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Recommended posts: What Kids can Learn - Engineering the Economy - USA Under-counting Engineering Graduates - Children’s view of Scientists in England - Economics, Politics and Science Research - Phony Science Gap? - Questioning the Accuracy of Scientific Papers

Our Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great Risks

Our continued poor antibiotics practices increase the risk of many deaths. We are very poor at reacting to bad practices that will kill many people in the future. If those increased deaths happened today it is much more likely we would act. But as it is we are condemning many to have greatly increased odds of dying from bacterial causes that could be prevented if we were more sensible.

Resistance to antibiotics is becoming a crisis

Increasingly, microbes are becoming untreatable. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, warned in March of a dystopian future without these drugs. “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” she said. “Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”

evidence is mounting that antibiotics are losing efficacy. Through the relentless process of evolution, pathogens are evading the drugs, a problem known broadly as antimicrobial resistance.

Europe has launched a $741 million, seven-year, public-private collaborative research effort to accelerate drug development.

Seeking new antibiotics is wise but the commentary completely ignores our bad practices that are causing the problem to be much worse than it would be if we acted as though bad practices that will lead to many deaths should be avoided.

Previous posts about practices we taking that create great risk for increased deaths: Antibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes (2007)Meat Raised Without Antibiotics is Sadly Rare Today (2007)Overuse of Antibiotics (2005)CDC Urges Increased Effort to Reduce Drug-Resistant Infections (2006)FDA May Make Decision That Will Speed Antibiotic Drug Resistance (2007)Antibacterial Soaps are Bad (2007)Waste Treatment Plants Result in Super Bacteria (2009)Antibiotics Breed Superbugs Faster Than Expected (2010)Antibiotics Use in Farming Can Create Superbugs (2010)What Happens If the Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Them No Longer Working? (2011)Dangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat (2012)

Obviously bacteria evolve to survive the counter measures we currently have. The foolish practices of promoting ignorance of evolution leads to a society where the consequences of actions, and the presence of evolution, lead to bad consequences. We find ourselves in that society.

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Star Stuff: The Universe is In Us

Great statement from Neil DeGrasse Tyson on “what is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe.”

“The atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems: stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So when I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us… my atoms came from those stars….”

I think this might well be my thought on the most astounding fact also. Ever since I learned the atoms we are made of were created inside stars it has never ceased to amaze me.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is amazing. I would edit his statement a bit myself, though, to make it:

“The most astounding fact is that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, were created in the crucible of stars that cooked light elements into heavy elements. Those stars went unstable, in their later years: they collapsed and then explored scattering their enriched cores across the galaxy. Those stars made the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. Those ingredients became part of gas clouds that condensed to form the next generation of solar systems: stars with orbiting planets. And those planets have the ingredients for life. So when I look up at the night sky, I know that my atoms came from the predecessors of the stars I see.”

Related: Scientifically Literate People See a Different WorldTen Things Everyone Should Know About ScienceGravity and the Scientific MethodThe Importance of Science Education

Healthy Diet, Healthy Living, Healthy Weight

Living and eating healthily is tricky but not entirely confusing. The whole area of eating healthy food and what is a healthy weight is one where the scientific inquiry process and the complexity of scientific research on what is healthy for us is clear. Scientists study various issues and learn things but creating simple rules has proven difficult. Different studies seem to show benefits of contradictory advice, advice once seen as wise is now seen as wrong…

This is an area I am far from knowledgable about. Still I try to pay some attention as I like being healthy. Being sick is the quickest way to appreciate how great it is to be healthy. From various things I have skimmed it seems there is more evidence from several studies about how difficult it is to lose weight. Our bodies seem to work against our efforts.

And this, it seems to me, makes the problem of increasing childhood and teen obesity even more important to deal with as soon as issues arise.

It seems to me the most important thing to take from this, is the importance of maintaining a healthy weight: since you can’t just easily make up for a bad year of weight gain. I am not sure why I haven’t seen this note in most of what I have read – I suspect it is our reluctance to make value judgements about what is healthy. The problem I see with that is, the best advice we have is confusing enough without people with more knowledge being reluctant to state their best advice given the current knowledge. That doesn’t mean the suggestions are right, but at least they are educated guesses.

I try to eat relatively healthily. Which for me means taking steps to increase the amount of vegetables I eat (especially greens and some fiber) and decrease the amount of sweets and heavily processed food I eat (I still eat way too much heavily processed food). And I try to exercise as it seems to have many benefits including helping make up for some weaknesses in your diet (like eating too many calories and too many “empty calories). In my opinion (which on this topic may well not be worth much) eating a bit more stuff that really isn’t so good for you and exercising more is an easier tradeoff than trying to eat perfectly and do the minimum amount of exercise needed to stay healthy.

I also eat yogurt – I like it and the beneficial benefits of some bacteria seems likely. I heard recently something that surprised me which is that the beneficial bacteria remain for close to 2 weeks. I figured they would be gone in a couple days. I only heard that from one source (I can’t remember now but some seemingly knowledgable source – scientist researching the area), so it might not be accurate but it was interesting.

Here is an example of one of these health studies. They find that a low protein diet resulted in a loss of “lean weight” (muscle…) and more fat than a comparable diet with more protein. The same weight with a higher percentage of fat is not a good thing for human health. Thus the message is that a lower protein diet has this risk that must be considered (and therefor higher protein diets may well be wise). Of course things get much more complicated than that when we actually try to live by a diet.

Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating

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Nature Uses Stem Cells from Fetus to Repair Health of Mother

Science shows us so many amazing things. Scientists have learned mice use stem cells from the fetus to repair damage to the mother in the event of things like heart attacks. And there is evidence people do the same thing. Very cool. Nature beat us to the idea of using stem cells to treat health problems.

Helpful Mouse Fetuses Naturally Send Stem Cells to Mom to Fix Her Damaged Heart

When the scientists examined the female mice’s heart tissue two weeks after the heart attacks, they found lots of glowing green tissue—cells that came from the fetus—in the mom’s heart. Mice who had heart attacks had eight times as many cells from the fetus in their hearts as mice who hadn’t had a heart attack did, meaning the high volume of fetal cells was a response to the heart attack.

What’s more, the embryo’s stem cells had differentiated into various types of heart tissue, including cardiomyocytes, the rhythmically contracting muscle cells that produce a heartbeat.

The hearts of two women who suffered from severe heart weakness were later found to contain cells derived from the cells of a male fetus years after they gave birth to their sons.

The same thing seems to hold true for other organs. When pregnant women have damage in other organs, including the brain, lung, and liver, earlier studies have shown, fetal cells show up there, too.

It makes sense for a fetus to try and aid the mother but it is amazing the evolution found such solutions. Given how many challenges the fetus creates for the mother giving some benefits can help increase the odds of a health birth.

Related: Researchers Explain How Rotifers Thrive Despite Forgoing SexMaking Embryonic Stem CellsStructure and Function of RibosomeWhy People Often Get Sicker When They’re Stressed

Encouraging Curiosity in Kids

How do you help make your children scientifically literate? I think the biggest thing you can do is encourage curiosity.

One way to encourage curiosity it is by answering their questions (and not saying: I am too busy, don’t bother me, don’t ask me?, stop asking why…). I know adults are busy and have all sorts of stuff we are trying to get done; and the question about why I need to wash my hands doesn’t seem worth answering. But I think anytime a kid is asking why is an opportunity to teach and encourage them to keep being curious.

It is very easy to shut off this curiosity, in our society anyway (we do it to the vast majority of people). The biggest difference I see between adults and kids is not maturity or responsibility but curiosity (or lack thereof in adults) and joy (versus adults who seem to be on valium all the time – maybe they are).

As they grow up kids will have lots of science and technology questions that you don’t know the answers to. If you want them to be curious and knowledgeable, put in the effort to find answers with them. You have to help them find the answers in a way that doesn’t turn them off. If you just say – go look it up yourself (which really they can do), maybe the 2% that are going to become scientists will. But most kids will just give up and turn off their curiosity a little bit more (until eventually it is almost gone and they are ready to fit into the adult world). Which is very sad.

Once you get them used to thinking and looking things up they will start to do this on their own. A lot of this just requires thinking (no need to look things up – once a certain base knowledge is achieved). But you need to set that pattern. And it would help if you were curious, thought and learned yourself.

Photo of kids intently studying on a Malaysian beach

My mom with a group of Malaysia kids apparently intent on learning something. I am there, but not visible in this photo. Photo by my father.

While walking in the park, see one of those things you are curious about and ask why does…? It is good to ask kids why and let them think about it and try and answer. Get them in the habit of asking why themselves. And in those cases when no-one knows, take some time and figure it out. Ask some questions (both for yourself – to guide your thinking – and to illustrate how to think about the question and figure things out). If you all can’t find an explanation yourselves, take some time to look it up. Then at dinner, tell everyone what you learned. This will be much more interesting to the kids than forcing them to elaborate on what they did today and help set the idea that curiosity is good and finding explanations is interesting.

It is fun as a kid if your parent is a scientist or engineer (my father was an engineering professor).

You often don’t notice traits about yourself. In the same what I know what red looks like to me, I figure we both see this red shirt you see the red that I do. But maybe you don’t. I tend to constantly be asking myself why. If I see something new (which is many, many times a day – unless I am trapped in some sad treadmill of sameness) I ask why is it that way and then try and answer. I think most of this goes on subconsciously or some barely conscious way. I actually had an example a few months ago when I was visiting home with my brother (who is pretty similar to me).

As we were driving, I had noticed some fairly tall poles that seemed to have really small solar panels on top. I then noticed they were space maybe 20 meters apart. Then saw that there seemed to be a asphalt path along the same line. I then decided, ok, they are probably solar panels to power a light for the path at night. Then my brother asked why are there those small solar panel on top of that pole?

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Career Prospect for Engineers Continues to Look Positive

As I have written previously the career prospects for engineers are bright around the globe. Many countries realize the importance of engineering and have taken steps to compete as a center of excellence for engineering. It is a smart economic policy. Ironically, the USA, that did such a great job at this in the 1960′s and 1970′s, has been falling down in this regard. A significant reason for this is the USA can only fund so many things and a broken health care system, military complex, bailouts to bankers (trust fund babies and others) cost a lot of money. You chose what to fund, and those are taking much of the available USA funds. There are also non-economic reasons, such as the turn in the last decade in the USA to make the barriers for foreigner engineers (and others) to go through to go to school, visit and stay in the USA have all increased dramatically.

Back to the prospects for engineers: their are shortages of good engineers all over (and the future projections don’t show any reason to believe this will change). Germany Faces a Shortage of Engineers:

In June, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) reported that there were 76 400 vacant engineering jobs—an all-time high.

Policymakers in Berlin have responded to the shortage of skilled workers with a number of measures, including changes in immigration rules that allow German companies to hire engineers from other countries, including those outside of the European Union. Among them: The annual salary that companies must pay foreigners has been lowered from 60,000 Euro (US $95,000) to 40,000 Euro, which is roughly the starting salary of an engineering graduate in Germany…

To make it easy for engineers to move around Europe, engineering associations and other groups across Europe are working with the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) to launch the new Engineering Card. The card, which German engineers can apply for now and other countries are planning to launch, provides standardized information about the engineer’s qualifications and skills for greater transparency.

“We don’t expect many engineers will come, because among other reasons, there is a shortage of engineers across Europe,”

Related: Engineering Again Dominates The Highest Paying College Degree ProgramsS&P 500 CEO’s: Engineers Stay at the TopChina’s Technology Savvy LeadershipEngineers: Future ProspectsEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

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Cancer Vaccines

A reader commented on a previous post (MIT Engineers Design New Type of Nanoparticle for Vacines) asking about how vaccines can fight cancer. Preventative vaccines can build up immune response to viruses which cause cancer. So the vaccine actually works against the virus which prevents the virus from causing cancer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two vaccines, Gardasil® and Cervarix®, that protect against infection by the two types of human papillomavirus (HPV) – types 16 and 18 – that cause approximately 70% of all cases of cervical cancer worldwide. At least 17 other types of HPV are responsible for the remaining 30% of cervical cancer cases. HPV types 16 and/or 18 also cause some vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers.

Many scientists believe that microbes cause or contribute to between 15% and 25% of all cancers diagnosed worldwide each year, with the percentages being lower in developed than developing countries.

Vaccines can also help stimulate the immune system to fight cancers.

B cells make antibodies, which are large secreted proteins that bind to, inactivate, and help destroy foreign invaders or abnormal cells. Most preventive vaccines, including those aimed at hepatitis B virus (HBV) and human papillomavirus (HPV), stimulate the production of antibodies that bind to specific, targeted microbes and block their ability to cause infection. Cytotoxic T cells, which are also known as killer T cells, kill infected or abnormal cells by releasing toxic chemicals or by prompting the cells to self-destruct (a process known as apoptosis).

Other types of lymphocytes and leukocytes play supporting roles to ensure that B cells and killer T cells do their jobs effectively. These supporting cells include helper T cells and dendritic cells, which help activate killer T cells and enable them to recognize specific threats.

Cancer treatment vaccines are designed to work by activating B cells and killer T cells and directing them to recognize and act against specific types of cancer. They do this by introducing one or more molecules known as antigens into the body, usually by injection. An antigen is a substance that stimulates a specific immune response. An antigen can be a protein or another type of molecule found on the surface of or inside a cell.

Related: National Cancer Institute (USA)Nanoparticles With Scorpion Venom Slow Cancer SpreadUsing Bacteria to Carry Nanoparticles Into CellsGlobal Cancer Deaths to Double by 2030
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Vaccines Can’t Provide Miraculous Results if We Don’t Take Them

Vaccine preventable diseases used to ravage our health. In the USA, we are lucky to live in a society where those before us have taken vaccines and reduced to very low levels the attack vectors for these diseases. If nearly everyone is vaccinated for polio, even if it crops up with one person, most likely it won’t spread. As more people chose to risk the health of others in the society by failing to vaccinate, an infection can spread rapidly. There are some people who can’t be vaccinated for one reason or another (normally dangerous allergies) and vaccines, while very effective are not 100% effective. So any person that fails to vaccinate their kids endangers society and those who cannot be vaccinated.

Six Top Vaccine Myths

Myth 1: It’s not necessary to vaccinate kids against diseases that have been largely eradicated in the United States.
Reality: Although some diseases like polio and diphtheria aren’t often seen in America (in large part because of the success of the vaccination efforts), they can be quite common in other parts of the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that travelers can unknowingly bring these diseases into the United States, and if we were not protected by vaccinations, these diseases could quickly spread throughout the population. At the same time, the relatively few cases currently in the U.S. could very quickly become tens or hundreds of thousands of cases without the protection we get from vaccines. Brown warns that these diseases haven’t disappeared, “they are merely smoldering under the surface.”

Most parents do follow government recommendations: U.S. national immunization rates are high, ranging from 85 percent to 93 percent, depending on the vaccine, according to the CDC.

See the 2010 Child & Adolescent Immunization Schedules from the CDC and protect your children and society. The suffering caused by preventable diseases like polio and small pox was huge. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that those diseases are not dangerous. They are. We have been protected by all those taking vaccines. If people in the society don’t take vaccines that increases the health risks to the society at large.

Routine smallpox vaccination among the American public stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the United States. The United States government has enough vaccine to vaccinate every person in the United States in the event of a smallpox emergency (mainly due to concerns about bio-terrorism).

U.S. Adults Dying of Preventable Diseases

Diseases easily preventable by adult vaccines kill more Americans each year than car wrecks, breast cancer, or AIDS.

“We have a chronic disease epidemic in the U.S. It is taxing our families and taxing our economy,” the CDC’s Anne Schuchat, MD, said at the news conference. “We have a need for culture change in America. We worry about things when they are really bad rather than focusing on prevention, which can keep us out of the hospital and keep our families thriving.”

In other parts of the world the danger is not from those who chose not to vaccinate their children but those who are not provided the opportunity to.

Bill Gates’ war on disease, poverty is an uphill battle
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Teaching Through Tinkering

I wrote about the Tinkering School, Engineering camp previously. I am a strong believer in the value of helping kids (even adult kids – the few that haven’t resigned themselves to limited capacity to wonder since they now are grown up and not suppose to waste their time dreaming) explore their ideas and assisting them in making those ideas into reality. I think this is the best way to learn, not learning to pass a test, but learning to gain knowledge and accomplish things. Here is a nice 15 minute talk by the founder of the Tinkering School, Gever Tulley: “Turning Curriculum Design On Its Head: Engage First Then Look for Learning Within”

The format of the tinkering school is week long sessions where the kids stay overnight.

Some quotes: “we would use real tools and real materials and we would build real things, not model building, [but instead] actual building.” “create a meaningful experience and learning will follow”

Gever Tulley recently published: Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

Related: Home Engineering: Building a HovercraftKids Need Adventurous PlayAutomatic Cat FeederScience Toys You Can Make With Your KidsWhat Kids can Learn

Trying to Find Pest Solutions While Hoping Evolution Doesn’t Exist Doesn’t Work

How To Make A Superweed

Melander wondered why some populations of scales were becoming able to resist pesticides. Could the sulfur-lime spray trigger a change in their biology, the way manual labor triggers the growth of callouses on our hands? Melander doubted it. After all, ten generations of scales lived and died between sprayings. The resistance must be hereditary, he reasoned. He sometimes would find families of scales still alive amidst a crowd of dead insects.

This was a radical idea at the time. Biologists had only recently rediscovered Mendel’s laws of heredity. They talked about genes being passed down from one generation to the next, yet they didn’t know what genes were made of yet. But they did recognize that genes could spontaneously change–mutate–and in so doing alter traits permanently.

In the short term, Melander suggested that farmers switch to fuel oil to fight scales, but he warned that they would eventually become resistant to fuel oil as well. In fact, the best way to keep the scales from becoming entirely resistant to pesticides was, paradoxically, to do a bad job of applying those herbicides. By allowing some susceptible scales to survive, farmers would keep their susceptible genes in the scale population. “Thus we may make the strange assertion that the more faulty the spraying this year the easier it will be to control the scale the next year,” Melander predicted.

What’s striking is how many different ways weeds have found to overcome the chemical. Scientists had thought that Roundup was invincible in part because the enzyme it attacks is pretty much the same in all plants. That uniformity suggests that plants can’t tolerate mutations to it; mutations must change its shape so that it doesn’t work and the plant dies. But it turns out that many populations of ryegrass and goosegrass have independently stumbled across one mutation that can change a single amino acid in the enzyme. The plant can still survive with this altered enzyme. And Roundup has a hard time attacking it thanks to its different shape.

Another way weeds fight off Roundup is through sheer numbers. Earlier this year an international team of scientists reported their discovery of how Palmer amaranth resists glyphosate. The plants make the ordinary, vulnerable form of the enzyme. But the scientists discovered that they have many extra copies of the gene for the enzyme–up to 160 extra copies, in fact.

What makes the evolution of Roundup resistance all the more dangerous is how it doesn’t respect species barriers. Scientists have found evidence that once one species evolves resistance, it can pass on those resistance genes to other species. They just interbreed, producing hybrids that can then breed with the vulnerable parent species.

Another great article from Carl Zimmer.

Related: Amazing Designs of LifeMicrocosm by Carl ZimmerParasite RexPigs Instead of Pesticides

Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

The USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sun.

Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

I completely agree. People have the right to their opinions. But those opinions which are related to scientific knowledge (whether it is about evolution, the origin of the universe, cancer, the speed of light, polio vaccinations, multi-factorial designed experiments, magnetic fields, chemical catalysts, the effectiveness of antibiotics against viral infections, electricity, optics, bioaccumulation, etc.) are part of their scientific literacy. You can certainly believe antibiotics are affective against viral infections but that is an indication you are scientifically illiterate on that topic.

2006 NSF chapter that included the results
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