Thursday, June 25, 2009

Geothermal energy induced earthquakes

A really quick movie about a new geothermal energy project that raises concerns that it may trigger large earthquakes is available at the new york times.
I found a couple of interesting points in the video. I did not realize that there was any large geothermal projects in North America, but the largest group of plants is in California. Also I was extremely skeptical that drilling into the ground could possibly do anything that would cause an earthquake. An existing geothermal project however already does.
I would have liked to have heard more from the company about why the new project will not cause earthquakes.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Which language has the most words?

I heard an interesting factoid at lunch yesterday. There are apparently one million words in the English language which supposedly puts it far ahead of any other language. This came as a surprise to me, while I've grown to enjoy English for its precision, this would mean it contains over ten times the amount of words of the french language (80k). It is no surprise to me however that French is stagnating, simply because the language is regulated by committee, and we all know how efficient those are. And so when we need a new word say to convey the meaning of "email", a group of people in France have to get together and pick one (courriel). Hardly a natural and vibrant process. But does the English language truly have a million words? Wolfram alpha will quickly tell you that the Oxford dictionary has 600k words, putting it ahead of say Spanish with a mere 225k. English is growing very quickly because it incorporates other languages readily, perhaps because most English speakers are not native. In fact China has the largest population of anglophones in the world. The original claim that there are 1 million words comes from the university of Texas which has an algorithm caching and crawling social networking sites all along identifying any expression used over 25 000 times as a word. Of course many people have problems with this, since it is not an accepted definition of a word. It incorporates any deformation or misspelling of common words, commercial trademarks, onomatopoeia which would include for example: "what", "wat", "waht", "wh4t", "whaaaaat", "whassssssssssssup" etc ... Many people have critisized the methodology itself, since the "Global Language Monitor" claimed the millionth word in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
So does this mean English really has the most words: not likely. Agglutinative languages such as Finnish most certainly have more words and more readily create new words to adapt to changing time by fusing existing words creating an almost infinite number of combination. Yet English remains dominant perhaps not in the number of words, but in the reach and power of the language.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ununbium - a "new" element

Some may have noticed a little article on the right of the front page of the Ottawa Citizen... "Hey, science fans, there’s a new element in town". In it, Tom Spears implies that the discovery of element number 112, known as Ununbium, is a novel thing.

Here's the problem. As an avid science fan, and chemist, my first reaction was "wasn't 112 there last time I looked at the periodic table?". And, sure enough, all the PTs in the lab (none of which were printed in the last 12 hours) all indicate element 112 there, smiling at me below mercury and just raising the question about what prompted the article... and its front page position.

So, here's the wikipedia scoop. Ununbium was first discovered in 1996, in Darmstadt, Germany. Like most of it's heavy brothers, 112 is synthesised by smashing things together, in this case, its lead and zinc. So what is new? Well, the IUPAC overseers of these things have re-confirmed that the discovery was real, and have credited those German discoverers with the first atom of Ununbium... meaning they can now name it.

So, is this a case of a journalist getting it all wrong in science? Am I being too pedantic by getting annoyed at how it's taken 12 years for this discovery to be reported by the Ottawa Citizen... and even then that they haven't really told the story.

What are some of the worst examples of science reporting that you can think of?


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hypercolor T-shirts

I'm not really sure what our reader demographics are like here at the Bayblab, but I'm sure some of you remember Hypercolor T-shirts - the shirts that changed colour with heat. If you ever wondered how that worked, Wikipedia comes to the rescue:

The color change of Hypercolor shirts is based on combination of two colors: the color of the dyed fabric, which remained constant, and the color of the thermochromic dye. The dye is enclosed in microcapsules, tiny (few micrometers in diameter) drops of liquid sealed in a transparent shell, bound to the fibers of the fabric. The liquid is a leuco form of a dye (in this case crystal violet lactone), a weak acid (1,2,3-benzotriazole), and a quaternary ammonium salt of a fatty acid (myristylammonium oleate) dissolved in a solvent (1-dodecanol). At low temperatures, the weak acid forms a colored complex with the leuco dye, interrupting the lactone ring. At high temperatures, above 24-27 °C, the solvent melts and the salt dissociates, reversibly reacts with the weak acid and increases the pH. The pH change leads to closing of the lactone ring of the dye, which then regains its colorless (leuco) form.

Low temperatures allow a weak acid to react with the dye, converting it to its coloured form.

Whatever happened to those shirts anyhow? That they were easily ruined by washing them at higher than recommended temperatures didn't help, but I'm sure it had more to do with people not needing any more attention drawn to overactive armpits.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Cancer Carnival #22

Welcome to the June edition of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival - your monthly stop for cancer-related news and breakthroughs. I've been a bad keeper this month, both in soliciting hosts/posts and in timely delivery, so let's jump right in to the good stuff.

Omics! Omics!
Dr. Keith Robison ponders tumor supressors as he moves back into the cancer field, likening cancer researchers to the seven blind men who hasn't yet figured out the elephant in front of them
A great mystery for many such genes is why the tissue specificity of the tumor syndrome? In each of the genes mentioned above, the tumor syndrome appears to be very specific to a tissue type, yet in each of these cases the genes involved have been shown to be parts of cellular machinery used by every cell. Why does a failure of a general part manifest itself so specifically?

The Spittoon
Erin Cline Davis sends us a couple of links from the 23andMe blog's SNPwatch feature.
SNPwatch gives you the latest news about research linking various traits and conditions to individual genetic variations. These studies are exciting because they offer a glimpse into how genetics may affect our bodies and health; but in most cases, more work is needed before this research can provide information of value to individuals.
The first discusses new SNPs associated with testicular cancer, including one that may explain why the disease is more common among caucasians. The second involves a recent study that identifies genetic differences between benign and malignant neuroblastoma, including several SNPs in the BARD1 gene, also mentioned in Dr. Robison's post, above. 23andMe customers can browse their own data for these SNPs, which of course doesn't substitute for professional advice.

Here at the Bayblab, Bayman talks about new systems biology approaches to predicting anti-tumor activity of immune cells.
They fed the info into some sort of machine learning algorithim, which came up with some pretty clear-cut boolean style predictive rules that a mere organic being (aka tumor immunologist) could never have possibly concieved of with a million years of deductive reasoning and experimental testing.
As Bayman puts it: "It's Big Blue beats Kasparov all over again!"

Respectful Insolence
Orac at Respectful Insolence has a post up, Cancer research explained briefly, that explains why we'll never have "a cure for cancer". It's a simple explanation, and one that's important to be aware of. While there, be sure to click through to see the full comic in the post.

Framing Science
Have you ever wondered how accurate some of the information on medical dramas is? What about using a show like House to teach medical ethics? Matt Nisbet writes about misleading medical programs and the balance between raising issue awareness and getting medical facts right, citing the recent cancer-related Gray's Anatomy finale as an example.
"Many people view the cancer problem as much simpler than it actually is," Brawley says. "That's because they get their medical information from television shows. But television shows are by and large fictional, and much of the medical information there is also going to be fictional."

Finally, our friend Alex at Hematopoiesis has written about stem cell derived cancer killing NK cells.
Dan Kaufman’s lab from University of Minnesota demonstrate for the first time efficient cancer killing activity in vivo, mediated by immune cells derived from hESC. They generated natural killer (NK) cells using previously published protocol and investigated their anti-cancer activity on the range of tumors in vitro and in mouse leukemia model.
He goes on to the results and the advantages of such an approach. For a Hematopoiesis bonus, check out this post about the cancer stem cell hypothesis complexity/controversy and how it's changed over the years.

That's it for this installment of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival. We always need hosts and posts so email the Bayblab to sign up, and get your posts in here. Visit the Carnival Homepage for previous editions.

And don't forget, the Cancer Research Blog Carnival now has subscription options; you can follow by email or RSS feed. An aggregated feed of credible, rotating health and medicine blog carnivals is also available.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Burger H&E

I imagine it played out like this:

An internist, a surgeon and a pathologist walk into a fast food joint and each order a burger. The internist says, "I wonder if there is any meat in there", the surgeon takes a bite, turns the pathologist and says: "can you tell me if there was meat in there tomorow?"...

So I guess after a bunch of H&E later and a manuscript sent to the annals of diagnostic pathology, we find out that the meat content on average barely breaks 15%. On the other hand you'll find connective tissues, blood vessels, bone, plant and intracellular parasites and lots of water. Thankfully, no neurons...

So the moral of the story is never bring a pathologist to a fast food joint if you want to be able to enjoy your burger.