Thursday, 27 January 2011

Interesting Imprinting

Every person inherits half of their genetic information from their mother and half from their father, which occurs at fertilisation when the sperm and egg meet.  The chromosomes inherited from each parent are the same and form pairs in mitosis. Normally both the maternal and paternal copies of each gene are expressed, and when one or both is mutated then this can sometimes lead to disease. However, there is a special situation for a few genes where only one of the parental genes is allowed to be expressed and the other copy is ‘turned off’. This was discovered when patients affected by two very different diseases were discovered to have mutations in the same gene, and which disease they developed was depended on the parent that the mutated gene was inherited from.  Further discoveries have been made in this direction by the identification of a gene which is only expressed in some tissues of the body when inherited from one parent and expressed in other tissues when inherited from the other parent, but never are both copes expressed in the same tissues.  The outline of the research is posted on the New Scientist website with the article ‘Ma's gene does different things to pa's copy’ 1, this is a nice article discussing the complex genetic mechanisms we are only just beginning to understand, and is likely to change our understanding of genetics and inherited risk factors for disease.


E Markham (2011). Interesting Imprinting Blogspot

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Science Skepticism

Science plays a critical role in the way we look at the world around us, for designing things as different as a new efficient car engine to treating disease and developing solutions to combat world hunger. It is present in our lives everyday, and involved in almost everything we do. And yet, Science is under attack. It had been undermined by the media; confusing and distorting stories. It has been betrayed by scientists themselves; either from misquoting, cherry picking of statistics or publishing articles which have not undergone peer-review scrutiny. It has become something that the public has been made to feel wary of, and in some cases fear. Many examples come to mind when considering scientific advances which have been misinterpreted and condemned, GM crops and IVF treatment to name just two. It is vital that scientists address this problem, in order to regain the trust of the public and gain there support. BBC’s “Horizon: Science Under Attack” 1 highlighted many of these issues and tries to reconnect the scientific and public community, because only through exchanging ideas and becoming involved by asking people what they are worried about, are you then able to address these issues, before they become a problem. Communication and education is key in regaining the support of the wary public, and the Horizon program explored the underlying question of ‘why people believe what they believe’ in order to determine why past scientific advances have so much fear and hostility against them, and then work out a way to address these issues. Either way, science needs the backing of the public and government in order to secure funding and continue research, and so it is in the scientists’ best interests to interact with the public more, getting them more involved. After all, the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Shoe Scams

Many people suffer from back pain from time to time, and many people stand at an angle, but claims from shoe inset companies that different types of inserts can be used to treat back and foot pain has no scientific support. The LA Times published an article 1 discussing a new shoe insert product that was making claims it could not support, and subsequently made many people question the supposed benefits from orthotics and other shoe inserts that are advertised on TV and prescribed by doctors. Technically an orthotics 2 is a device which restricts the movement of an area, holding it in a desired position and giving it support, this tends to come in the form of a large brace. Simple inner soles for shoes are not orthotics. What is shocking is that all though some people are skeptical enough to know these devices will not instantly cure back pain or other chronic problems; there are many websites out there still willing to promote these misleading products. Some of which carry the NHS logo and state that this product is approved by the HNS 3, but if you look at there range of product they have one type called ‘Catwalk’ which is designed for high heels. I’m sorry, but if you’re suffering from foot pain the most likely cause would be the high heels, which are scientifically shows to cause deformation of the foot and lasting damage to the bones and tendons of the foot if worn for long periods. So, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop wearing high heels, than to buy some insert which claims to magically cure these problems? The user may feel some short term relief, the same with buying a new pair of shoes where the support has not been worn away, but these inserts are nothing more then foam and are certainly not going to be a solution to long term chronic problems.

Successful Studying

Studying and learning is something most people experience, and developing a good study regime can be very helpful in passion exams, but what are the key ways to actually learn? There are dozens of learning tips and pyramids out there, but how do you know what actually works? New research published in the journal Science 1 finds that being tested is a good way to learn and remember information, with 50% more information being able to be recalled a week later. Memory is all about retrieval, and so learning the best mechanisms to tap in to that is vital. Testing also allows people to identify gaps in there knowledge and so they don’t become over confident. It was also found that student who use diagrams during there studying were able to remember more details. Recalling may be more difficult, but because its reinforcement learning it will actually be easier to recall the memory later on.

A recent article on the BBC 2 also focused on methods of learning, this time examining the relationship between difficult to read fonts and retaining the information, which was part of a study published in the journal of Cognition. The idea behind this is that the person has to ‘concentrate more’ and used a ‘deeper kind of learning’. Both these studied points at little changes that can be made in order to improve memory skills and be more successful in exams.
Other skills and tricks people find useful is using something funny or interesting in order to memories a group of things. For example, you can use the Memory Place 3 technique to remember a room and then attach a thing to remember to each item in the room, then you simple need to recall the room in order to remember the desired items. The same technique can be applied to a journey or to a story or situation. At the end of the day, a combination of hard work and a variety of different techniques are likely to be successful. Linking colour, images and other visual stimulation will activate other parts of the brain and help with memory recall that just blind memorization on its own. However, revision and memory techniques are a personal thing and one in which everyone develops different systems that work for them.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Realistic Risk

Fergus Walsh writes for the BBC medical files section, and it is refreshing to see the relative risk from seasonal flu being assessed in a non-alarmist way. His article “What is the chances of dying of the flu?” 1 carefully asses your risk, which is depended on what age group you fall in to and other risk factors. Even at the highest risk, those of middle age, only 1 in 440,000 people are likely to die from swine flu. Obviously far greater numbers of people contract the flu for every one person who dies, but it is something we really should not be so worried about, as our individual risk is so very small.  This doesn’t mean we should be complacent about cleanliness or the spreading of germs; as this is just good practice in order to lower your risk of most kinds of easily transmittable infections. It was nice to see such a well thought out argument, laid out in an easy to understand way, which might help set the public’s mind at rest and maybe go some way to lowering the number of angry mothers demanding the flu jab for there child. The NHS can only afford a limited number of immunizations, and so those at most risk need to get themselves vaccinated, while everyone else should practice common sense and good cleanliness. I agree vaccinations are vital for the protection of a population from a variety of deadly diseases, but the seasonal flu is not as deadly as the media is promoting it as and realistically, a number of people die from the normal flu every year, and so this is not particularly more virulent than any other. We need to keep in mind that if the NHS vaccinated everyone, then there would be no money to offer chemotherapy to cancer patents and to pay for preventative mammograms that save thousands of lives every year. It’s a difficult balancing act, and that is why we need to have a basic understanding of the risk involved before deciding a course of action. 

Fictitious Fertility

Today the BBC published an article examining the supposed beneficial effects of antioxidants on male fertility 1. This article used a study on existing fertility data from men who took supplements compared with controls. The report initially looked positive until this statement “However, he said it was important to note that antioxidant therapy would be unlikely to increase the numbers of sperm men produce and could not therefore help with all cases of male infertility.” So essentially, there is no benefit in taking antioxidants to improve your fertility. Also, it is quite interesting how little science is actually included in this report, this is probably because there is no research clearly showing any affect of consuming antioxidants and all the antioxidant benefits  that are cited are simply extrapolated from the effects seen with antioxidants produced naturally by the body. It is highly unlikely that any antioxidants consumed would be absorbed by the body, and it is more likely they will simply be broken down and excreted, because the body produces its own specific antioxidants at the required locations. Another important factor to bare in mind is that some oxidation processes are vital within the human body, like the use of oxidising free radicals generated by the immune system in order to fight off infections. If ingesting antioxidants had a direct effect on the body then this beneficial effect would be cancelled out by the lack of an affective immune system.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Genetic Gaming

A new novel online scientific game recently reviewed by both New Scientist 1 and the New York Times 2  receiving much praise is Etherna 3, the premise of which is to complete challenges involving the folding of RNA in to desired structures by taking advantage of base pairing specificities. This program highlights the issues currently being experienced in the field of genetics, as the RNA molecules can fold in a variety of ways dependent on many factors. This game is very clever and simple, it has an easy to navigate layout and is vibrant. The idea may seem geeky and daunting to non scientists but the theory behind it is made simple and easy to understand during the tutorial, and in essence is fun to play.  The website also contains a live chat forum to allow the exchange of ideas and has a series of challenges for every type of gamer. The game itself is somewhere in between Bejewelled, Bubble, and Tetris. The benefits of such a game include new structures can be designed by the player and lead to the discovery of new mechanisms in the folding and regulation of RNA molecules. The possibilities are huge when large groups of people work together and apply different methods of thinking and problem solving to the same task, and the data generated from the game can go on to benefit scientific discovery in the future.  This is just another online problem-solving community currently part of a growing trend, taking advantage of offering fun tasks in exchange for large amounts of information and data. 

Games like this are making science fun and exciting for a wide range of people, teaching them some basic biology along the way.  It is vital to promote since in a range of forms and media in order to appeal to different groups of people, and this game goes a long way to achieving this goal. After all, the best kind of learning is the kind that doesn’t feel like hard work.

Nobel Nonsense

A recent publication which has sparked a lot of controversy and anger in the scientific community is a scientific paper by Nobel prize winner Luc Montagnier 1. His paper made claims that DNA was able to make a “quantum imprint” in water, and so fool enzymes and replication machinery in to replicating what is not there, in a kind of teleportation effect. Geneticists are outraged, as this is clearly impossible and a purely ridiculous claim.  A variety of ‘experiments’ were carried out, including applying weak electromagnetic fields in order to allow the ‘teleportation’ of DNA from one tube to another neighboring tube containing only water, but only if the DNA had undergone several serial dilutions first.  Also claims were being made about water having ‘memory’ and that the structure could be imprinted and recovered later.
Filtrations ‘experiments’ were also carried out, where the filter was so find it would not allow bacteria to pass through it and yet the filtrated solution contained infectious organisms, this was thought to again be due to the waters memory and ability to produce ‘ghost molecules’. This is probably one of the most ridiculous pieces of pseudoscience in recent memory. The 12th Jan issue of New Scientist 2 gave an unbiased view of this article, however promoting these idiotic ideas in a scientifically respected magazine is dangerous. What is curious is that Luc Montagnier has already received a Nobel prize for his work with HIV, and so this paper gains credibility because many people are willing to listen and accept what a respected scientist has ‘discovered’, without questioning it. There are many fundamental flaws in the study, firstly, it is not explained why they are examining electromagnetic ‘imprints’, no one in the field of genetics uses electromagnetic fields to study DNA, because it doesn’t make any sense. All though the shape and structure of the DNA is very important to its function and interaction, and this could, in theory, be replicated by vibrations, the most important detail is the specific hydrogen bonds which form between the bases of the two strands which form the helix. These bases carry the genetic information and require the machinery to add complementary base pairs in order to replicate the DNA. This is the principle behind PCR 3, which was the technique used to amplify any DNA present in the sample. The fact that a PCR product was formed from the ‘water’ tube simply shows that one of the reagents must be contaminated, because scientists use water controls when carrying out PCR replication of DNA. The method of replication relies of the DNA physically being there and changing shape to allow replication, so even if you suppose that a structure could be formed from electromagnetic waves in the water, it would not be preserved during the heating and cooling cycles of PCR, and would not be able to alter its shape to allow for DNA replication. It is simply ridiculous that any respectable scientist would entertain such ideas. Secondly, diluting the DNA makes no sense, because it would be quite dilute anyway, and diluting it would surely only reduce the effect seen. Serial dilutions are used in biology in order to take chemicals  or bacterial solutions from a highly concentrated form to a lower concentration which contains the desired number of particles to make studying them easier. However, this paper was hailed as support for homeopathy, which is illogical, because homeopathy uses so many serial dilutions that would be physically impossible to have a single molecule present in the final solution. The idea of water memory is also illogical, because what would stop water having memory of all the other things it has been in contact with? And how would it be able to transfer its memory in to positive therapeutic effect?

Fortunately, this paper has been met with much skepticism, as well as gaining the attention of James Randi and other well known debunkers of pseudoscience 6. The article “Delusions and dilutions never cease” 4 on the JREF website, beaks down the arguments from the paper and expose the bad science within. The paper was also critically examined by the website Science – Based Medicine 5, and found to be wanting. If only New Scientist could have been more faithful to the scientific community and exposed the paper as the unscientific report it is. It is likely that with the current media attention, within the scientific community at least, the paper will gain no ground and will not mislead people with false claims for water memory. 

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Periodic Problems

The Periodic table, in which orders all the elements by atomic number, and groups them in families with similar properties. However, this table is undergoing a revolution. Recently CNN published an article describing the changes that will occur next year. Essentially the weights of 10 elements will be altered; this is because they need to be expressed as a range rather than an exact number, in order to me more accurate. This may not seem like a very big change, but the current table has been used in this form since 1985. However, the first periodic table was developed in 1789 and has undergone numerous changes since then, so changing the current table in order to make it more accurate would actually be far more beneficial to scientific procedures, which would outweigh the hindrance of updating the table in every laboratory. Something like the periodic table needs to be accurate in order to be useful, and so as new discoveries are made then it will need to be updates and changed to reflect this. But this in turn will help other scientific experiments become more accurate, and so we should not be so precious about changes occurring to the current periodic table, even though it seems so familiar, because it is simply a tool to be applied to equations and experiments, and not blindly memorized because then it has no value, because it would no longer be open to change and update with new discoveries.

The periodic table has not always been the same shape and can be interoperated in a variety of ways; the New York Times published a wonderful poster showing an alternative version of the table, in the form of a spiral. The most important consideration in the designing of a periodic table is the needs to represent the information in an easily accessible way,  grouping the elements in some sort of order and for it to be accurate. A wonderful variety of tables and diagrams have been produces over the years, but the basic table format seems to have endured the test of time, if for no reason more than ease of use.   

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Pointless Placebo

Newsnight this week 1 featured a segment on homeopathy and calls for more controls and regulations for the industry. Many popular celebrities and much of the royal family use homeopathy, making it popular and trendy within the media and public alike. The use of homeopathy to treat mild conditions, in which effective treatment does not exist I’m sure has a place within medicine, as science has already established that the placebo effect can be very powerful. However, what is not acceptable is when homeopathy is used instead of conventional medicines and so putting a person’s life at risk. The program talked with Simon Sigh, who recently won a liable case in court when he spoke out against pseudoscience, and consulted with Zofia Dymitr, the current chairwoman of the society of homeopaths. The debate was interesting because Zofia said she did not condone the use of homeopathy in treating tropical diseases, or as a prophylaxis to prevent infection, which is something many homeopathic clinics have been claiming. Unfortunately there is on unified regulatory body in order to police the homeopaths claims.

Homeopathy has a huge following, many of whom don’t know the truth about the treatment and the scientific fact that it is so dilute that it doesn’t actually contain any active ingredients what so ever. The problem arises not just from misleading the public and the lack of accurate labeling on the packaging, but from well meaning people traveling out to developing countries and setting up clinics there, in order to offer homeopathic treatments to the local population. This is fundamentally wrong, the community in many developing countries tends to have a respect and trust in westerners and there western medicine, and they usually only have a basic understanding of English, these facts combined make them very vulnerable. They are not making an informed decision as to what they are taking, and in doing so do not receiving often life saving real medication for the diseases.  The standard of health care in many of these countries is often very basic; patients tend to have very little understanding of what they are taking and so trust the doctor. Further challenges arise from the existing alternative medicines provided from the witch doctors or other respected members of the community, which are cheaper and seem more natural and closer to the peoples cultural beliefs, mislead thousands of people every year, preventing then from obtaining effective treatment. This is challenging enough without adding to this by offering homeopathy to an already crowded and confusing selection of treatment options.

The call for better labeling on homeopathic treatments is one graining much support both within and outside of the scientific community. I’m sure there are many homeopaths that follow current regulations, and advise patients to seek conventional medicine for serious conditions and do not make outrageous and unsupported claims. But there is also a minority, who are putting people at risk, and this needs to be addressed. Many people also seek out homeopathic treatments after reading alternative medicine books and websites, and so pharmacies that insist on selling these treatments need to have clear labeling to advise the customers of what they are actually getting, as many believe they are buying herb extracts when in fact its just sugar pills. Education and clear labeling are the most effective ways to insure that people know what they are getting and can make a decision for themselves. Sense About Science 2, a organization who campaigns for accurate science within the media and public domain, have produced a memorandum for people to sign in order to push the government in to clearer and more accurate labeling on homeopathic treatments 3. I would urge everyone to please sign this petition in order to allow people to make informed decisions for themselves, rather than allowing them to be misled by the current labeling. For those who feel more strongly about the fallacy which is homeopathy and do not support the governments decision to offer it on the NHS, costing the tax payer thousands of pounds which could have been better spent on proven effective treatments. There is a campaign called 10:23 4, which is organized by the Merseyside skeptics and is a large scale protest and event where people gather and ‘overdose’ on homeopathy treatments. Because the tablets are sugar pills, and contain no actual active ingredients at the standard 30c dose, they are harmless and so the guidelines on the packaging make it look like a medication with complex warnings and dosage guidelines, when in fact it is just placebo sugar pills. Last year demonstration saw 400 people take a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’, to show ‘there is nothing in it’, which will be repeated this year on a larger scale. All thought this campaign has received much media coverage, there are many people out there still unwilling to accept the science and reality behind it, but at least they have been presented with the facts and allowed the freedom to choose.

Hologram hoax

Today’s edition of the Metro shone a light in to the darkness of pseudoscience with its article explaining the recent fraudulent claims made by the sellers of “Power balance bracelets”.  Recently the companies branch in Australia have acknowledged that there claims are fraudulent and that anyone who has been misled can claim a full money back refund, this is a huge step forward in combating pseudoscientific claims, however the other branches of this company are not retracting there claims and they try and promote the ‘benefits’ of the bracelets from anecdotal evidence rather than fact. The theory behind it is that the hologram ‘improves the body’s energy flow’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Science has long established that there is no ‘energy’ flow within the body, electrical or otherwise. There are highly controlled movements of electrons, ions and chemicals within the body, but the presents or absence of a hologram will make no difference. Part of the way they carry out this con is by tricking the potential buyer by carrying out a ‘test’ to show how you’re physically stronger when wearing the bracelet compared with not wearing it (by taking advantage of applied kinesiology). But obviously this is a biased and not controlled test, to try and sell the product. Many famous people have been sucked in to this scam and there comments form more anecdotal evidence to support the bracelets ludicrous claims. What is frustrating is that more people don’t question these claims and push for the government to regulate these products more in order to protect people from being conned. 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Pseudoscience Predictions

Another daily does of pseudoscience courtesy of The Times today, which printed an article, entitled “Can we really predict a baby’s sex?” It sited several ‘old wives tales’ and then explained if there was any scientific research or data to back up the claims. It ranged from bathing in different liquids in order to change the pH of the uterus, to eating lots of carbohydrates. This may seem like a harmless article but unfortunately this is a not just a pointless waste of newspaper column space. As we already know, the sex of a child is determined solely by genetics, the genes which are contained within the egg and sperm which come together at fertilization. It is articles like this that confuse the reader and have no scientific value; it is frustrating that people will still tolerate respectable newspapers printing this rubbish. The worst part of this article is that it suggested that eating a certain diet would give you a higher chance of conceiving a child of a desired sex. This is a ridiculous misrepresentation of a scientific study and is simply a correlation between two unrelated things. It may seem like a bit of a harmless report in order to fill the column space during the quite holiday period, but it undermines the reader’s intelligence and could easily guide an unquestioning reader to become mislead by the scientific sounding claims.

Another frustrating piece of pseudoscience which seems to have a growing following is baby sex predicting tables, like the one above. This may seem like a harmless piece of fun in developed countries, but these tables and charts are becoming wide spread across the world and making there way in to medical clinics and pharmacies in many developing countries.  The problem with this is that people using them are often uneducated and so are becoming mislead by there predictive claims. What is interesting about pseudoscientific charts like this is that when they are wrong they are never blamed, that it is somehow your fault, the dates you gave were not accurate, but when they happen to predict the sex correctly (50% of the time) then the chart is hailed as legitimate. Many people are conned out of money for these charts, often the poorest and least educated within the community and the people buying them feel guilty and cheated when the chart is incorrect. We have made such progress in science in the last few decades and yet people are still being swindled by this widely peddled pseudoscience. 

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Statistical Revolution

The word ‘mathematics’ or ‘statistics’ often produces fear and panic in most people; however it is easy to forget this is something we do everyday. Fortunatly there has recently been resurgence in maths based popular books and websites, not discussing math and equations but using them to represent complex ideas or data in a simple, easily understandable, and often humorous way.

Recently the BBC cashed in on this rise in popularity by producing a program called “The Joy of Stats”, which was also available on the Iplayer 1. It was a popular show in spite of its cheesy title because it discussed an often scary and dry subject in a fun and exciting way. Statistics is one of several subjects which is hard to translate in to a TV show because of its often complex nature and impenetrable language, however this show focused on the statistics that are fun, useful and most importantly applicable to everyday life, and so was well received by the general public.

Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics 2 are two wonderful books which discuss hilarious correlations between people or things, examining the subjects from a purely statistical point of view, often exposing an interesting underlying relationship which previously would not have been identified. It is written in a very easy to read way, and once you start reading it is hard to put it down. The authors write articles for the New York Times and on the success of their two books they have now expanded the website to include a weekly podcast and blog to discuss new interesting topics they are currently exploring.

Another website, which has become a bit of a cult over the past few years, is GraphJam 3, a website which allows anyone to create venn diagrams and other charts about interesting correlations between current affairs or pop culture. This is a fun website, which again shows complicated ideas in an easy to understand and often funny way. Obiously these diagrams are not based on actual data but are a symbolic way to represent ideas. This website highlights the fact that maths is sill a very relevant and applicable subject for the general public and is not the scary monster it is made out to be, and over all that statistics can be used to produce a humorous image.

A clever new blog becoming popular at the moment is Indexed 4, a blog updated weekly with is a simple venn diagram on an index card representing a clever observation or interesting correlation. This is a highly amusing and very simple website; its popularity has spurred the author to produce a postcard book, which is currently available on Amazon 5. This is a nice idea because it allows people to use these highly effective and funny little diagrams as a greeting, while promoting the simplicity and effectiveness of mathematical diagrams.

Finally, David Spieglehalter, a professor at Cambridge University has created a wonderful little website called Understanding Uncertainty 6, in which there are several games and diagrams which allow you to alter the parameters and explore different ways to interpret and represent the same set of data depending on what you want to show. This allows you to change the settings and parameters and so alter the impact that a set of data has when represented in a graphical format. This is useful because it allows the user to better understand how the media can represent data in a biased way in order to get more of a reaction when presenting a set of complicated data, and gives you the tools to ask more questions and really asses the true meaning of the data.

It is wonderful to see maths moving in so many different directions and being used in such a variety of ways. It is important that maths and statistics changes and adapts with the changing generations and technologies in order to not be left behind, because without maths we would be unable to understand and interpret the complex world around us. 

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Scientific Christmas

The Royal Institutes annual Christmas science lectures is one of the highlights of the scientific calendar. The institute itself was founded in 1799 with the aim to introduce science to the general public, the Christmas lectures began in 1825 and was initiated by Michael Faraday 1. The lecturers have become increasingly popular ever since.  It is a platform for a variety of scientific topics to be addressed, often presented by famous or well renowned scientists, like David Attenborough.

The institute approaches the education of the public in a fun and interactive way, getting young people actively involved with science in a variety of ways. As well as the Christmas lectures they also boast an impressive museum and young scientist centre 2.

This years Christmas science lectures explores the topic of Size Matters 3,4,5, covering a wide range of angles and everyone has something to learn from such a charismatic and knowledgeable presenter. The lecture is kept very lively, with audience participation and active problem solving to investigate why size matters and how changes is size can influence the way the objects interact. It is interesting how you often have to leave your ‘common sense’ behind and not rely on your past experiences when considering objects on different scales and how they interact, as the principles governing there interactions are very different. This was demonstrated in a variety of ways, including how Velcro works at its current size, but if you try and scale it up then it will no longer function.

The Christmas lecture is powerful because it brings science to the living room of people across the country and often across the world, together exploring the topics being presented and learning some science which is practical to everyday life, hopefully igniting a passion for the sciences in both the young and older generations alike.