Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science is a shot of a fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster) larva trapped in a water droplet. From the Nature website:

This image of a live Drosophila larva in a water droplet has won the photographic competition that forms part of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Winner Robert Markus, of the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, received the award at a ceremony on 25 February in Amsterdam.


Markus took his photograph to show how blood cells affect the fruitfly's immune system. "By identifying blood-cell-specific genes, we can generate transgenic Drosophila strains in which the blood cells express green fluorescent protein, so that they are visualized in vivo, making in vivo research possible on the immune system," he explained.
If you know Dutch, head on over to the prize website, and check out more info.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Quote of the Day

via Bug Girl's Blog:

“Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”

-Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
My own thoughts are that a career in science is a lot like heroin. It's sure a lot of fun, but it fucks you up pretty royally.

For more, see Bug Girl's Post that Academia is a Cult.


A Leap Year Skeptics' Circle

It's late at night, and dark. The scene is a little different than the last time a Skeptics' Circle was hosted by the Conspiracy Factory. Oh yes, it's rather a lot different.

A few days after the lunar eclipse, the day before February 29th, is the perfect day to observe some evil. You're hidden in the bushes, in the dark. Peeking over the hill in front of you, you can see a small group forming at the base of the hill. It's a group of men and women in black suits, carrying torches, and they're filing towards what looks like a circle of barrow mounds. They're not speaking. They're preparing to meet the Master.

They quietly file into the circle; it's quite easy to make them out, as their torches are putting off a fair amount of light. They stand in a circle. They wait. You wonder what they could be waiting for, but they're not saying anything.

One by one, they start to fidget. One of them shifts his weight from one leg to the other. And they start to whisper to each other in hushed voices.

"Where's the Master?"

"The last Skeptics' Circle was compromised. People witnessed it. It was all over the internet. I'm sure that the Master is ensuring that no such thing happens again."


There's an awkward silence.

"I met a girl on the internet."

"Again? Is it another Russian bride?"

"No. This is the real deal. She's from Thailand."


The circle of men in suits stop fidgeting. There's a low howling noise.

"What the hell was that?"

"Maybe something trying to force its way into our world."

There's a small pinpoint of light in the middle of the circle that slowly tears open into a bright doorway. There's a sound of rushing air, and the Master steps through.

"Welcome, Master.", they all chant in unison.

"What is the first order of business?" he croaks.

"Oprah." one of the men squeaks. "She's teaching women how to be more manly. Letting them know that they're weak."

A woman steps forward, "I'll take care of it. I'll discredit her survey, and make it look ridiculous."

"Excellent, Rebecca." the Master croaks, "What is next?"

"Well, Master," says another suited man, "We always have the problem of magic medicine. They cure too many diseases, and siphon away our profits."

"Crush them."

"We'll put archaeologyknits on it."

"What about the anti-vaccine crusaders? Which of our pharma-shills is discrediting them?" croaks the Master.

"Pal MD"

"Excellent. Give him more stock options in Pfizer and Merck. What have we done with that super secret satellite that the Troofers put up to spy on our activities?"

"We've had to shoot it down. We've mostly discredited any other hypotheses. "

"Very good."

Another man steps forward, (are the men clones? they all look the same?) "We've started a project to get people to buy more stuff. It uses some reverse psychology to get folks excited about free stuff. Then we fleece them."

"Excellent, you will be rewarded." The Master pauses, "While we're talking about making good little consumer sheep out of the American public, you know what our biggest competitor to selling stuff is? Sex. Sex is free, and people having sex are not shopping, so we need to work harder to make sex boring and plain. We will pathologize sex. "

"Yes, Master. We're still in phase I, pathologizing fetish sex. When we're done with that, we'll pathologize all sex."

"Excellent." croaks the Master.

"But Greta Christina [in 2 parts] is on to our plan."

"Finish her."

The clone smiles, then quickly looks more somber and continues, "Someone figured out our old deal about the X-raying kids feet to fit shoes."

"Did he figure out about the alien implants?" asks the Master

"Not yet."

"Keep an eye on him. If he gets closer to the truth, finish him." Again he pauses. "How are we doing on getting our training manual out for new agents?"

"Very well, Master. I've written Part One, and I'm working on the next part."

The Master makes a clenching motion, and the clone falls to his knees clutching his throat. The Master growls "GET. OFF. YOUR. ARSE. AND. WRITE. PART. TWO." He releases his grip, and the clone falls to the ground, gasping for air.

"Yes, Master."

"Ahem." another clone speaks, "I'm also writing a part of the manual. But, I'm mostly done my part. No need for the crushy, necky, thing. I'll need my neck in two weeks when I host the next Skeptics' Circle. You can get directions from my blog, or e-mail me (Bing McGhandi) littletinyfeardemon self-circling-a-thing yahoo spot com. I would greatly appreciate it if you left my neck alone, Master, sir."

"Very well." says the Master. "You're safe. For now."

And with a flash of light he is gone. The clones look at each other, amazed that there have been no deaths at this meeting (and perhaps a touch disappointed). And with that they file out. As they file out, one of the clones says, "I wonder what we should do with this fellow?" He points to a file folder labeled Beef. "Is he one of ours?"

They continue to walk up over a barrow hill, and disappear from view.

And you are left alone on the hill, wondering if you really saw what just happened.


Edit added later: Two links that I never received (perhaps caught up by my spam filter? lost in cyberspace? *cue Vader music* stolen - by them?)

Bug Girl's Blog


TANK Vodcast

Sorry, to those of you I missed, it's likely due to the fact that the Skeptics' Circle was assigned to me after another host dropped out at the last minute.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Skeptics' Circle reminder

A reminder to folks that I'm hosting the Skeptics' Circle this week. Please send your best skeptical posts of the last 2 weeks to me (factician at gmail period com) with the words "Skeptics Circle" in the subject line. If I get your posts before 6 p.m. ET on February 27th, I will do my best to include it.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science is another shot of Mercury from the Mercury Messenger. The Planetary Society has an awesome blog where they describe this shot:

MESSENGER took this photo of Mercury as it departed from its first flyby at 19:59:41 on January 14, 2008 UTC. The image contains two craters with dark halos, which may indicate that Mercury's surface is layered, with different compositions at different depths. Alternatively, the dark halos could represent deposits of material that was melted during the impact; such materials are often darker in color than unmelted rock.
Very cool. I'm really looking forward to when Messenger parks itself in orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I must blog!

xkcd nails it again.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

81st Skeptics' Circle Submission Request

Rumor has it that some homeopathy ninjas have kidnapped Sam Wise of Sorting out Science. Or perhaps it was some reiki master that blasted him with the powers of the universe. Whatever it was, apparently he is unable to host the next Skeptics' Circle, so we at the Conspiracy Factory have stepped out of the shadows, and taken on the mantle of the 81st Skeptics' Circle. Hopefully we can put together something as successful as the last time.

To do that, WE NEED YOUR HELP! Please send your best skeptical posts of the last 2 weeks to me (factician at gmail period com) with the words "Skeptics Circle" in the subject line. If I get your posts before 6 p.m. ET on February 27th, I will do my best to include it.


Friday, February 15, 2008

No one reads Uncommon Descent?

ERV has said in the past that no one reads Uncommon Descent, the blathering creationist website of creationist William Dembski.

Well, turns out there's some good stuff to be read there, if only by the sockpuppets from AtBC:

Thank you, Dr. Dembski. You are without peer when it comes to The Argument Regarding Design.
Fabulously well done! Head over there and read the confessions of a sockpuppet.


Friday Beautiful Science

Check out this cool lemon:
infected by [Eriophyes] sheldoni, the citrus bud mite.
The photographer called it a
Horrible mutant lovecraftian lemon.
I'm not sure I'd agree with the horrible part. Well, the mutant part is wrong, too (they're developmentally messed up, not genetically messed up). For more cool Lovecraftian lemons, click here.

Happy Friday.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Neil de Grasse Tyson!

Who am I kidding? Let's just turn this site into a Colbert fansite...


Another anniversary.

Today is the second birthday of my son. The poor guy will some day have to purchase gifts for his girlfriend/wife on his birthday. But for now, it's his birthday. This morning I asked him if he knew what day it was, and he said "My birthday!". "How old are you?" I asked. "ONE!"

"No," I said, "You're two today. Today is your birthday."


Mrs. Factician and I tried to work it out with him, and in the end he may have believed us that he was two today. At his age we can't ever know for sure what he understands, but he seems to understand that, like his friends who are a few weeks older than him, he has turned two.

In honor of his birthday, I'd like to review a book that I just finished. It's particularly relevant to parents of small children. It's called Vaccine, by Arthur Allen. Search for Vaccine on, and mostly you'll find anti-vaccine pseudoscience screeds. Arthur Allen's book is a highly footnoted, very well written book.

As a molecular biologist, I found this book to be particularly enlightening. I have a fairly basic understanding the of how vaccines are made and how they function. My wife works in a lab that has developed a vaccine currently used in the third world. But the history of vaccination is something I've never read.

The bulk of this book is on the history of vaccination and variolation, as practiced over the last 300 years. For example, prior to this book, I hadn't been aware of the practice of variolation, whereby smallpox is deliberately infected into a wound in the skin, giving the patient a severe fever, and even possibly killing them, but giving them a four-fold better chance of surviving a smallpox epidemic. Imagine what it must have been like to live in a world where this seemed like a good idea. Variolation saved many, many lives. But it took quite a few as well.

Allen follows the development of attenuated pox viruses for vaccines, and the better and better development of vaccines over the last 300 years. At the same time, he talks about the risks of older vaccines, and some of the complications involved in contaminated lots of vaccines (back before the development of good aseptic technique and preservatives).

At the same time, he tracks the development of anti-vaccine populations, building towards the current anti-vaccine movement of the 21st century, who contrary to all evidence, blame vaccines for their childrens' autism. He talks about principles of risk management, and of the re-emergence of diseases like whooping cough in various anti-vaccine communities in Colorado.

There is also the story of the rotavirus vaccine developed in the late 90s. Rotavirus is a virus that kills hundreds of thousands of children in the third world every year (but is largely an unpleasant diarrheal disease in North America). In the late 90s, a vaccine was developed that protected most children from rotavirus. This vaccine would have saved millions of children. However, it was shelved, as it looked likely (though never conclusively proven) that it caused a relatively rare gastrointestinal side-effect called intussusception that could result in death if not corrected by a surgical intervention. Immediately this vaccine was shelved in North America, as the risks outweighed any possible benefit. But while this could have saved hundreds of thousands of children in third world countries (while possibly killing a much smaller number), this vaccine was never used. Politicians in India, for example, were afraid of the political blowback of a using a vaccine that wasn't "safe enough for Americans".

For the science nerd in your life, this book is a real page-turner. There's disease, death, lives saved, lives lost, politics, contaminated vaccines, highly unethical human experimentation, and finally, in the latter half of the 20th century, a largely safe and effective vaccine enterprise.

This book is an excellent treatment on the subject, and should prove relatively easy for a non-biologist to read. I'd recommend this to anyone, scientist or no. And if you have any anti-vaccine folks in your family that aren't vaccinating their children, give them a copy of this book. It may change a few minds.


80th Skeptics' Circle

The Valentine's edition of the Skeptics' Circle is up at Bug Girl's Blog. Go have a gander.


Creationist breaks another commandment

Bill Dembski, creationist-at-large, has broken yet another biblical commandment:

Exodus 20:17 "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour's."
Turns out, Dembski has coveted his neighbor's ass. Or rather, he's coveted Richard Dawkins' rather large book payment:
Dawkins Cashes in on Darwin’s Upcoming Bicentennial William Dembski

The same publisher that brought you DARWIN’S BLACK BOX and THE EDGE OF EVOLUTION (i.e., The Free Press) is paying Richard Dawkins $3.5million for his next book, to be titled ONLY A THEORY? I’m told, however, that other titles are still in the running, including

MERE DARWINISM (this and the last to attract fans of C. S. Lewis)

$3.5million is a lot of money. The question I have is whether Dawkins still worships exclusively in the temple of Darwin or if he now also attends services at the temple of Mammon.
I don't know about you, but Willie Dembski sounds a little jealous. Good thing he's a righteous chap, and doesn't sell his pseudoscience books for cash. Nope, he's just a humble professor. Interesting he never publishes in academic journals, but focuses all his efforts on selling books. But, he would never stoop to trying to tie his books to a movie to increase sales. Indeed, he's not interested in money at all.



Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who would you take money from?

One of my recent commenters brought up the spectre of tainted research dollars:

"Doctors have been critical of [Edith London's] research and the fact that she accepts money from Philip-Morris."
Does this matter?

As an introduction, I'm a research scientist. I've pointed that out on numerous times in my blog. I'm a post-doc, and I'm currently looking for a permanent position. I'm keeping my options open, looking at academic, industry and private research institutions when I'm looking for positions. Indeed, I'm looking for jobs on two different continents. As such, I'm looking at taking money to do research from numerous different sources.

In my 11 year science career thus far I have been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the United States Army Breast Cancer Research Program, a small foundation that shall remain nameless as it identifies my nationality (I have to have some privacy, right?) and my current benefactor, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Does it matter who pays me? Am I beholden to the people who have given me money? Am I more likely to speak kindly about the American Army because they paid me? Am I less likely to say that Howard Hughes was an obsessive-compulsive because of the money that HHMI is putting into my retirement account?

My views on these questions have changed over time. Before I understood how science was done, I would have said that of course the source of money taints the scientist. Now I have a less simplistic view.

Modern science requires vast amounts of money. Someone has to pay for that work. In the U.S., the vast majority of biological research is paid for by companies. The second largest funder is the National Institutes of Health (paid for by American taxpayers). At the end of the day, money taints *all* research. How do you get around that?

The answer is reasonably simple. Firstly, most (all?) journals these days require a statement about funding and conflict of interest. When you publish in a journal, you have to state whether the work you are doing in any way will reflect on investments that you have or products that you own the rights to. You also have to put a statement acknowledging the source of your funding. This gives the readers of the article the opportunity to scrutinize your results with that in mind. Failure to disclose this kind of information is a huge no-no in scientific circles. Indeed, it can end careers to be withhold financial conflicts.

Secondly, science does not proceed based on assertions. It proceeds based on data. If a scientist publishes fraudulent data because they received money from a company (or because they wanted to impress someone), that is a career ender. Frauds get caught. If no one can replicate your results, you will get caught. And in the end, this is the most important part of science. We replicate each others results. We build on previous work. And in this process, frauds get caught. In the short run, they may get away with it. In the long run, they will get caught, and they will get fired.

In the end, our erstwhile commenter asks:
"Have your ever or would you ever take money from big tobacco to fund your research?"
Have I? No. I haven't ever worked on anything that they would be interested in funding. Would I? Yes. If I had a problem I was working on that they were interested in funding, I would take their money. I would disclose my funding source. And it wouldn't change my data.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Hollow Earthers.

From Cectic.


Happy Blogoversary to me!

Today is the Conspiracy Factory's 1st birthday.

If you'll indulge me, here are a few of *my* favourite posts from the last year:

On Quacks and Cancer

A Rushing River of Stupid

Colony Collapse Disorder

An Anecdote about Anecdotes

I am the Pinnacle of Evolution!

Pseudo-intellectual, John Tierney


Fake Acupuncture - As Good as the Real Thing!

Photosynthetic Worms!

and the one that actually got me some hate e-mail:

Cause & Effect

Thanks to the folks who continue to read my blog. Blog traffic is still increasing, a fair number of folks return for multiple reads, and linkage is increasing. Let's keep going and see how this uncontrolled blog experiment turns out.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Animal rights nuts strike again

Animal rights nuts left an incendiary device on the front steps of Edythe London this morning. It lit, damaging her home:

The device was placed this morning on the front porch of a house owned by Edythe London, FBI officials in Los Angeles said.

London, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences and of molecular and medical pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, uses lab monkeys in her research on nicotine addiction.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller confirmed that officials with the Joint Terrorism Task Force were investigating the incident.

"It was ignited and caused damage to the property," Eimiller said. "No one was home at the time and nobody was hurt."

Eimiller said no one had claimed responsibility. But the agency is investigating the claim that the Animal Liberation Front used a garden hose to flood London's house Oct. 20 in an attempt to stop her animal experiments.
London may have provoked these nutballs with her editorial earlier this year:
I have devoted my career to understanding how nicotine, methamphetamine and other drugs can hijack brain chemistry and leave the affected individual at the mercy of his or her addiction. My personal connection to addiction is rooted in the untimely death of my father, who died of complications of nicotine dependence. My work on the neurobiology of addiction has spanned three decades of my life -- most of this time as a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health. To me, nothing could be more important than solving the mysteries of addiction and learning how we can restore a person's control over his or her own life. Addiction robs young people of their futures, destroys families and places a tremendous burden on society.

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care
For frack sake, people! She studies addiction, with the hopes of curing it. This woman deserves our applause, not incendiary devices at her home.

Mark at Denialism has asked in the past for folks who use animals in their work to explain how and why it is important. Animal research is IMPORTANT. The information we gather from animal work saves LIVES.


Joshua Lederberg, molecular biology pioneer

Joshua Lederberg, a bacterial geneticist, died on Saturday. This guy had a huge influence on my field, discovering that bacteria can exchange genetic materials. Indeed, he and his ex-wife developed the now classical technique of "replica-plating" that allows screening of hundreds of thousands of bacterial isolates (believe me, I've done it!). From the New York Times obituary:

Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science magazine in Washington and a former colleague of Dr. Lederberg’s at Stanford, said that on Dr. Lederberg’s arrival at the school nearly a half century ago, “he was already a hero, the most important founder of bacterial genetics and microbiology.”
He was 82.