The Sailing Stones of Death Valley have been a scientific curiosity for numerous decades. These rocks seemingly spring to life at various times throughout the year, blazing long trials across the desert’s floor before coming back down to rest. Whilst there have been numerous theories as to what causes this movement, ranging from the plausible to the downright insane, no one had managed to verify just what exactly was going on with these strange rocks. Well now thanks to researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography we now have evidence of just what’s causing this to happen and it’s pretty fascinating.
The video largely supports the theory put forth by Ralph Lorenz some years ago whereby the the rocks are trapped within ice sheets which are then moved by the prevailing winds. What’s interesting about this video is that it shows why the previous experiments, which were largely inconclusive as to ice sheets being responsible, produced the data that they did. It also shows why there seems to be similarities between some movements whilst others seem to be completely random. Pretty much all of these can now be explained by the ice sheets breaking up and bumping off each other, leading to the wide variety of patterns and behaviours.
Like the video says this might not be the most exciting experiment to conduct however it’s always interesting when a long standing phenomena like this finally gets explained. We might not be able to use this knowledge to further other research or develop some novel product, however as we begin to explore further out into our universe knowledge of strange things like this becomes incredibly valuable. When we see phenomena like this elsewhere we’ll be able to deduce that similar processes are in action over there and thus further our understanding of the places we explore.
The need for organs for transplants has always outstripped demand and this has pushed the science in some pretty amazing directions. Indeed one of the most incredible advances is the ability to strip away host tissue from organs, leaving behind an organ scaffold, that we can then regrow with the recipient’s own cells. This drastically reduces the chance of rejection and hopefully avoids the patient having to take the harsh anti-rejection drugs. However such a process still relies on a donor organ which still leaves us with the supply problem to deal with. Whilst we’ve made some advances in creating parts of organs (some even done with biomedical 3D printers) growing a full organ has still proven elusive.
That is until recently.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have, for the first time, managed to grow a full functioning organ within a mouse using only a single injection. The organ that they created was the thymus, an organ that plays a critical role in the production of T-cells. These cells are the ones that are responsible for hunting down cells in your body that are either showing abnormalities or signs of infection and then eradicating them. What’s so incredible about this recent achievement is that the functional thymus developed after the injection of modified cells, requiring none of the additional work that’s previously been associated with creating functional organs.
The process starts off with cells from a mouse embryo, which from what I can gather were likely to be embryonic stem cells, which were then genetically programmed to form into a type of cell that’s found in the thymus. These, along with supporting cells, were then injected into the mice and the resultant cells developed into a fully functioning thymus. Interestingly though this didn’t seem to be the outright goal of the program as the researchers themselves stated that the result was surprising. Indeed whilst it’s been theorized that stem cells could be used in this manner it was never thought to be as straight forward as this and with these results further research is definitely on the table.
Whilst this research is still many years away from being useful in human models it does pave the way for research into how far this typical method can be applied. The thymus is a relatively simple organ when compared to others in the body so the next steps will be to see if this same process can be used to replicate them. If say a liver or heart can be reproduced in this manner then this has the potential to completely solve the transplant organ supply issue, allowing patients (or a surrogate) to grow their own organs for transplants. There’s a lot of research to be done before that happens however but this latest advance is incredibly promising.
Many moons ago, when I was still a poor uni student working multiple jobs to make ends meet, I remember one of my fellow childcare workers would rarely be seen outside without his sunglasses. It became something of a recurring joke as, even when it wasn’t particularly bright outside, he’d be sporting them. He later explained that he kept them on constantly because sunlight would make him sneeze and indeed upon taking them off he proceeded to prove his point. I had always thought that explanation was a most likely bunk however a couple years later I started to develop similar symptoms. Whilst the coincidence felt undeniable to me I had never really looked into it, until I saw this video:
Unfortunately whilst it’s a well established phenomena the lack of known cause is a little bit disappointing. I mean it’s not exactly a debilitating condition, all it takes is a half decent pair of sunglasses to negate any effect the sun might have in this regard, but still it seems like something that should have a simple explanation. Alas investigating why sunlight makes people sneeze probably isn’t the most sexy of research topics so I’m not holding my breath for any scientific breakthroughs.
All this talk of sneezing has made my nose itch, maybe I should pop outside to clear it out
Venus is probably the most peculiar planet that we have in our solar system. If you were observing it from far away you’d probably think that it was a twin of Earth, and for the most part you’d be right, but we know that it’s nothing like the place we call home. It’s atmosphere is a testament to the devastation that can be wrought by global warming with the surface temperature exceeding 400 degrees. Venus is also the only planet that spins in the opposite (retrograde) direction to every other planet, a mystery that still remains unsolved. Still for all we know about our celestial sister there’s always more to be learned and that’s where the Venus Express comes in.
Launched back in 2005 the Venus Express mission took the platform developed for the Mars Express mission and tweaked it for observational use around Venus. The Venus Express’ primary mission was the long term observation of Venus’ atmosphere as well as some limited study of its surface (a rather difficult task considering Venu’s dense atmosphere). It arrived at Venus back in early 2006 and has been sending data back ever since with its primary mission being extended several times since then. However the on board fuel resources are beginning to run low so the scientists controlling the craft proposed a daring idea: do a controlled deep dive into the atmosphere to gather even more detailed information about Venus’ atmosphere.
Typically the Venus Express orbits around 250KM above Venus’ surface, a pretty typical height for observational activities. The proposed dive however had the craft diving down to below 150KM, an incredibly low altitude for any craft to attempt. To put it in perspective the “boundary of space” (referred to as the Karman line) is about 100KM above Earth’s surface, putting this craft not too far off that boundary. Considering that Venus’ atmosphere is far more dense than Earth’s the risks you run by diving down that low are increased dramatically as the drag you’ll experience at that height will be far greater. Still, even with all those risks, the proposed dive went ahead last week.
The amazing thing about it? The craft survived.
The dive brought the craft down to a staggering 130KM above Venus’ surface during which it saw some drastic changes in its operating environment. The atmospheric density increased a thousandfold between the 160KM and 130KM, significantly increasing the drag on the spacecraft. This in turn led to the solar panels experiencing heating over 100 degrees, enough to boil water on them. It’s spent about a month at various low altitudes before the mission team brought it back up out of the cloudy depths, where its orbit will now slowly degrade over time before it re-enters the atmosphere one last time.
It’s stuff like this that gets me excited about space and the science we can do in it. I mean we’ve got an almost decade old craft orbiting another planet and we purposefully plunged it down, just in the hopes that we’d get some better data. Not only did it manage to do that but it came back out the other side, still ready and raring to go. If that isn’t a testament to our talents in engineering and orbital mechanics prowess then I don’t know what is.
It’s been almost 6 years since I first began writing this blog. If you dare to troll through the early archives there’s no doubt that the writing in there is of lower quality, much of it to do with me still trying to find my voice in this medium. Now, some 1300+ posts later, the hours I’ve invested in developing this blog my writing has improved dramatically and every day I feel far more confident in my abilities to churn out a blog post that meets a certain quality threshold. I attribute much of that to my dedication to writing at least once a day, an activity which has seen me invest thousands of hours into improving my craft. Indeed I felt that this was something of an embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule at work, something that newly released research says isn’t the main factor at play.
The study conducted by researchers at Princeton University (full text available here) attempted to discern just how much of an impact deliberate practice had on performance. They conducted a meta analysis of 150 studies that investigated the relationship between these two variables and classified them along major domains as well as the methodology used to gather performance data. The results show that whilst deliberate practice can improve your performance within a certain domain (and which domain its in has a huge effect on how great the improvement is) it’s not the major contributor in any case. Indeed the vast majority of improvements are due to factors that reside outside of deliberate practice which seemingly throws the idea of 10,000 hours worth of practice being the key component to mastering something.
To be clear though the research doesn’t mean that practice is worthless, indeed in pretty much every study conducted there’s a strong correlation between increased performance and deliberate practice. What this study does show though is that there are factors outside of deliberate practice which have a greater influence on whether or not your performance improves. Unfortunately determining what those factors are was out of the scope of the study (it’s only addressed in passing in the final closing statements of the report) but there are still some interesting conclusions to be made about how one can go about improving themselves.
Where deliberate practice does seem to help with performance is with activities that have a predictable outcome. Indeed performances for routine activities show a drastic improvement when deliberate practice is undertaken whilst unpredictable things, like aviation emergencies, show less improvement. We also seem to overestimate our own improvement due to practice alone as studies that relied on people remembering past performances showed a much larger improvement than studies that logged performances over time. Additionally for the areas which showed the least amount of improvement due to deliberate practice it’s likely that there’s no good definition for “practice” within these domains, meaning it’s much harder to quantify what needs to be practiced.
So where does this leave us? Are we all doomed to be good at only the things which our nature defines for us, never to be able to improve on anything? As far as the research shows no, deliberate practice might not be the magic cure all for improving but it is a great place to start. What we need to know now is what other factors play into improving performances within their specific domains. For some areas this is already well defined (I can think of many examples in games) but for other domains that are slightly more nebulous in nature it’s entirely possible that we’ll never figure out the magic formula. Still at least now you don’t worry so much about the hours you put in, as long as you still, in fact, put them in.
When you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem you’ll likely do anything to fix it, especially if it’s for someone you care about. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I read through reams of literature to figure out what was going on and what the best course of action could be for him, making sure that the doctors didn’t miss anything. Thankfully it was caught very early on and surgery, combined with 6 months of chemotherapy, was all that was required to send him into remission. Still the amount of utter bullshit I had to sift through when looking for the best treatments was absolutely phenomenal and all I could do was hope that no one else would fall prey to it. Unfortunately it seems that the bullshit machine never stops turning and PETA is the latest offender,
An article linked on PETA’s website makes the dubious claim that milk is somehow causing children with Autism to experience worse symptoms and, by virtue of simply eliminating it from their diet, their conditions markedly improve. They then link to two different studies, surprisingly from PubMed (I had honestly expected some quack site), that apparently support their arguments. Indeed if you follow those links both of the articles make the assertion that diet has some effect on Autism Spectrum Disorder symptoms with one taking the rather large hypothetical leap of suggesting that diet is linked to all central nervous system conditions. As you can probably tell from my wording I’m not exactly thrilled with these studies especially after reading the numerous other articles that cite them.
For the first study I quickly found 2 systematic reviews of the literature on this subject that included that particular study. The first says outright that there’s insufficient evidence to make the assertion that a gluten has any effect on ASDs but also suggests that there are likely subgroups with gluten allergies that could benefit from it (seems reasonable enough). The second notes that many children with ASD are also on a wide range of complementary and alternative therapies whilst undergoing these trials which makes the results even more unreliable than what their small sample size already does. It then goes on to say that the evidence for efficacy is poor and that large scale, randomized trials (which the first study PETA linked to didn’t do) are required.
The second paper is less cited but even within the few references I could find there was another study that said the data is inadequate for recommending a diet change as a treatment option. It goes on to note that of the studies it included most of them were uncontrolled, with only one of them being blinded in any way. The second study PETA linked doesn’t mention any blinding or control for factors as far as I can see so the data really can’t be used to make strong inferences, especially if you were using this data as a basis for treating others.
The last nail in the coffin is a recent (as in last month) systemic review on the literature on this subject which notes that all the research done on this has been of extremely low quality, lacking the scientific controls to make the data valid. If you want to determine the relationship between autism and dairy, which currently doesn’t exist as far as we can tell, then the study needs to be broad, encompassing hundreds of individuals and with good control measures so you can understand what’s influencing the outcome. Until then any assertions you make are simply hearsay and should most definitely not be used as the basis for treating someone else.
The only thing that makes bullshit like this worse is when large organisations like PETA get behind it, adding a level of credibility to an argument which just doesn’t exist. This is because the vast majority of the world won’t do the the things I did in order to see if they were right and, should they trust PETA as an organisation, take their word at face value and falsely believe it to be true. Whilst I’m sure you, dear reader, aren’t one of them I can’t say the same for the wider world and that’s exactly why malarkey like this needs to be dealt with head on. At the same time though I’d encourage you to do the investigation yourself as it shouldn’t be a savvy Internet blogger convincing you of the truth, let the facts do that instead.
Aging is one of the most complex and nuanced processes that our body goes through, radically transforming us over the course of several decades. Whilst some of the basic mechanisms are well understood, like accumulated damage to DNA during its reproduction, the rest remains something of a mystery. Indeed once we get into the extreme end of the spectrum the factors that seem to influence longevity become a lot more muddled, with many octogenarians engaging in behaviours that would appear to be the antithesis to living longer. Still our quest for the proverbial fountain of youth has had us searching through the many different mechanisms at play in the aging process and it seems that the blood of our young might hold the clues to a longer life.
Two pieces of recent research point towards some interesting evidence that shows the radical differences between the blood of the young and the elderly. Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was once the oldest woman in the world, reaching the ripe old age of 115 in the year 2005. She was in remarkable condition for her age, remaining mentally aware and alert right up until her death. In a great boon to the greater scientific community she donated her body for study giving us unprecedented insight into what happens to us as we age. That, combined with some recent research data coming at this from a different perspective, shows that the contents of our blood changes dramatically as we age and, possibly, that we could reinvigorate ourselves with transfusions from our younger selves.
At the end of her life all of Hendrikje’s white blood cells, the ones responsible for fighting off infections, came from a mere 2 stem cells. It is estimated that we begin our lives with around 20,000 such cells with around 5% of them working at any one time to replenish our white cell supply. The fact that Hendrikje had only two function stem cells remaining points to an upper limit on the natural human age as once you stop producing white blood cells it wouldn’t take long for your body to succumb to any number of diseases. Curiously though this also hints a potential pathway to reinvigorate individuals whose white cell count has deteriorated, by injecting them with their own blood (or potentially someone else’s) taken from many years previous.
That part was mostly conjecture on the part of the researchers but recent results from a study at Stanford University have shown that old mice injected with the blood of younger mice show significant improvement in cognitive function. Whilst this isn’t likely to be the same mechanism that the previous research may have indicated (blood plasma with the proteins denatured in it didn’t achieve the same result) it does point towards a potential therapeutic pathway for combating some age related maladies. Of course whether this translates into a human model remains to be seen and who knows if this kind of thing would get passed an ethics tribunal.
Indeed research of this nature opens up all sorts of ethical questions as if it’s shown that blood transfusions can improve the quality of life of patients then it becomes imperative for doctors to use it. With blood supplies always being in high demand the question of where they can do the most good comes to the forefront, a troubled area that really has no good answers. Still if you could better the life of another, most likely a relative, by simply giving blood I’m sure many of us would do it, but the larger question of voluntary donations still remains.
There’s also some potentially dark sci-fi film in here about people being bled dry in order to feed an underground transfusion market but I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.
You might not think it from reading this blog but I’ve actually been an advocate for some types of complementary medicine in the past. Predominantly this has been related to osteopathy which helped me tremendously with some back issues I had, especially when used in conjunction with more traditional physiotherapy. However that’s where my belief in them ends as whilst many practitioners would have you believe that their treatments can be effective for things other than what they’re directly influencing the science just isn’t there to support it. Indeed even the practitioners I use don’t believe that which is the reason I keep going back to them.
One of my favourite dead horses to beat in this area is homeopathy, the practice of diluting something that causes the symptoms you’re experiencing in water to the point where none of that substance could remain. It’s practitioners then theorize that the water retains some “memory” of it which you body then recognises and somehow manifests a cure for ailments. Homeopathy has been scientifically proven to be no more effective than a placebo in numerous clinical trials yet it’s still a booming industry seeing on the order of $10 million worth of sales in Australia every year. You’d think that without any solid grounds for efficacy it wouldn’t be long for this world but it’s practitioners are an incredibly stubborn bunch.
Thankfully though the government commissioned the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a report on the efficacy of homeopathy for some 68 different clinical conditions and the results are, unsurprisingly, for the negative. The research was commissioned as part of a larger body of work concerning the government’s 30% rebate on complementary therapies which currently includes things like homeopathy. It’s quite possible that this will lead to the exclusion of such therapies from the rebate scheme, something which I wholly support. This won’t stop them from being sold though, they just won’t be subsidised as a complementary form of medicine.
On the flip side though I’m of the mind that people are more than welcome to put whatever they want in their bodies so long as they don’t harm anyone else. This research makes it clear that homeopathy can not treat clinical conditions and so anyone who advocates it as such is, in my mind, actively doing harm to that person. If you’re taking a homeopathic remedy for “general health reasons” and it seems to be working for you great, but consider that your experience is more than likely due to the nature of you thinking it was going to work rather than some magical properties of water that defies all scientific evidence to the contrary. In that case for it to work for someone else they too have to believe that and if they do they’ll likely find it without your help.
I’m something of a quiet transhumanist, reveling in the ideas of elevating the human existence through the use of technology but staving off from raving about it whenever I get the chance. Whilst the idea of living longer appeals to many the idea of removing that inevitable end date, the one thing that has proved to be unavoidable for the vast majority of humanity to date, feels abhorrent to many and thus I leave the subject to one side. Still every so often a piece of science will make it into the mainstream media that brings with it some of the implications of transhumanist thinking and I feel compelled to comment on it.
A collaborative research effort between scientists in Australia and the USA has discovered a compound which, when administered to 2 year old mice, makes them appear to be as youthful as their 6 month old counterparts. The time line for the dramatic effects was also impressive with the reversal taking just under a week to occur. The compound acts on mitochondria, the energy generators of our cells, and appears to act directly on the muscle tissue of the mice. Whether that extends to other aspects of aging isn’t made clear (at least not that I can see, the article is behind a paywall) but the results have been impressive enough to warrant approval for human trials next year. Of course that means that a proper human model is some years off (with commercial production further still) but we should have some preliminary results in the not too distant future.
If this compound does pretty much exactly as advertised then it could mean a lot for our aging populace. Restoring muscle function is a key aspect in leading a healthier life as we age (which is why regular exercise is so important) and this could go a long way to making our golden years that much more enjoyable. At the same time it could also potentially help keep us in physical peak condition much longer, enabling us to be more active for an extended period of time. Whether this will translate to a bump in life expectancy and, more importantly, total longevity though will be something we won’t know for decades but it does sound promising.
Of course such life extension technologies always beg the question of how we’d deal with a larger population that’s living longer. Currently the world’s population is expected to peak around 2050 at roughly 8.3 billion, about 1.3 billion above what it is today. Technology like this wouldn’t immediately mean everyone suddenly starts living an additional 20~30 years, due to cost and adoption rates, so it’s far more likely that you’d see a gradual increase in average lifespan over the course of a couple decades. Indeed I believe this is true for all life extending technologies and thus their effects would be far more subtle and would be highly unlikely to lead to an unsustainable population of people who live forever.
It’s my hope that this line of research paves the way for more studies into what causes aging and what we can do to treat it. Whilst I will always support people’s decisions to live their lives the way they choose I believe that medical science can do a lot to help improve it and, one day, make death a choice rather than an inevitability.
After a long weekend of staying up late, drinking merrily and enjoying the company of many close friends I found myself being a little under the weather. This is pretty atypical for me as I’ve only ever had the flu twice and I usually pass through the cold season relatively unscathed. Whilst there’s thousands of possible reasons for this I’ve always found that should I find myself in the beginnings of an infection a strong dose of chilli seems to make it subside, or at least take my mind off it long enough to start feeling better. I realised yesterday that whilst I might have some anecdotal evidence to support this I hadn’t really looked into the science behind it and the stuff I uncovered in my search has been pretty intriguing.
For starters there are some strange experiments out there that have used chilli (well the chemical that gives it the burn, capsaicin) as an apparently reliable method to induce coughing in test subjects. The first one I came across was testing whether or not coughing is a voluntary action and the results seem to indicate that the coughing we get with the common cold is a mixture of both. Other experiments showed that people with an upper respiratory tract infection (which includes things like the common cold) are more prone to coughing when exposed to a capsaicin/citric acid mixture. None of these really helped me in understanding whether or not chilli aids in reducing the symptoms of the common cold or helping to cure it but a couple other studies do provide some potential paths for benefits.
Subjects with perennial rhinitis, a permanent allergic reaction to stimulus that doesn’t vary by season, showed a marked decrease in nasal complaints when treated with a solution of 0.15mg of capsaicin per nostal every 2nd or 3rd day for 7 treatments. The benefits lasted up to 9 months after the treatment and incredibly there were no adverse effects on cellular homeostasis or overall neurogenic staining (which sounds rather impressive but is a little out of my league to explain). Whilst this doesn’t directly support the idea that consumption helps the common cold it does provide a potential mechanism for it to relieve symptoms. However how much capsaicin ends up in your sinuses while eating it isn’t something I could find any data on.
Other studies have found similar effects when capsaicin solutions have been sprayed into the nasal cavity with the improvements lasting for up to 6 months. That particular study was a little on the small side though with only 10 patients and no controls present but the result do fall in line with the previous study which had much more rigorous controls. The theme appears to resonate through most of the other studies that I could find: topical application in the sinuses is good, inhaling it will cause you to erupt in a coughing fit.
Anecdotally that seems to line up with the experiences I’ve had and it’s good to see it backed up by some proper science. As for consumed chilli helping overall however there doesn’t appear to be any studies that support that idea but there are potential avenues for it to work. So like many scientists I’ll have to say that the results are interesting but require a lot more research to be done. Whether it’s worthy of investigating is something I’ll leave up as an exercise to the reader, but I’m sure we’d find no shortage of spice loving test subjects who’d be willing to participate.