Tag Archives: science

Chasing storms on Saturn

There’s a beautiful video about the Cassini mission and its images of the storms on Saturn at the New York Times website. It’s amazing to see what images and information science has given us about a planet 886 billion miles (1.4 billion kms) away and its odd collection of rings and 60 moons.

Saturn’s storms

Saturn takes 30 years to orbit the Sun and in January, 2014, began its first spring in 15 years. Until then, the northern hemisphere was shrouded in darkness and the rings tilted away from us. Now the north pole is in sunlight and the magnificent, monstrously large, hexagonal storm at its centre is clearly visible. The video makes it quite an entertaining and awe-inspiring sight.

The hexagonal shape, while unusual, is natural and has been replicated in the laboratory. It is not, as some wingnut conspiracy theorists suggest, a supernatural event, anything to do with aliens or the gates of hell (nor, as uber wingnut David Icke has suggested, is Saturn a giant, artificial broadcasting device… ).

Cassini will be travelling right over the north pole in 2016 in its final – and perhaps most spectacular – mission, for a close-up view of the storm. You can read more about the weird hexagonal storm on the JPL website. The eye of the storm alone in 1,240 miles across (2,000 kms) and the dorm itself is estimated at 60 miles (100kms) deep.

Cassini took seven years to reach Saturn, but that’s a short time compared to New Horizons, which will reach Pluto next July, after a voyage of nine years.

In related news, the spacecraft Rosetta arrived at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last week, the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet. The images sent back so far have been breathtaking. Rosetta is in orbit 62 miles (100 kms) from the comet, but will soon lower to 31 miles (50kms) to prepare for a landing. Rosetta took ten years to reach its target.

All of this is truly exciting, inspirational stuff, isn’t it? Science never ceases to amaze and astound me.

Another fad bites the dust

Bread!The gluten-free fad took another major hit to its already weakened credibility this week when researchers who had first diagnosed “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” found out that, oops, they were wrong. It doesn’t exist.

A story in Business Insider tells the tale.

In one of the best examples of science working, a researcher who provided key evidence of (non-celiac disease) gluten sensitivity recently published follow-up papers that show the opposite…It seems to be a “nocebo” effect — the self-diagnosed gluten sensitive patients expected to feel worse on the study diets, so they did. They were also likely more attentive to their intestinal distress, since they had to monitor it for the study.

So as the article ends, “…go ahead and smell your bread and eat it too. Science. It works.” Love that term “nocebo…”

the bottom line: bread, and gluten: okay to eat. The wheat-belly, gluten-free, bread-is-the-devil diet fad? Snake oil.

I hope to see the end of the anti-gluten pseudoscience fad very, very soon. And I can get back to baking bread without the nonsense of fads and faux science interfering with my enjoyment.

Is silver safe as a medicine?

Effects of colloidal silverThe short answer to that headline question – based on everything I’ve read of late – is no. It’s not that silver has no medical uses – one form has been used in dressings and bandages as an antiseptic (not, as is sometimes claimed, an antibiotic). Silver nitrate is sometimes used to treat warts and corns.

However, the benefits and long-term risks of silver in any form – especially an ingested form – have been not been fully researched.

It’s not that colloidal silver – an entirely different product from topical silver – may not have health-related benefits. It’s just that we don’t really know because there is no solid, peer-reviewed research to back up any of the claims. And those claims make it nothing short of miraculous. Quackwatch lists AIDS, chronic fatigue, herpes, TB, syphilis, lupus, malaria, plague, acne, impetigo, and Lyme disease among the diseases sellers claim their colloidal silver will cure. Others include “Common cold, stomach ulcers, acne, burns, shingles, arthritis, strep, tuberculosis,” fungus, bacteria, polio and cancer.

A 2013 study found colloidal silver (silver ions) improved the efficiency of antibiotics. But the study’s authors warned that this was just a preliminary effort:

Before adding silver to antibiotics, “we’ll have to address the toxicity very carefully”, says Fowler. Ingesting too much silver can also cause argyria, a condition in which the skin turns a blue-grey colour — and the effect is permanent.

Collins says that he and his colleagues saw good results in mice using non-toxic amounts of silver. But, he adds, there are ways to reduce the risk even further. “We’re also encouraging people to look at what features of silver caused the helpful effects, so they can look for non-toxic versions,” he says,

Silver is used in water purification: “The World Health Organization includes silver in a colloidal state produced by electrolysis of silver electrodes in water, and colloidal silver in water filters as two of a number of water disinfection methods specified to provide safe drinking water in developing countries.” That doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink the stuff from a bottle.

Rosemary JacobsArgyria is an irreversible effect that comes from ingesting too much silver. It turns your skin cyanotic: blue-ish; from the bright blue face at the top of this post to the slate-grey face of Rosemary Jacobs shown here. Jacobs was given colloidal silver by her doctors and ended up with her discoloured skin. her story is tragic but illustrative – and a lot more real than the anonymous “testimonials” on many of the sellers’ sites.

My caution is mostly because of the charlatans in the alternative-health industry and how they promote their products.

Without considerable effort and research on the part of the consumer, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to determine which product is actually what it claims and is safe. My spidey-sense warns me that if it’s so hard to be sure, it’s best to avoid the product entirely.

Far, far too many of the sites that claim research or proof of colloidal silver’s efficacy as a cure point back to one another site that promotes colloidal silver – usually companies or individuals selling related products. Talk about a conflict of interest! Their “testimonials” are often unsubstantiated and anonymous. As Science-Based Medicine notes;

What perpetuates the use of colloidal silver are testimonials, like the nurse who suggested silver to prevent H1N1. The interwebs are filled with unsubstantiated testimonials, for common infections and unusual infections, with one gentleman crediting colloidal silver, rather than the vancomycin and gentamyin, for the cure of his subdural empyema (pus between the brain and skull).

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Confused Science

Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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How many chords?

Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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Lost Shakespeare play found?

BBCCardenio. Written by William Shakespeare. Based on an episode in Miguel Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote. The novel was translated from Spanish into English in 1612.

The play was known once, but lost. Performed by the King’s Men in 1613, the same year Shakespeare penned Henry VIII, or All is True and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Performed before June 29th, the day the Globe theatre burned down during a performance of Henry VIII.

Cardenio was entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1653 as a collaboration by playwrights Fletcher and Shakespeare. The Guardian explains:

In 1653 the leading English publisher of plays and poetry, Humphrey Moseley, registered his copyright in a list of 42 plays. Somewhere mid-list is “The History of Cardenio, by Mr Fletcher & Shakespeare”. Shakespeare had yet to become English literature’s biggest cash cow, and Moseley never published that play (or many others that he registered). Moseley’s title-phrase, The History of Cardenio, appears verbatim in the first English translation of Part One of Don Quixote, published in 1612. Since the phrase appears nowhere else in English, the play that Moseley registered must, logically speaking, have dramatised the Cardenio episodes from Cervantes’s novel. It’s a plausible attribution to Fletcher and Shakespeare.

But since then, it has been lost. Sort of. Contenders have surfaced, of course. Lost Shakespeare manuscripts have been a sort of cottage industry since the early 18th century.

The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, a 1611 play, was identified as being by Shakespeare by a handwriting expert in 1990, but it’s a contested attribution. Most scholars say it was written by Thomas Middleton. Some argue that Shakespeare, if he were involved, was a minor collaborator. Most just shrug it off.

Another play – Double Falsehood – was allegedly an early 18th-century rewrite of Shakespeare’s original by lawyer and playwright, Lewis Theobald (a lot of his plays got that treatment in the 18th century). Theobald claimed to have three originals in his possession when he “refined” the play for contemporary audience.

From The Guardian again:

In December 1727 the Drury Lane theatre performed a play based on the Cardenio episodes in Don Quixote, and based in particular on the 1612 translation. It was called Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers, and the edition printed that month declared it was “written originally by W Shakespeare; and now revised and adapted to the stage by Mr Theobald”. Lewis Theobald was a minor playwright, minor poet and the world’s first Shakespeare scholar.

Again, highly disputed, and considered by some as a fake written to ride on the coattails of the growing Bardolatry of the age. Here’s a part of the story:

…Theobald’s reputation was not pristine. In 1716 he had been accused of plagiarism by a watchmaker named Henry Meysteyer, who had given Theobald an early draft of a play, looking for advice. After four months of work rewriting the play, Theobald considered it to be entirely his own work. The practice of adapting old plays and claiming sole credit for the result was not unusual at the time, though other playwrights sensibly chose dead dramatists to steal from.
Theobald’s adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play, which he called Double Falsehood, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 13, 1727. To ensure its success, Theobald persuaded the age’s great actor, Barton Booth, then in failing health, to come out of retirement to play the lead. It was Booth’s last role before his health was permanently ruined, and Theobald was blamed for hastening Booth’s death. But it worked: the play was a huge success.
Theobald published his adaptation the next year, with a preface in which he explained the provenance of one of his three manuscripts:

one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Handwriting of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and, as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the Possession of the celebrated Mr. Betterton, and by Him design’d to have been usher’d into the World… There is a Tradition (which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies) that this Play was given by our Author, as a Present of Value, to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it, in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage.

For the past two centuries Theobald’s play, along with the provenance he gave it, has largely been considered a hoax. Was it a coincidence, then, that Theobald picked the same plot as a lost Shakespeare play for a clever attempt at forgery, or could it be possible that a manuscript of Cardenio lies behind Double Falsehood?…
Theobald’s three Cardenio manuscripts disappeared. They were rumored to be held by the Covent Garden Theatre—perhaps purchased for the revival of Double Falsehood by David Garrick in 1770—but that theater burned down in 1808. Or they might have been purchased from Theobald’s estate sale by the critic William Warburton, who left a pile of manuscripts sitting on his kitchen table. His cook assumed they were garbage and used the paper to line pie tins. But Theobald’s adaptation went through three editions in quick order, and many copies of Double Falsehood have survived to the present day.

Now there are claims another manuscript has been found, a printed version of the original, hidden among the books in a family heirloom. As the story says:

The team of experts from the auction house Christie’s, have confirmed this morning that a 16th century book found recently in the personnal collection of a recently deceased English Lord, is indeed an authentic printed version of William Shakespeare’s lost play, The History of Cardenio.

The book was discovered last year by employees proceeding to a successorale inventory, after the death of the Sir Humphrey McElroy, a rich baron and antiques collector from Brighton. It was at first treated as a possible fake, but all the analysis that were realized since have suggested otherwise. The authenticity of both the ink and the paper have now been confirmed, and it seems it is indeed, a late 16th print.

Stranger things have happened. But is it likely? So far I can’t find another confirmation that the story is factual, or indeed any more substantive information about the manuscript.

More to follow as the story gets more play. So to speak…

What do we know about Bell’s Palsy?

Bell's PalsyBell’s Palsy is one of those rare ailments, and one that annoys more than threatens, but can be difficult and socially awkward for sufferers. It’s also one that still baffles researchers as to its cause. And also for an effective treatment.

According to facialpalsy.org,

The name ‘Bell’s palsy’ comes from 19th-century Scottish anatomist and surgeon Sir Charles Bell, who discovered that severing the seventh cranial (or facial) nerve causes facial paralysis.

It has no vaccine, no known method for prevention, and the treatment is still uncertain.

Wikipedia tells us:

Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve VII (the facial nerve) causing an inability to control facial muscles on the affected side… Bell’s palsy is the most common acute mononeuropathy (disease involving only one nerve) and is the most common cause of acute facial nerve paralysis (>80%)… The hallmark of this condition is a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight.

It also says:

It is thought that an inflammatory condition leads to swelling of the facial nerve. The nerve travels through the skull in a narrow bone canal beneath the ear. Nerve swelling and compression in the narrow bone canal are thought to lead to nerve inhibition, damage or death…
Some viruses are thought to establish a persistent (or latent) infection without symptoms… Reactivation of an existing (dormant) viral infection has been suggested as a cause of acute Bell’s palsy. Studies suggest that this new activation could be preceded by trauma, environmental factors, and metabolic or emotional disorders, thus suggesting that a host of different conditions may trigger reactivation.

Which, in essence, doesn’t tell us a lot about the actual cause or why it recurs; mostly it remains guesswork. Bell’s Palsy affects about 20 people per 100,000 population, and the incidence increases with age and with certain medical conditions.

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