Friday, November 29, 2013

Dare Devil Scientists in Balloons

NPR Science Friday: Early Balloonists Took Science 'Up, Up and Away'

This is a very cool Science Friday segment that I wanted to share.  I heard this a couple of weeks back while I was driving one afternoon, and I thought it was very entertaining.  It's an interview with Richard Holmes, who wrote the book Falling Upwards, which is about some of the first people to explore the skies in hydrogen balloons.  Holmes also wrote a great book called The Age of Wonder, which I highly recommend.   I haven't read Falling Upwards, but based on the interview and an online excerpt, it sounds like it might be a good read.  It certainly harkens back to a time when science was done a lot more Indiana Jones-style and involved a lot more risk to life and limb.  These guys had no idea what was going to happen when they went into the sky.  Would there be oxygen?  Would they freeze or get struck by lightening?  They didn't know, but went anyway.  That took some serious guts or craziness or both. 

If you know someone with an interest in science and history, The Age of Wonder or Falling Upwards might be a good gift this holiday season.               

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part III: Increased Appreciation for Science and Education in the US

I wanted to put up one final post about JFK and his relationship to science.  I mainly want to share some of his own words from one of the last speeches that he gave as well as the final speech that he never got to give.  These words express some very wise and very eloquently stated views on the role of science, education, and reason in domestic affairs and foreign policy.

In today's society, we often see people make the mistake of confusing a belief or an opinion with a fact.  Kennedy recognized that logic, reason, and science need to play a key role in society and the decisions it makes.  As I've said before on this blog, it is very important that all members of society have educated opinions about important issues.  Uneducated opinions, though, can be quite dangerous to progress.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part II: Environmentalism

Rachel Carson, 1944
In the previous post about John F. Kennedy's impact on science, we discussed the consequences of Kennedy's push for space exploration and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon.  Another area of science where Kennedy has left a lasting impression is environmentalism and environmental science.  Kennedy helped to raise public awareness of environmental issues as well as the impact of chemicals like pesticides on the environment.  This story involves his interactions with a famous scientist, environmentalist, and science writer, Rachel Carson, who was perhaps the most important environmentalist of the 20th century.

Rachel Carson was originally a marine biologist, but she is most famous as a science writer who wrote excessive pesticide use and its consequences.  Her most important book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and is credited with starting the modern environmentalist movement.

One of the major pesticides discussed in the book was DDT, which stands for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.  DDT had been used to control insects since 1939 and helped prevent the spread of malaria in World War II.  The swiss scientist who discovered its insecticide uses, Paul Hermann Muller, was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1948.  However, the effects of DDT on the environment and on other organisms were never fully studied even though its wide-spread use was adopted.  DDT use was poorly regulated after the war, and it was often used excessively in commercial agriculture in the 1940s and 50s.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote about evidence that suggested DDT could cause cancer and was thus a threat to other organisms besides insects, including humans.  DDT is particularly dangerous to birds because it can cause metabolic changes resulting in laying of eggs with very thin shells.  These eggs are then often crushed by the weight of the bird sitting on them to warm them.  The title of Carson's book, Silent Spring, was meant to suggest a spring season without the singing of birds, what she envisioned if indiscriminate pesticide use continued.          

The public outcry that resulted from Silent Spring eventually led to the banning of DDT use in the US for agricultural use in the early 1972.  This is thought to be a defining moment of modern environmentalism.  The banning of DDT is probably a major factor in preventing the extinction of both the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

While Rachel Carson's book jump-started environmentalism, her cause benefited greatly from the help of the Kennedy White House and JFK himself.  Read on to find out more.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part I: The Space Program

November 22, 1963 is a day that will live forever in the minds of many Americans.  Much like my own generation will always equate the date of September 11th with the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in 2001, those of the Baby Boomer generation will always think of November 22nd as the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Despite any personal flaws that he may have had, JFK was a man who inspired a lot of people.  He was well-known as a champion of civil rights and social justice.  He was also a champion of science.

Let's talk about one area of science and technology where JFK had a tremendous impact: the US space program and moon landing.  In 1961, JFK set the goal for the US to land a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade.  It sounded crazy at the time.  In hindsight, today it seems even crazier that it was actually accomplished.  So crazy that some people believe it didn't really happen.  In reality, though, it really did happen.

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, he represented a monumental achievement in the history of humanity.   The landscape of science and technology was forever changed by the massive effort that went into NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs leading up to the moon landings.

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, I wanted to revisit his impact on the space program and some contributions to science and technology that resulted from it.  Read on after the jump.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria

Methicillin-resistant Staph. aureus, also known as MRSA
Following up on the previous post on antibiotic resistance as well as the one on phage therapy as a potential strategy to overcome antibiotic resistance, I want to point out that there's a great episode of PBS Frontline about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria that you can watch over at their website.

I highly recommend watching it if you're interested in antibiotic resistance and the "rise of the superbugs."  Even if you aren't that particularly interested in the topic, it is still worth watching just to be better informed about what is going be a major public health issue that we as a society have to face in the coming years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Biological Rhythms and Biorhythms: Science vs Pseudoscience

"Biorhythm" cycles
We all have good days and bad days.  Sometimes it's random chance, sometimes it's our own fault, and sometimes somebody else is to blame. Throughout history, people have tried to explain or predict good and bad days through various methods.  People have used astrology, tarot cards and tea leaves to try to tell fortunes or predict events. 

Another way, called biorhythms, was popular in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  The biorhythms idea says that various aspects and events (births, deaths, etc.) in a person's life follow cycles based on mathematical equations.  While there's no scientific evidence that biorhythms can predict anything any better than flipping a coin, many people believed in it and some still do believe in it.

The theory of biorhythms is an example of pseudoscience.  Pseudoscience literally means "false science," and that's an apt description.   Pseudoscience is often characterized by exaggerated claims, like being able to predict the timing of events far in the future.  Pseudoscience also contains a small grain of real science to try to make it look legitimate.  The biorhythms idea takes advantage of the fact that there are real biological cycles.    

Looking at the idea of biorhythms can teach us quite a bit about how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, which is very important in our society today where anyone can get on the internet and try to sell any crazy idea they want to.  Let's talk about the theory of biorhythms, real biological cycles, and some ways to tell pseudoscience vs. science after the jump.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Where Does the Money for Research Come From?

I feel like the average citizen doesn't get to hear much about how the whole research "enterprise" works.  That's part of why I started this blog.  People need to be informed about how research impacts them and what the costs and benefits of certain types of research are so that they can make better judgements about funding, including how their tax dollars are spent.  I'm obviously somewhat biased, because I work in research and think that we need to increase federal research and development (R&D) funding, but I think my beliefs are based on logic and reason.   

You'll sometimes hear scientists or engineers in the news talking about increasing research funding from the federal government, but I don't think the average person has a clear idea of how much money we're talking about, where the money come from, and where it goes.  That's what I want to talk about today.  People need to know what the facts are so that they can make informed judgements.  At the end of the day, people can have whatever opinions they want to have, but only the informed or educated opinions are really valid.  An uneducated or misinformed opinion can be far worse than no opinion at all.

Let's go through a little bit of data and see what we can learn.  We have quite a few graphs to look at, but sometimes pictures can tell a story better than words.