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What I Love About Planet Earth

February 4th, 2011 No comments

This creature…

Researchers have sequenced the genome of the common water flea, Daphnia, shown in this false-color micrograph. About 35 percent of the genes are brand new to science.

Jan Michels/Christian-Albrechts-Universitat zu KielResearchers have sequenced the genome of the common water flea, Daphnia, shown in this false-color micrograph. About 35 percent of the genes are brand new to science.

About 35 percent of the genes are brand new to science?? (The creature has — ulp! — far more genes that we do.)

And the scamp — no larger than a grain of rice, but tastier — can do incredible things: create a suit of armor to ward off attackers, send hemoglobin coursing through its body when under stress, and of course that great trick: parthenogenesis.

Isn’t it only a matter of time before some high school student is bitten by a radioactive daphnia?

Side Effects

February 1st, 2011 No comments
Chemical structure of requip

• Molecular formula of requip is C16H24N2O

• Chemical IUPAC Name is 4-(2-dipropylaminoethyl)-1,3-dihydroindol-2-one
• Molecular weight is 260.375 g/mol
Requip available : 0.25mg tablets, 0.5mg tablets, 1mg tablets, 2mg tablets, 3mg tablets, 4mg tablets and 5mg tablets.

Here‘s a report about a French man — married, with children — who experienced bizarre side effects from use of Requip, a Parkinson’s medication manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. According to the story:

Didier Jambart, a married father-of-two who says he has attempted suicide three times, claims he became addicted to Internet gambling, losing the family’s savings and stealing to feed his habit.

He also became a compulsive gay sex addict and began exposing himself on the Internet and cross-dressing. His risky sexual encounters led to him being raped, his lawyers said.

The behaviour stopped when he stopped taking the drugs in 2005 but by then he had been demoted in his defence ministry job and was suffering from psychological trauma resulting from his addictions, his lawyers said.

The plaintiff is seeking a total of 450,000 euros ($610,000) in damages from Glaxo, which he accuses of selling a “defective” drug, and from his neurologist for having failed to properly inform him about the drug.

The story is given some credibility by Glaxo’s decision to add compulsive sex and gambling urges to the list of possible (though rare) side effects from Requip, although it did so only after Jambart had stopped taking the drug.

There are some fascinating pharmaco-neurological issues here. Are we always repressing such urges (even if not consciously), so that the drug simply removes the barriers to this destructive behavior? Or is the drug doing activating something that lies dormant? I’m not even sure that these two possibilities aren’t really the same thing, just expressed differently.

It’s also interesting that the man — who describes himself as straight — became a high-risk, cross-dressing gay man under the influence of Requip. I’m guessing that most of those who have sexual urges while taking Requip act in conformance with their public sexual orientation (although in far different behaviors). So perhaps Requip is a sort of “sexual orientation truth serum.” But who knows? Here’s a case I would love to see litigated, because the crucible of the courtroom can bring forth emerging science (sometimes, unfortunately, in an insufficiently rigorous way). And I await the peer-reviewed studies.

Categories: product liability, science Tags:

Someone Get me A Neuroscientist!

May 19th, 2010 No comments

I parked my car toward the east end of a street running east to west. When I got out, I needed to read one of  two identical signs containing all of the complex parking rules.1 One was just a few cars behind me (to the east); the other was way down at the end of the block (to the west), far ahead of where I’d parked. Whichever way I walked, I was going to have to return to the car to either pay for parking, or to move the car.

I started off walking towards the west. After several steps, I realized that I was taking the much longer route, turned around, and walked east just a few yards to the closer sign.

Why did I set off in the wrong direction? Here’s what I think (and this is where I need to find a neuroscientist to support/verify/denounce/ridicule my speculation): The closer sign could only be read by walking past it, while the one further away had the printed side facing me. In other words, it was something like this:

File:Back of street signs.jpg

…or something like this:

File:Parking sign Jersey.JPG

Yes, I know that I could have read the sign facing me before reaching it (as opposed the away-facing sign, which I would have needed to walk past), but even factoring that in, I’d made the decision that would have taken me longer had I pursued it.

My guess is that something in my brain just preferred(?) that I approach the sign facing me, even though I knew that both contained the same information. Am I right? And if so, why? Readers?

The more important issue is how much time I’ve now spent on these signs.

  1. “2 hour parking from 9:30 am-3:30 pm. 3 hour parking from 6:30 pm-10 pm. No standing 7:30 am-9:30 am, 3:30 pm-6:30 pm. All bets are off on weekends.
Categories: science Tags: ,

An End-Run Around Legislative Paralysis: EPA Will Control CO2 if Congress Won’t

December 7th, 2009 No comments

Today’s news that the EPA has found greenhouse gases to be a public health danger (i.e., hazardous to both human beings and the environment) gives the Obama Administration leverage it didn’t have yesterday. If Congress won’t get behind laws to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases, the EPA can simply regulate the stuff. Legally sound? Probably. Good policy? Probably not. But it might be the only way to get anything done.

Once upon a time, a President with solid majorities in both chambers was considered to have a mandate to actually get laws passed. But that was before the U.S. Senate, already designed to be obstructionist, transformed the “filibuster” from a rarely invoked, desperate, and rear-guard action into an inviolate requirement that nothing can happen without the super-majority of 60 that’s needed to invoke cloture and stop the debate. No one needs to bother filibustering; the threat of it is sufficient. (Of course, there is something to be worried about: Endless debate by U.S. Senators is a prospect you should  keep from small children.)

Things have now reached such a ridiculous pass that, on health care reform, even members of the majority party threaten to vote against cloture, thereby threatening to defeat their own party’s initiatives without even letting them come to a “regular” vote that would require a bare majority. (Maybe this isn’t so bad, though. Who wants to see these people bare?)

One way out of this frustrating logjam is to go the regulatory route. By declaring what most sane people know (despite the distracting email kerfuffle), the EPA has given itself — and the Administration for which it works — an  insanely powerful, practical, and political too.  It reminds me of Tweetybird, hiding that huge mallet behind his head and then slamming the hapless Sylvester. Businesses won’t know what hit them.

But it’s hardly the best way to proceed. The EPA can limit the emissions, but can’t impose a tax or develop a cap-and-trade approach (to name two competing legislative proposals). There’s a notice and comment requirement to regulations, but these can’t stop agencies from doing whatever their statutory authority allows.  Given the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, the threat of a command decision by an agency accountable only to the Executive branch might be needed to get legislation passed. But the situation should be yet another reminder that something needs to be done about the Senate, before it becomes unable to function at all.

“Ant-y Maim”

November 25th, 2009 No comments

Ants wearing stilts.

“To test your will would take the strength of crazy ants.”1

This morning, I stayed in my car — radio (NPR) on and eyes agog — after I’d reached the coffee shop where I was heading for an emergency hit. This story was the reason:

Researchers at the University of Ulm have demonstrated, probably conclusively, that ants can count. They apparently have some kind of bio-gizmo in their brains that tick off how many steps it takes them to reach a food source, and then “count backwards” to get back home. It didn’t surprise me to see that the story is the most popular right now on NPR’s website. Who could help being fascinated by this?

The experiment was this: Scientists followed ants to their food source, and then trapped them into three groups. Then, perhaps inspired by Goldilocks and the Three Bears, “adjusted” the length of the pismires’ legs: Group 1’s legs were lengthened by gluing pig bristles to them2; Group 2’s legs were, er, shortened, by snipping them off at the knee; and Group 3’s legs were unmolested. As the scientists’ hypothesis predicted, only Group  3 arrived home. Group 1, taking comically long strides, lurched far beyond the colony, while the mutilated subjects of Group 2 stopped, confused(I  can’t get enough of this anthropomorphizing!), well short of home.

Then, the scientists observed them the next day from home to food source and back. Their internal pedometers had already adjusted to their new leg sizes: All three groups “counted” how many steps they’d  taken, and took that same number home, in time to recount their fascinating stories to their fellow insects.

Two related things occurred to me when hearing this story:

  • The more we know about different species, the more fascinating they become, and the more apparent it becomes (to me, anyway) that we inhabit one place on a long, complex continuum. Add counting to the list of things we once believed was the sole province of the human race: language; use of tools; reasoning ability; altruism, to name a few of the most astonishing. We can protest that ants aren’t “really” counting, but I don’t see why the conscious keeping track of how many steps one’s taken is superior to the ants’ approach.  In fact, the ants are likely better at it then we would be. I can attest to this:

A couple of summers ago, I decided I wanted to swim two miles in the French River, in Northern Ontario. The only way I had for approximating my distance was to count my strokes, counting 80 for every 100 meters (based on my stroke count for a 50-meter pool, and adjusting for the lack of turns.) I’ll do the math for  you: I needed to count 2,800 strokes. Now, I’m one of the rare swimmers who actually counts his strokes as he swims in a pool, so I had an advantage over others who might try this.3 I succeeded, but barely: By the time I’d gotten into the mid-100o’s, it was hard to remember where I was. If you think it’d be easy, try it with running, walking, etc. See how far you get.

  • This recognition of our place on a beautiful spectrum of life should remind us of the value of all life, and to count it when making decisions (whether on abortion, meat-eating, treatment of pets, etc.). That little spur causes me to question whether the scientists really had to cut off the creatures’ legs in order to prove their hypothesis. Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t the longer-legged ants have proven the point, all by their stilt-legged selves? Sure, there’s a nice symmetry in the shorter and longer approach, but what did the maiming add to the science of it? And if the answer is “nothing, really” then I’d say:

I don’t care much about ants, but every creature deserves to be taken into some kind of account in our actions. This isn’t to say that ants have “rights” but that we have humanity, and the responsibility that attends it.

  1. My favorite line from one of my favorite songs (“You Avoid Parties”) from one of the most criminally overlooked bands ever, the Posies. They’re like an updated version of the Hollies, with better lyrics. As this story explains, bands like the Posies have to scrap just to survive these days. Think about them, not about Lady Gaga, the next time you download a song without paying for it.
  2. A sure resume enhancer for the grad students assigned to the task.
  3. Don’t.

Torture’s Effects — the Growing Catalogue

September 21st, 2009 No comments

To the profound moral and political dimensions of torture, add the cognitive. According to this story, a prominent neuroscientist now claims that the sort of prolonged stress that was the hallmark of many of the torture tactics employed during the Bush Administration has this result: the victims become cognitively impaired to the point where they can’t provide reliable information.

The list of techniques the CIA used…cause the brain to release stress hormones that, if their release is repeated and prolonged, may result in compromised brain function and even tissue loss, [Shane] O’Mara [of Trinity College] wrote.

He warned that this could lead to brain lobe disorders, making the prisoners vulnerable to confabulation – the pathological production of false memories based on suggestions from an interrogator. Those false memories mix with true information in the interrogation, making it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated.

I’d like to see more on this, but it seems plausible on its face. Yet in absence of  (at least) any kind of systematic evaluation, will any of it matter? Or will this latest consequence be added to the list of things from which we’ll learn nothing that will help us avoid these same mistakes in the wake of the next national calamity?

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s eloquent plea for Bush to own what happened. I actually believe it could work, if Bush would read it. But if his personal history is any guide, he won’t. Why upset your careless verities?

The Invention of Air(!)

March 31st, 2009 No comments

Reading about the Revolutionary War, the “Founding Fathers,” and the political insights and courage of those times can be numbing. The creaky mythologies that surround our forebears’ efforts (on our behalf, naturally) can become suffocating to the point that one only wants to hear about, or visit, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or even the very cleverly designed, state-of-the-art Constitution Center when there’s some independent reason for doing so: out-of-town visitors, educating your young children — whatever.

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air is a mostly successful effort to, well, breathe new life into these men (women rate barely a mention, even for Johnson). Focusing on a (now) little-known polymath of the period, Joseph Priestley, Johnson cheerfully illuminates the intellectual vigor of the time. Priestley was a rock star in three areas: science; politics; and religion. But, of course, his more famous contemporaries also straddled fields — Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin come to mind as men whose contributions to science and invention rivaled their importance in our political history and development.

But by homing in on Priestley, Johnson encourages us to take a fresh look at this period and the climate that fostered the political developments that we now tend to look at in isolation. In so doing, the author reveals himself to be a master at synthesis of seemingly unrelated developments. For example, the introduction of coffee supplanted the centuries-old preferred drink — alcohol. When people move from booze to caffeine, they tend to get smarter. And Starbuck’s and its jealous imitators are but distant (dismal?) echoes of the coffee-house societies that sprang up soon after coffee reached London. The Club of Honest Whigs that counted both Priestley and Franklin among its members was the best-known of these, and was fertile ground not only for the sharing of scientific information but also for spirited debates about religion.

So, what did Priestley actually accomplish? Well, you’ll have to read the book to get a full sense of his field-hopping genius.1 But, among other things, Priestley was:

  • an amateur scientist who wrote a book on electricity that popularized the field and became the standard reference work (he also was largely responsible for the mythological status granted Franklin’s kite-flying experiment)2
  • a theological “heretic” who questioned the divinity of Christ, the existence of the Trinity, and founded the Unitarian Church;
  • a politician so vocal that he was first driven out of his native England and then, because of his strong political opposition to John Adams (both before and after the signing of the evil Alien and Sedition Acts), once again a political pariah.

Well, so what? Johnson is a gifted enough writer that he can deliver insight without (too often) being blatant about doing so. And there are several good take-away points here. First, I think the Priestley story, seen within the context of the fragile liberty in the early day of the Republic, is a reminder that patriotism assumes its highest form when it is critical of government — not when it moves slavishly behind it.

Second, the tendency towards ever-greater specialization comes at a cost: These intellectually curious men of the time were effective and influential in a number of fields at the same time, and the cross-fertilization doubtless helped their thought processes.

Third, the protection of intellectual property comes with a price. Priestley and other scientists of the time were the spiritual forebears of the open-source internet, freely sharing information for the collective benefit.

If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on these times, this is a book I’d recommend.

  1. I recommend the book highly. Johnson is an engaging writer, if not an especially disciplined one, who isn’t shy about tying his observations about his subjects to broader conclusions about how social trends and technological advances enable the flowering of intellectual virtuosity at different points in history.
  2. Did he also “invent air”? Read the book and find out!
Categories: history, politics, science Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,