Electron Boy Saves the Day!

Posted in health, News with tags , on May 8, 2010 by cpolsonb

I love this story, I really do. This is just so awesome and touching that I had to write about it. No it’s not really a science or skepticism piece but my gosh, it’s just so cool.

Everyone has heard of the Make-A-Wish foundation right? They are a charity that arranges special occasions, trips and meetings for terminally ill children. It began in Phoenix Arizona in 1980 when seven year old leukemia patient Christopher Greicius was granted his wish of being a police officer for day. The media coverage of the event prompted the founding of a national organization which soon went international and now operates in more than 30 countries. Tragically Christopher Greicius died of his illness just four days after his wish came true.

Just last month one particularly special wish came true and garnered international attention. 13 year old Seattle resident and liver cancer patient Erik Martin was granted his wish of becoming a superhero. Thus began the amazing story of Erik Martin Electron Boy and his amazing lightning rod! Erik was met by Spiderman in the morning (one of Electron Boys pals), who asked for his help in freeing the Seattle Sounders who were imprisoned in their locker room by Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy. Electron Boy quickly put on his costume and hopped in the Electron Mobile driven by Moonshine Maid went to the rescue. Oh and I musn’t forget the 20 motorcycle officer escort along the closed off main road!

Upon arrival Electron Boy met up with Lightning Lad who gave him the lightning rod which he promptly used to free the Sounders. After many heartfelt thanks from the team and a re-energizing power up secret handshake from Lightning Lad Electron Boy went onto the oval where he was awarded a signed football and personalized jersey. But the trouble wasn’t over because over the Jumbotron Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy announced that they planned to take over Seattle and make it dark! Electron Boy was off to the rescue and hopping in the Electron Mobile went and freed the head of the local electric company from atop a cherry picker. After that he needed to free some workers from a trapped elevator and then prepare for the final confrontation. In a battle of epic proportions Electron Boy faced up against the evil duo and managed to freeze them with his lightning rod.

All in all hundreds of people were involved in the occasion. The day was executed flawlessly in a light-hearted and feel good manner that left everyone smiling. Not only were the local police force and football team part of it but many local actors were given roles and hundreds of electric company employees gathered to cheer Electron Boy on. After the final battle Seattle City Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw granted Electron Boy the key to the city and announced that Thursday would be known as Electron Boy Day. Erik was clearly enjoying himself the whole time despite his ailment. He did have one thing to say though:

“This is the best day of my life.”

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Images Courtesy of Seattle Times

What’s This About Methane On Mars!?

Posted in astronomy, biology, personal views with tags , , on May 6, 2010 by cpolsonb

I have had at least a few people ask me directly “what exciting stuff is there left to discover in science?” Other than the obvious fact that there are definitely exciting answers to questions we haven’t even conceived of yet, there are also many major scientific mysteries answerable in this lifetime. I do not look think badly of these people, they likely haven’t had the exposure to learn about cutting edge modern scientific mysteries. It is also true that many of these mysteries, like those potentially answered by the LHC, require a deal of background knowledge to wrap your mind around. Nevertheless a few hours on wikipedia browsing major concepts in physics and astronomy is all anyone needs to appreciate the awesomeness of things like black holes, dark matter, entanglement, supernovae, exo-planets or the Higgs Boson.

This blog entry is about what I consider possibly the most exciting scientific question easily answerable in my lifetime. That question is “What’s with the methane on Mars!?”

What is so exciting about some gas leaking from Mars you might ask? First a little background. Methane on Mars was first discovered by a team at NASA back in 2003 using infrared telescopes fitted with spectrometry devices that break down incoming light into it’s constituent spectrum and can infer chemical composition from the signature or absorbed wavelength. This methane is being released annually (Martian annual) during the warmer periods at a number of locations. The gas is released in a series of plumes which can release as much as 19,000 tons of methane each!

So what does this all mean? Well we begin by considering all possible explanations for these methane plumes that scientists consider plausible. A likely explanation is that some geologic process is going on underneath Mars that is creating this methane. The only known way this could be happening on Mars is if water, carbon dioxide and the planet’s internal heat are converting iron oxide (rust) into serpentine minerals (common rock-forming hydrous magnesium iron phyllosilicate minerals). One major stumbling block with this explanation is that Mars is not thought to be geologically active and the required heat has not yet been found. It is possible that pockets of methane created in aeons past are stored beneath the surface and released annually as fissures form from cracking permafrost but this adds in another layer of complexity. There are other geologic questions that need to be answered before a complete explanation could be established and any such answer would still provide fascinating and as yet unknown information about ongoing activity on the Red Planet previously not thought to exist.

Another explanation, recently discounted by published research suggested that the methane might be left over on Mars from meteorites. Calculations have shown that the amount of meteorites needed to continually maintain the levels of methane found on Mars is far beyond what could be considered possible. There are other gaping holes in this hypothesis, such as why would the methane be confined to a few discrete pockets and why is it only being released annually. After considering the possible explanation of geologic activity and the unlikely explanation of meteoric activity we are left with one other major hypothesis.

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In Dog We Trust – The Case For Man’s Best Friend

Posted in biology, personal views with tags , , , on April 20, 2010 by cpolsonb

According to a recent survey about 36% of households in the USA have at least one dog. According to the Pet Food Institute this totals to around 57.6 million dogs, meaning there are nearly 3 times the amount of dogs in America as there are humans in Australia. Americans spend around $5.6 billion on food for their dogs and the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates around $7 billion dollars are spent annually on keeping dogs healthy. Why and how are humans so connected to an entirely separate and distantly related species like Canis familiaris? What makes dogs stand out from other domesticated animals and what can the study of human-canine co-habitation tell us about our own evolutionary history?

Let’s start with a very brief look at the ancestry of both dogs and humans. The canine group has its origins in North America and were originally small forest dwelling carnivores around the size of a fox. When open herd grazing ungulates like horse and antelope began to dominate the vast plains of North America the ancient canines radiated out from the forest onto the open ground. This created a canine ancestor that began evolving into a swift pack hunter in order to tackle the ungulate herds. It is thought that some of these ancestors migrated over the Bering straight into Asia, Europe and Africa around 10 million years ago. Over the next few million years these canids formed into the wolves, jackals, coyotes and painted dogs (not actually ‘dogs’) that we are familiar with today. The grey wolf (Canis lupus), the species from which domestic dogs arose evolved at the end of the Late Pleistocene around 300,000 years ago.

Meanwhile in Africa the ancestors of humans had been evolving steadily. The earliest member of the homo genus is currently identified as Homo habilis who lived from around 2.4-1.4 million years ago. Homo habilis was already using stone tools though it’s leg structure was more suited to tree dwelling than plains walking. After (and alongside) habilis arose Homo ergaster, who later gave rise to Homo erectus and Homo antecessor. Erectus and Antecessor were the first human ancestors to move far out of Africa and into Asia and Europe, both around 1.2 million years ago. Then from Antecessor came Rhodesiensis which finally evolved into Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Homo sapiens have lived from around 250,000 years ago till present while poor old neanderthalensis disappeared around 30,000 years ago. So while canid ancestors beat us into Europe and Asia by a good margin the grey wolf from which dogs evolved arose at around the same time as modern humans.

The exact circumstances surrounding the first co-habitations of wolf and man are not known but evidence suggests the earliest interactions took place more than 100,000 years ago. Even before this time it is thought that humans may have been observing and learning from the wolves about how to hunt large ungulates on the tundra. What is known is that by 30,000 years ago dogs had split from wolves and were living alongside humans. The earliest clearly identified dog skeleton was found in Belgium and dates to 31,000 years ago. The March 2010 edition of the Journal Nature published a study that looked at tracing the geographic origins of the domestic dog using genetic markers. The genetic evidence shows that the domestic dog originated in the Middle-East, rather than East Asia as previously thought. It is logical to assume therefore that if the oldest dog remains we have are from Western Europe but dogs evolved in the Mid-East then the split must have taken placed many thousands of years before our oldest skeleton.

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Breaking News – Victory to Simon Singh BCA Admits Defeat!

Posted in health, News, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , , on April 15, 2010 by cpolsonb

How totally cool! Big win for skeptics and rationalists in the UK as the British Chiropractic Association admits defeat and ceases legal proceedings against Simon Singh. There have certainly been a lot of ups and downs in this case, with most of the ups coming in the last 6 months of so after a shaky first year for Simon. What trickle down effects this will have for chiropractic remains to be seen but one things for sure, the old addage “any publicity is good publicity” doesn’t really apply here. This victory is of course unrelated to the continuing campaign for libel reform in the UK which hopes to ensure this kind of legal bullying cannot happen again.

The BCA today served a Notice of Discontinuance bringing to an end its ill-fated libel claim against Dr Simon Singh arising out of criticisms he made of its promotion of treatments for childhood ailments.

Dr Singh’s predicament as the sole defendant in an action brought in respect of a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper (to which the BCA never directed any complaint) was seen as a rallying point for those concerned about the abuse of UK libel laws in connection with scientific debate.

Interest intensified when Eady J ruled that his words were not comment and that in order to defend himself he would have to prove the objective truth of what he wrote.

Earlier this month the Court of Appeal overturned that ruling and this has lead the BCA to abandon its claim.

Chronicle of Belief: Part 3 – Nature’s Value

Posted in biology, personal views, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by cpolsonb

This third installment of Chronicle of Belief is about a subject very personal to me as a budding Biologist; nature. It is very easy to say that the natural world is a thing worth protecting and few fellow skeptics or rationalists would disagree, but why? What is so important about nature and is there an objective rational justification for why nature has value? To begin with let’s look at what my particular field, Conservation Biology is really all about.

For many people I imagine conservation conjures images of protesters and hippies, marching in the streets or standing in front of bull dozers. That sort of naïve environmentalism is however often irrational, counter-productive and/or used as a means to push some other ideological agenda. Conservation Biology is a scientific discipline that looks at how biological communities react to change, how different species and the environment interact with one another and how we as humans can ensure the continued existence of these systems. At it’s core Conservation Biology has a number of guiding principles:

Principles of Conservation Biology

1. Evolution is the basic axiom that unites all biology. Conservation biologists do not aim to conserve the status quo, nor stop the evolutionary process but to ensure that populations can adapt naturally to environmental change.

2. The ecological world is dynamic and non-equilibrial. Conservation based on a static view of nature is fundamentally flawed and a mis-representation of the natural world. A dynamic view allows for a deeper understanding.

3. The presence of humans must be included in conservation planning. Conservation biologists aims to integrate humans into the equation and study their impact.

These principles are text-book simplifications of a complex scientific field and highlight the dynamic, integrated approach that conservation biologists must take when approaching questions. It is also valuable to note that conservation biology is a ‘crisis discipline’, having been born from the outrage at anthropogenic mass extinctions and environmental destruction of the last few centuries. In this way it is also a science of eternal vigilance, there can never be a complete theory conservation biology as it is reactionary and time dependent. It is also not an exact science, biological systems are far too complex to ever predict with the certainty of say for example, a chemical reaction.

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Friend of Reason Takes it Easy

Posted in Admin on April 4, 2010 by cpolsonb

Well I’m at the point in my university semester where it becomes impossible to procrastinate further without being irresponsible. Consequently my uni work is taking up a good deal of my time, and I usually feel like doing nearly anything but typing when I take a break. While ‘Friend of Reason’ is a fun and relaxing commitment, it’s also an intellectually time consuming one and currently my head is filled with plant physiology, Australian fauna ecology/taxonomy and conservation and land management techniques. This leaves little space for much else..

But not to worry, I’m still committed to contributing to Friend of Reason, and you can still expect to see new post at least once a week. This slow down is of course temporary, and in a few months when the semester is over I’ll be back to power-housing 3-4 articles a week.

For now enjoy my previous articles and keep a look out for my upcoming entries!

Thanks for reading!

“Science is the Poetry of Reality”

Posted in biology with tags , on March 26, 2010 by cpolsonb

In “enemies of reason” Richard Dawkins states that he thinks of Science as “the poetry of reality”. That idea may soon be more fully realized than perhaps Dawkins ever imagined, thanks to Canadian poet Christian Bok. Bok is a world renown experimental poet most famous for his poetry book Eunoia in which he only uses a single vowel per chapter (of which there are five). His latest attempt at experimental poetry is to literally insert a poem of his into the DNA of a living organism.

The organism in question is the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans, the choice of which was no arbitrary decision. Deinococcus radiodurans is nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium” because it holds the world title for most resistant organism to radiation. The amazing resistance to radiation that this bacterium shows is thanks to a unique ring structure into which it’s DNA is formed. What the ring structure means is that pressure is applied all the way along the chain in such a degree that the normal severing of DNA by radiation does not occur. Radiation is still able to split the polypeptide chain in the DNA molecule but instead of the pieces floating away like in a normal DNA strand the pressure caused by the circular structure holds the pieces in place until they are able to “glue” themselves back together. This unique structure is therefore important if Bok wants his poetry to be preserved in future generations. If the poetic sequence were encoded into a different species of bacterium then over time radiation would sever and re-arrange the words into nonsense.

So the questions remains of how this will be achieved and what the poem will be. While I haven’t found much information on the specific mechanism that will be used to encode the sequence the most likely candidate is via plasmid integration. Without going into too much detail plasmids are small rings of DNA that occur separately in the cell to the chromosomal DNA in the nucleus. Plasmids are not considered life as they do not encode any genes for replicating or reproducing. Instead they are physically passed from one bacteria to the next through a process called conjugation. To cut to the chase, scientists are easily able to insert new plasmids into a bacterium that will integrate permanently into the chromosomal DNA. This is process is so easy that undergraduates like me are even able to do it!

As for the particular poem that Bok is going to insert, that remains to be seen. Unfortunately for Bok the genetic alphabet consists of only four letters; A,G,C,T which correspond to the nucleotides Aadenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. In order to construct an intelligible piece Bok is in the process of developing a cipher in which particular each triplet of nucleotides (i.e. AGT, TCA, AAG) will correspond to a particular letter of the English alphabet. All Bok has said so far about the content of the poem is that it will likely have an incantatory quality similar to a spell or ritual.