Archive November 2009

Royal science Grant Jacobs Nov 30


Fans of popular science, read the highlights of the Royal Society of London’s first 350 years. Scientists, or anyone really, try the original 300-odd year-old manuscripts.

Replica of Leeuwnehoeck's microscope (source: wikipedia)

Replica of Leeuwnehoeck's microscope (source: wikipedia)

It’s not that often than a newspaper article alerts me to a science website that’s worth exploring.

The Royal Society’s Trailblazing website gives a time-line of major scientific news, with illustrations and short summaries as well access to the original accounts in Philosophical Transactions for history buffs and geeks.

Give it a whirl.

There’s a wide range of fun to be had: observations after restoring a 14 year-old boy’s sight, smallpox vaccination (Sir Hans Sloane is also credited with inventing milk chocolate), testing young Mozart’s skills, a comet discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1794 (the first officially recognised woman scientist), a proof that fingerprints are unique, Barbara McClintock’s “jumping genes” (transposons), the first atomic explosion, continental drift, black holes, and edge detection for recognising visual objects are some of the many topics covered.

In one, man and his best-loved friend test a sauna (of sorts):

In 1775 Charles Blagden, Secretary of the Royal Society, entered a room heated by a furnace to at least 260°F (around 127°C). At this temperature the ‘greatest part of a beefsteak was pretty well done in 13 minutes’ and eggs that were removed after 20 minutes were found to be ‘roasted quite hard’. Yet Dr Blagden and his colleagues were unharmed by an 8-minute exposure and their core temperature did not change. Furthermore, their dog, wrapped in a blanket to protect its feet from burning on the floor, remained there for 30 minutes and was ‘little so affected during the whole time as to show signs of pleasure whenever we approached the basket’. Blagden and colleagues showed that the reason humans and dogs are able to survive such heat is owing to evaporative cooling, either from sweating, as in the case of humans, or from panting, as in the case of the dog.

Frances Ashcroft, University of Oxford.

New Zealanders will be happy to see that James Cook and Ernst Rutherford are represented. Mathematicians have their fair share, too. The final article is on today’s hot topic, ideas to battle global warming.

Each article has links to further information, they’re worth following.

If you’re more of a geek, what’s really great is that you can read–for free–the original manuscripts. (Click on ‘View scientific article’.)

I’m enjoying Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s manuscript titled:

Observations, Communicated to the Publisher by Mr. Antony van Leewenhoeck, in a Dutch Letter of the 9th of Octob. 1676. Here English’d: concerning Little Animals by Him Observed in Rain-Well-Sea. and Snow Water; as Also in Water Wherein Pepper Had Lain Infused

A while back I worried about losing “old science” through not bringing the back catalogue to the digital era. I have to say this is impressive.

And fun.

These old manuscripts are great to read!

They’re scanned, so you read them in the original typesetting, complete with the Old English f for s, y for j and so on.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is famous for his microscopes and the observations he made using them. As you can see above, his microscopes are basically a small (round) lens mounted in a metal plate, with a pin on which the subject being observed was placed.

He writes to the Royal Society reporting looking at little drops of water. The “little animals” he observed here are bacteria and protozoa. van Leeuwenhoek was the first to describe microorganisms and this paper I would think is the first report of them in English.

Here’s a sample of what he writes:


The language of science has moved on a little since then…!

I’m guessing that the “two little horns” are flagella of a biflagellate species.

He goes on to report that their bodies were very flexible:


Protozoans are also a recurring topic in Gary Larsen’s Far Side cartoons. They’re the squiggly blobs, often with glasses.

How many of you as a kid played with a microscope, staining blobs of water and twiddling little knobs?

Advice for students heading to university Grant Jacobs Nov 29


In the southern hemisphere, final-year school students ought to be sorting out what to do next year.

This article is an edited re-post of a guest post I wrote on Alison’s blog before I had my own. Although written with science students in mind, most of it applies to students of all disciplines. Readers, share your own thoughts and suggestions.

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Snake coughs up new species Grant Jacobs Nov 28


New species are found all sorts of ways. In the case of British scientist Dr Andrew Marshall working in Tanzania a startled snake trying to escape spat out a new species of chameleon (see photo).

New species of chameleon

New species of chameleon (Source: York University)

To give some idea of scale, the twig is about the thickness of your thumb. He (she?) is a cute little guy.

I love the dry British humour in the report in the Daily Mail: “Obviously chameleons are very well camouflaged. You walk through the forest and tend not to see them.”

To be fair, he’s referring to the fact that in the 11 years he’s been there, it’s the first he’s seen.

Chameleons’ skinny legs always remind me of Kermit the frog. Same for you?

(I have to admit this article brings back childhood dreams of studying animals in remote places. I read way to much Gerald Durrell.)

Update: A better photograph can be seen on the The Great Beyond blog at Nature.

Craziest research paper titles, awards and authors Grant Jacobs Nov 28


High on the list has to be one I recently coveredFellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time.

One paper I read recently was authored by Song and Singh.

Many genes are known by an acronym. In the case of the arylsulfatase E gene, it’s ARSE.

I invite readers to suggest their own favourites.

Frog dimagnetic levitation

(A live frog is magnetically levitated, an experiment that earned André Geim from the University of Nijmegen and Sir Michael Berry from University of Bristol the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in physics. Source: wikipedia)

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The chiropractor really should stick to bones Grant Jacobs Nov 26


His latest “advertisement” tilts at cough and cold medicines for young kids. (His previous advertisement that I wrote about was aimed at swine flu.)

He seems to not realise that the same reasoning he uses could be applied to chiropractic treatment, to the point that you could replace the appropriate words and his reasoning would fit ever so well as a critique of his own field:

It’s a good idea to take a precautionary approach to about the chemicals chiropractic treatments you put into onto your body and avoid those which are not absolutely necessary. The fact that a chemical mix chiropractic claim is popular, well-used or recommended by experts doesn’t necessarily make it any good for you.

[...] However, in the past three years several healthcare authorities internationally have formally recognised that most over-the-counter cough and cold medicines chiropractic treatments given to children under six have virtually no benefits and too many risks. [...]

And so on. You get the picture.

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Computational biology: Natural history v. explanatory models Grant Jacobs Nov 26


Models, not just stamp collecting and managing datasets.

It feels good close to the 150th anniversary of the publishing of On the origin of species to note a thread running in some posts that reflects something close to my heart.

A key thing about Darwin’s work and other major achievements in science are that they present models of how something worked, frameworks in which observations could be placed.

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Book review: Buried Alive Grant Jacobs Nov 26


I have to join the latest trend at sciblogs: morbid book reviews.

Ya gotta love ‘em…

Buried Alive - Bondeson

Buried Alive - Bondeson

Seriously, our forensic science sciblog, Anna Sandiford, has a couple of book reviews out recently, one of which I’ve read (and enjoyed) and one I haven’t, both with a dead body theme.

This reminded me that I have wanted to review a “morbid” book of my own Buried Alive, The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear.

Buried Alive isn’t the trashy work the subtitle might make you think. In fact, I can’t but help wonder if the subtitle, while accurate, belittles the book a little. It is an entertaining read, presented in a light reading manner with lots of quirky anecdotes and facts despite the scholarship that lies behind it. It has a decent index and extensive notes with bibliographical references in the end matter.

Starting with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe–who else?–it explores the history and folklore of tales of being buried alive. There are illustrations of the various gadgets designed to allow the-maybe-not-dead to signal their recovery from the beneath the ground or in the temporary residences set out for the recently dead to ensure they really were dead.

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150 years since the publication of On the origin of species today Grant Jacobs Nov 24


ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES was published in London on 24 November 1859, while Darwin was taking the water-cure at Ilkley. It was a very ordinary-looking volume bound in sturdy green cloth, 502 pages long, and somewhat expensively priced at fourteen shillings, not nearly as gaily decked out as Murray’s red-and-gilt version of Darwin’s earlier Journal of Researches and nothing like the pocket-sized duodecimo Darwin had at first proposed.

Thus opens Janet Browne’s third chapter, Publish and Be Damned, the second part of her two-part biography of Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin Power of Place - Janet Browne

Charles Darwin Power of Place - Janet Browne

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Prizes, science writing, journalism, editors & newspapers Grant Jacobs Nov 24


wrote recently suggesting a prize for a newspaper carrying science content. In recognition of science writing, not journalism that has some science content to “beef up” an otherwise non-science based story, and to recognise all the science content, not only a few major stories.

I’d like to clarify some of what I was suggesting.

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Genetic tests and personalised medicine, some science communication issues Grant Jacobs Nov 24


Following on my initial post on Genetic tests and personalised medicine, I’d like to offer some loose thoughts on science communication issues associated with genetic tests.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) whose Canon of Medicine (1025) is one of the earliest examples of communication of disease risk. Image source: wikipedia

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) whose Canon of Medicine (1025) is one of the earliest examples of communication of disease risk. Image source: wikipedia (Statue in Dushanbe, Tajikistan)

When I think of genomes, genetic tests and medicine three obvious communication problems occur to me:

  1. A preference for ’black and white’ answers by the public, compared to the probabilistic answers genetic tests give.
  2. Generally, the more common the disease, the harder it is to resolve the genetic elements of the disease. This is the opposite of everyday experience, where familiar things are easier. Without understanding this people are likely to wonder why common diseases are not being addressed in the tests.
  3. I have a concern that better controls on claims made for ’alternative remedies’ are needed, especially as direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing potentially enables people to bypass sound medical advice entirely. While this perhaps is more a government issue, the media will need to play their part.

A fourth might be for media to treat any data they receive ethically, but that’s in another category entirely (!) and let’s leave that aside.

Let’s briefly look at each in turn.

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