Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Probably my favorite science news story of 2013...

Jack Andraka, a 15 year old kid from outside Baltimore, MD had a family friend die of pancreatic cancer, which raised his awareness to the fact that a good early detection system for pancreatic cancer is lacking.  Coming up with an idea for a cheap diagnostic test that uses carbon nanotubes and antibodies against a protein called mesothelin, he pitches it to a bunch of scientists at Johns Hopkins University, gets one to give him a job working in the lab, and, with lots of hard work and dedication, he develops a working prototype that he has tested on samples from mouse models of pancreatic cancer, and even on some human blood samples.  You can read the story over at The Scientist.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

If the stress doesn't kill you, believing that it can kill you just might

People's perception of the effect of stress on their health is linked to risk of heart attacks
This is a great example of the nocebo effect, which is the evil cousin of the placebo effect.  As we all know, a placebo effect is when you experience a presumed benefit from an inert material simply because you don't know it is inert, but instead think it to be an active compound... the old "sugar pill" in the drug trial.  But what happens if you believe the sugar pill is actually something that is bad for you?  As it turns out, things that have no effect could harm you if you believe they are harmful, or things that are only a little harmful could be made worse by your perception, as is the case here.  So don't stress about the stress... you're only going to make it worse.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Geek Gift Guide: Super Magnetic Thinking Putty

A few days ago, I posted a non-Newtonian sand as a great gift idea for the geek(s) in your life this holiday season.  Well, today, I pose the question, what's better than a silly putty based toy that disobeys the rules of a Newtonian fluid?  Answer: one that disobeys the normal rules of fluidity while simultaneously obeying the rules of magnetism.  Thus, Super Magnetic Thinking Putty.  Yup, that's right, strongly magnetic silly putty!  I don't know if I can provide a better description than that, so if you still need a last minute gift or stocking stuffer, check it out...

Monday, December 16, 2013

The geek gift guide, second day of Christmas: Experiments on babies

Okay, this one is a little specific, but if you happen to need a gift for a science geek who's expecting or recently had a kid, I highly recommend Experimenting With Babies by Shaun Gallagher. The book provides all sorts of examples of activities you can do to test things like the Babinsky reflex, which basically involves tickling the sole of the foot and watching whether the toes curl up or down. The answer might give you some insight into how long it can take for your baby's nervous system to develop and reach certain milestones. Overall, the book provides a fun way to discover some interesting and surprisingly useful things about babies that scientific research has uncovered. So, like I said, a bit of a niche gift, but definitely worth checking out... if not for Christmas, then perhaps your next baby shower.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Geek Gift Guide: Non-Newtonian Sand

If you are looking for gifts for the geek in your life, look no further.  Over the next several days, I will post a handful of items that I, in my extreme nerdiness, deem to be some of this year's great geek gifts.  For this first day of Christmas, may I recommend SAND by Brookstone (or for the Europeans in the crowd, Kinetic Sand by Waba Fun).  These products are 98% sand and 2% polymer, resulting in a non-Newtonian sand substance... if that's not total geek fun, I don't know what is.  You can see from the YouTube vid posted by Waba Fun (below), that their product can behave like a doughy solid at times, but also like a grainy, almost liquidy pile of sand that slips through your fingers.  It all depends on how the substance is being used, just like some other more well known non-Newtonian substances, like ketchup in a bottle (stuck, solid-like in the bottle until you stick the butter knife in there to get it out, then all of a sudden it pours out like Niagara).  Or like cornstarch mixed with water, bouncing on a sub-woofer (runny liquid when at rest, but congealed semi-solid when smacked by the bass).  Or, like one of my favorite non-Newtonian solids: Silly Putty (pull it apart fast and it snaps apart like a karate master's board, pull it apart slow, and it's like that mozzarella on the first slice of pizza that, no matter how long it gets, still won't break).  In fact, these sand products are actually made using the same polymer that goes into silly putty (polydimethylsiloxane), which helps the sand to never dry out, and helps it clump together so clean-up is a breeze.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 13, 2013

An artificial sweetener in research news NOT for causing cancer,

But instead may actually help to treat Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases... read more

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Impact schmimpact. Now give me some money.

Apparently NIH is now asking grant applicants to include a segment about the impact their proposed project will have. The problems with this are myriad. First, this means that for this section of the grant the most points will be awarded to... the best bull-shitter. That's right: "your project will lead to a cure for cancer while also preventing Alzheimer's AND save the polar bears?!? Well here you go! Are you sure we can't give you more money?"  Please! Like anyone could have predicted that studying fluorescent and luminescent proteins in jellyfish and fireflies would have led to pretty much ALL the major medical breakthroughs and drug discoveries of the last few decades. I'm pretty sure their discoverers weren't thinking about it at the time. They were probably just thinking " hey, that animal glows in the dark! That's pretty cool! How does that work?" Bam! Nobel prizes and major biomedical breakthroughs all around! Congrats everybody. But don't take my overly sarcastic word for it. Check out this editorial in the latest issue of science for a much more eloquent breakdown of this unfortunate trend in science policy:

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Backlog Data Dump...

So, I may not have as much time to write here as I used to, but I still collect various science stories from the internet that I find interesting and hope to blog about, but then they just sit in my bookmarks, which is becoming longer than a Sumo wrestler's grocery list, so here are some links to a few of the things that caught my attention:

"Barking up the wrong tree" has a fun list of a bunch of cliches and sayings with links to research on whether or not they could be true, so click here if you want to know whether or not nice guys finish last, if you can tell a lot about a man from his handshake, and if blondes have more fun.

Over at EurekAlert is a blurb about a Banaca-like oral spray that could help cut down on your susceptibility to airborne flu virus... the secret ingredient (cetylpyridinium chloride) is also a main ingredient in some non-burning mouthwashes, so using the right mouthwash frequently might also help to cut down on your flu susceptibility (though that has yet to be tested).

Apparently the guys over at Freakonomics are also fans of the band Bullets for My Valentine becaue they posted this podcast about guns in America just this past Valentine's Day.  Despite the interesting timing of the piece, no word yet as to whether Cupid has traded in his bow and arrow for a Mac-10.

And over at The Scientist is a story about how the males of a certain species of sea slug can actually detach their penises after mating (likely to prevent other potential suitors from getting in there and competing with their sperm), and then amazingly they can grow a new penis the next day.  I believe some of the credit for the discovery should go to early 90's rockers King Missile who first postulated the possibility of such a phenomenon in their song "Detachable Penis"

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Could just thinking about science make you act morally?

PZ Myers has a nice little blurb about a study that suggests priming one's mind with scientific terms (e.g. logical, hypothesis, science, theory, etc.) results in more moral actions when the subjects are subsequently asked to be charitable (share money) or make moral judgments.  Of course, the study, like many of its kind has certain drawbacks, as Myers points out:

"Another important caveat is that it’s a typical psychology study, using a small pool of undergraduates at the University of California Santa Barbara, so they’re actually tapping into very narrow cultural norms. A group of students who were familiar with the Tuskegee syphilis study, to name just one exception, might respond to priming with science words very differently, while people from a less science-dependent culture might find the exercise meaningless."

He goes on to conclude that the important thing is that if some thing becomes widely accepted in a culture as being related to positive moral action, then just reflecting on that thing (be it religion, or science, or Bill or Melinda Gates) will make us more likely to adhere to the moral norms associated with it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Girls are better at science than boys...

At least in some countries... not this one, of course, but then maybe that will change as our culture evolves and the traditional gender roles dissolve.  See the article here.