Sunday, December 13, 2009

What Are You Made Of Indeed, Tiger?

I do my best to avoid celebrity gossip as much as possible, what with the brain-rotting inanity and all. That said, I can’t avoid sharing this one: on the back of a recent (November) newsmagazine, I spotted an ad of America’s newest celebrity philanderer (move over, Jon Gosselin):


Oh the sweet, hilarious irony of it all. “What are you made of” indeed. I expect sponsors are tripping over themselves to distance themselves from the Tiger. At least Gillette, another sponsor who builds their image on Tiger’s reputation, has two others to pick up the slack for his poisoned public image. Who were they again?



Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sapporo Ushers in a New Age of Brewing

It seems Sapporo knows what it’s doing when it comes to marketing. They’ve taken barley that spent time on the International Space Station, grown it, brewed it, and made….SPACE BEER!


Genius. Just plain genius. Similar in spirit but hopefully much less tragic than Budweiser’s ill-advised Nuclear Ale.

Wired Science: Barley + Space = Space Beer!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Vitamin Water is a Stupid Product

Alas. It’s been a long time since work has kept me up till 3am. But I have something to share - I loved this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic:


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spotted any strangelets yet?

A press release yesterday from CERN has announced that the LHC has completed its first particle collisions successfully. Hooray for particle physics!


Now for the hard part – not breaking the machine again.

But CERN, if you have to get repairs done again, for Higgs’ sake get an up front quote. You know how bad those particle accelerator mechanics are an untrustworthy bunch.

CERN: Two circulating beams bring first collisions in the LHC

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A thousand taxonomists cried out into the night…

Whoever said cladistics were useless?

Certainly I haven’t.*

An example has just surfaced that shows the importance of taxonomy to this day. Sadly, taxonomists’ vindication may come at the cost of a species of fish, the flapper skate, now recognized as critically-endangered. Classification of this fish as the same species as the related blue skate has allowed the flapper to be fished almost to extinction, and all because of a classification error.

skatePictured: The Flapper Skate. So cute!

So while the fact remains that taxonomy is mostly an outdated field, there might still be some role for the science of natural classification yet. Just not in any of the important sciences.

Wired Science: ID Error Leaves Fish at Edge of Extinction

*This may be a lie.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Knock on wood – LHC might be operational in one week

After more than a year down after various technical problems have kept it from starting, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva is planned to be operational next week. The world’s largest experiment may soon be under way.

A week is not much time for anyone to get their tin foil hats on again, but I’m sure we can count on some crazies coming out of the woodwork once they get hold of this news. Bring on the fireworks.


Wired Science: LHC To Finally Start Next Week, Again

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Evolution in the Test Tube – Cool 20-year experiment demonstrates natural selection


Richard Lenski is the Awesomest Scientist of All Time. Yes, even more awesome than Doc Brown.

In the ongoing “debate” over evolution going on in the educational system, one claim that the creationists have made is that evolution has not been demonstrated to occur as we watch it. Enter a particularly elegant 20-year study conducted by Dr. Richard Lenski at Michigan State University.

First published a year ago, Lenski’s group has now followed up with a second genomic study on populations of initially citrate-metabolism-deficient bacteria that were cultured in the presence of excess citrate. In these conditions, it was an obvious benefit to any bacterium that would develop the ability to use citrate as an energy and carbon source, as it would then be able to grow faster than the other cells in the culture.

E_coliSeen above: E. coli, not growing

Over tens of thousands of generations, the bacteria did just that, and accumulated beneficial mutations, allowing them to utilize the extra carbon source, and thus gain selective advantage over the bacteria that did not gain these beneficial mutations. This takes incredible foresight, planning, and a little bit of fortuity, but it worked, and 21 years later the research has been published in PNAS and Nature.

While the research is exciting, the enjoyment I truly got associated with this work was not with the scientific publication itself, but Lenski’s response to inquiries of an insidious nature from Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly. Click that link to Conservapedia. I dare you. I was sucked into an hour of frustration reading their “balanced alternative to the liberal-slanted Wikipedia” articles, and you should have to endure it as well.

The entirety of Lenski and Schlafly exchange is presented on both the Bad Science blog and RationalWiki. I’ll just place my favourite excerpts here, but I encourage you to read the exchange in its entirety.

Excerpts from Lenski’s response:

I offer this lengthy reply because I am an educator as well as a scientist. It is my sincere hope that some readers might learn something from this exchange, even if you do not.

But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren’t very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it’s not that we claim to have glimpsed “a unicorn in the garden” – we have a whole population of them living in my lab! [] And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion. []

So, will we share the bacteria? Of course we will, with competent scientists. Now, if I was really mean, I might only share the ancestral strain, and let the scientists undertake the 20 years of our experiment. Or if I was only a little bit mean, maybe I’d also send the potentiated bacteria, and let the recipients then repeat the several years of incredibly pain-staking work that my superb doctoral student, Zachary Blount, performed to test some 40 trillion (40,000,000,000,000) cells, which generated 19 additional citrate-using mutants. But I’m a nice guy, at least when treated with some common courtesy, so if a competent scientist asks for them, I would even send a sample of the evolved E. coli that now grows vigorously on citrate.

However, if an incompetent or fraudulent hack (note that I make no reference to any person, as this is strictly a hypothetical scenario, one that I doubt would occur) were to make false or misleading claims about our strains, then I’m confident that some highly qualified scientists would join the fray, examine the strains, and sort out who was right and who was wrong. That’s the way science works.

You may be unable to understand, or unwilling to accept, that evolution occurs. And yet, life evolves! [] From the content on your website, it is clear that you, like many others, view God as the Creator of the Universe. I respect that view. I find it baffling, however, that someone can worship God as the all-mighty Creator while, at the same time, denying even the possibility (not to mention the overwhelming evidence) that God’s Creation involved evolution. It is as though a person thinks that God must have the same limitations when it comes to creation as a person who is unable to understand, or even attempt to understand, the world in which we live. Isn’t that view insulting to God?

Anyway, Richard Lenski is pretty much my hero.

RichardLenskiWith that incredible beard, how could he not be?

See also:

ScienceDaily: Time In A Bottle: Scientists Watch Evolution Unfold
Lenski Group Page:
The New Paper (Nature, Oct 2009): Genome evolution and adaptation in a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli
The Original Paper (PNAS, June 2008): Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli
Full Documentation of Lenski’s creationist badgering and response (Bad Science): All time classic creationist pwnage

Monday, October 12, 2009

Montreal Photojournal: Mont Royal in Fall Colours

It’s been a while since I’ve brought out the camera here, so I dragged it around a bit this weekend. Mont Royal is in full swing colour-changing, so makes for good photos these days.

MontRoyalColoursOf course, it’s probably not that impressive if you live near real forests (as a kid, I never understood fall country-drive tourism, it was just too ordinary to me), but this is as close as it gets in Montreal.

Incidentally, I remembered Randall Monroe’s most recent xkcd comic while cropping the above image:


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Truism via graphical representation

I’m starting to be persuaded that any idiom may be represented in graphical form. Another graph from Indexed:

card2278 Source: Indexed by Jessica Hagy

The important assumption here is that cook#1 is not me.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

You know you’re in a hockey town when…..

Me: Wow, this grocery store is very quiet tonight, even for 9:00pm

Cashier: Don’t you know? There’s a Habs game tonight!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Where do you see yourself in 4000 years?

Thousands of years from now, what will we think about the biggest events in modern history? Sam Kean wrote recently on 3quarksdaily on this issue:

Will the Manhattan Project Always Exist?

Read the article. It will change your idea of what really is permanent on this planet over the long term.

This assumes that we will escape various forms of robot, zombie, asteroid, climate-change and/or Malthusian Armageddon that could easily crop up in the intervening time. Hmm, I should start a betting pool. Takers?

3quarksdaily: Will the Manhattan Project Always Exist?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Coffee contains – gasp! – CHEMICALS!!!!!!

Ever wonder just what is in a cup of coffee? At first, you might not want to.

coffeePhoto source: Simone♠13

On the short list, in addition to caffeine, your average brew also contains:

  • Dimethyl disulfide, which contributes to the odour of human waste
  • 2-Ethylphenol, a cockroach pheromone
  • Putrescine, a toxic breakdown product of rancid meat 

While I don’t believe the article writer set out to have this effect, a couple comments indicate he has in fact scared some readers. Of course, it all depends on how you want to take it. Some might be made uneasy at the mention of strange-sounding chemicals with scary qualifiers, and opt to eschew their coffee tomorrow morning. I, however am not about to abandon my sweet, caffeinated nectar of the gods morning cup just yet.

Coffee’s been around for a while now, and (debates about small effects on overall health aside) it’s safe to say that the compounds in coffee, especially at cup-a-day levels, are harmless. This presentation of facts is a good illustration that one shouldn’t be scared of something just because it has chemical names attached to it. The unknown is scary and chemicals particularly intimidating, but any everyday material could be made to sound scarier if placed in the right light.

That cup your coffee’s in? Aluminum and silicon oxides
The table it’s sitting on? Reducing sugar polymers and lignins
The spoon you mixed with? Smelted iron-carbon alloy

You don’t even want to know what sort of nasty phytochemicals are in that banana you were about to eat.

The point being, just because you can name something chemically (and even describe potentially unsavoury places it might be found in nature or industry), that doesn’t make it bad for you. When someone says that a product contains (cue spooky music) chemicals, that person is trying to scare you, usually to buy their product. Case in point:

Note that they never say those chemicals are not present in their product (they are), just that they are present in the competitors. Sneaky bastards.

Anyways, that said, I’m thirsty. I’m off to grab a nice cold glass of dihydrogen monoxide.

Wired Science: What’s Inside a Cup of Coffee?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ig Nobels Awarded

Forget those other awards coming out next week, the Ig Nobel awards were awarded last night.

For the uninitiated, the Ig Nobels are awards that celebrate research that “makes you laugh, then makes you think”. They’re doing a great job of promoting interesting science, I always enjoy seeing who wins.

Winners this year:

  • VETERINARY MEDICINE PRIZE: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.
  • PEACE PRIZE: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.
  • ECONOMICS PRIZE: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.
  • CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.
  • MEDICINE PRIZE: Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, USA, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but never cracking the knuckles of his right hand — every day for more than sixty (60) years.
  • PHYSICS PRIZE: Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don't tip over.
  • LITERATURE PRIZE: Ireland's police service (An Garda Siochana), for writing and presenting more than fifty traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country — Prawo Jazdy — whose name in Polish means "Driving License".
  • PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE: Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.
  • MATHEMATICS PRIZE: Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).
  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cool Lipdub Video from UQÀM

I might be late to the game with this, as I got the tip-off from CBC, which in turn saw it from CNN, but it’s still cool. As part of the orientation at my neighbouring school, Université de Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), students put together a gigantic, 172-cast single-take uncut lipdub to the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling. And now I have the song stuck in my head. Mazel tov.

The CBC National story said that it had 50 000 views. Now, an hour later, I look and it has 124 000 viewsrefresh the browser – 139 000 views*. Seems it’s not done gathering popularity.

This all reminded me of one I saw earlier this year, that no doubt had influence in inspiring the UQÀM students.

This one was from a school in Germany (Hochschule Furtwangen) and as far as I can tell, pioneered the idea. Their video and accompanying site solicited a whole string of responses at the time - Check them out.

*I’ve preposted this – it’s bound to be even more by the time you read this
Update 02.10.09 – the view count is now 687,000. They seem poised to enter the internet Pantheon of viral videos, up there with “Charlie bit my finger” and the star wars kid. Give it time.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Global Warming, You’ve Gone One Step Too Far…..

I read about some sad news this morning. It seems that in addition to making island nations disappear and driving polar bears toward extinction, global climate change has contributed to another, undeniably more heinous offence – destroying the quality of beer.


Reported in the journal Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, the paper, titled The impact of climate change on the yield and quality of Saaz hops in the Czech Republic reports that important flavour-influencing compounds (referred to as alpha-acids) in Czech hops have been decreasing over the last 50 years, correlated with increasing average air temperatures during this time, and the trend is liable to continue. I’m sure more validation is in order, but if true, then global warming has crossed the line.

Climate Change should know the rules of engagement set out in the Taurus conference (Al Gore giving a talking to himself in his car). Those rules were:

  1. No cute and cuddly animals are to be harmed. Mosquitoes are fair game.
  2. Unreasonably warm winters are welcome. Unreasonably hot summers are not.
  3. Beer, coffee, cheese, and other delicious foods and beverages are not to be tampered with.
  4. You do not talk about fight club.

Of course if Global Warming is indeed playing hardball and we will continue to see the quality of our pilsners drop with time, I see only one logical way to deal with this.

UrquellDrink up!

Discovery Space Disco: Now We Have a Problem: Global Warming is Impacting Beer Production
Research Article: The impact of climate change on the yield and quality of Saaz hops in the Czech Republic

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Arrr, ye salty dogs!

Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Jolly_Roger So all ye buccaneers, scallywags, and marauders, let loose the inner scurvy-rattled plunderer on the world today.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh dear god, please stop the attack ads.

I try to keep well-informed on Canadian politics. But because it can be so polarizing, I try to keep my opinions more or less to myself, and try to stay neutral, re-evaluating my position every time an election rolls around. Seems almost yearly now.

Watching some TV this evening, I was quite disheartened to watch the most recent slough of Conservative ads, taking aim at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. The ads centre around Ignatieff’s supposed backing of the Liberal-NDP coalition that almost materialized last December.

What they count on (sadly, most of the time it probably works) is us forgetting was that Ignatieff was publicly hesitant to proceed with the coalition, at a time when he was a prominent party member, but not leader. He came forward with “A coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition”. Trying and spread an idea that he is reckless and untrustworthy is not fair. I’ll make up my mind on their policies if necessary, but I do not appreciate the lies of omission in these ads.

To any political party considering negative ads:


Please stop confusing the issues. Tell me what you have to offer, not exaggerations of the opposite side.

I guess I should be grateful, though. Canadian politics are nasty, but they pale in comparison to recent US political ridiculousness.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chicken soup for the cold, antibacterial soaps, and herbs in energy drinks

From my stream of daily science- and math-based procrastination reading, this cartoon comes from Indexed, a funny blog that “makes fun of some things and sense of others” through charts and graphs. This one hit home for me. Question everything!

card2240Source: Indexed by Jessica Hagy 

I welcome discussion on my choice of title.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Biking in Montreal – not scary, but damn hard

Today I rode my bike up a hill. Well, yesterday now, actually.

With my bike now in Montreal, I thought it would be a good day to take it on a test drive, on a holiday, when ostensibly the traffic (both automotive and cycle) would be less than on a weekday. Montreal drivers having the reputation they do, I was wary at first to take it out on the road, lest I be flattened the first time out.

Now, my bike is not the average bike around here. It’s a mountain bike. A somewhat ugly, cheap mountain bike. One that I would only bring home to my mother to scare her.  It changes gears unexpectedly. It leaves grease stains on my pants no matter how hard I try to avoid it. It is still caked in mud from the last time I took off-road back home. I love it like Marsha loves hers, but I would make absolutely sure to use a rubber.

While the weather is still good, I hope to make a habit of taking her to and from the lab. I often rode to and from my old university and never had too much trouble. Note that my old university was in Southern Ontario. Flat Southern Ontario.

Now for a fun fact: The source of the name Montréal comes from the old French for Mount Royal – Mont Réal. That’s mount as in mountain*. While I’m in better shape than I have been in the past from making a habit of running around said “mountain”, the inclines on the way to the lab sure were not fun. I had been warned, but I did not heed the advice. Biking muscles are not the same as running muscles. I was dying by the time I made it to the lab. Things should be interesting with this bike.

Surprisingly, traffic was pretty forgiving to me on the bike, perhaps because there are many who ride bikes around that don’t ride the fastest, struggle figuring out their directions, and actually obey all the rules. Or maybe I just got lucky. Time will tell. But for now, the traffic aspect of city biking wasn’t too bad. The geography was what wrecked me.

Experiences with a bicycle in Germany last summer have made me somewhat confident riding a bike in the city, but also made me a little nervous, even for my beloved-yet-piece-of-crap bike. Sadly, a reality about city life is that it is not uncommon for bikes to just roll away when you’re not watching. Hence my lack of hurry to clean off the mud on my bike. Maybe I’ll try to count on the difficulty getting around on my piece of junk to be somewhat to a deterrent.

*mountain of a sort – more of a very large hill, but that’s not much consolation as you struggle up a 15º incline

Monday, September 7, 2009

His Noodly Likeness Graces Us

The Telegraph posted an image in mid-August of a crop circle, which it claims is supposed to be the likeness of Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig.


I disagree. It is clearly a manifestation of His image, in geometric perfection, there to remind us that He is with us and that He loves us all.


On The Telegraph: Owl crop circle appears in Wiltshire field
Rogues Gallery: Crop Art

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

First week of classes on campus

I just started on now as a Master’s student. That means I now get to do this! I’m so awesome.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

Monday, August 31, 2009

DNA Nanotechnology

In recent years the term “DNA” has become a bit of a buzzword in pop culture, thanks in part to several well-written and researched science fiction shows, and also some that aren’t. The use of the term has come to the point that I often find myself wincing at its use whenever it pops up outside the realm of science, and even sometimes within it. Often when someone should say “gene” or “genome” they instead say “DNA”, which ends up confusing the terminology, and ends up mystifying what DNA actually is, making it seem as if scientists don’t know what the chemical actually does or looks like.

Scientists often say that DNA is a blueprint for life. Not quite. The genome is the blueprint for life (all of the information), a gene is a single sketch, and DNA is the substrate (blueprint paper) on which it is drawn.

If this is the case, new technologies involving DNA turn this on its head and instead of following the blueprint, instead use the properties of this “blueprint paper” to construct new constructions, particles and nano-machines.

Source: Science/AAAS, via Wired 

So where am I going with this? Well, my aversion to the term DNA except in actual scientific journals means that I greet articles that plug DNA technology revolutionizing a field with an extreme degree of skepticism. Turns out for once those preaching the merits of DNA are on to something.

The same properties that make DNA such a good encoding molecule for biological information also makes it a great candidate for creating machines on the nano-scale. What’s more, 40 years of research in molecular biology has given us many of the tools to manufacture and manipulate DNA in ways that just aren’t possible yet for other nano-materials.


By just changing sequences of stretches of DNA we can make them self-assemble into micro-machines that can be used as filters, scaffolds, cages, even happy faces:


It may be reaching at this point, but ever larger and more complex structures seem to be materializing in the future with this technology – and hints of the fabled DNA computer (though this goes into the realm of science fiction so far).


I expect big things from this field in the future. The simplicity by which DNA is manipulated (via the tools of molecular biology) makes this approach to nanomachines easily automatable, scalable, and replicatable than other comparable technologies. DNA nanotech shows promise. I look forward to what this will bring us in the future.

Wired: Self-Assembling DNA Makes Super 3-D Nano Machines
Read more: Tag-teaming with nature to build nanomachines
New York Times: Scientists Use Curvy DNA to Build Molecular Parts

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Banned Words in Science Reporting

Writing a paper or article on, in, or about science anytime soon? Read this first:

The Index of Banned Words

Carl Zimmer has started a list of words he deems inappropriate for use in science journalism, because of misuse, overuse, vagueness, or other annoyingness. Listen to him, and take his advice. He’s a science journalist who knows what he’s doing.

Some of them, like utilize, are science words that should not be allowed to escape scientific journals. But others, like breakthrough, are words that both scientists and non-scientists alike may be tempted to use like steroids, to artificially boost their writing. These words often end up being just wrong, and in some cases–like referring to a preliminary experiment in mice as a miraculous cure–they can be cruel by raising hopes in the sick that may later be dashed.

At Discover: The Index of Banned Words

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Wikipedia Model Does Not Apply For Medicine

Having some limited background in the biomedical sciences (though I consider myself first a chemist), I’ve grown tired of folk remedies that I can understand have little to no plausibility. Sometimes I’ll humour the person who suggests a course of action to me, but for the most point I will ignore anecdotal recommendations in favour of real medicine. It often frustrates me to see people who believe themselves (or sell their image as) more educated on health than medical professionals.

That’s why, when I read the article, Ask Strangers for Medical Advice, coming from a pop science outlet (Wired), I just about shat a brick. The article plugs a site called CureTogether, which allows hypochondriacs everywhere to track their progress on combating whatever ails them.

If all participants were honest, diligent, and meticulous, with some way of verifying the information reported, then the idea of CureTogether could work. The problem is, there is no way to track if what people report as results is actually what is going on. Most people are not meticulous. Many are not diligent. And there’s probably enough dishonest people out there to make this site’s information next to useless.

Even the image provided by Wired highlights the failings of this method:


The chart tracks various methods used to combat acne. The credulous eye sees that “Dr. Hauschka Natural Skin Care” seems to do the best job, but ignores the fact that this value is based on only two respondents. Without the source data I can’t be sure, but the data for this point could probably fall pretty much anywhere by chance (i.e. this likely isn’t a significant result). That doesn’t stop the fact that most people will now take away the message that this is the “best” treatment. And the remedy gets free publicity from the Wired article, as well, which it does not deserve based on this data.

The author writes:

Even if some bad apples make their way into the community, it may still be a better source of information than some peer-reviewed literature, since top scientists have been caught fabricating data about medications and Elsevier has published entire fake journals dedicated to bolstering the reputation of Merck drugs.

Which I find offensive. Yes, drug companies can be bastards. But that doesn’t mean that their information is useless. The peer-review process is in place to reduce this kind of dishonesty, and it does, by replicating and revising information when new results come to light.

Wired reports this issue as science failing the common person, and so they appeal to the experience of the crowd. The problem is that one person’s opinion does not constitute proof, and combining many opinions only amplifies any errors in judgement. The plural of anecdote is not evidence. Shame on you, Wired Science.

Wired Science: Ask Strangers for Medical Advice

Sunday, August 23, 2009

One reason to pay attention in physics class

You never know when a megalomaniacal criminal mastermind will use physics against you. From xkcd:

centrifugal_force Source:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Summer’s End in Montreal

So the summer is coming to an end in the fair metropolis of Montreal. I’ll remember the sunny days this summer. All three of them. More, I’ll remember the rain. All. the. fucking. rain. But I’m sure it will only take one blizzard this winter to make me wish it was rainy summer again.


I notice that the summer here is ending as the undergrads descend upon the student ghetto, and I feel that familiar mix of feelings, partly mild annoyance, partly deep envy of the students who are getting to begin their university careers this fall. In some ways I wish I could go back to that point, but for the most part I’m glad that part of my life is behind me.


As more and more people move in and the student-fed industries come to life, I’m finding it almost a little too busy for me. A trip home for a week should do me some good, and I’ll be back here, full steam in September to start work as a grad student proper. Expect a dearth of material here over the next week, though I’ll try to get some stuff rounded up and pre-posted before I leave. Such is the beauty of the internets.


Next time you hear from me live, I will no longer be caught in limbo, lying somewhere between undergrad and grad student; I will officially be a grad student at McGill University. Guess I need to stop shaving and stack up on microwave noodles...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I reported earlier on the newest element to be added to the periodic table, Copernicium. Here we look at the process of element discovery those researchers most likely went through in their search for the new compound. From Married to the Sea:

the-search-for-nappium Source: Married to the Sea

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Truth

In an awesome bit of Google-engineering, the truth is now the second-highest hit on Google (perhaps just in Canada?), topped only by Wikipedia.


I now have a new goal in life. To become the number one Google hit for Awesome.


I can do it. Because I’m awesome.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see the Science Creative Quarterly’s Truth at :

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scientists Model Zombie Outbreak

I recently reported on a few troubling signs that the robocalypse may be closer than we think. However, there are other equally serious apocalypse scenarios that we should also be concerned about. I’m talking, of course, about zombies.

Especially zombie strippers

Never you worry though, teh scientizts are at work. A chapter in Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress published by researchers at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, is titled

When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection

The abstract of the paper pretty much says it all:

Zombies are a popular figure in pop culture/entertainment and they are usually portrayed as being brought about through an outbreak or epidemic.  Consequently, we model a zombie attack, using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies.  We introduce a basic model for zombie infection, determine equilibria and their stability, and illustrate the outcome with numerical solutions. We then refine the model to introduce a latent period of zombification, whereby humans are infected, but not infectious, before becoming undead.  We then modify the model to include the effects of possible quarantine or a cure.  Finally, we examine the impact of regular, impulsive reductions in the number of zombies and derive conditions under which eradication can occur. We show that only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario: the collapse of society as zombies overtake us all.

And a snippet of the reference list, for where they draw their assumptions:

[6]  Capcom, Shinji Mikami (creator), 1996-2007 Resident Evil.
[7]  Capcom, Keiji Inafune (creator), 2006 Dead Rising.
[8]  Pegg, Simon (writer, creator, actor), 2002 Shaun of the Dead.
[9]  Boyle, Danny (director), 2003 28 Days Later.
[10]  Snyder, Zack (director), 2004 Dawn of the Dead.

Very likely the first time Simon Pegg has been cited in a scientific publication. Hopefully not the last.

We need more publications like this is we’re to combat the stereotype of scientists as boring, stuffy people who don’t have any sense of humour. Hats off to Nova Publishers and the authors for doing the scientific community a service here.

Wired Science: Mathematical Model for surviving a Zombie Attack
Publication in Question: Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress
Corresponding Author: Robert Smith? (read his bio – it’s worth it)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I don’t think Asimov’s Three Laws covered war crimes…

Given recent reports that robots may have sinister motivations behind their actions, it comes as little surprise that people have been a little bit nervous lately about anything mechanical that could potentially become one of the first round of Skynet-controlled killing machines.

Terminators  I’d prefer to avoid this if possible.

Thus, things hit the fan a while ago when it was revealed that a DARPA-funded program has built robots capable of generating energy from forage (read: leaf litter, twigs). Seems innocuous, right? Not if you’re FOX News. It seems someone caught on to the actual plan behind this to fuel the robots on casualties of war, because, you know, warfare hasn’t changed since the First World War, and there are all sorts of human casualties left lying around these days. Astonishingly, all through the development process, no one seemed to think this might be a problem, or violate international law. It’s a good thing FOX caught on to this all: Biomass-Eating Robot Is a vegetarian, Company Says

Hmm… well it seems FOX has changed their story. Strange, because FOX never gets things wrong….


Anyway. The initial reports prompted a (fantastic!) press release from the company going so far as to cite the Geneva conventions when it comes to desecration of the dead. The best line therein:

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO.

Its good to know that someone is taking our entirely realistic concerns seriously.


Credit to Steve for mentioning this first. I’ve had this backburnered for a while now, and finally wrapped it up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Stranger Than Eviction

JackTorrance If you’re bored and have a half hour to kill (you’re here, aren’t you? you must have some time to spare), read Gary, Landlord of the Flies (start at the end and read till the present, as the top post says. I haven’t laughed so hard in ages). The whole thing makes any housing-related issue I’ve dealt with in the past utterly insignificant. I don’t know how much can really be believed, but even if it is all fake, it’s hilarious.

Stranger Than Eviction:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


It took some time before I got around to seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I will regret this for years to come. 5 weeks of my life would have been so much richer if I had seen the film on release day. We all make mistakes.

Normally I go for more intellectual films, those that make one think, those that say something profound. But this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good action-fest blockbuster, especially when it turns out to be awesome.

Critics be damned, the new Transformers movie might just be the best film of all time. Forget all those other films that might try to claim the title, this one beats them all. I don’t care what you say, I’m right and if you disagree, you’re wrong. My only problem with the film was that there were only 2 1/2 hours of machine-versus-machine madness, when I know Michael Bay could have fit at least another 2 hours into the plot. If you haven’t seen this film yet, GO NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

Optimus Awesome

Monday, August 10, 2009

Insect repellent DEET is a potential neurotoxin


Unfortunate but somehow unsurprising recent research finds that DEET, the compound widely used as an insect repellent, is potentially neurotoxic, based on its ability to inhibit the crucially important enzyme acetylcholinesterase. The enzyme, known to biochemists as a classic example of catalysis, is centrally involved in the nervous system and the target of several particularly nasty compounds, notably Sarin.

Scared? Well calm down. It will be ok. I promise.

I don’t subscribe to the “all chemicals are evil” attitude quite popular in some circles, notably organic food and anti-pharmaceutical crowds. That said, I’m not a fan of blind faith in chemicals either. There’s a cost-benefit balance with any compound. One shouldn’t dismiss the utility of a compound because it has some negative effects; there can be safe applications of a compound if used correctly. Conversely, one shouldn’t assume that there are no negative effects of chemical products and use them indiscriminately. Use should be in moderation, and only when genuinely needed. Acetaminophen (Tylenol™) illustrates this point well. The compound is quite benign and functions as an effective painkiller in normal doses, but high doses can cause severe liver toxicity.

DEET, long sprayed in high doses frequently, may need to have its use curbed, pending further research on the actual effect (if any) that it might have on mammals and humans specifically.

However, we need to make sure we don’t forget that there are important benefits as well.

DEET-containing insect repellents are not merely used to avoid a nuisance. In the case of diseases like malaria, Dengue Fever, and West Nile virus, the repellence of insects can markedly reduce the risk of disease. The continued use of DEET will depend on the renewed evaluation of the safety of the compound, balanced with its efficacy as a repellent.

Now, I’m going to go duck as the irrational public storm about the safety of insect repellents picks up speed. We all know it’s going to get ugly.

Where I first caught this: Report: Deet, popular and potent insect repellent, is neurotoxic
On ScienceDaily: Popular Insect Repellent Deet is Neurotoxic
And the article on BMC Biology: Evidence for inhibition of cholinesterases in insect and mammalian nervous systems by the insect repellent deet

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Montreal Photojournal 4: Mes Aïeux at Les Francofolies

There’s been too much science on here recently.

Having been a bit of a homebody recently, I forced myself out into the city. Les Francofolies French-language music festival has been going on, and so I wandered on down to Place-des-Arts. Getting there just in time to sneak through before the gates closed to access the area near the stage, I was able to manage a pretty nice spot beside the main stage, though I still had no idea what act was coming up.


The act was Mes Aïeux, an impressive Quebecois Folk-rock group. As my French has not improved nearly as much as I would have liked this summer, I only got maybe half of the lyrics, but still enjoyed the show. As I found in the past with German, catchy music is a good way to develop an ear for the language, and so I think I may have just found a way to help improve my French.


I didn’t catch the reason why, but the encore started off with the previously suited-up band now donning space suits for the next number. Perhaps I don’t want to know why.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Math nerds count cards…..

Chemistry geeks count M&Ms. County fairs may need to start employing Vegas thugs just to keep the chemists from exploiting the game.

And here I thought my second year chemical structure class had no real-world applications…….

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Awesome photography – ISS with shuttle in front of sun

Credit: Thierry Legault

This image was snapped of the ISS and shuttle endeavour as they passed between the Earth and the Sun. Incredible, no? Its amazing to see a human construction in this light (pun oh-so-intended). Humans rock. They’ll take over the world someday.

ooiss_endeavour_2009july26_  Credit: Thierry Legault

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Good Old Days of Drug Marketing

Just what the doctor ordered.


For an enlightening look into the past of pharmaceutical marketing, check out this article to see lots more vintage ads:

Weed, Booze, Cocaine, and Other Old School “Medicine” Ads

While some inevitably take this as a condemnation of the pharmaceutical industry, I see it as a testament to the naïveté of the past and indeed how far we have come in our understanding of medicine.

What gaffes might we see on such a compilation in another hundred years?


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Email forwards and the art of panicking the masses


I had a chain email sent to me some time back now, not as a forward, but to check the facts. It was supposedly from Johns Hopkins University, spouted all sorts of medical nonsense about how our diets are killing us, and briefly shook my faith in humanity. I sent an email back explaining how some of what was written there just didn’t make sense from the scientific standpoint, provided a link to the article on the subject, and left it there, frustrated at the world.

The other day I saw an article that comments on this spam, and it goes through and breaks it down better than I ever could. Check out the smackdown, eloquently titled ZOMGCancer!!!!1111!!! at

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Evil Pixie of Reaction Mixtures

Anyone who has worked in organic chemistry or structural biology can appreciate this cartoon:

Cartoon by Nick D Kim,

Friday, July 31, 2009

My Clone Armies May Soon Be Manifest…..

Published last week in Nature, scientists have created mice solely from iPS cells. In normal person speak, this means that cells taken from adult tissue (skin cells), treated to become stem cells, were then coaxed into becoming embryos, and then grew into entire mice. Entire fraking mice. Meet Tiny.


The scientific implications are huge. This shows that an entire organism can be grown from adult cells, which means that mature tissue could give rise to an entire new organism.

This method doesn’t require the egg cell which was needed for Dolly to be successfully cloned. If an entire organism can be grown from iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, then the tedious manipulation involved in the cloning process might be avoided, with the same results.

Like Dolly, the new organism, genetically identical to its source, carries no threat of transplant rejection should one be required from the new organism. On an unrelated note, have you seen the film The Island?

The ethical implications of this research are also pretty big. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to look into all the different dystopias that could result. My favourite goes something like this:


My dreams of world domination may become reality in the foreseeable future. However, if the whole human cloning thing never pans out (i.e. the “bioethicists” get their say) then maybe just I’ll make do with legions of mouse-clone warriors. I mean, look just how terrifying they are:

ipsmouse1 Fear Me!


Wired Science: Living, Breeding Mice Grown From Skin Cells
Scientific American: Meet "Tiny," a mouse grown from induced stem cells
And the actual article at Nature: iPS cells produce viable mice through tetraploid complementation