Archive for February, 2015

Feb 09 2015

Three Person IVF

The United Kingdom’s House of Commons has recently voted to allow so-called three person in vitro fertilization. This opens the door to the UK being the first country to provide such a procedure.

The purpose of three person IVF is to allow a woman who carries a genetic mutation for a mitochondrial disorder to have her own genetic children without passing on the disease.

Mitochondria are organelles in every cell that produce energy. They are essentially the power plants of the cell. Evolutionarily they are likely the result of a symbiotic relationship between a prokaryote and eukaryote, meaning that the mitochondria were once independent living cells. They carry their own genes, and in fact have their own slightly different genetic code (evidence of their ancient origin).

There are a number of genetic diseases known as mitochondrial disease because they represent mutations in the mitochondrial genes. Since mitochondria are almost completely passed down through the maternal line, so are such diseases. The female eggs contain all the cellular structures of the fertilized egg, while the sperm contributes only its packet of DNA (although a stray mitochondrion might sneak through).

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Feb 06 2015

Did Williams Lie?

Published by under Neuroscience

Memory is a slippery thing. We know from countless psychological studies that memories can easily be fabricated, they will alter over time, and details will shift to enhance the emotional theme of the story. Further, we tend to personalize stories – over time we remember events that happened to our friends as happening to us.

Recently NBC host Brian Williams was caught telling a version of an event that happened 12 years ago that differs from the version others recall, and the version that he himself told at the time. He and his cameraman were in a helicopter group during the Iraqi war in 2003. The leading three helicopters, which were 30-60 minutes ahead, were forced to land upon taking small arms fire, with one copter being hit by an RPG. Williams’ copter also landed when they arrived at the lead group in order to avoid being fired on. The group had to be rescued by ground troops and tanks.

The problem is that Williams’ retelling of this story has shifted a bit over the years, until in the last couple of years he puts himself in the helicopter that was hit by fire. Stars and Stripes gives the timeline of this shifting story. So what’s going on here.

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Feb 05 2015

A Better Steel

Published by under Technology

Material science seems to me to be an underappreciated discipline. Perhaps because its benefits are not seen directly by the consumer, but only indirectly. Material scientists don’t make a better gadget, but they make a better gadget possible. Sometimes a breakthrough can even be a complete game-changer for certain technologies.

Humans have been using an alloy of carbon and iron for over three thousand years. Iron is a very common element, making up about 5% of the Earth’s crust. Steel is iron with 0.2-1.5% carbon alloy. Carbon makes steel hard but brittle, and so carefully controlling the amount of carbon to optimize hardness but keep it malleable enough not to be brittle is what makes steel.

Steel is still on the cutting edge (pun intended) of material science. Researchers are still discovering ways to make steel lighter, stronger, and better suited to specific purposes. A recent paper, for example, presented a new technique for making blended steel that results in light, strong, and ductile steel – perfect for making more fuel efficient cars, for example.

A brief sidenote on terminology: “hardness” is the resistance to deformation by a force. There are different kinds of hardness, such as scratch hardness and compression hardness. “Strength” is the measure of a substances elastic range. “Toughness” is a measure of how much total energy a material can absorb before it breaks.

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Feb 03 2015

Vaccine Debate Heats Up

We seem to be going through a spasm of debating vaccines (if social media is any guide), probably provoked by the Disneyland measles outbreak (102 cases in January, mostly stemming from the outbreak). This recent outbreak has finally garnered the attention of the public at large who are starting to realize that antivaxxers are a threat to public health. This resulted in a wave of criticism.

At first it seemed like the antivaxxers were just going to lay low and ride out this recent outbreak, but I guess the tide of anti-antivax was just too great. Now they are starting to push back with, of course, greater levels of crazy, driving even more criticism. The debate has percolated up to the political class, with the predictable embarrassing comments by clueless politicians. And around it goes.

Given that I have been covering this issue for over a decade, I guess I have to jump back into the fray.

A recent Pew Poll regarding whether or not vaccines should be required is very interesting. It shows no significant difference by sex, race, or income (Hispanics were slightly more pro-vaccine). However, there was a significant age effect: 18-29 year olds were 59% in favor of required vaccinations, with increasing numbers in each age category, and 65+ year olds being 79% in favor. The question is – is this an age effect or a generational effect? If the latter then we could see waning support for requiring vaccines in the future.

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Feb 02 2015

Gravity Waves and Science Self-Correction

Published by under Astronomy

In 2011 scientists tentatively reported that they may have detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light in apparent contradiction to the theory of relativity. By early 2012 the technical error that led to the apparent discovery was revealed.

Also in 2012 scientists reported that, using the Large Hadron Collider, they probably found the Higgs boson, the particle responsible for mass. However they were still not completely sure so they kept testing, and then last year they announced that indeed they did identify the Higgs as predicted by the standard model of particle physics.

In March of 2014, in what was definitely the biggest science news story of the year scientists reported detected gravity waves from the Big Bang, confirming the theory called the “inflationary universe.” The discovery was hailed as a “smoking gun.” at the time wrote:

If it holds up, the landmark discovery — which also confirms the existence of hypothesized ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves — would give researchers a much better understanding of the Big Bang and its immediate aftermath.

In those four little words, “if it holds up,” lies the essence of science. This is just a sample of recent big science news stories that reveal the process of science – skeptical questioning of all claims and testing those claims against objective evidence.

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