Tag 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.

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 ….

do people ever actually *read* Roe & Casey?

Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the NYT is a showcase for the deceptive rhetoric of the right. The piece is a long paean to the supposed reasonableness and willingness to compromise of the anti-choice movement. He wraps up by attempting to lay the “blame” on Roe and Casey for the “failure” of Americans to reach peace on safe and legal abortion:

But no such compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books. These decisions are monuments to pro-choice absolutism, and for pro-lifers to accept them means accepting that no serious legal restrictions on abortion will ever be possible — no matter what the polls say, and no matter how many hearts and minds pro-lifers change.

Wow. Where to begin.

Continue reading

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.

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.

atheist’s creed

i like this atheist’s creed pretty well. it was posted at pharyngula and i suspect that pz myers wrote it.

An atheist’s creed

I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.

I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.

I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.v

I accept human mortality.

We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.

I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.

The post was in response to a sad illustration by someone who thinks that atheists are sad people and that atheism is depressing. In response, Myers titled his post: “Actually, it’s theists who believe in nothing, quite fervently”, which is a nice point that unfortunately didn’t get followed up on in the post itself. But it’s such an elegantly expressed truth: Theists believe in non-existent things, or no-things; theists believe in nothing, and that belief in nothing crowds out so much of what there is in the world.

podcasts and papers

Pharyngula recently dropped an aside on one of my favorite topics, scientists communicating about science to the public:

You can also hear the author discussing the methodology and results in a podcast, which I think is a wonderful idea. (Maybe every paper should be accompanied by a 15 minute podcast in which the author explains the work to a general audience…).

Do you hear that, University PR departments? That is a wonderful idea. Set up podcasts for your PR in addition to your glossy magazines and newsletters and websites. It gives news reporters something to listen to and link to.

solar systems in spaaaaace

God I love it when people discover more solar systems and planets. A new technique that permits detection of solar systems that include large outer planets, as opposed to large planets close to their suns, is proving fruitful. The solar system that was discovered includes large outer planets and may have small rocky planets, akin to our own. The sun is smaller than ours, and red (Darkover?).

One of the best things about this discovery is the role of amateurs.

Among those who provided crucial data and appeared as lead authors of the paper in Science were a pair of amateur astronomers from Auckland, New Zealand, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, both members of a group called the Microlensing Follow-Up Network, or MicroFUN. Ms. McCormick, who described herself as “an ordinary New Zealand mother,” said she had done her observing with a 10-inch Meade telescope from a shed in her back yard.

One of the other best things about this discovery (there are lots of best things about it) is that, since the technique itself can only work in a very specific set of circumstances, and it has already proven so fruitful (this solar system and a few other planets), we can infer that these kinds of solar systems — our kind of solar system — are abundant.

surprise! more copyright stuff!

People have called my attention to a few more copyright & related matters lately:

* Darren Barefoot, who did the project “GetAFirstLife.com“, received a hilarious anti-cease-and-desist in its comments section, purportedly from Ginsu Yoon, VP of Linden Lab (Second Life’s company). Or as Peter Hirtle put it when passing it along, a “proceed and permitted” letter. More P&Ps, please! And fewer C&Ds.

* The recent movie “Dodgeball” hit the courts on a copyright infringement suit; the NYT wrote up the story, hitting some of the colorful details as the court tried to distinguish coincidence from copying, and substantial similarity from generic scenes a faire. (Would it kill the NYT to link to the freakin’ case for readers? I’ll dig it up and post it.)

* In addition to the RIAA’s stepped up “enforcement” at college campuses, the RIAA is also now attacking open wireless networks. (See Wired News blog.) A friend was asking me about this: What’s in it for the RIAA? Are they really trying to deter individuals? Well, to some extent, but principally they’re just trying to keep the issue in the limelight. It doesn’t matter if any individual enforcement action is effective, or if they get bad press; as far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as bad press on this issue. The more press on copyright “infringement”, the better. They want to create copyright anxiety (“copyright awareness”).

* And, last but not least, an uplifting story about Bent Skovmand — unfortunately it’s an obituary, so some might not get the “uplifting” part. But what’s uplifting is that this person spent his life seeing a problem and working to solve it. That is a success story. Every time I think of the waste of space and destruction of human energy represented by the current occupant of the White House, I’m going to try to dedicate an equal amount of time to the inspirational life of Bent Skovmand.

In case you’re wondering, the NYT obit is great, and Wikipedia’s entry is stubby but accurate. Basically Skovmand was an agricultural scientist who worked to preserve plant diversity and access. He was concerned about the monoculture techniques of modern industrial farming, even as he worked with farmers and governments around the world to help foster the Green Revolution. Ultimately he began to collect and archive seeds of all sorts of strains of food and agricultural crops, developing a project called the doomsday vault — a warehouse for agricultural crops in an island off of Norway, heavily safeguarded and secured against all manner of natural and human-made catastrophes. The vault will contain at least three million crop seeds.

In keeping with his general concern for openness and human access to genetic diversity, Skovmand critiqued the propertization of genetic information: copyrighting genes is “like copyrighting each and every word in ‘Hamlet’, and saying no one can use any word used in ‘Hamlet’ without paying the author.” According to the NYT, he gave away his own data on CDs, rather than trying to control it.

So — Bent Skovmand. May more of us have the opportunity to lead such fulfilling and satisfying and productive lives.

women, families, tenure

graphic from report showing academic tenure leaks for women with families

Surprise, having kids and a husband* make it less likely that women will get tenure-track positions or achieve tenure. See the “Marriage and Baby Blues: Re-defining Gender Equity” report (PDF) by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden (2003).

Thanks to my partner (a postdoc) who sent me this illustrative graphic from the report.

* I say “husband” instead of “spouse” because I suspect this report, while in theory about “marriage”, most likely included only or primarily heterosexual partnership/marriages. This report and many others show that academic men do better with wives than without, while this report shows that academic women do better without husbands than with. The rather personal question it raises for me is, what about lesbian professional/academic couples? Does the penalty for “marriage” apply?

Also, does the parenting penalty apply only to the birth-mom or the stay-at-home mom, or does it apply regardless based on choices that most moms make to prioritize their children, regardless of the presence or absence of gender of their partner? The data showed that single moms did better than married-to-a-man moms, so I suspect that the problem for academic moms is not motherhood, per se, but persistent sexism in academic moms’ heterosexual relationships. Is there a better way to understand this data?

Calling Doctor Google

As a former medical librarian I thought this editorial by a medical librarian in the BMJ was fascinating.

First this amazing information:

Within a year of its release Google Scholar has led more visitors to many biomedical journal websites than has PubMed (J Sack, personal communication, 2005).

… which certainly lends credence to the pro-tagging, anti- or indifferent-to-cataloging thinkers.

I was particularly interested to see the table from the BMJ’s web access stats, which lists Google as its number one referrer, by far, in November 2005 (345,756), and Google Scholar as its number two referrer (105,185). PubMed trailed significantly far behind — fourth place was PubMed Medline (14,522) and fifth place was PubMed Central (9,616). Of course, one shouldn’t read too much into this relatively raw access-data. A lot of factors must play into the numbers. Who are these searchers? Medical consumers typing in terms in google, hoping for consumer information? If they end up going to the BMJ, that’s probably more than most of them want to know, at least in an initial search. Or are they physicians realizing google is a shortcut to particular articles? Does this set of referrals include, for instance, academic-affiliated researchers? Many of them probably have access to their own institutional subscriptions to BMJ, and if requests are being routed through a local proxy then how is that reflected in these numbers? Still, anyway you slice it, it’s obvious that Google — or maybe it’s better to describe it as “general search” — is becoming significant for medical research. And Google Scholar is more successful than I’d realized.

And then this cropped up in the editorial, too:

In a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, a New York rheumatologist describes a scene at rounds where a professor asked the presenting fellow to explain how he arrived at his diagnosis.[4] Matter of factly, the reply came: “I entered the salient features into Google, and [the diagnosis] popped right up.” The attending doctor was taken aback by the Google diagnosis. “Are we physicians no longer needed? Is an observer who can accurately select the findings to be entered in a Google search all we need for a diagnosis to appear—as if by magic?”

Ten years ago librarians were all a-twitter about the fear that search engines (Yahoo! and Altavista were the big contendahs then) would displace librarians. Most librarians blustered it out: “Nothing can replace a librarian!” but there was definitely some anxiety in the ranks. Now physicians. Relax, docs. Librarians, doctors, and search engines, all will find their place in the brave new world of infinite search. And it’s important that consumers have access to as much information as possible to critically evaluate and assess all the other info streamed at us daily. For example, since the FDA has deemed it acceptable for drug companies to “inform” us about their wares via millions of dollars of direct-to-consumer advertising, consumers get barraged with info about commercial drugs provided by commercial for-profit entities. In that information environment, it’s vital for consumers to have consumer-directed diagnostic information to assess Big Pharma’s claims. Ultimately it will improve healthcare. What did you think all those consumer health awareness services were about if not, ultimately, this?