of the bull). I do understand that science is an expensive field (particle accelerators don’t exactly grow on trees, you know), but if more average people were excited about science, they would be more willing to allow their tax dollars to go fund such expensive programs.

It is high time we put the scientific process back in the public eye because the days of white lab coated, goggle wearing, funding greedy, secretive scientists will only lead to another demise in enlightened civilization. Do we really want to live in a future where prayer replaces medicine, where astrology predicts when to plant the crops and where alchemists attempt to create the next alloy for a space craft?