Category Archives: science

stem cell research standing

The judge also finds that the two adult stem cell researchers who brought the case would suffer imminent and irreparable harm without the injunction because they would have to compete with embryonic stem cell researchers for research funds. That is absurd. Adult stem cell research is funded far more generously than work with embryonic stem cells. And there is no firm limit on the amount of money that can be spent on each. NYT editorial

How did this case not get knocked out on standing? Competing for funding? In two different fields ??? Absurd.

But for this absurdity we have to blame the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, not Judge Lamberth; it was the D.C. Circuit Ct. which granted the researchers “competitor standing”.

The Guidelines, by allowing federal funding of [embryonic stem cell] research, increases competition for NIH’s limited resources. This increased competition for limited funds is an actual, imminent injury. See Sherely, 2010 WL 2540358 at *5 (explaining that the increased competition that plaintiffs face is “substantial enough to deem the injury to them imminent”). There is no after-the-fact remedy for this injury because the Court cannot compensate plaintiffs for their lost opportunity to receive funds. Sherley v. Sebelius, D.D.C. 2010

Stacking the D.C. Circuit for years with pro-life Republicans has finally paid off!

The mind boggles: Any agency that funds more than one thing is open, now, to scrutiny by the possible fund-ees for potential legal suit. I suddenly see a future for all those laid-off New York law firm associates.

And, a fine example of how Congress works: Default BS caving in to lobbyists. In this instance, the “Dickey-Wicker amendment, that has been attached to annual appropriations bills for the Department of Health and Human Services since 1996″ — i.e., more absurd religious BS around abortion and fetal rights, affecting science and medicine.

And did the Obama administration tackle this problem directly? No, they avoided the problem the same way the other administrations have.

Disgraceful all around.

cite: quotes from NYT Editorial 8/25. opinion available at uscourts.gov (PDF).

and, this week in the destruction of our children’s future world

  • The Petermann ice shelf in Greenland (the northern-most glacier in the world) has lost a quarter of its mass, calving a 100 square mile iceberg now known as the “Petermann Ice Island (2010)”. Note that there is a “2010″ designation to distinguish this one from a smaller iceberg calved in 2008. Ed Markey had a good idea.

    Relevance to the pending apocalypse: Sign of global warming; loss of Arctic / sub-Arctic environments and habitats; influx of fresh water into the North Atlantic currents; Greenland is smaller.

    sources: AFP, wikipedia.

  • The drought and related fires in Russia continue, threatening, among other things, wheat prices and harvests. Relevance to environmental and social DOOM: Farmlands diverted from other crops to wheat; wheat prices increasing; and, of course, smoke from the fires may contribute to global warming as well as causing shorter-term respiratory problems.
  • Rising temperatures diminish rice harvests. It’s getting too hot at night for rice to grow. Yields have already diminished by 10-20% in some parts of the world, over the last 25 years. Need I mention that rice is the #3 staple food crop? And the primary staple food crop in Asia and Africa?
  • Rising food costs. Related to both the wheat & rice fiascos, the FAO has predicted that staple food prices will rise significantly, between 15 to 45%, over the next decade.
  • Genetically engineered pesticide-resistant strains of canola growing wild on roadsides. “Roundup Ready” and “Liberty Link” varieties have been found, and varieties resistant to both pesticides — indicating cross-breeding of the varieties. Why is this a problem? To the extent these are pest plants — weeds — they will have to be controlled with other, more toxic, pesticides, or controlled through agricultural methods (e.g., plowing) that adversely affect soil erosion. Plus, of course, once those now-wild genes start jumping, the problems will just multiply. As my partner has pointed out, one-in-a-million events happen millions of times with plant propagation.

following in daddy’s footsteps

A health blog (why a health blog?) at the NYT covered research showing that as the 20th century progressed, more and more women followed in their father’s footsteps, career-speaking. Men have for a long time followed in their fathers’ footsteps at a rate of about 30%; women born in the 1910s followed in their father’s footsteps at a 6% rate, while women born in the 1970s followed in their father’s footsteps at an 18% rate.

What I thought was interesting was that they posited a couple of possible explanations but left out what, to me, is the most obvious explanation — that girls are tending towards parity with boys in this area because the obstacles against them following these careers have diminished. In other words, probably 30% of all kids would like to follow their career-parent into their career. But women were prevented from doing so, and as those barriers fell, women began doing what men have done — take as a default the career that they have already seen, become familiar with and perhaps interested in, have a professional networking leg-up in, and so forth.
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marital happiness, kids, and, umm, housework

The New York Times covers research showing that marital happiness increases when the kids leave home. Contrary to popular opinion, which has suggested that parents — particularly moms — suffer depression from “empty nest syndrome”, research published in November in Psychological Science found that “marital satisfaction actually improves” when the kids leave home.

But if you read closely, you realize that the research shows marital satisfaction increasing not among “parents” generally, but among women specifically — presumably, women in a heterosexual marriage. Apparently, it’s not about increasing the amount of time the couple spends together; the couples spend the same amount of time together during and after the kids. “But they said the quality of that time was better.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that “the quality of time” might have something to do with this:

The arrival of children also puts a disproportionate burden of household duties on women, a common source of marital conflict. After children, housework increases three times as much for women as for men, according to studies from the Center on Population, Gender and Social Equality at the University of Maryland.

the giant hologram theory of the universe

Yes, yes, the Inauguration is a big deal. And I am soooo glad that our long national nightmare is finally over.

But.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our politics, fellow Horatios.

Recent physics results help stitch together a number of findings, unexplained phenomena, and the usual bizarre physics theories into something which I find both compelling and, frankly, a bit disturbing.

The gist is that the universe, as we know it, in its adorable 3-dimensionality, is really a projection of the 2-dimensional edge of the universe. No, seriously.

For many months, the GEO600 team-members had been scratching their heads over inexplicable noise that is plaguing their giant detector. Then, out of the blue, a researcher approached them with an explanation. In fact, he had even predicted the noise before he knew they were detecting it. According to Craig Hogan, a physicist at the Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, GEO600 has stumbled upon the fundamental limit of space-time – the point where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into “grains”, just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan.

If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: “If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.”

The idea that we live in a hologram probably sounds absurd, but it is a natural extension of our best understanding of black holes, and something with a pretty firm theoretical footing. It has also been surprisingly helpful for physicists wrestling with theories of how the universe works at its most fundamental level.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

Marcus Chown, “Our world may be a giant hologram”, New Scientist issue #2691 (Jan. 15, 2009).

You have to read the whole thing.

This is going to be rocking my brain for a long time to come.

hat-tip to larry shaw ….

bad ideas like bad pennies keep turning up

A Louisiana state Representative is considering a plan to pay poor women to have their tubes tied, to stave off additional reproduction by undesirables.

One wonders just how bad history classes have to be in Louisiana for John LaBruzzo to have actually failed to learn about the many, many times governments have tried programs like this based on bizarre ideas about biology and economics — and let’s please not forget the unbelievably asinine and heinous beliefs about race and class and gender that underlie such proposals. (My partner points out that actually this history wasn’t in any of our primary school history classes — she learned about Puerto Rico, Native Americans, laws of dozens of American states, and on, and on, from independent reading. “And you too, Laura — you didn’t learn that shit in Alabama.”)

Honestly it just makes me tired. What the fuck is wrong with people? Why do people not have any more self-knowledge and/or humility than to at least understand how pig-ignorant they are, before attempting to set social policy?

seen on broadsheet

Tech Coed

My father-in-law (in Massachusetts) was in town for his fiftieth MIT reunion — class of 1958! He took my partner and me to a couple of events, and we noticed among the red-jacketed men a few red-jacketed women. By various accounts, there were nine to fifteen women (out of a thousand students) in the Class of ’58 at MIT, a half dozen of whom were at the 50th reunion.

Tonight, five of them — representing mathematics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics — got together and revisited a song they sang back in the 50s, called something like “My mother was a Tech Coed” — apparently a takeoff of another MIT favorite, “My father was a something something engineer.” We chatted with some of them tonight for a while, and got to hear amazing stories about classes, the women’s dorm that held only 17 students — so the rest had to live off-campus — and other experiences of MIT in the 1950s.

But the song was the highlight, and they were kind enough to give us permission to reprint the lyrics that they sang — they said there were probably ten or fifteen verses altogether in the original. The first four are what they recalled of those verses. The last two they wrote at the reunion.

She never held me on her knee
But she was all the world to me
That lady with the pointy head
My mother was a Tech coed.

She couldn’t cook she couldn’t sew
But she could fix a radio
She used T-squares to make a bed
My mother was a Tech coed.

As she approached maternity
She also got her PhD
And started working on Pre Med
My mother was a Tech coed.

Her cocktails were a potent brew
She learned the trick in 5.02*
She always bought her cakes and bread
My mother was a Tech coed.

Now 50 years have come and gone
I still remember dear old mom
Her dying breath she taught me well
Above all else, that Tech is hell.

We are the queens of gray and red
The very coolest Tech coeds.

* Second semester freshman chemistry.

women have human genomes too, it turns out

Wow, after four men, a female human being’s genome finally got sequenced. Go Dutch.

Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 27—Geneticists at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) have announced the first complete sequencing of a woman’s genome. The announcement was made at Bessensap, an annual meeting bringing together scientists and the press in the Netherlands.

The DNA of Marjolein Kriek, a clinical geneticist at LUMC, will be made public after a full bioinformatics analysis that will take approximately six months. “We considered that sequencing only males, for ‘completeness’, slows insight into X-chromosome variability. So it was time, after sequencing four males, to balance the genders a bit,” remarked Gert-Jan B. van Ommen, head of the LUMC team.

eurekalert.org via partner’s subscription to BioTechniques Weekly

I guess that answers Dorothy Sayers’ question.

apparently i’m married to pharyngula

Yesterday I excitedly pointed to this io9 blog entry about vat-grown meat: “You see!” I told my partner. “You see! I was right. We are going to have vat-grown meat, in our lifetime !!!”

The “I was right” or “you were right” is the gold ring of our relationship. The ch-ching it makes when one gets one — ah, I live for those moments.

We had previously argued about this a few times. My partner — a biologist, like P.Z. Myers (aka “Pharyngula”) — has long held that it is impractical, that you need medium to grow it in, blah blah blah technical objections that impede my vision, blah blah blah. I think this technology will provide us transplantable organs, vat-grown meat, and perhaps external uteruses (eventually). She has argued instead that for things like organs and vat-grown meat, we should be cloning humans or animals without brains [and other stuff, that I can't remember right now] , and harvesting organs from those living brainless creatures. Needless to say I find this utterly repulsive, frightening, and vaguely unethical. “But,” she points out, “the thing that makes us human is our brain [etc]. A clone of ourselves without a brain is just a bag of organs.” Then I bring up the birth of severely disabled children, and we get going on yet another round of the unsolvable discussions that occupy our time.

But lo, today, in response to the same vat-grown meat story that I trumpeted, Pharyngula posted this response arguing that instead of building brainless humane meat from cellular matrices & tissues & then adding support structures, we should be building it top-down — stripping the sentience from our food animals. Needless to say, this is as disturbing as my partner’s vision of brainless clonal twin organ farms. Isn’t this basically what Brave New World did to the various classes of people? If we do accustom ourselves to get over the squick factor about this, isn’t that actually — well, risky and scary?

My partner accuses me of falling prey to Bushian “culture of life” mysticism. Sentience, pain perception, fear, anxiety, happiness — all the things that make killing animals for food inhumane would be irrelevant if the food stuffs had the biological capacity to feel those things removed. I admit my arguments get a little weak around this time. “Muscle memory,” I counter, suggesting that our sentience, while centered on the brain, is perhaps also holistically grounded in our entire body. She mocks the “muscle memory” argument mercilessly.

Anyway, the real point is that their arguments are disturbingly similar (and similarly disturbing). Possibly related to the fact they’re both biologists. On the other hand, I never have seen them in the same place at the same time.

(Also, all this reminds me of Rudy Rucker’s Software, Wetware, etc. — which my partner introduced me to. Cloned human meat was popular — also vat-grown I think — and one of the characters actually made a ton of money from allowing herself to be cloned into one of the most popular burgers. While funny and thought-provoking and all the other good stuff that Rucker & SF generally are, I gotta say that this squicked me out more than almost anything else I’ve read in SF.)

Copyright claims against Expelled

4/11: I had previously (3/27) drafted a brief commentary on Expelled‘s use of copyrighted material. Then, I unposted it while I checked on something, to try to make it more complete. I hadn’t gotten back to it, when the other shoe dropped: One of the copyright holders’ whose material was used in Expelled wrote a published a draft cease & desist letter to the filmmakers. So, I’m re-posting my original comment, even though I haven’t yet had a chance to figure out the licensing status of the animations in question, and I’m doing a more detailed analysis below of the current set of claims. Consider this a rough draft of an analysis.

In part, I’m rushing this out because there are a few misconceptions about copyright and fair use on the Pharyngula blog comment thread. I’ll have to come back & add in the relevant cites when I’ve got a bit more time (probably not before Sunday), and I may have more considered analysis at that point. Right now, this is my quick first impressions on the merits of the claims that XVIVO is making, and the merits of the likely defenses that Expelled could raise.

I’ve gotta say, I’m rarely so personally sympathetic with a cease and desist as I am with this one, a letter from Peter Irons on behalf of XVIVO to the makers of Expelled, for using without permission a biology animation that XVIVO did.

However.

The misuse of science is not the same thing as the misuse of intellectual property, and I have, unfortunately, a number of problems with this cease & desist letter. My problems are more tactical and, of course, from the perspective of a fair use / information policy attorney. But I’ll go through a bit of legal analysis first, because there are some interesting questions. If you don’t find details of copyright interesting, skip to the last 3 paragraphs.

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adultery and the “alpha male”

Natalie Angier began an article on sexual monogamy in the natural world by reference to the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. The entire article is a rebuke to the evolutionary psych hogwash that has been bandied about the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal, although I particularly enjoyed the first sentence of the second paragraph:

You can accuse the disgraced ex-governor Eliot Spitzer of many things in his decision to flout the law by soliciting the services of a pricey prostitute: hypocrisy, egomania, sophomoric impulsiveness and self-indulgence, delusional ineptitude and boneheadedness. But one trait decidedly not on display in Mr. Spitzer’s splashy act of whole-life catabolism was originality.

It’s all been done before, every snickering bit of it, and not just by powerful “risk-taking” alpha men who may or may not be enriched for the hormone testosterone. It’s been done by many other creatures, tens of thousands of other species, by male and female representatives of every taxonomic twig on the great tree of life. Sexual promiscuity is rampant throughout nature, and true faithfulness a fond fantasy. Oh, there are plenty of animals in which males and females team up to raise young, as we do, that form “pair bonds” of impressive endurance and apparent mutual affection, spending hours reaffirming their partnership by snuggling together like prairie voles or singing hooty, doo-wop love songs like gibbons, or dancing goofily like blue-footed boobies.

Yet as biologists have discovered through the application of DNA paternity tests to the offspring of these bonded pairs, social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy. Assay the kids in a given brood, whether of birds, voles, lesser apes, foxes or any other pair-bonding species, and anywhere from 10 to 70 percent will prove to have been sired by somebody other than the resident male.

She just smoothly demolishes, with evidence, all the claptrap and bloviating about men in power and their testosterone and their alpha-ness and their prostitutes. It’s everywhere, not just in the circles of the powerful, and not just in men.

Read the whole thing, because like all of Natalie Angier’s work, it’s a pleasure simply to peruse the prose, while appreciating the elegance and humor of the natural world.

geyser of icy particles

I just love the imagery in these descriptions of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, in Friday’s NYT 3/13:

Cassini Gets a Cool Shower From an Ice-Spewing Moon

Then again, no other 310-mile-wide ice-ball moon in the solar system has a geyser of icy particles shooting out of its south pole.

Geysers of ice. Truly, this world is more wondrous than dreams could ever be.

… That some folks think this is somehow not enough to contemplate, by itself, but that they also have to concoct something even more amazing — makes me sad. Icy geysers draw out the reverent in me. Adding, “… this is proof of the magnificence of God who is even more awesome” is just sad, like an emotionally damaged person who can’t hear of someone else’s success without trying to talk about their own.

telescoping action at the San Diego Zoo

This is one of my favorite sets of photos from Michele’s

and my visit to the San Diego Zoo in January, 2008. (Feel free to engage me in a conversation about the ethics of zoos.)

If I had more of these I’d make an awesome flip-book.

Zebra 1
Zebra 2
Zebra 3
zebra 4
zebra 6

Okay, call me puerile. The best part about this was the scene outside the wall. The women were all chuckling and pointing. The men, not so much. They really seemed a bit embarrassed.

on the sexiness of testosterone and unquestioned assumptions

Last weekend I was listening to a program on “Testosterone” on “This American Life” (archive) and, predictably, my interest in the topic was equaled or surpassed by my exasperation and annoyance at its handling. “This American Life” is a one-hour show, that aims to do something rather cool: Shed some light on a topic by telling several different stories related to the topic. But at the end of this nuanced hour, all I wanted to do at the end of it is say, “Jesus, it’s more complicated than that.”

First of all, on some level, the mere existence of a show on this topic annoyed me. Testosterone is just so over-exposed. Testosterone is a sexy hormone, and by that, I don’t mean that it is a sex hormone or that it is responsible for the sex drive. I mean that people love talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, and attributing all sorts of amazing qualities to it.

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tonight only — utterly total eclipse of the absolutely full moon

Well, not only tonight, but only tonight for the last several and next few years. An amazing lunar eclipse will be highly visible in North America tonight (Wed., Feb. 20) — 10-11pm Eastern time, a total eclipse of the full moon. Sky and Telescope describes it as “America’s best lunar eclipse in years”. In addition to the colors of the eclipse — which are supposed to have beautiful colors tonight — Saturn will also be in good view. So if you have a telescope, you’ll be able to see the rings without much difficulty. The star Regulus will also be nearby.

If you miss this one, you won’t have the opportunity for a total eclipse until December, 2010 — and not even partial ones over the Americas until June 2010. So, get thee out-of-doors and witness the awesomeness of our universe.

More info in the Feb. 2008 issue of Sky & Telescope or, for the subscription-impaired, online at the S&T website. Also check out bad astronomy and orbiting frog for details.