Tag Archives: science

Gut instincts

Ars TechnicaA story on Science Daily says research suggests our so-called “free will” may be less free than we ever imagined. We may, instead, be meat puppets ruled by the desires and cravings of the smallest symbiotes we carry: our gut bacteria.

The story opens:

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity… researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way… the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses.

Actually this is not really surprising. It has long been known that human evolution has been affected by both viral and bacterial presence, as well as having our own DNA encoded with bits from them. And recently it was discovered bacteria can encode DNA from other animals – even dead ones – into their own.

The discovery of the recombinant DNA process should have alerted everyone to the wider possibility that there may be biological analogues already. After all, it only makes sense that in any symbiotic relationship, there must be some way for all parties to communicate with each other for mutual survival. The gut is a competitive environment with numerous species, so they also need a mechanism for cooperation and communication in ways that also help keep the host alive.

Most life on the planet has some form of symbiotic relationship and many are mutually beneficial like that with our gut flora, although there are also parasitic relationships as well.

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The First Dark Age

End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

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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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