Archives de Catégorie: Science

Rabid for science?

So this Sunday, I’m in bed with a bad cold. Not much to do but drink hot tea and listen to podcasts about viruses! In a recent episode of Skeptically Speaking, Desiree Schell talks with veterinarian Monica Murphy and science writer Bill Wasik about a very old and familiar, but also very uncanny, disease, rabies. It’s Episode 190,
– Rabid
, from the title of their book.

Every topic covered is just fascinating: from the early perception by ancient civilizations of the link between the human disease and the one in dogs, to the PR savvy of Louis Pasteur in using the already rare in his time, but still terrifying rabies to make the case for immunization. Also, the death-defying job of rabies lab research in a time where there was no vaccines and no means to cultivate the virus, except by using infected rats and rabbits that had to be handled with extra care…

And of course, we find interesting insights into human psychology in the course of the program, like the case of pet owners of the 19th Century who didn’t want to believe that their beloved animal could be the vector of a deadly disease! Nothing new under the sun, indeed.

Harry Potter and the Opportunity for Science Education

A whole generation grew up on the Harry Potter books and the films adapted from these books. So, what does it mean? Everybody and their little sister is going to pay attention if you use dear Harry as a teaching prop!

For zoologists, both books and movies are a mine of educational opportunities. All those owls flitting to and fro, bringing wizards messages — oops! The species mentioned in the books are not always the same as those used in the films. In part because, for instance, it would be difficult, and quite dangerous, to have a huge eagle owl landing on the tender shoulders of a school-age kid… (Yes, even Draco.)

Harry Potter and the PSA, by lyosha

Now, if you are a botanist, how about telling us what a real willow looks like? Not like the films’ poor angry Whomping Willow, in any case!

And then, there’s genetics. This is straight from book canon, and basic knowledge about how wizards can be born from Muggles stock. (Hat tip: @SLSingh).

That’s creativity for you, people! Yes, creativity. Science can has it too.

Moles are very strange vertebrates

Extra fingers don’t come out of nowhere, even when they have adaptive value.

These days in the news, we have an interesting example of the way inherited sets of genes and body plans limit the options for adaptation: the mystery of the mole’s second thumb. Short version: some moles (genus Talpa) have a second « thumb » on their forelimbs, which is one more digit than other modern vertebrates – an oddity in need of explanation.

But biologist Christian Mitgutsch, from Zurich, and colleagues, have shown that, just like what happened in the famous case of the panda’s thumb, these mole species have evolved their supplementary digit out of a wrist bone, and the result is a large six-finger « hand » very efficient for digging, indeed.

It’s also one of many examples of something this recent post by P. Z. Myers on aliens touches on: the idea that a good look at how evolution works here on Earth should give pause to science-fiction writers, film-makers and designers… Before they imagine life on alien planets too much like ours, let them see how different adaptive solutions already crop up among the multitude of living forms on our home planet!

We need to listen to Terry Pratchett right now

He’s talking about his life with Alzheimer’s, since he has the peculiar distinction to, 1) have a rare form of the disease that leaves him (for a time) agile of mind and eloquent, even though he’s more and more absent-minded in everyday life; 2) be able, thanks to his celebrity, to talk in a loud voice, when millions of patients can’t:

« I’m 60; that’s supposed to be the new 40. The baby boomers are getting older, and will stay older for longer. And they will run right into the dementia firing range. How will a society cope? Especially a society that can’t so readily rely on those stable family relationships that traditionally provided the backbone of care? »

Read More: « Diagnosing Clapham Junction syndrome ».

« Astrobiology discovery »? From Nasa? Let the heart-thumping begin…

It’s a cryptic press release from Nasa, blogged about on Boing Boing by Maggie Koerth-Baker: on December 2, at 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST or 20h00, Paris time), they’ll hold a press conference to discuss “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life”.

Oh dear, oh dear!

Speculations are already wildly mutating, but a look at the CVs of the scientists who are to speak suggest that the subject could be indirect biochemical evidence of bacterial life on other space bodies – like, say, Titan

Anyway, the conference is to be streamed on-line, of course. Just wait till December 2 and keep your eyes and ears wide open.

Neandertal and us, the comic strip

Science made easy! With pictures! Thanks to @BoraZ for the link: Neandering Genes, by Dwayne Godwin and Jorge Cham, in Scientific American MIND)…

Oh, and by the way, remember: the «as much as 4% of our genes» coming from Neandertals is only true for people of European & Asian descent. If you’re African, you should be pure Homo sapiens. Congratulations!

Bill Clinton is not «vegan», sorry.

And not a «plant-eater», either. Not by any valid definition. He eats some fish, so he’s not even a simple vegetarian. And he takes a «protein powder» in his morning almond milk, how’s that for a «natural», «whole foods» diet? Sure, he switched to a diet low in animal products, starch and refined sugars after his quadruple bypass, because he needed to lose weight and keep his cholesterol down, but that’s what the doctors ask of all their bypass patients. The «whole food, beans and fruits» thing is his own personal (shall we say, ex-hippy?) slant.

Anti-animal foods and anti-modernity militants (yeah, I’m snarky – I did some basic biology, thank you) may feel cheated, but they should rather blame some bloggers’ lazy word usage

(By the way, if you feel confused about what is and is not healthy after reading the whole transcript of Bill Clinton’s CNN interview, or reading Boing Boing′s comments, here’s a useful link to Skeptoid′s Nutrition 101 episode. Milk vs. soy, animal vs. vegetable, organic vs. conventional (how come it’s the pro-organic folks who give the labels?), raw food, refined sugars, and on, and on… All the debates sound very complex, but the building blocks of food, by themselves, are not.)