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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Homeopathy and Nazis

Yeah, that link.
No, really, you can sit down again now, it's quite not like that...

Short on the heels of Der Spiegel's article on homeopathy, I get sent this interesting followup, which describes some of the circumstances around the Nazis and homeopathy.

The Nazis actually conducted fairly sophisticated studies (some
on concentration camp inmates) which, predictably, showed that homeopathic remedies had no effect on illnesses except a placebo effect. Basically prayer in pill form. So the studies were suppressed for decades, until the "Donner Report" (written by one of the participating doctors) was released in the mid-1990s.
The gist of it is this: Nazi doctors discovered that homeopathy is bunk. (Just because we disagree with their ideology does not mean we must discredit their research, which was rigorously done) However, this research was suppressed because having medicine made by a German, Samuel Hahnemann, was much more fitting to their ideology and propaganda than conventional medicine, which was often practiced by Jews. Thus, a culture is made.

Full article here on German Joys by Andrew Hammel.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On loving nerds

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has a nice series called Sunday Sacrilege, where he writes a longer post each Sunday, usually with some nods to irregiliosity or science or that sort of thing.

A few weeks ago, he wrote about women and Christianity, in this post called "Daughters of Eve". I liked it.

This weeks's post is on nerds at ComiCon, and is an inspiring read for those who are afraid of expressing their inner nerd. He also touches upon the crazy of the Westboro Baptist Church, and a successful counter-protest by the nerds at the nerdfest.

Check it out. The pictures from the protests at ComiCon are priceless.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

i heart nerds

... and this webcomic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, usually makes me love nerds more.

Phil Plait's Bad Universe

We like Phil Plait, Bad Astronomer.
We like it even more that he now has gotten his own TV series, Phil Plait's Bad Universe!

(Discovery says there was a problem with the video and have temporarily removed it. Check back later to see it)

We're sooo looking forward to seeing this in the fall when it airs.
Here's to Phil's amazing new career as a TV science communicator!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Magical MRI

No, MRI's are not magical. But these pictures are magnificent and makes the use of MRI's seem almost magical.

Wow, I wish I had free access to an MRI. Well, I do have access to DNA analysis-tools, but it's just not the same. If I publish my results on a blog, it reads like a string of letters and needs a lot of analysis.

This is so immediate. So real. So beautiful.

Are miracle creams just humbug?

Are miracle creams just humbug? asks Norwegian paper Dagbladet.

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer can be read here in the Norwegian Skeptics' Forum, where a doctor helps us understand how skin works, how aging works and what cream does.

Her claim is that the products the beauty industry sells you basically make you need other products from the industry. Bah humbug!

Recently, I've been seeing ads for shampoo and conditioners that bring shine in Seven Dimensions! What? What? Oh, and then there's Nivea's DNAge beauty cream. Utilizing DNA technology to reduce your wrinkles. I don't think we're quite there yet scientifically. It seems the beauty industry has realized that most people are starting to pick up on the fact that your genes actually to a large degree control how you look. So now, they're squeezing DNA and genetics and biotechnology into every ad they can. Sadly, their claims are still unwarranted. I am aware of technologies that alter DNA expression, but I have never heard of them being used or being effective on skin.

I'll mention one example that is common in DNA expression experiments.
Your DNA is very important to the cell. It therefore needs to be sure that the DNA is not altered during processes. Your DNA is kept inside a nucleus, even though most of the processes that the DNA codes for takes place outside the nucleus. Therefore, shorter stretches are copied at a time, transported out of the nucleus, and used there. This copied DNA utilizes a different chemical structure, but is still very similar, and is called RNA.

Your DNA has two strands that match up. When copying is going on, the two strands separate and one strand is used as a template for the new RNA strand. The copy is then single-stranded. It stays single-stranded and is "read" in single-strand form outside the nucleus. If one produces another single-stranded RNA that is complementary to this strand, one can effectively silence the expression of this gene. You just inject a large (relatively) amount of the matching strand into the cell, and natural chemical processes pairs the strands, so they are not available for reading.

This technology is commonly used in genetic manipulation, but its applications are not limitless. In some cases, this simply doesn't work. It seems that some organisms or cells are able to discern "foreign" RNA, and simply pick it apart before it blocks the use of the target strands.

If the beauty-companies were to attempt to stop aging, I would assume that this method would be the most likely. Any other form of gene-therapy is still not well-developed enough. However, I doubt it would work.

I am tempted to get a batch of this cream, and try to isolate RNA from it. Any form of gene therapy needs to have genes in it. It would be fun to try to find out what genes they are targeting, and how the heck they would do it.

I wish we weren't so afraid of wrinkles. Sure, less wrinkles make you look younger in the face, but there are plenty of other ways to look young and fresh and alive than to cast on a plastic face.

I prefer wrinkly natural smiles over botox-faces any day.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I want your blood!

Well, not me, exactly. I want you to give blood!

There is an acute lack of blood donors in Oslo these days and several people are also quarantined over the summer because of trips to foreign lands with risk of different diseases.

In today's news, reports are in over a Norwegian man who was born in Argentina - and who for that reason is unwanted as a blood-donor. He feels discriminated against.

I cannot stress enough how silly this sounds to a person who has been there and asked plenty of questions every time. It's a shame that this is picked up as a case in the news. Well. I want more openness around blood-giving to encourage people, but this is not a good point. People get turned down for a number of reasons. Pregnant women and people with small children are taken off the lists for a few years because of time and exposure to children's diseases. It's just easier to call them back when things have "calmed down" health-wise.

If you are turned down, try to remember that it says nothing about your health or the quality of your person. They have these screens that filter out way too many people who should be eligible, because the risk factors are hard and expensive to screen for. It is easier to find a new person without these risk factors than to test every possibly-eligible person.

I give blood, and I would like to share the experience and recommend that unless you are currently deemed unfit (for any number of reasons I will get to), that you register too.

I was recruited at school. The so-called blood-bus travels around the city, parking outside large offices and basically brings the event to you. It's a wonderful thing that really eases people's giving. Less time away from work is less worries about being away from work. I filled in a card, and after a while, I was called up and recruited for a start-up interview.

When I arrived at the bloodbank, I was greeted and given a form to fill in. The questions were quite digging and some are things I expect some people to fell uncomfortable about answering. There were questions about travel, living abroad, medications, sexual preferences, sexual activities (for example if you change partners often) and so on. The first time I filled one out I felt quite bothered, and thought about if the nurses would judge me based on my answers.

After handing in my form, I was called into a small office to discuss my answers. A nurse went through all the questions, asking follow-up questions, and filling in details.

Since I am in a steady relationship and have not lived abroad for too long periods at a time, i was approved. They really stressed that being approved is not necessarily an indication that you are healthy, only that you meet their special criteria. There are many diseases which do not affect blood in the way they prepare and use it. It is still important to go to the doctor if you are unwell.

After that, they took some blood samples to test me for HIV, Malaria (since I had been in Kenya the year before, even though incubation time is six months) and several other diseases. They stressed that they did not think I had any of these diseases, but it was extremely important to be completely sure. I accepted this.

After a new while I was called in to give blood. I went there and filled out the form again, this time with a little more ease. At first I was surprised that I was asked the same questions as last time, but people do change their behavior. All the questions may seem strange, inquisitive and unnecessary to you, but to the person on the receiving end, these questions are vital. They single out any risk-factors and allow follow-up.

The first time I went, I had a bit of stomach-trouble and was a little stressed because exams were coming up, so the nurse recommended that I wait another while before giving for the first time. She said that being stressed was not a good idea, and my minor tummy-ache may be something that could be passed on, so they would rather be sure.

I felt embarassed. Not fit to give blood! After considering it for a while though, I came to my senses and realized it was all for the best. They want you to be comfortable (which you may not be if you're stressed out or tired) and they certainly do not want to pass anything on to people with reduced immune defenses. Which is common in blood-receivers.

The next time I went back, I felt fine, and had also felt fine for the previous two weeks and since the last time I was there (one of the questions!). After completing the form and the interview once again (getting comfortable now), I was given a bottle of apple juice (or choice of soda) and taken to a reclining chair. I sat there as a nurse stuck a needle in my arm. I was fascinated. She attached the needle-thing (Kanyle/Cannula) to a tube leading into a large bag, and the blood was flowing. I was encouraged to drink to keep my bloodsugar and fluids at good rates. The bag filled slowly. I am one of those people who don't get sick at the sight of blood, and my strong interest in science, medicine and the natural world meant that I liked to look at this strange red fluid coming out of my arm to be stored. I had to twist my neck to see the bag though, so if you are faint at heart, you have nothing to worry about.

After they stopped and put a cotton swab on my arm, they gave me a little timer and asked that I sat until the timer pinged. It was set to 20 minutes, since it was my first time. They actually take 10-12% of you blood volume, so many people feel light-headed after giving. The first time, they are extra careful. I've felt really hungry and thirsty for the rest of the day after giving, but that's it.

I walked over to a desk to sign out, and I was offered a present. They have a large selection of things you can choose every time you go, or you can choose do donate a small amount to a good cause. Since it was my first time, I decided to get a nice glass. They also have spices, wine-glasses, backpacks, and other knick-knacks.

All through the experience, the nurses have been extremely courteous, thankful and generally nice and gentle. They know all too well that this is something that you do out of the kindness of your heart, completely altruistically, and they show their gratitude. They are very careful to make sure you are comfortable all through it, and remind you during the interview that they go through this several times every day and have met all kinds of people and stories. They just want to screen you for danger for the recipient. They don't care about your particular story in other ways.

All in all, giving blood is a good experience. The nurses are my everyday heroes, and being reminded of the ways to help people in need is good.

A few notes on giving blood:
- You get called in once every three months or so, and can easily call in and change your appointment.
- The whole ordeal (filling in the form and being "tapped") usually takes around an hour. There is usually some free food and drinks if it's your lunch break and there are plenty of papers and magazines to read.
- You get a free gift every time you show up, even if they decline your blood that particular time for any reason
- If you travel a lot you may be quarantined for a few weeks per destination.

Things that might make you uncomfortable:
- They ask about you sexual encounters. Just keep in mind that it's from a medical perspective.
- You might get turned down for any number of reasons. Try not to take it personally, and remember that your immune system is awesome, while some other people's may not be. Not giving blood that time is a courtesy to them, not a critique of your health.
- You go through the inquisitive form every time you are there. You get used to it. And it's a good thing they have it. That form screens out many things that you may not be able to detect without expensive and extensive tests.

There are several people who are turned down. Here are some of the criteria. More questions can be answered if you take a trip there (I usually go to the one at Ullevål Sykehus) or call in.

I sometimes try to recruit people, but I find that people are often uncomfortable talking about risk-factors that may not allow them to give blood. Therefore, a simple, "I give blood, and it's a nice thing to do" is often preferred to the more confronting "You should give blood! Why don't you?". Several people are also afraid of seeing blood or needles in general and that's fine. I am just trying to encourage people with set sexual behaviour and overall good health to register.

Remember that they need all blood types. The receivers are distributed in the population in the same way that donors are.

You can read more about giving blood here or by googling "Gi blod" or "Blodbanken" in Norway.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Curiosity gets you hugs

I am a curious person. Sometimes things just pop into my mind and I think about them for a very, very, long time. I usually make lists of all the questions I have and that I sometimes hope to get an answer for. Today, Larry Moran at Sandwalk helped me get an answer for one of these questions.

During my first year of biology, we were learning about endosymbiosis, which means that a lot of the machinery inside our cells (like mitochondria or chloroplasts for plants) originated as separate organisms which where later engulfed by larger cells and started to reproduce within these larger cells. You may have heard that mitochondria carry separate DNA from yours which is only passed down through the maternal line in the cytoplasm of the eggcell.

When we learned about this, we learned that one of the indications of this was the double lipid layer of some of the organelles (machinery). I remember our teacher talked about how when the bacteria (mitochondria and chloroplasts are closely related to free-living bacteria) were engulfed in the cell, both the bacteria's own membrane and the membrane that enclosed the "engulfee" as it was passing into it were retained within the cell.

Let me explain that more clearly. A cell is covered by a membrane. When the cell eats or takes something up from the environment, it is similar to you sticking a marble into the surface of a balloon. The balloon covers the marble more and more, until this magic balloon breaks off a piece of itself to cover the whole marble which is then inside the balloon. Part of the balloon is now covering the marble.

What my teacher said was that as both these systems reproduced, the extra membrane of the balloon around the marble was retained through the generations and was still a sign of endosymbiosis.

I thought this was very strange. Usually when something enters the cell in this fashion, the membrane is broken down either after some time or "deliberately" at once to access whatever is inside. How could instructions to form an extra membrane around new organelles be incorporated into the genome of the larger cell or the organelle itself? Horizontal gene transfer?

I asked him after the lecture to clarify how this was possible, and he said it was an interesting question, but he didn't know.

Turns out the whole premise was wrong. (Thanks, Larry!)

Bacteria come in (very very roughly) two kinds. Gram positive and Gram negative. This property has to do with their membranes. Gram positive have a single membrane, and the Gram negatives have a double membrane. Guess which kind of bacteria are the origin of most of our double-membraned organelles?

This little story actually fit very well with another post by Mr. Moran, about the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect should be familiar to most. It's sort of reminiscent of Socrates when he realized he was intelligent because he was aware of all the things he was ignorant about. Many people who have wrong perceptions or beliefs are not aware of the fact that they may be wrong. This is reflected in studies when people are asked if they believe they have knowledge on some subject or can perform a task at below average, average, or above-average levels. Many people who are below average are not aware of the problems in their thinking, and rate themselves as above average, and even above the people who are proved to be in the top percentiles. The people who are well-versed on a subject however, realize the limits of their knowledge and thereby rate themselves lower than the people who have the wrong ideas!

This reminds me of my own experiences in test-taking. Usually, if I have a good feeling, I get a disappointing grade, and if I have a bad feeling, I am pleasantly surprised. I think this is the same phenomena. When I have studied well, I am aware of my mistakes, but when I have a good feeling, it's because I don't even know what I'm wrong about or what info I am missing.

The fact that I asked that question of my teacher does not imply that I am a genius of course. Just that having a curious mind and asking questions about things that sound funny is generally a good thing.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's really good for the scientific method!

Pop.Vit.Ring - a popular science reading group

I have lots of hobbies. One of them is reading books, especially books that I learn stuff from. To help me do this, and to share my joy of learning stuff with others, I started this book club a few years ago. In case you're not a Norwegian speaker, Pop. is short for popular, Vit. is short for Vitenskap, that is Science, and Ring is ring. A ring of readers. How lovely.

It's run through facebook, and when I have the time, I put up a few hand-made posters at the University of Oslo. The group has been asleep for a year's time now, due to other projects, but I just love it and miss it so much that it's time to get going again.

Our last book was Steven Pinker - The Blank Slate, because of the recent hubbub in Norway over "Hjernevask" - or Brainwash, a show about how evolutionary biology is completely overlooked in the social sciences in Norway. I deemed it appropriate to restart the club since it was basically the only thing people were talking about over their espressos.

Our current book is Leonard Mlodinow - The Drunkard's Walk, which you may be able to see --> that both Bendik and I are currently reading.

It's all about how randomness rules our lives, and many of the causal pathways we seem to notice in our daily lives may actually be completely random. So far, it's really good and is already screwing a little bit with my head. Man, I love statistics when they're served like this.

If you want to join us in reading the book and talking about it afterwords, feel free too do so. We're going to meet at the University of Oslo's "Puben" Thursday August 26th at 17:00, unless otherwise noted.

AAI - Facepalm courtesy of Ken Ham

Reading up on my blogs this morning I came across this post by PZ Myers, which shows us the non-hug-worthy paranoia of Ken Ham.

At AAI in Copenhagen, a short declaration was written up over the course of the three days, to give som kind of physical manifestation and purpose to the whole meeting; as opposed to just celebrating ourselves and hugging all our heroes.

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and in charge of the Creation Museum, re-wrote the declaration, translating it for his followers, and the degree of paranoia in this text is just amazing. Basically, he states that whenever atheists say:

We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

He thinks this means:

We recognize the unlimited right (even though we have no objective basis for “rights” in our system) to freedom of conscience, religion, and belief—except for Christians—and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others (this is the golden rule: “do unto others . . . ” for which we have no logical basis in our way of thinking)—except for Christians, as we reject Christianity totally and must try to eliminate it.

No hug for you, Ken Ham.

For more on this, check out PZ's post on Pharyngula.