Friday, August 31, 2007

What’s the Big Deal About Kids Eating Lead?

Lead, sweet lead. “Romans used lead powder to sweeten wine,” I learned in a Slate piece today. Kids today dig it in sugary paint chips. And now, with our friends in China adding lead to toys, kids can just lick those.

What’s the problem? If it tastes good, isn’t it okay in moderation? Why has everyone been losing their minds and
getting all excited about leaded toys? How come one Chinese manufacturing executive killed himself over this?

Lead is bad for kids, that’s why. Oh, you already knew that? Okay, genius, how does lead actually harm? People like to get wound up over news like this, but if you ask what the problem is, you pretty much get a blank look. And that’s where Pound360 swoops in with an answer. (Actually, all these answers come from Slate. But I’m doing the swooping.)

Basically, lead makes you stupid. It does so by tampering with the brain development. In severe cases, it can lead to seizures and comas. The worst part, well…

When it comes to toxic substances, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the government (CDC, FDA, EPA etc.) like to talk about “safe amounts.” For lead, Big Brother tells us today that blood lead levels below 10mcg/dl are cool (down from 60 mcg/dl in the Seventies). But a growing stack of evidence says that’s not cool. No lead is cool. From Slate: “recent medical evidence shows even trace amount of lead—at amounts now considered acceptable by the CDC—can damage a child's IQ… even the tiniest amount can hurt children's developing brains.”

Lead pretty much comes from two places to a kid’s blood stream. One, the environment (thank you leaded gasoline a few decades back and manufacturing emissions today). Two, paint (lead makes it bright and shiny).

Now let’s talk consequences. On the not-so-bad end, “lead-poisoned children” are more likely to quit school and have trouble reading. On the worse end, kids end up below “the general threshold for mental retardation.” Kids within the CDCs limits lose an average 7 IQ points. It may not sound like much, but that average means you have people at the high and the low end, right? At the low end, you’ll have “tens of thousands” in the official mental retardation category.

And yes, once those IQ points are lost, they’re gone forever.

So why isn’t lead more heavily restricted? Money, of course. Or, as they say, “industry resistance.” Companies like Du Pont and Ethyl like to sue the EPA when tighter emissions standards are suggested. And lead interests, whispering in the ears of the powerful, have led some modern presidents to A) suggest putting lead back into gasoline (Bush I) and B) to halt collection of national data on lead levels in kids (that was Reagan).

There’s also clever number crunching. In 2000, the EPA estimated that de-leading the country would cost about $8,000 per IQ point saved. One conservative economist, Randall Lutter of the American Enterprise Institute, “argued this was not worth the cost.” Really? An IQ point isn’t worth $8,000 in, say, earning more money through life or, perhaps inventing something brilliant? Apparently not. Lutter’s calculations show an IQ point is only worth $1,100.

How about this, Lutter and friends, what’s it worth for a parent to look their child in the eyes and say, “we, this society, has done everything possible to give you a fighting chance at being anything in life that you want to be?”

Let me guess, $7,999?

Where Did the Water On Earth Come From?

Most scientists would agree that water on Earth, so vital for the development of life, came from comets and asteroids, rife with ice, slamming into the planet as it formed. But where did the ice in those comets and asteroids come from?

One possibility is the water was formed in clouds of interstellar dust (that’s the stuff between solar systems). But new evidence from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, suggests water may be created within a solar system at its earliest stages,
reports the BBC.

The findings come from observations made of a young star system 1,000 light years away known as IRAS 4B. The system, reports the BBC, “is still growing inside a cool cocoon of gas and dust.” The “cocoon” is about 200 degrees below zero and as wide as the distance between Earth and Pluto.

Within the outer reaches of the cocoon, water seems to be forming as ice. As it forms, it’s being pulled toward the “embryonic star” at the center. As it approaches, the water is vaporized. So far, there’s enough water vapor to fill the oceans of earth five times over. Eventually, scientists believe, the vapor will condense into ice again, then create comets or join asteroids.

Eventually, the comets or asteroids may “crash down onto whatever planets they find, forming oceans that the future scientists of these worlds will someday be scratching their heads over,”
suggests TIME.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Extinct Dophin Back from the Dead?

This is being picked up everywhere. Scientific American, Reuters, New Scientist, and the New York Times. Everywhere. The UK’s Telegraph, the Melbourne Herald Sun and China Daily. Oh, everywhere. CNN, the Discovery Channel, and Forbes. Heck, I even brought it up here at Pound 360.

The Yangtze River dolphin (also know as the white-flag dolphin, the goddess of the Yangtze and sometimes just called Baiji for short), which scientists thought had been wiped out last year, has shown up in a scratchy home-video, apparently shot a few weeks ago. Hm... there’s a Bigfoot video too, but we all know that’s a hoax.

I’m not being sour on this because I was so passionate about this in my earlier posting. You may recall I thanked the people earth, especially China (TIME even referred to the dolphin as “a victim of China's breakneck economic growth”) for a flawless eradication (
look it up). But it turns out that we (humankind) (probably) couldn’t even get an extinction right.

But before I get into that. Let me point out that, when this extinction was first reported, I remember the story barely catching my eye. I read a lot of science and health news sources, and the extinction story didn’t seem too common. Maybe it trickled out and I was on vacation. I don’t know, but people seem more fascinated by a potential comeback.

But is this recovery for real? According to the new scientist report, one expert “says it is impossible to say for sure as the video is of poor quality and was shot from a great distance.” Also, the man who shot this film claims the creature was jumping out of the river. That’s a problem as, “Baiji do not jump out of the water,” said the same expert. Ah, but maybe this is a new species, a super-Baiji, if you will that can jump out of the water.

Something tells me this story is far from over.

What’s 200 Times Hotter than the Surface of the Sun?

The sun’s corona, of course. Wait. How is that possible? How could the halo around the sun be hotter than the surface? A new report appearing in the journal Science, and covered by Scientific American, ties the mystery to “Alfven” waves.

What’s an Alfven wave? I have no idea. And Scientific American isn’t written for wish-they-were-astronaut, could-have-been-a-scentist-if-I-studied-in-high-school-instead-of playing-Nintendo-all-the-time people like me. No, SciAm is pretty much written for actual astronauts and scientists. So, who knows...

Anyhow, yes, the article is dense, but from what I gather, the behavior of these waves violently rattles plasma (charged, high-energy gas) escaping the surface of the sun, creating more heat. How much more heat? The surface of the sun is about 8,500 degrees Fahrenheit, while the carona is 1.8 million degrees. Utterly shocking, yes?

Whatever these Alfven waves are and however they work, I’m wondering how long it will be before Hollywood rolls them into a plot? How about a giant Alfven wave ray gun hidden on the moon, threatening to melt a hole through Manhattah, Paramount? MGM? DreamWorks? New Line? Anyone?

Sure, Roller Coasters Can Scare You to Death

It’s rare, but it happens, according to a medical explainer column at Slate: “of 29 fatalities in roller coaster riders reported over a 10-year period, seven deaths were attributed to a cardiac cause.”

In a German study where researchers monitored the hearts of roller coaster riders, a number of interesting observations were made.

First, heartbeat rates for some riders exceeded 200 beats per minute. Half of riders continued to experience irregular heart rhythms for five minutes after the ride.

Second, maximum heart rates occurred just prior to, rather than during, big drops. It seems the anticipation is the real killer.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gorillas, Endangered, Being Executed in Congo

I’m not an animal person, okay. For example, I don’t care about (domesticated) cats or dogs. Frankly, it disturbs me how much we spend on pets in the United States ($41 billion according to a recent BusinessWeek report.) When it comes to the Michael Vick thing, I agree with some that his behavior was “barbaric,” but you can count me out of the group that “wouldn’t mind” seeing him executed (as one US Senator admitted).

However, one recent act of animal cruelty has me profoundly disturbed: the execution of mountain gorillas in the Congo. According to a New Scientist report, conservationists called the slaughter "executions - bullets to the head."
Why were members of an endangered species executed? For food? No. Were they after some obscure part of the gorillas for medicinal purposes? No. Self defense? No. The likely reasons: getting rid of tourists and charcoal.

According to New Scientist, “One theory is that the gorillas are victims of a conflict between those locals who see them as the basis for a tourist trade, and others who want them gone so they can use the forests to fuel a booming trade in charcoal.”

At the scene of the most recent killings, “six surviving gorillas have been given a 24-hour armed guard,” reports New Scientist.

So far this year, eight gorillas have been executed (
see the corpses here). There are only 700 left on Earth. That’s it. Do the math. One percent of the population have been exterminated because somebody resents tourists and can’t wait to sell charcoal. If the same thing happened to humans in the United States, say to get rid of employees at tourist attractions and make way for farmland, 3 million Americans would be dead. This is not okay.

One of the big reasons is that biodiversity (read: abundant, cheap food, medicine and other resources like oxygen and fresh water) on this planet is in serious jeopardy. How serious? According to
a May report in the Guardian (UK), many researchers believe “we are in the midst of a mass extinction event faster than that which wiped out the dinosaurs.” And what got us here? Attitudes like, “I don’t like tourists, so it’s okay to wipe out stuff they come to see,” and “well, if people are willing to buy charcoal, then I’m going to do anything it takes including the execution of endangered species to keep making it.”

Back to that $41 billion spent on pets. I say we outlaw pets and spend the money on animals that this planet actually needs. We need real protection of endangered species and threatened habitats (like rain forests, coral reefs and wetlands). I’m not sure how well armed the guards are that keep watch over the surviving Congo gorillas, but they’re going to need some serious firepower.
Remember, the Congo is a place where acceptable tools of warfare include torture (um, okay), rape (now that’s wrong) and cannibalism (okay, that’s just foul, foul, foul).

Here’s an idea: instead of deploying troops to Iraq, why don’t we send them in defense of endangered species and threatened habitats?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Massive Cosmic Dead Zone Shocks Experts

Scientists studying outer space with the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope were surprised recently to discover a region of nothingness -- a “huge hole” -- that's 1 billion light years across, reports Space.com.

We’re not talking a black hole here. A black hole is something, okay? It’s a super-dense object with such tremendous gravity that light can’t escape it. But what scientists found with the VLA is just a big void. There’s nothing there, and “astronomers don’t know why.”

Said one expert, “What we've found is not normal, based on either observational studies or on computer simulations of the large-scale evolution of the universe.”

In the newly discovered, mysterious void, which is located in the constellation Eridanus, there’s no gas, no dust, not even dark matter.

What could it be? Is something interfering with our telescope? Is it a natural phenomena, or something more menacing? Hollywood, I’m sure you’re already on top of this one. I started writing a script, but I’m shelving it for now.

How Moose Burps Are Destroying Glaciers

The latest villain in the demise of our planet’s precious ice reserves are the evil, horrible moose. Aye, a moose belches the methane gas equivalent of 2.5 tons of CO2 per year (2,100 kilograms), according to a Norwegian study reported by the Globe and Mail.

The amount of CO2 a moose burps equals the amount of greenhouse gas created by two round-trip flights across the Atlantic Ocean (from Oslo to Santiago).

In total methane, one Moose puts out about 220 pounds, but methane is 21-times as efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere as CO2 (hence the 2.5 ton number earlier).

Ready for some crazy math? There are 140,000 moose in Norway and 500,000 in Canada. Together, they put the equivalent of 1.6 million tons of C02 into the atmosphere.

Among other things, this revelation reminds us of the impact our diet has on the environment. Humans get about a third of their protein from meat. The raising of animals to produce this meat accounts for one fifth of all greenhouse gasses.

In case you’re wondering, this problem is (more-or-less) unique to ruminants, or grazing animals. These creatures have the unique ability to break down grasses and create protein (an adaptation that humans do not have, and that’s a big reason we eat animals to get protein). The ability to make protein from grass is based on specialized microbes in the grazing creature’s gut. And it’s these microbes that produce methane as a byproduct of their work.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Antioxidants May INCREASE Cancer Risk

I came across a headline straight out of Bizzaro World today at ABC News: “Antioxidants May Up Women's Skin Cancer Risk.”

Yup, once wholesome, pure things like vitamin C and E (some common antioxidants), friends of us health-obsessed types for years, are now scarred with asterisks, like Barry Bond’s homerun record in the annals of MLB history.

So here’s the deal. In a French study, researchers found women age 35 to 60 taking a supplement with antioxidants (C, E, beta carotene and selenium) had a 68 percent greater risk of getting skin cancer. That’s a big percent.

Critics of the study say the number of skin cancer cases, 157 out of the 13,000 people in the study, was too small to make any solid conclusions. Also, critics suggest the women were too old for the antioxidants to have an effect.

Still, 68 percent? If the difference were five or 10 percent, then I’d be a bit more onboard with the critics. At the very least, this study strongly contends antioxidants don’t do much good when it comes to fighting skin cancer.

Some experts weren’t surprised by the findings. They point to previous research showing antioxidants do not protect heart health in women and other studies which show beta carotene in high doses can increase lung cancer risk for smokers.

Another interesting observation by researchers, the increased risk was not found in men. Possible reasons for this include the fact that women have higher concentrations of antioxidants in their skin, they have estrogen receptors in their skin and, according to one physician, “women have thinner skin than males.”

For more on disgraced foods and vitamins,
check out this post.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Venezuela’s Weird Decision to Tamper with Time

Starting September, Venezuela is turning its clocks back 30 minutes, reports Reuters. Not one hour, but half-an-hour. Thirty minutes.

According to Hector Navarro, Venezuela’s Science and Technology Minister, the time change will help in a number of areas. For one, poor kids that get up before sunrise for school will now get up when it’s sunny. And the time change will help people’s metabolism.

"Very rigorous scientific studies have determined that ... the metabolic activity of living beings is synchronized with the sun's light," said Navarro.

But he’s not done there. Additional measures are in the works to “make more effective use of time.”

I know you can hardly control your laughter at this point. But is this really crazy? Does it make me a commie sympathizer, a blacklisted pinko, are my phones tapped for not outright bashing this move?

Tell you what, let’s look at Venezuelan productivity and health numbers in five years to find out who gets the last laugh here.

What Can a 4.25 Billion-Year-Old Diamond Tell Us?

For starters, the fact that a 4.25 billion-year-old diamond exists tells us a lot. Around the time such a thing would have formed, the general scientific consensus is that the earth was still a glowing sphere of bubbling magma. But according to a recent Scientific American report, diamonds four-and-a-quarter billion years old have been found, and scientists are questioning traditional assumptions.

The text book story goes that the Earth coalesced into that glowing hot ball-thing I described earlier around 4.5 billion years ago. For the next 500 million years, the Earth was supposed to stay that way before cooling so that land and oceans could form. But these new diamonds may set the time Earth started cooling back about 250 million years.

Diamonds can form in a number of ways. For example, meteors can slam into rock with enough intensity to form diamonds, and pressure at certain depths of the Earth’s crust are enough to do it, too. In the case of the super-old diamonds that have recently been studied, it’s likely that they were formed by pressure in the crust. And the Earth would have had to do a lot of cooling to make a crust thick enough to create the pressure needed to make diamonds. So the earth may have started cooling some time before 4.25 billion years.

Sharks with Fingers?

It’s possible. The genetic blueprint is there for sharks to grow fingers and toes, according to a LiveScience report. The reason sharks aren’t swimming around with digits is because the genetic process that controls this development is limited.

This finding, by a team at the University of Florida, suggests the genetic recipe for fingers goes back more than 500 million years ago, when cartilaginous fish (which have skeletal systems made of cartilage) split off from bony fish. Mammals evolved from the bony variety, of course.

Fingers and toes wouldn’t show up in the fossil record until 135 million years after bony and cartilaginous fish split off from one another. So it seems that these handy (ha ha) genes remained dormant for ages.

I wonder what else lies quiet, waiting to surprise us, in our genes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Melting Glaciers Reveal Undiscovered Islands

“The thaw of glaciers that stretch out to sea around Svalbard has revealed several islands that are not on any maps,” reports Reuters. Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago. The fascinating development refocuses attention on global warming, and raises concerns that arctic ice is melting faster than originally feared.

“This acceleration may be faster than predicted,” said one Arctic researcher. Instead of an ice-free arctic by 2100, we could lose our polar ice caps by mid-century. Quite a drag.

On the upside, maybe one of these islands will show evidence of a long-lost civilization, or reveal other clues about our past. Imagine how well preserved artifacts would be on these islands.

According to the Reuters report, receding glaciers uncovering new islands is not a new phenomena. I thought it was. However, “islands have also appeared in recent years off Greenland and Canada.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Kids Prefer Anything (Even Veggies) With a McDonald’s Wrapper

Stanford researchers found kids prefer the taste of food when it’s wrapped in McDonald’s packaging, according to an ABC News report. Basically, they served pairs of identical foods, one in plain wrapping and the other in McDonald’s, to kids. Of course, the kids said the stuff wrapped in McDonald’s packaging was better. Even if it was plain ol’ carrots (60 percent of the kids favored the McDonald’s-branded stuff).

Of course, advertising is the evil culprit. “The results help support calls for limiting marketing to young children,” one doctor told ABC News.

But wouldn’t kids prefer anything wrapped in a colorful wrapper over plain paper? I mean, you could have wrapped one carrot in a red wrapper with white smiley faces, another in plain white paper, and which one do you think the kids would prefer?

Another factor they’re not considering is the actual brand experience. When kids eat McDonald’s it tastes good. Advertising be damned, if you eat something from a certain packaging that tastes good, you’re going to prefer other things from that packaging compared to plain packaging.

I’m not saying advertising has nothing to do with the study results, but I think it’s a much smaller player in the results. And why didn’t ABC News go out and find that angle? I combed through the story, they don’t mention either of the two points I brought up, and I’m sure there are more.

Star Streaks Through Cosmos Leaving a Tail

“Nothing like this has ever previously been witnessed in a star,” reports CNN. A dying star, Mira, is shedding oxygen, carbon and nitrogen in a magnificent tail stretching 13 light years behind it. Thirteen light years is quite a ways. It’s thousands of times longer than our whole solar system, and further than the closest star (Proxima Centauri, which is four light years away).

Mira is 350 million light years from us in the Cetus (whale) constellation and currently in the red giant stage of development. That’s the step it takes before collapsing into a white dwarf, which can be the diameter of Earth with a mass of our own Sun.

Speaking of our Sun, it’s scheduled to go red giant in a few billion years. So will it leave a tail? Probably not. It’s not moving as fast as Mira. She’s been clocked by scientists at 80 miles per second.

Mira’s tail, like a lot of the matter ejected by stars, will probably end up seeding new planets, stars and possibly life. So far, the star has shed enough material to form 3,000 Earth-sized planets.

Typically, a red giant leaves a brilliant cloud behind as it shrinks into a white dwarf. Such clouds, called nebula, are common. But I wonder if Mira won’t leave a different phenomenon in its wake. Mira is part of a binary star system. She circles a white dwarf.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Earthlike Debris Circles Ringed Star

Scientists peering through the Keck I Telescope in Hawaii recently discovered an awe-inspiring scene some 150 light years away, reports Scientific American. It’s playing out in a ghostly solar system with a White Dwarf, named GD 362, at its core.

Ages ago, GD 362 was a star like our own sun. As part of its natural lifecycle, it eventually expanded into a red giant before collapsing in on itself. At this point, GD 362 is the size of Earth, but has the mass of the Sun. And it’s circled by a dusty halo resembling the Rings of Saturn

Looking through Keck I, scientists detected debris of an asteroid with chemical characteristics resembling the Earth: high in iron and calcium, but low in carbon.

Given the similarities, “GD 362 may offer a glimpse into our solar system's future,” according to the Scientific American report.

When the Sun goes red giant, it will probably “engulf and destroy” Mercury and Venus, according to one scientist. What of Earth? Aside from being charred beyond recognition, it would “spiral out of orbit.”

Impressive imagery, eh? Our once mighty sun reduced to the size of Earth with a set of rings, the leftovers of our inner solar system. A scorched Earth spiraling into the abyss as our sun swells out of control. I wonder if another civilization will be watching as the drama unfolds. I wonder if a civilization around GD 362 didn’t wonder the same thing, perhaps, as they gazed upon the remains of another star elsewhere in the galaxy.

Talcum Powder May Prevent Quakes

You know talcum powder is useful in preventing chafing or controlling moisture in your shoes, but did you know it may also fend off killer quakes?

Scientists in California are trying to uncover why a stretch of the deadly San Andreas Fault slides smoothly rather than sticking for years, and then slipping violently. After drilling a 2-mile-deep hole in the smooth-moving fault, they discovered lots and lots of talcum powder,
reports the LA Daily News.

My question, when are we going to start powdering the worlds most violent faults? Is the idea any crazier than shooting a trillion (yes, trillion) tiny spacecraft into orbit with the goal of blocking enough of the sun’s light to cool the earth in the case of runaway global warming? That’s
a real suggestion form University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel.

Interestingly enough, it would be prohibitively expensive to execute Angel’s plan with a conventional rocket, so he recommends shooting the sunshades into orbit with an electromagnetic space cannon mounted on the planet’s surface. Seriously. The plan would cost around 2.5 trillion dollars to pull off (.2 percent of global GDP). Once funding is in place, it would take 10 years (launching a craft every five minutes) to complete the shade, which is actually a cloud of little spacecraft.

So if a plan like that is floating around out there, don’t be surprised if some geologist comes up with a scheme to lube the Earth’s deadliest faults with talcum powder. Just remember where you read about it first.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pretty Much Official: Antibacterial Soap is a Scam

A new study by the UM School of Public Health finds antibacterial soap is no more effective than the plain ol’ regular stuff, reports Physorg.com. In fact, antibacterial soap may be making bacteria more resistant to common antibacterial drugs. That’s because the low concentrations of antibacterial ingredients (.1 to .45 percent) in these soaps doesn’t kill the bacteria, it just pisses it off. Of course, pissed off bacteria grows thicker shells and comes back with a vengeance.

The UM team looked at no less than 27 studies published over the last three decades to come up with their conclusions. For the record, we’re talking about over-the-counter stuff here. The antibacterial soaps used in hospitals have higher concentrations of active ingredients, so they might actually work.

How Life Can Form In Outer Space

Earlier this week, you may recall that I blogged about the distant possibility of bacteria’s immortality, and how this bodes well for the fringe theory that life came from outer space. Now a new theory, reported by Science Daily, suggests life could form out of inorganic space dust.

In the piece we find that, “under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organized into helical structures.” This according to a team of scientists from Russia, Germany and Australia. When organized into helical structures, the compounds may behave in lifelike ways. Does this mean they talk to each other and play chess? Not specifically, but they may “bifurcate to form two copies of the original structure,” “interact to induce changes in their neighbours,” and “can even evolve into yet more structures.” This is how DNA behaves. And we all know what that led to.

These “helical structures” are formed when space dust is superheated to a plasma. Did you know (I didn’t) that plasma is “essentially the fourth state of matter.” In a plasma state, “electrons are torn from atoms leaving behind a miasma of charged particles.”

It’s a long shot, but imagine if some of this plasma-born organic material hitched a ride on an asteroid that slammed into the Earth a few billion years ago. Also, consider this, plasma can be formed by lightning. Because of that, “perhaps an inorganic form of life emerged on the primordial earth, which then acted as the template for the more familiar organic molecules we know today.”

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Morbid Twist in Leaded Chinese Toy Fiasco

Earlier this month I blogged about a Fischer-Price recall of Chinese-made toys containing “excessive amounts of lead.” The Chinese company that manufactured these toys was Lee Der Industrial. Its owner’s name: Zhang Shuhong. And he was recently found dead of an apparent suicide at a company warehouse. Shuhong decided to hang himself, reports the Washington Post.

It appears that Shuhong was the victim of, “an increasingly vigorous government crackdown designed to restore confidence in the export industry.” Shortly before he killed himself, the Chinese government shut down his factory due to the massive toy recall.

But are we any closer to safer food and (tolerably) toxic-free products from China? Not just yet, but they’re trying. According to the Post report, “One recent sequence on the official China Central Television news showed smartly uniformed food-safety inspectors running out of their offices like firemen responding to an alarm.

If Bacteria is Immortal, Could Life Have Come from Comets?

Researchers studying the “oldest know ice on Earth” (found in Antarctica) managed to resuscitate bacteria that was dormant for eight million years, reports New Scientist. “This means ancient bacteria and viruses will come back to life as ice melts due to global warming.”

Does this mean some prehistoric super-bug could emerge from a frozen crypt and ravage human populations with a hideous plague? Of course. But it’s “unlikely.” This process of bacteria and viruses thawing after eons of dormancy “has been going on for billions of years,” according to the New Scientist report, “and the bugs are unlikely to cause human disease.”

Eight million years is a long time for bacteria to be asleep, or dead, or whatever. But it’s not a record. So far, the record is held by a little time traveler called “bacillus permians,” which was brought back to life after a 250 million year sleep. The bacteria was scraped from crystals near Carlsbad, New Mexico in 2000. (
Check out the complete article at Space.com.)

The 250-million-year-older raised questions as to whether or not bacteria “could live indefinitely.” If so, or even if it can last 250 to 500 million years, it lends support to astronomer Fred Hoyle’s controversial theory of life on Earth originating from space. According to the
Wikipedia entry on Holye, the astronomer suggested “life evolved in space, spreading through the universe via panspermia, and that evolution on earth is driven by a steady influx of viruses arriving via comets.”

Panspermia,
also according to Wikipedia, “is the hypothesis that ‘seeds’ of life exist already in the Universe, [and] that life on Earth may have originated through these ‘seeds.’”

And you know what, it’s not a new idea. One might think creation tales, where a god (or pack of gods) start life on Earth, answered questions about the origin of life before Charles Darwin came along. But the idea of panspermia goes back to the fifth century BC when Greek philosopher Anaxagoras toyed with the idea.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Girl Overdoses on Coffee, Rushed to Hospital

After pounding 14 shots of espresso while working her father’s coffee shop, 17-year-old Jasmine Willis “was feeling unwell and crying and laughing uncontrollably in front of bewildered customers.” This according to Britain’s Daily Mail. Dad sent her home, of course, where she managed to get some sleep. But in the morning, her lips were numb and she struggled to breathe, so she was taken to the hospital where the diagnosis was a caffeine overdose.

The ordeal included heat palpitations, uncontrollable sweating, hyperventilation and those uncontrollable emotional outbursts. Yeah, so cocaine should really be… oh, wait… this is a story about a coffee overdose. Sorry.

All this and some scientists wonder if coffee even helps keep people alert. In the Daily Mail story, I also learned a Bristol University study found “levels of alertness among those who drank coffee were almost the same as those who had drunk none.”

But the article is quick to point out that other studies show coffee can delay the onset of Parkinsons and “keep the mind sharp into old age.”

Curious about how much coffee will kill you? Check out
this handy calculator. For me, it would take about 87 cups of regular, cheap drip coffee, or if I’m in a hurry to get the job done, I can pound 45 cups of Starbuck’s drip.

Global Firestorm May Have Instantly Wiped Out Dinos

I always thought dinosaurs died a slow, miserable death over hundreds, if not thousands of years. Maybe some dust, kicked up by an asteroid, blocked out the sun and made food scarce. It would have been cold, too. So perhaps dinosaurs slowly starved to death, shivering in darkness to the bitter end. But after a bit of reading this morning, I’m learning dinosaurs may have been killed off in a matter of hours.

Whatever the specific details of the mass extinction, the predominant theory is that a massive asteroid impact triggered the slaughter. At the top of the list of suspects, a 6-mile-wide rock that slammed into the Yucatan Penninsula (in Mexico), leaving the Chicxulb crater, which is 62 miles accross.

After the impact is where things get, um, hazy. One possibility, suggested by a 2004 University of Colorado study, is an instant surge in global temperatures triggered by debris from the asteroid collision. This according to
a 2004 Space.com report. Said one researcher, "The kinetic energy of the ejected matter would have dissipated as heat in the upper atmosphere during re-entry, enough heat to make the normally blue sky turn red-hot for hours." The report isn’t specific on how hot it would have been, but experts say it would be, “the equivalent of a global oven set on broil.”

If that’s not dramatic enough for you, another theory is that “a global firestorm of methane gas triggered by an asteroid impact,” according to a 1999 Naval Research Laboratory study,
also reported by Space.com. In this scenario, the asteroid shook up the Earth’s crust, releasing pockets of methane under the seafloor and elsewhere around the globe. Lightning may have been the spark that ignited the gas and set off the global firestorm.

This notion of a firestorm that engulfed the planet is pretty fantastic. How much methane would that actually take? That’s not mentioned in the report. But my next question would be, could that much methane have existed?

Yet another possibility is that debris from the impact rained down as millions of small fireballs across the earth, causing massive wildfires. According to the geological record, there’s enough soot to suggest half of the world’s forests went up in smoke.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Riddle, Wrapped In Mystery, Inside an Enigma: Giant Meteor Stolen

Here’s the surprising headline from News.com.au: “Thieves make off with three-tonne meteorite.” First of all, how do you make off with a meteorite? Second of all, how do three tones of meteor survive an impact?

As it turns out, this particular cosmorock (I just made up that word) is supposedly a fragment from the so-called “Tunguska Event,” an unexplained explosion that wiped out 2,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest in 1908.

The leading explanation for whatever happened in Tunguska,
according to my dear friend Wikipedia, is the “airburst of a meteoroid.” I suppose a three-ton-chunk (doesn’t that sound like the name of a band?) could survive the airburst, but I find that hard to believe. Besides, according to the Wikipedia, an impact crater of any kind is strangely absent from the scene of the Tunguska Event.

Other theories behind the Event include a black hole passing through the earth (seriously, scientists in 1973 suggested this), a UFO crashing on its way to retrieve fresh water from nearby Lake Baikal and a comet, rather than an asteroid, bursting in midair. If it were a comet, this would explain why there’s no crater.

Also, if a comet caused the Tunguska Event, that would mean thieves in Russia made off with nothing but a plain old three-ton rock.

In my research for this post at Wikipedia, I learned scientist estimate the size of the Tunguska explosion at somewhere between 10 and 20 megatons, which is about the force of the largest U.S. nuke ever detonated (it was set off at Bikini Atol). This supernuke (that word is also made up) was named
Castle Bravo and caused a fireball 2.84 kilometers across. But that’s nothing compared to the Russian’s “Tsar Bomba,” a nuke that packed a 50 megaton punch, created a fireball 4.6 kilometers across and sent a shockwave registering 5.25 on the Richter around the earth at least three times. Heat from that blast could have caused third degree burns 100 kilometers away.

Fascinating Theory May Explain Great Dino-Mysteries

University of Washington Paleontologist, Dr. Peter Ward, has a fascinating new theory on how dinosaurs evolved, got so big and managed to survive as other forms of life were being wiped out around them.

The controversial theory? It revolves around one thing: oxygen.

In his recent book, “
Out of Thin Air,” Ward argues that oxygen levels in the atmosphere have been slowly guiding the evolution of life on Earth. For example, 300 million years ago, oxygen levels in the atmosphere peaked at 31 percent (today we’re around 21 percent). At that time, insects grew to their biggest sizes, according to the fossil record. Insects have very primitive respiratory systems.

But it’s not just insects, (almost) all life seems to have a relationship with oxygen levels.

According to Ward (
who appeared on CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks late last year), when you overlay the fossil record with charts showing oxygen levels in the atmosphere, we see the following:
  • Very few new species develop during periods of high oxygen levels
  • When oxygen levels crash, mass-extinctions occur
  • Periods of low oxygen levels (shortly after a crash) correspond with the appearance of new species
What’s going on here? When oxygen levels are high, life is good. Food is plentiful and it’s easy to pull oxygen out of the air. In other words, species don’t have a dire need to improve (evolve) to survive. It’s when oxygen levels crash that things get interesting. Following one such crash, the
    Permian extinction, 96 percent of marine life and 70 percent of land vertebrates were wiped out. And it wasn’t just animals dying off in large numbers; plant life was severely affected to. Across the wasteland, fungus proliferated and ruled the landscape. But within a million years, while oxygen levels were still low, the first dinosaurs appeared.

    It could be that the dinosaurs appeared in the vacuum left by dominant species, wiped out by plummeting oxygen levels. But that probably wouldn’t prepare dinosaurs to live on for another 150 million years, especially when you consider that other forms of life were wiped out during oxygen crashes in that time period. What seems to have given rise to dinosaurs and saw them through the millennia, Ward suggests, was an innovative new respiratory adaptation: air sacks.

    All vertebrates have lungs, but some (namely birds) also have air sacks attached to those lungs. These air sacks allow birds to extract 30 percent more oxygen from the air than you or I. And in areas where oxygen levels are lower than normal (for example, high altitudes), air sacks help birds pull double the amount of oxygen out of the air than humans.

    “Birds have the most superb respiratory system of all vertebrates,” said Ward on Quirks and Quarks. But how do we know dinosaurs had them? It seems dinosaurs had air sacks because of similarities between modern bird skeletons and dinosaur fossils.

    Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    Congrats People of Earth: Another Species ‘Now Extinct’

    Yes, it looks like another species has been wiped clean from the face of the Earth. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do (directly) with global warming (which is arguably a natural phenomena). The latest species we seem to have managed to kill off is a victim of greed, or “unregulated fishing,” according to a BBC report. And no, it’s not a slimy worm or a creepy spider, instead it’s the once smiling, once cute Yangtze river dolphin.

    (So special thanks is due to the still smiling, still cute people of China for this successful, flawless erradication of a species.)

    Scientists also blame dams and boat collisions for helping to exterminate Yangtze river dolphins.

    Once the extinction is confirmed, it will be “the first extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years.” (The BBC article actually repeats this twice. I’m not sure if they’re trying to make it clear that this type of extinction is rare, or if it’s just a typo.)

    Sam Turvey of the Zoological Society of London said this was a particularly “shocking tragedy.” According to Turvey, "This extinction represents the disappearance of a complete branch of the evolutionary tree of life and emphasises that we have yet to take full responsibility in our role as guardians of the planet."

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Levitation Goes from Science Fiction to Science Fact

    Scottish scientists at the University of St Andrew have discovered a way to reverse the “Casimir effect,” a force that governs matter at the atomic level. Sounds abstract, yes, but the Casimir effect, also known as the “dry glue” effect, allows geckos to walk across the ceiling. This according to a report today at the Telegraph. And you thought geckos used suction cups on their finger tips! (Um, I did.)

    By reversing the Casimir effect with a “special lens,” scientists have achieved “incredible levitation effects.” Though they’re not saying what exactly they’re levitating or for how long. No, it’s not human beings. Researchers say levitating people is a “long way off.” But that doesn’t make this breakthrough any less significant.

    The Casimir effect is referred to by one expert as “the ultimate cause of friction in the nano-world.” With the ability to manipulate this effect, scientists can keep nanoparticles from sticking together. This stickiness has caused headaches for scientists “trying to build electrical circuits and tiny mechanical devices on silicon chips, among other things.” Now, “micro or nano machines could run smoother and with less or no friction.”

    An interesting side note: earlier work by the same team of scientists showed that, in theory, objects can be cloaked. Yes, in the Star Trek-sense of the word. The theory suggests light waves can be manipulated to “flow around an object - just as a river flows undisturbed around a smooth rock.”

    Latest Exo-Planets: Super-huge, Have Water

    Meet TrES-5, a gas-giant in the constellation of Hercules about 1,435 light years away. It circles a star with the unfortunate name of GSC02620-00648. This is no ordinary gas-giant. First of all, it’s 70 percent larger than Jupiter, qualifying it as “the largest known exoplanet,” but surprisingly, it’s not the heaviest. This according to a report at the BBC.

    Although it’s much larger than Jupiter, TrES-5 weighs less.

    How is this possible? Wouldn’t such low density make TrES-5 a cloud? Well, according to the International Astronomical Union’s definition of a planet (
    more on that here), TrES-5 may qualify as a planet because it orbits a star and it has enough mass to be round.

    But there’s a third requirement TrES-5 may have trouble with. In order to officially achieve planetary status, a celestial body must dominate its orbit by clearing out all the smaller debris (in other words, it must “clear the neighborhood”). Because of its low density, Tres-5’s upper atmosphere “probably escapes in a curved comet-like tail.” Doesn’t that sound incredibly awesome, beautiful?

    I wonder if TrES-5’s week gravity makes it hard to “clear the neighborhood.”

    Another recent exoplanet discovery is the second confirming the existence of water outside of our solar system. This planet, called HD 189733b, circles a star in the Culpecula system about 64 light years from Earth. While water is present, there’s not much chance of life here. “Although water is a key ingredient for biology, the planet is far too hot to harbour life,”
    reports the BBC. HD 189733b orbits so close to its star, 30-times closer than the Earth to the Sun, that temperatures soar up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Monday, August 06, 2007

    What’s a ‘Higgs boson’ & Why Should I Care?

    Before we get to why the Higgs is so important, why it’s referred to as the “God Particle,” let me tell you about the “standard model.”

    According to an
    old article at Wired, “physicists base their whole understanding of matter” on the standard model. It describes how three of the four know forces in the universe work: strong nuclear, weak nuclear and electromagnetic (the one force it doesn’t describe is gravity). The standard model links forces to particles:
    • Strong nuclear is governed by gluons
    • Weak nuclear is governed by W and Z bosons
    • Electromagnetic is governed by phontons

    We now know that particles like gluons and W bosons exist because researchers have “observed” them. But before they were observed, the standard model predicted they would exist. Other particles predicted by the standard model that have since been observed are Z bosons, top quarks and charm quarks.

    Another particle predicted by the theory, which has not yet been observed, is the Higgs boson. And here’s why that’s important to the standard model. So far, we don’t know why all these particles -- gluons, charm quarks, etc. -- have any mass. We don’t know why they weigh anything. But it’s believed the Higgs boson holds (at least part of) the answer. Until we find this answer, many truly fundamental questions (like those relating to our very existence) remain unanswered.

    "Without the Higgs, all fundamental particles would be massless, and the universe would be very different,” one researcher told Wired. “The elemental composition of the cosmos would be radically different, stars would shine differently, and we probably wouldn't exist."

    To find the Higgs, it would take an explosion resembling the “blizzard of energies and particles” of the Big Bang,
    reported the Boston Globe earlier this year. To create and study such an explosion, the European Organization for Nuclear research has poured $8 billion (the GDP of Nepal) and summoned 7,000 researchers (half or all particle physicists in the world) to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). You may have heard this project referred to as CERN. And its aim is to “yield astonishing glimpses into black holes, hidden dimensions, and other mysteries of space-time” by “recreating the universe's first trillionth of a second,” reports the Globe.

    To recreate the split-second mega blizzard that started it all, literally, CERN researchers will fire streams of protons into each other at 99.9 percent the speed of light (around 186,000 miles per second). When this collision occurs, 600 million protons will be crashing together per second and all manner of subatomic debris will be flying in every possible direction. Scientists hope that some of this debris will be Higgs bosons.

    The LHC will be fired up later this year and hit full potential in early 2008.

    Is a Watermelon a Fruit or Vegetable?

    You may be used to this argument for tomatoes, but watermelons? Yes, it seems there is a bit of confusion when it comes to classifying watermelons. The reason I bring this up is because I heard today that Oklahoma declared watermelon as the state vegetable. I couldn’t find confirmation that Governor Brad Henry signed it, but the legislature sent him a bill according to this piece.

    So what is a watermelon? Just because a state legislature does something doesn’t mean it’s right. Could it be that lobbyist representing the watermelon lobby played a part in this? If I were a few million dollars richer and a lot more bored than I already am tonight, I’d launch a full investigation tomorrow. But I digress.

    Let’s turn to our friends Merriam and Webster for some definitions. According to the world famous dictionary, a
    vegetable is no less than something “of, relating to, constituting, or growing like plants.” Well, that pretty much covers everything doesn’t it? Sticks, leaves, roots, fruit and all. Okay. Let’s look up the definition of fruit. According to the dictionary, a fruit is “a product of plant growth.” Okay. Sounds exactly like a vegetable, yeah? Well, another part of the definition reads, “the ripened ovary of a seed plant and its contents.” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Kind of.

    Over at Wikipedia, things get even murkier with their entry for “
    watermelon.” According to their definition, the term watermelon, “refers to both fruit and plant of a vine-like herb.” Wait. Herb? Is that a plant or a fruit? And how is Wikipedia using the term plant? Check that quote out again. How is “plant” different than the “fruit?” Isn’t the fruit part of the plant?

    I went to the Wiki entry for
    plant and it didn’t help. Plants, according to the entry, are exactly what you’d think: everything on earth except for single celled organisms (bacteria, eukaryotes), fungus and animals.

    After becoming utterly confused (and rethinking my decision not to pursue the scandalous Oklahoma watermelon lobby conspiracy) I went to the Wiki for vegetable and got some comforting info. According to the entry, “Vegetable is a culinary term which generally refers to an edible part of a plant. The definition is traditional rather than scientific and is somewhat arbitrary and subjective.”

    There, you see? When science is pulled out of the equation, all manor of chaos erupts. This reminds me of the whole “
    definition of a planet” thing.

    Now, botanically speaking (we’re talking science, now), “fruits are reproductive organs (ripened ovaries containing one or many seeds).” This leaves “vegetative organs which sustain the plant” to be vegetables. Finally, some reason. So, a watermelon is not a vegetable. It’s a fruit. Oklahoma state legislature, you are wrong.

    But the Oklahoma state legislature is not the first to foul up the distinction between fruit and vegetable. In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled that, “a tomato is a vegetable for the purposes of 1883 Tariff Act.” (
    See Nix v. Hedden in Wikipedia) This despite the fact that, in scientific terms, a tomato is a fruit.

    Another interesting side note has to do with why a watermelon is called a watermelon. Remember its origins lead back to Africa, where watermelons are among the most common melons in the Kalahari Desert. Since they are relatively abundant, and water is not, they became “a popular source of water in the diet of the indigenous people.”

    Saturday, August 04, 2007

    Confusion over Vitamin D, Sunshine and Cancer

    At the London Times online we have this headline: “Sunshine helps in the fight against breast cancer.” So if you’re reading that you think, great so I’ll just spend more time sunbathing and I’ll be okay. But then in the second paragraph of the story, Times health editor Nigel Hawkes acknowledges that sun can cause skin cancer. So what’s the reader to think at that point? That either way they’re doomed, it’s just a matter of which cancer you want: skin or breast?

    How about cutting the sun out of the equation and taking a vitamin D supplement? Hawkes doesn’t toss that out. Instead, he reinforces the either-way-your-doomed thing as he explains that “the majority of vitamin D comes from exposure of the skin to sunlight.” Sure, but that’s not the only way you can get D, is it?

    About halfway through the story, Hawkes gets to the study that seems to have prompted his article. A Creighton University (that’s in Nebraska in case you care) report found women taking calcium and vitamin D supplements were 50 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those taking a placebo. So why isn’t the title of Hawkes’ piece, “Vitamin D helps in the fight against breast cancer?” Then he could go on about the benefits of taking a vitamin D supplement, which is safer than exposure to the sun?

    My theory? The Times went with a headline that would scare Britons into reading the story. Think about it, over in the UK, there’s not as much sun as you have in lower latitudes. Evidence for my theory can be found in this quote from the second half of the article: “sun avoidance would increase the risk of cancers overall, especially among those who live at latitudes as far north as Britain.”

    Of value in this article, I learned that vitamin D does not last long in the body, so you need a constant supply. Especially if it’s not very sunny in your neighborhood. So supplements, one expert said, are recommended. BUT, the article concludes, “the risks from overdosing are such that these must be taken with caution.”

    Okay, maybe I’m getting incredibly cynical here, but doesn’t that strike you as a touch slimy? That quote, those 13 words are the last of the piece. It practically screams out, come back tomorrow and maybe we’ll give you the answer. If you don’t see it tomorrow, keep buying the paper or visiting our site and eventually we’ll give you the info you need to safely take vitamin D.

    Interesting, I have yet to find any recommendation for how much vitamin D is safe, though I have read before that it can be toxic in high volumes. But what isn’t? Like scientists say, there are no toxic substances, just toxic amounts.

    Friday, August 03, 2007

    Gas from Coal: A Clever, but Bad Idea

    Sure, you can do it, and a group of lawmakers (with the blessing of the Bush Administration) were trying to push a bill through the Senate to subsidize the conversion of coal into liquid fuel. But the effort failed, and for good reason.

    According to
    an op-ed at Rochester Post-Bulletin, which calls on a variety of sources from the NY Times to MIT, the coal-to-liquid process is both dirty and expensive.

    If your goal is energy independence, the coal-to-liquid thing is great. In
    an NPR report on this matter, one expert referred to the US as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” We got lots of it, so if we started turning coal into gasoline, we probably wouldn’t rely so much on foreign sources. But again, the process of transforming coal-to-liquid isn’t cheap.

    First of all, it costs four times as much to build a coal-to-liquid plant as it does to build a petrol refinery. Also, it takes a lot of water to create a gallon of fuel from coal. According to the NPR report, a single gallon of fuel from coal takes 15 gallons of water to create. To contextualize that, consider that a plant making 22,000 barrels of fuel from coal per day would consume as much water as a city with 100,000 people.

    Money and water aside, making liquid fuel from coal is dirty. According to a NY Times editorial, cited by the Post-Bulletin piece, “between the production process and burning it in cars, coal-to-liquid fuel produces more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline and nearly twice the emissions of ordinary diesel.”

    So while coal-to-liquid is good for energy independence, it’s a drag for the environment. I suppose we need to decide which is more important. Once again, the Senate halted a bill to encourage this practice, so it seems as though the environment is winning the battle… for now.

    For the record, a couple of other countries have played the coal-to-liquid card: Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa. And… well… I’ll leave it at that.

    Surviving in Space Without a Spacesuit

    According to a recent Slate explainer, you can do it. Not for long. At most, you can go about 15 seconds without a suit in the void of space, but you don’t want to test it out because you’ll probably die a pretty miserable death in the process.

    Among other things, you’ve got all kinds of extreme temperatures to deal with (from 200 below to 200 above zero, Fahrenheit), ultraviolet rays stray meteorites, and of course, this whole business of a vacuum. No, vacuums are not good for people.

    In a vacuum, I learned at Slate, not only is there no oxygen to breathe (that’s actually the least of your worries), but you have to worry about the horror of ebullism (no, not embolism, more on that later, right now we’re talking ebullism). What’s that? Glad you asked. I was wondering the same thing. It turns out that in a vacuum, “reduction in pressure causes the boiling point of bodily fluids to decrease below the body's normal temperature.”

    In a 1965 accident, a NASA test subject was exposed to near-vacuum conditions without the benefit of a spacesuit. It took about 14 seconds for him to pass out. The last thing he remembers before losing consciousness is the saliva on his tongue boiling.

    Oh, embolism. If you don’t expel all the air from your lungs before heading into space without a NASA-approved spacesuit, the air in your lungs will expand, burst your lungs for starters, and then send air bubbles into your blood vessels. That’s an embolism, yet another unpleasant consequence of floating through space without the right gear.

    Is a Vegetarian Diet Cheaper?

    Over at MSN, there’s an article with the interesting title, “Go vegetarian to save money.” I like the idea, but after reading the piece, I wasn’t convinced.

    In the article, the author, Scott McCredie, points out that common sources of protein for meat eaters (like beef and chicken which cost around three dollars per pound) are more expensive than proteins that many vegetarians rely on (like beans and tofu which are between one and two dollars per pound).

    I happen to know a bit about vegetarian diets, and know a few vegetarians, and tofu rarely, if ever, comes to the table.

    Cheese does. So do nuts. And soy milk. Fake meats, too; like soy burgers. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet gram-for-gram, these proteins cost as much as the animal variety.

    McCredie actually acknowledges that fake meat can cost around five dollars per pound. He also acknowledges that vegetables themselves aren’t all that cheap. And if you go for organic veggies, you’re really paying a lot.

    So how do you save money by being a vegetarian?

    When I saw this article’s headline, I was hoping for results from an actual study of vegetarian, vegan and omnivore shopping carts over the course of a year. But all I got was a lot of speculation. Kind of a let down, especially considering how charged people get when debating the value of a vegetarian diet.

    At the end of the piece, McCredie tries to explain that a vegetarian diet is likely to save money later in life because, we’re supposed to believe, vegetarians are healthier. Better health, of course, means you won’t spend so much on medical bills. But are vegetarians really healthier later in life? Is a diet that includes meat necessarily a bad one that leads to poor health? McCredie expects the reader to believe these things without any evidence.

    This is pretty concerning. When I see articles like this, it tells me the subject of the article is trendy (in this case, being a vegetarian). Does this make sense? When something is trendy, and people will drop everything and read all about it, almost any half-baked article on the subject gets published. And when that happens, and bad articles like McCredie’s slip through the editorial net at publications like MSN, straw men (in this case, bad articles) are set up for the other side to swagger over and tear to pieces. I wouldn’t even consider myself on the other side of this issue, but I’m sitting here tearing this thing apart.

    Look, Mr. McCredie, if you’re reading… or if your editors at MSN are reading… I know your heart is in the right place, but an article like this doesn’t help anyone’s cause. It actually makes vegetarians look like idiots, and gives people critical of them added leverage.

    For some real numbers, facts on how vegetarian diets are better, check out past coverage at Pound360:

    Vegetarian diet better for losing weight
    Vegetarian diet is better for environment

    Thursday, August 02, 2007

    Another shocker! Americans Growing OUT, Not Up

    Over at Newsweek today, I read that, “Americans are now among the shortest and fattest people in the industrialized world.” This according to a new Johns Hopkins study.

    Despite our shortening, fattening the lines at McDonald’s just keep on lengthening (the fast food chain turned in its best quarter in three years driven by surging same-store sales, including growth as high as 5 percent in the US,
    reports Reuters). Actually, that’s about right. The lines there should be growing as we devolve into God-knows-what.

    Also in the Johns Hopkins report, we find that 66 percent of American adults are fat (overweight or obese) and by 2015, 75 percent will have that distinguished distinction.

    We’re getting (relatively) shorter, too. Since Colonial times -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist Papers and all that -- Americans have been the “globe’s giants.” But these days, when Jack climbs the beanstalk, he finds himself in the Netherlands, where the average man is 6 feet tall, and women are 5 foot 7 (that’s 2 inches taller, for both sexes, than us Yanks).

    Also beating the US are a bunch of socialist countries with something called “universal health care” (whatever that is), you know, countries like Belgium, Germany, all Scandinavian countries and Canada.

    The US is still the richest country, you know. So why aren’t we taller, healthier? Well, Americans don’t like to share their money. According to the report, “he U.S. health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net, might be why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income alone.”

    Latest study on marijuana says…

    If you’re a pot smoker, the news is actually pretty good. But not all good. Marijuana, while seemingly natural and clean compared to evil, big-tobacco cancer sticks, can do some damage.

    One joint “obstructs the flow of air as much as smoking up to five tobacco cigarettes,” according to a New Zealand Medical Research Institute study (
    covered here by Wired).

    Another conclusion from the study: a single joint does the same amount of “lung damage” as 2.5 cigarettes.

    The Wired article also reminds us of a study released last week showing the risk of becoming psycho goes up 40 percent if you smoke grass.

    Here’s the good news. The New Zeeland study found that just 1.3 percent of long-term pot smokers develop chronic lung disease, while 18.9 percent of cigarette smokers develop this condition.

    Also, from what I understand, a whole joint is a lot of weed to smoke. So I’d bet that few people smoke the amount needed to cause the damage referred to at the start of this post.

    Fun fact: an estimated 160 million people around the globe smoke pot.

    Wednesday, August 01, 2007

    O’Hare UFO Mystery Deepens

    What did aircraft mechanics and pilots at Chicago’s O’Hare airport see on the afternoon of November 7, 2006 at 4:30PM above terminal C17?

    No one is sure, but a new report from a private agency, the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCA) concluded the object was solid and a “potential threat” to air traffic at O’Hare.

    In an
    infamous report by the Chicago Tribune published on January 1, the words used to describe the “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP) based on eyewitness accounts include “elliptical-shaped,” “motionless,” “saucerlike,” “dark gray and well defined,” “made no noise,” “metallic-looking object” and “did not display any lights”. On each of these points, witnesses were in agreement. The only things they seemed to disagree on were how big the thing was (somewhere between 6 and 24 feet) and whether or not it was spinning.

    Once again, these were aircraft mechanics and pilots that saw the thing. Not accountants, teachers or waitresses. Aircraft mechanics and pilots: people that know what conventional aircraft look like.

    But they couldn’t identify what ever it was they saw on November 7, 2006 at 4:30PM above gate C17 at Chicago’s O’Hare international airport.

    According to the Tribune report, “All the witnesses to the O'Hare event, who included at least several pilots, said they are certain based on the disc's appearance and flight characteristics that it was not an airplane, helicopter, weather balloon or any other craft known to man.”

    After hovering for a few minutes, the object shot through the cloud deck and left a circular wound, “like somebody punched a hole in the sky,” said one witness.

    So what are officials at the FAA, O’Hare airport and United Airlines doing to investigate this potential threat to air traffic safety? Denying anything unusual happened, lying, making lame excuses and cracking jokes (in that order), of course.

    At first, the FAA shrugged their shoulders when asked about the O’Hare incident. But when Tribune reporters filed a Freedom of Information Act request, they suddenly perked up and acknowledged one of United’s workers called the O’Hare traffic control tower to report something mysterious in the airspace over Concourse C.

    Despite the FAA record, United denies any knowledge of the incident. “There's no record of anything,” a spokesperson told the tribune. The FAA has one. And according to witnesses, United actually does have a record or two. “Some [witnesses] said they were interviewed by United officials and instructed to write reports and draw pictures of what they observed.”

    At least one flight controller expressed concern over the incident. "To fly 7 million light years to O'Hare and then have to turn around and go home because your gate was occupied is simply unacceptable," said one worker.

    FAA officials were able to control their laugher long enough to give an official explanation of what all those kooky aircraft mechanics and pilots saw: “weather phenomena.”

    It’s comforting to see that FAA officials and air traffic controllers, the people closest to aircraft mechanics and pilots, take their reports so seriously. I’m already feeling safer about my next plane trip.

    For the record, my interest in this subject was renewed by
    a recent report on the O’Hare incident by the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP).

    A Million China-Made Toys Laced with Lead

    It looks like parents need to add “Lead in Toys” to their “Threats to My Child’s Health” lists. And no, this isn’t some obscure, generic-knockoff toy manufacturer. Fisher-Price is at the center of the latest scare.

    According to an AP report, “Toy-maker Fisher-Price is recalling 83 types of toys - including the popular Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters - because their paint contains excessive amounts of lead.”

    The US government considers toys with greater than .06 percent lead “accessible to users” as dangerous. But no word is yet available on how much was accessible through cute, cuddly pals like Big Bird and Dora.

    This is the first time Fischer-Price, or parent company Mattel, have conducted a recall because of lead. And this is a big one. At least 967,000 toys are on their way back to the manufacturer. I wonder what they’re going to do with all of them? What’s the socially, environmentally responsible way to dispose of

    As you may have guessed, a “Chinese vendor” is to blame. And it’s particularly embarrassing for Fischer-Price, which is “considered a role model in the toy industry for how it operates in China.”

    In case you haven’t been keeping up with the news, products manufactured in China have had a rough year. Everything from tires (
    450,000 of them in June) to pet food (the largest recall in history occurred earlier this year) have been recalled this year because of faulty manufacturing in China.

    How bad are China’s quality control woes? In May,
    the head of China’s food and drug administration was put to death for taking bribes. The payoffs led to the approval of drugs that caused at least 10 deaths.

    Imagine the Horror: Waking During Surgery

    Some patients describe it as “worse than rape,” and it happens to people in operating rooms every day. Patients wake up in the middle of surgery, “paralyzed and unable to cry for help.” According to a USA Today report from 2003, as many as 100 people a day (2 out of every 1000 surgeries) wake up during a surgical procedure.

    While half of those who experience this utter horror don’t feel pain, it’s terrifying either way. One eye surgery patient, Carol Weihrer, described “tremendous pulling,” but no pain. "It takes a lot of torque to get an eye out,” she said. During the 5 hour procedure, Weihrer was awake for two. In the background, she could here disco music. (Read more about Weihrer’s experience in
    this 2005 CNN article).

    I heard about this last week on the July 26th edition of Anderson Cooper 360,
    which you can download here.

    In the show, I learned that they have brain wave monitoring devices that can signal doctors when a patient regains consciousness. But they’re not available in many operating rooms. Even when they are, they’re not always used. And according to the USA Today, these machines only reduce “surgical awareness” by 82 percent.

    Is it me, or is a single case of waking up while a surgeon is pulling your eye out of your skull, with disco music playing in the background, one too many? Why aren’t these brain wave scanners in all operating rooms, used during every procedure and the effectiveness rate closer to 100 percent?

    Pound360 Archive

    About Me

    My photo
    I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.