10/20/13

Infestations, Microbes & Parasites


Micrococcus (Actinobacteria)Staphylococci, Corynebacteria, Actinobacteria, Clostridiales, and Bacilli. They’re the most common, but they’re not the only ones. Bacteria. Microbes. Yes, even parasites.  Living in your belly button. And on your skin. Your hair. But the belly button flora and fauna fascinate me the most.*

We’ve known ever since the microscope was invented that we had a population of hitchhikers living on our skin, scalp – and even inside us. The great Antony van Leeuwenhoek is known as the “father of microbiology” for his explorations through his fledgling, primitive microscope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But we are still learning about the biodiversity we all have.**

There was a recent story in the Atlantic that researchers had found, of 2,368 species of bacteria living in our navels recorded so far, 1,458 new species.

New as in previously unknown until some scientist stuck a Q-tip into his or her belly button and examined the results. Which is what they are still doing, exploring this brave new frontier in microbiology. It must have been one of those eureka moments.

Gawd, dontcha love science? To bold go where no Q-tip has gone before…

The Atlantic story opens:

Instead of taking your fingerprint, maybe police should swab our belly buttons with Q-tips. No, that’s ridiculous, actually. But the idea illustrates a point made by a group of North Carolina-based researchers in their new Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB) project. Last month, the group published results of their first of many experiments, in which they swabbed 60 belly buttons and identified a total of 2,368 species of bacteria. People’s individual profiles were snowflake-ily, bacterially unique.

Most of the microbes that live on our skin are harmless, and many are actually beneficial: they protect us from more virulent invaders. What’s remarkable is the sheer number and variety of them.***

The scientists at Your Wildlife wrote that among all those species, there are some common forms found in most navels:

Turns out, belly buttons are a jungle of microbial biodiversity: we detected over 2300 species! And get this, only eight of those 2300 species– we call them oligarchs – were quite frequent and abundant, present in more than 70% of the individuals we sampled.

Oligarchs. Make me think of the Politburo. Or Putin’s new Russian clique. What role do these bacterial oligarchs play in their micro-environment?

We’re an entire ecosystem, Scientific American tells us:

Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defense.

By the way, you can contribute to this ongoing research; check the notes at yourwildlife.org about how to help. The belly button experiment is over, as researchers assess their samples, but they are moving on to armpits, a whole new territory.

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10/16/13

From 7 to 29. Should I be worried? Or just keep monitoring?


Peaksaver PlusSeven cents per hour. That’s what the energy monitor was showing me a moment before I plugged in the kettle. Then it jumped to 29 cents. Wow! And this is mid-peak time, too, my new energy monitor warns. Should I be worried?

Better cut back on the tea if I want to conserve energy.

It did the same last night when we turned on the microwave at dinner time, but that was off-peak. Still, that’s pretty high, compared to seven cents. Those two devices seem to be the biggest energy hogs we have.

I need to do some calculating, however, to figure out real costs. What does five minutes’ worth of microwave heating translate to in terms of KWH used, and costs? I need a new app…

Energy monitorI’m reading the real-time display on my new energy monitoring toy tool and it’s telling me a lot about how I use electricity. It gives me that geeky satisfaction of watching data flow, just having it in front of me.

I got it when I signed up for the Peaksaver Plus program through Collus/Powerstream. Collingwood residents would have received a notice about the program in their last utility bill. If not, you can read about it here.*

The program (for homes with central air only, it seems), offers a free digital, touch-screen thermostat (Peaksaver Plus) and the wireless In-Home Energy Display. Free. For both. As in no charge, no additional billing, no hidden costs.

The stick behind this magnanimous carrot is simple: to reduce energy usage. The thermostat is connected wirelessly to the utility’s computers. If the power demand on the grid looks like it’s going to exceed capacity and cause a brownout, the utility can raise the temperature of your air conditioning by two degrees for 15 minutes to lighten the load. Does it all by itself.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me. After all, we don’t use the A/C a lot, and even when we do, the effect is a small change for a short time.

It won’t affect the winter heat (which is gas), so why not? Everyone has to do their part for our environment.

We’ve been using programmable digital thermostats for a couple of decades now. They really make a difference to your gas bill. Not least of all because, since it’s programmed, you never forget to turn the thermostat down when you leave the house. Or when you go to bed at night. Plus they are more accurate than the old manual, analog system. You get 68 degrees when you ask for it, not 70 or 72.Besides, the digital thermosat is cool, very programmable, and touch-screen. Not quite an iPad, but nonetheless, it’s pretty neat. And it runs off power from the furnace – not on batteries like the previous one (which always seemed to go dead on the coldest nights of the year…).

Our gas bill dropped significantly when we installed one.

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10/15/13

We are Stardust… and Viral Genes


SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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10/14/13

Why Creationists Don’t Win the Nobel Prize


Looking at the list of Nobel prizes awarded in 2013 for science, we see three prestigious entries:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
François Englert and Peter W. Higgs

“For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel

“For the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof

“For their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”

Impressive stuff. If you want more detail on why these three were chosen, read this National Geographic article.

Dinosaur flood jokeHmm. No ‘creation science”  in that list. In fact, not a single “creation scientist” was even nominated.

Not that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been without its controversies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that showed a single creationist nominated for the award. Something along the line of “For proving dinosaurs and humans shared the planet before an angry, vengeful deity wiped out everything living including humans which it created only a few years earlier, except a pair each of  those creatures that could comfortably fit in a large boat, but on which dinosaurs and all but a single family of humans were not invited to board.”*

Probably because creationism isn’t science, not even when you try to gussy it up by labelling it “creation science.” It’s a political viewpoint based on a literalist take on Biblical mythology.”Creation science” is an oxymoron.**

You’d think if they had God (their particular god, not everyone’s god, mind you, and not every Christian’s god…) on their side, that God would belly up to the award committee bar and make sure at least one creationist won the damn prize. Not some folks doing experiments with particles no one can even see and that 99.9% of us don’t really understand.

But nope, creationists get shut out again.

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10/13/13

Hijack the Starship


Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.


The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky -
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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10/10/13

Why do so few Canadians get a flu shot?


VaccinationThat’s the headline for a recent Toronto Star story. It suggests that as few as one third of Canadians get a flu vaccine, and in some place the number may be as low as 20 percent.

This despite Ontario having the world’s first universal free flu shot program, introduced in 2000. The 2013-14 vaccine is on its way to doctors’ offices now. It’s also available at pharmacists’ offices. It’s free, easily accessible, it prevents and helps stop the spread of many kinds of influenza, it can save the life of anyone at risk – so why don’t people get one?

Superstition and pseudoscience. Gullible people turn to untrained, celebrity wingnuts in the anti-vaccine movement – like Jenny McCarthy – for medical advice rather than to doctors, health care professionals and pharmacists. They turn to dangerous cranks and pseudo-science wingnuts like homeopaths, “faith healers,” astrologers and psychics instead of doctors.*

Many of these people deliberately and purposefully distort or misrepresent the facts about vaccines, disease, scientific research and health. Others are simply ignorant of the facts and accept what others say, without bothering to verify it through independent sources or published research.**

I know, you’re probably thinking like I was when I read this story, “are people this crazy?” And the answer, it seems, is yes.

McCarthy’s anti-vaccine preaching was called “belligerent ignorance” by the Toronto Star earlier this year, noting,

From McCarthy’s point of view, it’s a major victory in her battle to get her message out: vaccines are bad and autism can be cured, if you just ignore the scientists and sawbones who insist on pesky factual data.
It’s David vs. Goliath, Warrior Mom vs. Stuffed Shirt Medical Establishment, New Age Rebel vs. The Man.
Ah, but there’s another side: those who value facts over opinions and view McCarthy as a fear mongering dimwit whose sanctimonious crusade, however well-intentioned, threatens to turn the clock back on medical science.
Given that measles and whooping cough have already staged a comeback as parents panic and vaccination rates drop, it’s also potentially dangerous.
To be clear, there is no medical evidence to support her assertion — based on a discredited study — that vaccines cause autism, no evidence that the alternative treatments she promotes will have any positive effect on this ballooning developmental disorder and no evidence that her own son was, as she insists, “cured” of autism (the diagnosis has been disputed by experts).

The LA Times concluded the same about McCarthy:

She also peddles the discredited, poisonous claims that the way we vaccinate our children against the diseases that were once regular killers of children places our young ones at greater risk of developing autism — the kind of conspiracy theorizing that will draw only more eyeballs.

And the New Yorker wrote of McCarthy:

McCarthy has spent much of the past ten years campaigning against vaccines—which, it must be said, are the most effective instruments of public health in human history, aside from clean water. That does not mean that vaccines carry no risk: nothing is entirely without risk, and there is a small but measurable possibility that any vaccine can cause a serious adverse reaction. Still, the benefits for society so powerfully outweigh the risks that suggesting otherwise is irresponsible at best. It spreads fear and incites the type of ignorance that makes people sick. That is exactly what McCarthy has been doing. By preaching her message of scientific illiteracy from one end of this country to the other, she has helped make it possible for people to turn away from rational thought. And that is deadly.

And The Nation wrote,

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.

In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”

Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

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