By Paul Wells - Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 0 Comments
This story will get buried by all the other news today. That’s understandable, but I wish it weren’t so. It’s about a long-term government failure.
In 2007 Maxime Bernier created the Science, Technology and Innovation Council to measure Canada’s science and technology performance against that of comparable countries around the world. It’s produced reports every two years. The latest was released this morning while most of us were caught up in some other hilarity on the Hill.
The STIC council, as it’s called, is a big-name panel of advisors both inside government and outside. Its current membership includes the deputy ministers of Industry, Trade and Health; the presidents of Western, Alberta and McGill Universities; and a brochette of CEOs, principally from the energy sector.
Its third biennial report is devastating. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be throwing a word like that around in a week like this one, but it’s full of bad news anyway. Here’s some jargon, which I’ll translate:
State of the Nation 2012 shows that Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001. In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies).
That means that by the broadest measure of expenditure on research and development, Canada has fallen from 16th out of 41 comparable countries in the year Stephen Harper became prime minister, to 23rd in 2011. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Monday, May 13, 2013 at 3:50 PM - 0 Comments
Congratulations, National Research Council: Just about the only international coverage for your recent change in approach is this article in Slate tearing you a new one.
“…I was thinking that no one could possibly utter such colossally ignorant statements. But no, I was reading it correctly. These two men—leaders in the Canadian scientific research community—were saying, out loud and clearly, that the only science worth doing is what lines the pocket of business.
This is monumentally backwards thinking….”
I’ve been in Ottawa so long I’m well trained: My first instinct was to check whether the article’s author is a Canadian with a long history of donations to the Liberal party. But no: Phil Plait is one of the more prominent science bloggers in the U.S. He didn’t write this because he’s a Canadian looking for bigger bang outside our borders. He wrote it because he believed it. Continue…
By Jonathon Gatehouse - Friday, May 3, 2013 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
With the muzzling of scientists, Harper’s obsession with controlling the message verges on the Orwellian
As far as the government scientist was concerned, it was a bit of fluff: an early morning interview about great white sharks last summer with Canada AM, the kind of innocuous and totally apolitical media commentary the man used to deliver 30 times or more each year as the resident shark expert in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). So he sent an email off to Ottawa notifying department flaks about the request, and when no response had been received by the next morning, just went ahead and did it.
After all, in the past such initiative was rewarded. His superiors were happy to have him grab some limelight for the department and its research, so much so they once gave him an award as the DFO’s spokesperson of the year. But as he found out, things have changed under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Soon after arriving at his offices, the scientist was called before his regional director and given a formal verbal reprimand: talk to the media again without the explicit permission of the minister’s office, he was warned, and there would be serious consequences—like a suspension without pay, or even dismissal.
By Emily Senger - Monday, April 15, 2013 at 11:19 AM - 0 Comments
Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have transplanted kidneys grown in a lab…
Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have transplanted kidneys grown in a lab into rats with some success, in what is viewed as an important step for potentially life-saving human kidney transplants in the future.
To make the kidneys, researchers used a donor kidney from a recently dead rat and stripped it of its cells. They then grew new cells on the existing “scaffolding” left behind, which includes “collagen and other compounds,” explains The New York Times.
The team leader, Harald Ott, has also used a similar technique to grow lungs and hearts, reports Nature.com. Though using this technique on humans is a long way off, it could, eventually, save lives for those waiting for a donor kidney: “If he and his team can scale up their technique to produce human kidneys, they could provide ready-made, genetically tailored organs that would be much less likely to be rejected by a patient’s immune system,” writes Ed Young at Nature.com.
Ott explains the process in more detail in this video, created by Nature.com:
By Emily Senger - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 11:48 AM - 0 Comments
Special neck arteries are the key
A team of scientists has solved the ever-perplexing question of how owls seem to be able to turn their heads all the way around, and they’ve picked up an international prize in the process.
The reason for the neck-turning ability is this: an owl’s neck arteries don’t go through every vertebra and, where the arteries do go through a vertebra, the canal in the bone is up to 10 times wider than the artery inside it, meaning the arteries are less likely to get damaged during rotation.
Even with the larger canals, there is still a possibility that the arteries could get pinched and stop the blood flow to the brain. But owls also have a way to get around this problem, the scientists discovered. The arteries that are at the base of an owl’s head widen and pool into reservoirs, whereas human arteries would narrow further away from the heart. “The reservoirs make for more blood flow, even if the arteries are pinched elsewhere,” explains NPR. This allows the owls to sustain the blood needed to move their heads and eyes, even as their head is turned. Continue…
By Emily Senger - Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 10:57 AM - 0 Comments
Scientists in Brazil have found fossilized poop from a prehistoric shark that appears to…
Scientists in Brazil have found fossilized poop from a prehistoric shark that appears to contain 93 individual tapeworm eggs.
The poop fossil is 270 million years old and was located in the municipality of São Gabriel, in southern Brazil near the border with Uruguay, say a team of scientists whose research was published in open-access online journal PLOS on Jan. 30.
Just in case you were wondering what a 270-million-year old piece of fossilized shark poop looks like, here it is:
By Rosemary Westwood - Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 7:20 AM - 0 Comments
Alberta grad student Wei Xie was not the first person to notice the strange…
Alberta grad student Wei Xie was not the first person to notice the strange terrain west of Bow City, Alta., but she is one of those credited with discovering a “relatively new” asteroid crater there, one that is nearly eight kilometres wide and about 400 kilometres deep.
The graduate student in geophysics at the University of Alberta helped a team of university and Alberta Geological Survey researchers uncover the crater, buried in a rural area southeast of Calgary, and she presented the research at the American Geophysical Union conference on Dec. 3.
Only a handful of these hidden craters are known, but with wider use of new technology, that number is bound to grow, she told Wired. “Our technology is really improving,” she said.
The crater has long been covered over and is estimated to be about 70 million years old. It took an analysis of data from boreholes drilled in the area and seismic wave surveys to show the giant crater below the surface. Xie and her colleagues will continue to search for definite proof, and they are looking for evidence of impact known as “shocked minerals.”
It might be too soon to call it a “crater boom” in Canada, but the discovery of another, even bigger asteroid crater was published this summer. Located in the Arctic on Victoria Island, the Prince Albert crater is an estimated 25 kilometres wide.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, October 29, 2012 at 10:59 AM - 0 Comments
Nearly a hundred employees at the National Research Council have received affected notices.
“There’s a much larger game afoot but it’s being rolled out in a really stealthy way,” said Kennedy Stewart, the NDP critic for science and technology. “When we look back in a couple of years we’ll see that it really is part of a larger plan and it will probably have an impact on our international standing.”
On Thursday, 94 National Research Council employees across the country received notification letters that their services “may no longer be required,” according to a statement released that day by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. Those employees include scientists, researchers and business development officers who work in the life sciences, engineering, and business management divisions. They are located in Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, London, Regina, Winnipeg and Ottawa, the union’s statement said. ”This is another example of the government’s wrong-headed approach to the NRC,” the union’s president Gary Corbett said in the statement.
See previously: The quiet cuts
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 3:03 PM - 0 Comments
History shows us that, over time, science’s authority always undermines dogma’s legitimacy; and the persuasive power of reason will always trump ideology’s emotion. The best defence against dogma and ideology continues to be reason and science. History has also shown that tyrants can have a truncated shelf life if the citizenry enters the public forum and, armed with facts, reasoned arguments, and thoughtful ideas, engages in a loud debate. In the case of those who would stand against reason, our silence will be perceived as consent. There’s too much at stake to be silent.
If it feels lame to suggest that the solution about what to do next is to talk to each other more, I invite you to review history and ask yourselves what role public discourse has had in the toppling of dictators and despots. Right now, there seems to be a very one-sided conversation going on and the powers that be are leading it. We have our hands on the easiest levers the world has ever known by which to spread an idea and lead our own conversation. Let’s use them.
By macleans.ca - Monday, September 24, 2012 at 10:22 AM - 0 Comments
A leading paleontologist says he and his team have discovered what they believe could…
A leading paleontologist says he and his team have discovered what they believe could be the most significant new fossil bed to be discovered in three decades, the Calgary Herald Reports.
This summer, Jean-Bernard Caron, curator of invertebrate paleontology with the Royal Ontario Museum, and his team found an “important new site” in the Burgess Shale, a famous fossil bed in Kootenay national park in British Columbia. He says the new site contains evidence of new organisms and a number of rare species, thought only to exist at the famous Walcott Quarry, which is located in Alberta and contains one of the world’s best collections of fossilized, prehistoric sea creatures.
While Caron insists he cannot say much about the new site or the fossils they found until they have been properly researched and reviewed, he does say that the findings will be “very important in the future” and hopefully add to our understanding of prehistory and evolution.
By Julia Belluz - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 6:26 PM - 0 Comments
When Science-ish heard about the “Death of Evidence” protest in Ottawa today, her first instinct was to jump on a plane and join the good fight. After all, Science-ish has spent the last year carefully documenting a number of incursions and abuses on science by governments—federal, provincial, and otherwise.
Over the phone, the University of Ottawa conference organizers told Science-ish that they are disturbed by what they believe is the government’s disdain for evidence. They also provided an impressive media backgrounder, obviously prepared by science nerds with a zest for evidence and footnoting. The alleged crimes included the scrapping of the mandatory long-form census, cutting the federal funding for Canada’s Ozone Network, closing the Experimental Lakes Area, as well as the elimination of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy and the position of National Science Advisor.
Such examples demonstrated “an erosion of the capacity of the federal government to actually collect evidence, and the capacity of civil society to bring evidence forward into public debate,” conference co-organizer Dr. Scott Findlay, said. This protest about the federal government’s anti-science stance seemed right on point.
But before creating nerdy “citation needed” placards and running to the Hill, Science-ish decided to take a breath and call scientists across the country to better understand what was happening. Did they really feel this government is systematically working against them, or was there a more nuanced story to be told?
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, July 9, 2012 at 3:37 PM - 0 Comments
Scientists will march through Ottawa tomorrow and then gather on Parliament to conduct a funeral service for the general concept of evidence.
The scientific community is sad to report the death of evidence, which passed away June 18th, 2012, after an over six year battle with Harper government policies. Objective and honest, evidence was heavily involved in all aspects of Canadian prosperity and will be sorely missed by all Canadians, whether they currently realize it or not.
More from the Citizen here. The scientists and researchers will be joined by NDP MPs Anne Minh Thu Quach and Hélène LeBlanc and Liberal MP Ted Hsu.
By Blog of Lists - Friday, July 6, 2012 at 12:29 PM - 0 Comments
1. Gryphoceratops morrisoni and Unescoceratops koppelhusae, small horned dinosaurs
About 83 million years ago, a small horned dinosaur about the size of a dog roamed Alberta. Officially described in research published in January, Gryphoceratops morrisoni is the smallest adult-sized horned dinosaur in North America, and one of the smallest adult-sized plant-eating dinosaurs known; it’s named for Ian Morrison, a paleobiology technician at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who figured out how its jaw bones fit together. Also described in January, Unescoceratops koppelhusae lived about 75 million years ago, and had a short frill on its head and a parrot-like beak. The dino was named after the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta, where it was found, and after scientist Eva Koppelhus, wife of renowned Canadian paleontologist Phil Currie, who discovered it.
SOURCE: Royal Ontario Museum
2. Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, a spider
When East Carolina University biologist Jason Bond discovered a new species of trapdoor spider, he named it after his favourite musician—Canadian icon Neil Young. “There are rather strict rules about how you name new species,” said Bond in a statement. “As long as these rules are followed you can give a new species just about any name you please.” Why Neil Young? “I really enjoy his music,” he said, also citing his work as a peace activist.
3. Asteroid 5953 Shelton
This asteroid was named for Canadian astronomer Ian Shelton, born in Winnipeg, made famous by his discovery of a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987.
SOURCE: Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
4. Asteroid 2104 Toronto
The first minor planet to be discovered at a Canadian observatory, it was discovered in 1963 and named for the University of Toronto, a crucial institution in the development of Canadian astronomy.
SOURCE: Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
5. Chilicola kevani, a species of bee
A bee discovered in the Brazilian state of Bahia carries the name of a University of Guelph professor: insect ecologist Peter Kevan was honoured by becoming this bee’s namesake this year. Kevan’s work on bee pollination dates all the way back to the 1970s, and has looked at pollinators from the Arctic to tropic jungles.
SOURCE: University of Guelph
6. Canadian “explorer series” of roses
Called Canada’s greatest contribution to the world of roses, the “explorer series” bear many famous names: the Alexander MacKenzie, for example, is described by the Canadian Rose Society as a “tall, upright, vigorous shrub,” while the Champlain is a fragrant, velvety red that flowers through summer and fall, and the Henry Hudson is white with a pink tinge.
SOURCE: Canadian Rose Society
7. Groatite, a mineral
Three decades ago, scientists took samples from Bernic Lake, Manitoba—and, in 2010, announced they’d discovered a new species of phosphate mineral in the sample, naming it after University of British Columbia mineralogy professor Lee Groat, who called himself “surprised and honoured.”
SOURCE: The Canadian Mineralogist
Have you ever wondered which cities have the most bars, smokers, absentee workers and people searching for love? What about how Canada compares to the world in terms of the size of its military, the size of our houses and the number of cars we own? The answers to all those questions, and many more, can be found in the first ever Maclean’s Book of Lists.
Buy your copy of the Maclean’s Book of Lists at the newsstand or order online now.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Last night, the House defeated an opposition motion that called on the government to reverse cuts to science and research and an opposition motion that called on the government to reverse cuts to search-and-rescue.
After dealing with eight votes on the estimates, the House then passed Conservative MP Brian Storseth’s private members’ bill to delete certain sections of the Canadian Human Rights Act by a vote of 153-136.
And, finally, a Bloc motion that sought to have the governor general pay income tax was defeated by a vote of 147-141.
By Julia Belluz - Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 6:28 PM - 0 Comments
It’s been a year since Science-ish launched with the aim of scrutinizing the news coverage of health topics, and holding politicians, opinion leaders and journalists to account for misusing or misrepresenting science. The modest goal of the blog was, and remains, to help readers wade through the evidence on a given subject and get a sense of what the science actually shows.
So what has Science-ish learned in 12 months of fact-checking the reporting on everything from the health effects of asbestos, to whether the benefits of urban cycling outweigh its harms, how and if cancer screening will save your life, the “cures” for autism, dubious mental health statistics, and just about every health story in between? Here are five key lessons for telling science from science-ish:
By Jonathon Gatehouse - Monday, May 28, 2012 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
An exhibit that teaches teens about sex came and went in Regina. In Ottawa, it’s been labelled ‘insulting.’
When Sandy Baumgartner left Ottawa and moved back home to Regina 3½ years ago, it was for the usual reasons: friends and family, cheaper housing and the slower pace of life. But now the executive director of the Saskatchewan Science Centre can add another plus to the Queen City’s ledger—it’s far less prudish than Canada’s capital. Sex: A Tell-all Exhibition, developed in consultation with teachers, doctors and sexologists to educate teenagers about their bodies and desires, won an award when it premiered at the Centre des sciences de Montréal in 2010. Last summer in Regina, it came and went with barely a complaint. When the exact same exhibit opened at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa on May 17, however, it was greeted by hundreds of public objections and denounced by James Moore, the federal minister of heritage, as “insulting” to taxpayers.
“The talk shows tried to get something going here, but it just didn’t generate any controversy,” says Baumgartner. She’d been concerned enough about the show’s frank content—which covers not just the usual biology but also sexually transmitted diseases and a vast spectrum of bedroom activities—that she had consulted widely before bringing it to town. Almost all of the feedback, including from the provincial minister of culture, was encouraging. “And the people who didn’t think it was a good idea just didn’t come.”
The controversy in Ottawa began with a socially conservative think tank, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. Started in 2006, with seed money from the American evangelical movement Focus on the Family, the IMFC has waded into the debate over same-sex marriage, abortion, tax policy and all-day kindergarten. Protesting the content of museums is a departure from the research-focused agenda, admits Dave Quist, the organization’s executive director, but one they felt was necessary. After being alerted to the exhibit by a member of the public, he arranged for a preview tour and was shocked by its matter-of-fact tone. “It basically reduced sex to a pleasurable act,” he said last week. “The message was, ‘If you enjoy it, go for it.’ ”
By Richard Warnica - Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:49 PM - 0 Comments
Two dispatches from the never-ending war between sea creatures and land beasts. First, to…
Two dispatches from the never-ending war between sea creatures and land beasts. First, to the sea, where researchers from Dalhousie and Stanford have found evidence squid can fly faster than they swim. Dalhousie’s Ronald D’Or and his colleagues confirmed the discovery by studying high-speed photos shot in the waters near Brazil.
Because they knew the intervals of time between each photo, O’Dor and his colleagues were able to estimate the squid’s velocity and acceleration, and compare them with these values for squid in water. They found that the velocity in air while the squid were propelling themselves with the water jet was five times faster than than any measurements O’Dor had made for comparable squid species in water.
“It makes perfect sense that these species are using flight as a way of saving energy,” says O’Dor. Some species spend vast amounts of energy migrating each year; for example, I. illecebrosus travels more than 1,000 kilometres down the North American coast to spawn.
“I could never explain how they could get this much energy”, even given evidence that females eat the males as they make the journey, says O’Dor. “As soon as we thought about the possibility that these things flew, it became plausible that these animals actually use flight as a way of reducing energy cost.”
New research on land, meanwhile, has found cougars on B.C.’s coast have a much more diverse diet than anyone previously believed. Analysis of scat samples taken on Vancouver Island showed traces of harbour seals, sea lions and relatively huge amounts of raccoon.
From the Vancouver Sun:
“I know of no other account of cougars eating a marine mammal [, says Victoria researcher Chris Darimont.] But I’m not completely shocked. There is some pretty delicious seafood out there. Seals are loaded with calories, fat and protein. They’re big prizes, and, compared with deer, a little safer to hunt.”
An analysis of 29 cougar scat samples taken from Long Beach to the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island’s west coast showed the following diet: raccoon, 28 per cent; harbour seal, 24 per cent; black-tailed deer, 24 per cent; river otter, 10 per cent; sea lion, seven per cent; mink, four per cent; unknown; three per cent.
By Richard Warnica - Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 10:51 AM - 0 Comments
An experiment that claimed to clock neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light,…
An experiment that claimed to clock neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, a result which, if true, would have upended modern physics as we know it, may have been fatally flawed. Glitches in the GPS system used to synchronize atomic clocks in the study may have tainted the outcome, according to a number of sources.
Science Insider broke the news Wednesday, simultaneously thrilling skeptics in the physics community and breaking hearts among those who had hoped to form the vanguard of a new time-travelling elite. Citing “sources familiar with the experiment” Edwin Cartlidge wrote that “a bad connection between a fiber optic cable … and an electronic card in a computer” appears to account for the 60 nanoseconds faster than light speed the neutrinos were timed travelling between two research centres in Europe.
After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos.
Later Wednesday, researchers at OPERA began circulating a statement acknowledging two possible problems with the experiment, Nature reported:
First, the passage of time on the clocks between the arrival of the synchronizing signal has to be interpolated and OPERA now says this may not have been done correctly. Second, there was a possible faulty connection between the GPS signal and the OPERA master clock.
Our own Nick Kohler wrote about the initial experiments in this magazine in November. It’s worth going back and reading his entire story, but just to give you a sense of how revolutionary these results would have been if confirmed, here’s a chunk:
(S)cientists working on the so-called OPERA experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) outside Geneva generated blasts of neutrinos and sent them south, through the rocky subterranean precincts beneath the Alps, then high into Italy’s Apennines mountains, where, near the city of L’Aquila, they popped up in a neutrino detector at the underground Gran Sasso National Laboratory—a distance, all told, of some 730 km. The latest OPERA findings appear to back those earlier results—the neutrinos arrived a shocking 60 billionths of a second or so faster than a beam of light.
Should that result hold up, physicists will either have to scrap Einstein’s theory of special relativity or accept a range of phenomena now confined to science ﬁction—for example, that an observer travelling past a swift-flying neutrino would witness the particle hurtling backwards in time and appear at its destination before beginning its journey. The confirmation, made by scientists working on the collaborative OPERA experiment, generated enormous international chatter among physicists, who remain skeptical of the results but who must nevertheless contemplate what it would mean if a faster-than-light, or “superluminal,” neutrino proves real. Such a development would upend everything we know about the concept of “causality,” opening up the possibility of time travel at the subatomic level, and even suggesting the existence of new, hitherto unknown dimensions. More than that, it might require us to contemplate the possibility of wormhole portals connecting a Geneva suburb with the mountains of central Italy.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 4:25 PM - 0 Comments
Picking up where questions on Monday and Tuesday had failed to receive a straightforward answer, Megan Leslie tried again this afternoon to clarify Joe Oliver’s views on climate change. Here’s how that went.
Megan Leslie: Monsieur le Président, hier j’ai donné un break au ministre des Ressources naturelles afin qu’il prenne le temps de penser à ses réponses. On ne sait toujours pas si le ministre se range dans le camp des radicaux qui nient l’existence des changements climatiques ou s’il accepte le fait que la science explique les changements climatiques. Alors, qu’en est-il? Est-ce que le ministre croit à la science des changements climatiques, oui ou non?
Joe Oliver: Mr. Speaker, the member opposite gave me a break because I was not here. The science is clear that human beings cause global warming. Our government has shown its support with investments of over $10 billion to support a cleaner environment and fight climate change through innovation. What I do not believe in is the NDPs ideologically driven Luddite battle against thousands of jobs in Canada. Does the NDP want to deny Canadian families jobs and a secure future, yes or no?
By Alex Ballingall - Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 10:20 AM - 0 Comments
Pestalotiopsis microspora can survive on plastic alone in an anaerobic environment
Polyurethane—widely known as plastic—is one of most versatile and resilient materials on the planet. You can find it in the pen you write with, the toys your kids play with and the garden hose you water the plants with. But for years, discarded plastics have been filling landfills, refusing to degenerate or waste away like most other garbage. It’s been a problem without a realistic solution—until now.
A bunch of biology students from Yale traveled into the Ecuadorian jungle with their professor Scott Strobel to examine plants in a rainforest expedition. They came back with an undiscovered fungus that has the amazing ability to not only eat plastic, but survive on nothing other than plastic. That makes the fungus—Pestalotiopsis microspora—the first known to survive on plastic alone in an anaerobic environment, meaning without oxygen.
The group recently published their research on the fungus and the process of decomposing plastics. The great promise is that these fungi might one day be able to grow at the bottom of garbage dumps, where they can munch down on plastic all day and all night.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 1:06 PM - 0 Comments
By next summer, scientists hope to confirm its existence
Two teams of scientists studying proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research outside Geneva, Switzerland, say they’ve seen hints of the Higgs boson particle, whose existence should explain the presence of mass in the universe. They hope to know for sure whether this particle really exists by next summer, the New York Times reports. Scientists hope that by confirming the existence of this particle, they can explore why the universe is made of matter instead of antimatter, as well as the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which make up the majority of the universe.
By Julia Belluz - Monday, December 12, 2011 at 3:20 PM - 0 Comments
With his “Bad Science” column in the Guardian newspaper and a best-selling book of the same title, U.K. physician Ben Goldacre has been leading the international charge in quack-busting, unpicking dubious scientific claims made by everyone from politicians to alternative-medicine practitioners and nutritionists. But Dr. Goldacre doesn’t scrutinize only the most obvious quacks among us. As he told an audience of health professionals, policy-makers, and researchers at the Evidence2011 evidence-based medicine conference in London, “We’re on a quack continuum and our work here today is unpicking the details of evidence to make sure we stay at the saintly end of that continuum rather than the dodgy one.”
As of this fall, Dr. Goldacre was on a break from the bedside to work as a research fellow on clinical trials and publication bias at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (He’s also the Science-ish patron saint.) Julia Belluz sat down with him in London to learn about how other doctors can undertake similar quack-busting work, about his forthcoming book on the pharmaceutical industry, and why understanding the mechanics of bad science is the best way to arrive at good science.
Q: In a presentation here, you said we can put all evidence on a “quack continuum.” Can you explain what that is? Continue…
By Julia Belluz - Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 1:09 PM - 14 Comments
One of the inspirations behind Science-ish was the seemingly endless barrage of complaints by friends in medicine regarding the “Oprah effect” on their offices and hospital wards: patients making important decisions about a lifestyle choice or treatment option based on something they had seen on Queen of daytime talk.
Now, the Oprah Winfrey Show is off the air, but the after-effects of her work on childhood vaccination and menopause will surely haunt doctors’ visits for years to come. Of course, other media—before and after Oprah—have a powerful sway over patient decisions. Every day, newspapers dole out advice on how much alcohol and coffee to consume, how best to manage your diabetes, and the benefits of probiotics. New media play a big role in purveying health knowledge, too. In research into YouTube as a source of information on immunization, the investigators found that about half of the videos posted had anti-immunization messages, and the negative videos were more highly rated and viewed more often than those backed by science. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 6:45 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Larrie Ferreiro
Science is science, and politics is politics, but anyone who thinks the twain never meet should consider the climate change debate. Or read Ferreiro’s detailed account of the first international (France-Spain) scientific expedition, which set out in 1735 to measure a degree of latitude at the equator (in today’s Ecuador) to see if it was the same length as one near Paris. The answer would determine which theory was correct: René Descartes’, that the Earth was elongated at the poles, or Isaac Newton’s, that the force of gravity had flattened the poles. If the Frenchman was right, degrees at the equator should be longer than those further north; if the Englishman had the better model, then the degrees would be shorter. The gentlemen scholars could have aimlessly debated the question for another century if the politicians hadn’t become interested—the answer mattered for ocean navigation and thus for Europeans’ imperialist ambitions.
So the French sprung for the costs and provided the scientists, while the Spanish offered guides and an equatorial proving ground in their South American colony. The men thought they’d be home in three years, but the actual task took three times as long. There wasn’t enough money (the expedition leader, astronomer Louis Godin, lavished a lot of it on his paramour); malaria struck; team members were forced to climb extinct volcanoes inconveniently located where they wanted to measure; suspicious locals thought they were smugglers and Jews, and reported them to the local inquisitor, who was only pacified by an invitation to a pork dinner.
And once the measurement was done, the troubles really began. One scientist had married a local woman, who became separated from him. Portuguese authorities in Brazil refused him entry to pick her up and the couple spent 21 years apart at opposite ends of the Amazon River. They didn’t make it back to France until 1773. Ferreiro dutifully records the scientific advance—Newton, as it turned out, was correct—but rightly stresses the adventure.
By Richard Warnica - Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 10:50 AM - 11 Comments
An astrophysicist, fed up with lineups at the boarding gate, crunches the numbers
As an astrophysicist at the prestigious Fermilab near Chicago, Jason Steffen probes dark matter and, on a contract for NASA, searches for distant planets. But for years, a less esoteric question has occupied his brain: what’s the fastest way to get passengers onto an airplane? Steffen was on his way to a conference five years ago when he hit a series of delays before he could take his seat. There was a line at the gate, another in the tunnel and a final, awkward, push-past-or-wait period on the plane.
Frustrated, he thought: “There has to be a better way to do this.” The answer, Steffen believes, is a complex system cooked up on his own time in the lab, home to the second-largest particle accelerator in the world. The key for an efficient board is to minimize aisle congestion and maximize passenger speed. To do that, he thinks passengers should line up outside the plane, then board, window seats first, in staggered rows one side at a time from back to the front. Steffen first published his theory in the Journal of Air Transport Management in 2008.
Now he has real-time proof that it works. In June, a TV producer in California rented a sound stage, brought in a fake plane, and tested Steffen’s theory against other methods of loading. Toting carry-on luggage and even some children, 72 volunteers walked on and off the plane, stowing bags and taking assigned seats. Along with Steffen’s approach, the passengers were loaded in four ways: randomly, back to front, in three blocks of seats, and from the window seats in—the so-called window-middle-aisle method, or “Wilma.”