torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
If you're looking at a scientific field where you really feel you need to know more about what's going on -- say you've discovered that your child has a rare disorder, or you simply want to have an educated opinion on a matter of the day -- this is a decent crash course on how to read and really understand scientific papers. Science reporting can be sketchy at best, downright misleading at worst, so being able to read the source material is invaluable. I skim papers regularly, and read them in depth on occasion, to make sure I know what I'm talking about. There is a learning curve, but as you get more familiar with the format, vocabulary, and the particular field, it really does get faster and easier.

The one thing I would add to this checklist is in the last step (which she lists as optional): check the citations. When I'm rummaging around in a controversial topic, such as the health effects of GMOs, I want to know which papers the researchers were focusing on for the basis of their own research. There are two reasons: one, you can quickly identify the signature papers that everyone is working from, and evaluate those yourself; two, if you've already evaluated the papers they cite, you can get a feel for agendas or sloppy thinking that they might be prey to. For GMO research, a big tell is when I look at their citations and find several papers by Seralini, who has been discredited up one side and down the other. Unless they're using him as a foil in an effort to set the record straight, I know they aren't concerned about rigorous science, and may share his agenda. I then read the paper very carefully.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
I have reservations about this study, most particularly the time frames (one week is barely enough to get good responses with food-induced immune reactions, for one). I want to see more rigorous research on this.

By this point, however, my biggest issue is with the reporting on this study, namely that it may discourage people from trying a gluten-free diet -- and given that it's the easiest and most effective way to determine whether someone has celiac disease, that may be counter-productive. IFLS even went so far as to say "unless you're diagnosed with celiac disease, going gluten-free won't help" -- but blood tests are inaccurate, biopsies are invasive, and both require eating wheat steadily for six weeks. Once I determined that I had a wheat sensitivity (not celiac disease), you couldn't have paid me to put up with the symptoms for over six weeks, and many celiacs suffer just as much.

My advice to people with digestive health issues: try cutting gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, barley) out of your diet first. If that helps you, then go look at a FODMAP-free diet as well. You might get even better control. But above all, if you'll pardon the pun, follow your gut -- if there's something going on, you know best what your body does and doesn't tolerate.

I react to one of the proteins in the wheat family (wheat, spelt, kamut), and gluten-free foods are guaranteed not to have wheat, so I buy a bunch of gluten-free stuff. I did notice that when I tested that sensitivity last time that the bread I ate seemed pretty hard to digest. That's probably FODMAPS in play, but it's a separate reaction. So it's less clear-cut than "if you aren't celiac, don't cut go gluten-free".

Sensitive To Gluten? A Carb In Wheat May Be The Real Culprit
torquill: The devourer of worlds is not impressed. (devourer)
I just had an interesting cycle of events.

Inspiration, action, consequence, disillusionment )


A tidbit of less personal, but positive, news: A virus-resistant (transgenic) strain of cassava has been developed just in time to save that staple crop from what the BBC reported as an epidemic of Cassava Brown-Streak Disease sweeping across Africa. This is similar to making papayas resistant to Papaya Ringspot Virus in the mid-1990s. (Did you know that the vast majority of papayas grown in Hawaii are transgenic? Now you do.) It could save millions of Africans from famine, and the researchers want to pass on the technology to labs in Africa. Hopefully, by making the transformation process more transparent and accessible, they will avoid what happened with the GMO papaya strain. That was a bright spot in my day.
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (headdesk)
Just in case anyone else is wondering where the "OMG if an LED shatters in your home you need a hazmat suit to clean it up!!1!" meme is coming from:

LED products billed as eco-friendly contain toxic metals, study finds

It's an important study; LEDs appear to have more than the legal amounts of lead, and other heavy metals such as arsenic can be a disposal and groundwater issue. Where it departs from reality is how it affects the average person.

Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UC Irvine's Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention [...] said that breaking a single light and breathing fumes would not automatically cause cancer, but could be a tipping point on top of chronic exposure to another carcinogen. [...] When bulbs break at home, residents should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he advised."

Since Mr. Ogunseitan seems smart enough in other parts of this article, I have to assume that the reporter screwed up and quoted his guidelines for disposing of CFLs, not LEDs. Meanwhile, the "hazmat" aspect seems to have panicked non-science reporters everywhere, and I'm now getting OMGWTFBBQ from my alt-health list and social media. Sigh.

I'm going to write to Mr. Ogunseitan and the UC Irvine communications director in the hope they can put out a correction, but corrections never travel as fast or as far as bad science. :/
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
Study: Many Sunscreens May Be Accelerating Cancer

The culprit is not one of the polysyllabic synthetic chemicals (though there are plenty of those whose effects are unknown or suspect)... it's vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate. Antioxidant it may be, but upon exposure to the sun it can become carcinogenic, reflecting the often delicate structure of many antioxidants. They're reactive by nature, it's how they do their jobs, but if vitamin C breaks down with exposure to heat and light, it's no great surprise that putting vitamin A out on the front lines of sun exposure might not be a great idea.

The Environmental Working Group report is yet another dismal assessment of our sunscreen options in the U.S. They do recommend a few of them, but the best way to prevent skin cancer and burns is still to avoid the sun and wear protective clothing.

I've never been more glad that skin cancer doesn't run in my family, as that's still the greatest source of risk -- long sleeves and staying out of the sun is not especially practical for field work in agriculture. I'll keep relying on a base tan and the simplest sunscreens I can find. For those of you with fair skin and/or a risk of skin cancer... be careful out there, and read labels.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health

This is not new research, but a re-analysis of the original studies done for the approval process when these varieties were introduced. It involves one Roundup-Ready variety and two Bt-protein synthesizing varieties. These varieties are all currently part of the food supply.

The conclusions (do read the "Discussion" section, it's not totally opaque for the layman especially if you read the first paragraph and the last two) were that the experimental design by the Monsanto researchers was quite flawed, and the original analysis of the results was imperfect at best. When this team reweighed the data to compensate for the experimental flaws, and ran an appropriate statistical analysis on the result, they got totally different trends than the original researchers did. From my somewhat limited knowledge of experimental design and analysis -- I had a teacher who focused on what mistakes are commonly made, and how to spot them -- this was a very thorough and appropriate correction of the statistical techniques and design.

A few highlights: )

I'm not an opponent of genetically-modified crops -- far from it -- but I've been concerned from the get-go that insufficient testing has been done on all aspects of the safety of the resulting plants. The possibility that Bt proteins could be toxic to humans makes sense to me, as we've never eaten large amounts of the stuff before and who knows what our bodies think of it; we already know that Roundup is toxic, and crops which can be sprayed with impunity will naturally have higher levels of residue in them. We need to look at these potential issues before these crops are released to the public, and assure ourselves that the risk is minimal or none. We, as scientists, owe it to ourselves and the public to do this, no matter how small we think the risks may be -- even with a "safe" bet, we're still gambling with huge stakes.

I hope this spurs a flood of animal-toxicity studies, particularly long-term ones. I hope it prompts studies of other crops, such as soy and canola. We can't afford to wait.

Lastly, I hope this serves as a reminder: don't take any single study at face value, whether you like or dislike the results. Unless you can critically examine the methods and analysis that were done, you have no idea whether the data was good or the conclusions were reasonable. Bad studies and analysis don't even have to be from malicious or sneaky intent (I can tell you that a distressing number of researchers figure that slapping all the numbers into a table and running ANOVA is the best way to handle any data). Wait until the study has been picked apart and corroborated by others before treating it as anything approaching fact.
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (mad science)
[livejournal.com profile] mactavish was the first of my friends to put these on her LJ, and after [livejournal.com profile] hopeforyou sent me the site link for Science Scouts last night, I felt I should pick my own badges.

I have to say -- I find this far more satisfying than Girl Scouts ever was. :)

Troop Badge
The plant kingdom rules! badge. The non-explainer badge (LEVEL I) The I’ve eaten what I study badge. The works with acids badge.
The I’ve set fire to stuff badge (LEVEL III). The statistical linear regression badge. The somewhat confused as to what scientific field I actually belong to badge The experienced with electrical shock badge (LEVEL I)
The cloner badge. The I’m a scientist who is fundamentally opposed to administrative duties badge. The I know what a tadpole is badge. The has frozen stuff just to see what happens badge (LEVEL III)
The will gladly kick sexual harasser’s ass badge. The sexing up science badge. The I’m pretty confident around an open flame badge. The arts and crafts badge.
The talking science badge.


(Someone needs to make a little app to output the HTML for LJ -- I had to do this by hand.)

Edit: added the "Talking science" badge, as required. :)
torquill: A road sign that reads "cruve" (humor)
Thanks to lily, I was introduced to this little gem:

The Solution to the Big Dinosaur Paradox

Putting aside for a moment the fact that I was unaware of the presence of a Big Dinosaur Paradox, this site is wonderful. It seeks to use logical deduction and scientific evidence (no, real physics formulas and numbers) to find answers to the great puzzles of life, or at least what this author thinks are the great puzzles. It discards some of the weirder theories out in creationist-land because they don't hold up scientifically. And finally, at the end, the stream of logic and scientific thought comes to an irrefutable conclusion. (No, I won't tell you what it is. Though you might want to look up which materials have a density of 670 kg/m3.)

It is, without a doubt, one of the most entertaining sites I've seen in a while.
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (mad science)
I now know so much about the mechanism behind making transgenic (GMO) food crops that I can no longer engage in public discussion about it. Sigh.

Let it be noted, however, that after all this education, my only objection to crops modified to resist pests and diseases is the public reaction... there is no scientific basis I can determine for blocking such transgenic-resistance plants. Ditto for making plants used in pharm-acology. I'm not so sanguine about Roundup-Ready crops, which seem largely like a bid by Monsanto to lock in their Roundup market without a huge impact in effectiveness... but that's the minority of modifications looking for approval. Most of them are either used solely in lab research (for genomics and such), modified to make a foreign substance (such as a medicine), or given a gene conferring resistance to a disease or insect. And in almost all cases, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks (many of which exist even with normal crops).

That doesn't mean they should be forced down people's throats, so to speak. Public resistance is a very good reason to hold back on introducing such things to the food supply, and I think a lot of the pro-GMO folks have been ignoring that. I just wish they'd wake up and start working with the public on education and assuaging public fears, rather than screaming that the objectors are simply stupid Luddites. Until the public can have its fears rationally addressed, there's going to be backlash, and quite rightly so.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
I decided to read up on ricin, to refresh my memory, and found more details on its mechanisms than I had known before. Read on, boys and girls, to discover a toxin that is so efficient it's almost like it was engineered to be the world's most potent poison...

A little explanation of how it works, for the layman. )

So we have a toxin which moves freely into (and somehow out of) cells, using their own transportation machinery, resists all the cell's degradation pathways, gets put exactly where it needs to be without effort, hits a universal spot on quite possibly the most important protein in the cell and disables it immediately, and can do so thousands of times a minute for many minutes. I can't think of any way I'd engineer a better poison, except to make it possible to absorb it in some way other than ingestion or injection. (DMSO, anyone?)

The more I learn about it, the scarier it gets.
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (mad science)
Scotch tape gives off bursts of X-rays.

I kid you not. When these researchers pulled some tape off the roll, they recorded bursts of X-rays strong enough to get a proper X-ray image of a finger.

Granted, they had to do it in a vacuum... apparently there's something about air that prevents it from happening normally. That said, the article does mention in passing that you can get flashes of normal-light illumination by pulling tape off the roll in a dark closet. Eat your heart out, Certs.

They don't know why the X-rays are produced, since the Scotch tape adhesive is a closely kept secret, but they can get similar effects on different wavelengths with other types of clear tape. Duct tape, alas, is not that cool.

This definitely comes under the header of "Reality is weird".

Edit: If you don't have a NYTimes login, I recommend BugMeNot, and the corresponding Bugmenot plugin for Firefox.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
Making decisions tires your brain.

When CFS gives me brainfog and it's hard to focus, it gets much, much harder to make even small decisions (like what I want to eat). This links the lack of concentration issue with the difficulty in making even brief, simple decisions.

Hell, I should contemplate how this affects me even when I'm not crashy.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
British researchers uncover DNA variations in seven common ailments

The seven common diseases are bipolar disorder, coronary artery disease, Crohn's disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

It doesn't give us a straight out-of-the-box solution, not by far... but it does provide a lot more information about the diseases in question, and about the roles of these genes. It's exactly what people were hoping for when the human genome was sequenced.

Edit: [livejournal.com profile] joedecker linked to a post at In The Pipeline, reminding us that media reports that this is "a locked chest full of the secret keys to health" are way off the mark. I had generally tried to avoid giving that impression with this LJ post, but it's a good thing to really bring attention to. This is a significant piece to the puzzle, but we aren't much further than pulling the pieces out of the box and putting them on the table yet. Getting the full picture is a long way off.
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (grin)
My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
If there is a single piece of technology that I can point to and say "This is the future I've been waiting for," it's thermal conversion.

The new Discover magazine article

The prototype plant has gone through serious growing pains and come out stronger than ever... and Ireland hopes to have one next year. We need to push our lawmakers into making the US more attractive, via subsidies, additional rules on feedstocks (we need to cut out poultry cannibalism anyway) and grants. Let's get us some of these to chew up our landfills, agricultural wastes, raw sewage, tire piles, electronic and hazardous wastes, and anything else we can think of.

Oil doesn't just come from the land of the dinosaurs anymore.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
"-oyl" is indeed the suffix for an acyl halide. Good to know I remembered correctly.

1,10-decanedioyl chloride:

Oh, and Lexan? Made out of bisphenol A and phosgene. You know, phosgene-the-chemical-warfare-agent. Hoy.
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
Two forwarded email messages in as many days.

Theobromine is the ingredient that is used to make all chocolate

and

[H]e was told it's a compound which is one molecule away from antifreeze



I'm waiting for the trifecta.
Oh, my brain.



Edit: It does occur to me that "one molecule away" from antifreeze (ethylene glycol) might be an attempt to describe ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. Maybe I should look at the Swiffer Wetjet and see whether they really are putting Formula 409 in there -- that would add another thing to my list of hazardous household products. Sigh.

Swiffer WetJets contain propylene glycol monobutyl ether. It's a little less toxic than EGBE, but so similar that I don't want to be near it regardless. One more thing to mention when rattling off my list of "problem chemicals"...
torquill: A molecular model of Vitamin C (science)
Hey hybrid owners! Your car is putting your health at risk.

Fortunately, ATTI has the solution to your woes. If you think $65 x 4 is too steep a price, think about all the health care costs you're avoiding, not to mention the improvement in quality of life!






I have a few physics textbooks I'd like to throw at these guys.

And maybe a fraud suit.




(I don't think that EMF sensitivity is total bunk -- look at how I'm not supposed to be able to detect certain chemicals at such incredibly low concentrations as I do. But high-voltage AC lines are a totally different animal compared to DC battery current. I just wish more EMF-sensitive people knew that.)
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (Default)
I usually take information from the Pesticide Action Network with a grain of salt; even though I've been chemically injured and deal poorly with many of the pesticides they campaign against, their tone has always struck me as overly hysterical. That said, they sometimes do a good job of aggregating other news reports and summarizing studies, and this one seems like a good read.

Carbaryl: One Poison for Another in Urban Creeks

Read more... )
torquill: Art-deco cougar face (Default)
This caught my eye, mainly because it has to do with plant pathology. It is, however, also a tale of the same sort of corruption that pervades the current White House. Which makes sense, given who Katherine Harris is.

Pressure was put on Florida officials to test "Celestial Water" as a cure for citrus canker

I haven't researched citrus canker specifically, but I remember hearing that it's been a real scourge in Florida over the last four years or so. It's a bacterial disease, and the combination of wet weather (which helps it spread from tree to tree) and hurricanes (which injured the trees, making wounds where disease could enter) has made a serious impact on the citrus orchards. The only treatment for most cankers is to cut off the affected parts, which in many cases in Florida has meant taking out trees entirely. Everyone's looking for some other way, but I don't know of any.

When Katherine Harris, who knows absolutely zip about plant disease, hooks up with a New York Rabbi and a cardiologist to suggest a cure, it makes me angry that scientists have to comply with ignorant superstitious beliefs just because of who she is. Other quacks are brushed off with a quiet "do the research and let us know". Yet this Kabbalist dreck gets tested by the state, because a U.S. Representative is breathing down people's necks.

Gah. I get irritated by politicians messing with climate change data, but I guess when they mess with my profession, it gets personal.

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