Arsenic and old posts

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2011 10:26 am

Last year, with much ballyhoo, NASA held a press conference about a team of biologists claiming that they had found microorganisms that could use arsenic instead of phosphorous as a basis for biological processes.

However, it didn’t take too long before the work was under serious attack by other biologists. Some were snarky, others more reserved, but the message was clear: not too many professional biologists felt the arsenic claim held up to scrutiny. In fact, some said the research paper was so shoddy it should never have been published.

This whole event comes to my mind from time to time, and I’ve been meaning to revisit it. I’ll admit I’m a little embarrassed by how I participated in it — I reported it straight, writing up a blog post relaying what I had learned from the press conference and from reading the paper itself. I am not a biologist, so the details of the paper were beyond me. But being a scientist myself I could glean what I needed for a blog post, especially coupled with the comments from the press conference.

Or so I thought. As the criticism came in, and I looked into it more, I found myself agreeing with those who disagreed with the original findings. I’ll note that I can’t say for sure if the research was done poorly or not, but it has become more clear that the work itself needed more outside commentary before being released in a press conference at the level it was. My own mistake was trusting NASA PR to have vetted this thoroughly before holding the press conference, and not getting an outside opinion myself. I wrote a followup a few days later with my doubts.

The reason I bring all this up now is that PopSci recently posted an article about the lead scientist in the arsenic story, Felisa Wolfe-Simon. I read it yesterday, and felt that it was coming from an odd angle — as a personality profile on Dr. Wolfe-Simon it’s interesting, but as a background piece on the arsenic story itself it read to me as if it were slanted to support her.

Both my Discover Magazine colleagues Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer have a similar opinion — Carl is actually pretty blunt in his opinion on the article, giving details (and a timeline!) on where it goes astray. Wired Magazine blogger David Dobbs also write an interesting piece where at first he says he likes the article, then updates his post later saying that after more thought a lot of doubts arose. Given the size and impact this story had last year, I suggest you read those links. They’ll give you something to think about.

There are many lessons to be learned here, but the one I’ve walked away with is that since this story came out, I’ve been more careful to check with sources if I’m not familiar with the science myself (and even if I am familiar with it). It’s impossible to prevent all mistakes in writing science articles — in writing anything — but a healthy dose of skepticism is required to minimize them.

In fact, I’d say a healthy dose of skepticism is always required, in every situation. It’s a highly useful tool.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Skepticism

Comments (38)

  1. Chris L.

    As I understand it, this is exactly how science is supposed to be done. Dr. Wolfe-Simon published her work and her fellow scientists savagely ripped it apart. If her work had been solid, it would have survived intact. It wasn’t, so it didn’t. End of story.

  2. So in other words, it may have been like this: http://xkcd.com/955/ :D

  3. oldebabe

    I was immediately extremely skeptical when I heard about the extent of the arsenic-use claims. Actually, I was surprised that it was simply accepted as fact by so many immediately.

    Why do you think you need to explain yourself, when biologists, enviromentalists, and ecologists
    should have known better, or at least questioned?

    But you are right, this has been a good example of the need for skepticism ,and critical thinking in general.

  4. Joseph G

    @#1 Chris L: Not exactly; I think the crux of the problem was NASA’s breathless press conference. Not only did they schedule the press conference before there was time for the study to be peer-reviewed, but their tone while doing so was that this was a monumentally important discovery, which also gave the impression that the study had been carefully reviewed (at least within NASA) before the press conference.
    Take NASA’s self-promotion out of the picture, and yes, then it would have been a case of science operating as it is supposed to operate.

  5. Three levels of progressively less believable NASA:

    1) DNA. Poly(phosphate-co-deoxyribose) polymer is remarkably survivable toward aqueous hydrolysis even in the fossil record. Give arsenic life a push here, assuming rapid DNA backbone lesion repair.

    2) RNA. Poly(phosphate-co-ribose) polymer is hydrolytically labile over hours via anchimeric assistance from the added sugar oxygen, vs. DNA. Arsenic life is rendered highly unlikely for an expected RNA hydrolytic half-life of minutes or less.

    3) ATP. Adenosine triarsenate in water is silly at face value, hydrolytic half-life way less than a second. If the cells use an “ATA” energy shuttle and storage, they are nonsense.

    There is no bad deed for publishing an organism with remarkable arsenic tolerence, even unto incorporation into metabolism. Know when the remarkable becomes the silly barring demonstrated remarkable metabolic accomodations. Even anaerobes use ATP.

    Vegans do not injest sufficient Vitamin B-12 (exclusively an animal metabolite). The P1 generation gets by for B-12 depots acquired in childhood. The F1 generation demonstrates a test of faith.

  6. Chris L.

    Joseph G,
    True, NASA jumped the gun on this one. Interestingly enough, they included a skeptic on the panel when they unveiled this. I don’t remember the panelist’s name, but he was a biochemist who pointed out that the chains arsenic forms are not really strong enough to do what Dr. Wolfe-Simon needed them to do. I thought it was interesting that they had included him.

  7. TonyM

    Chris L, My understanding of how science should be done is for theories to be put forward, and then proved or disproved by careful observation and analysis. Scientists acting out “savagely” to anything at all doesn’t seem like a very healthy response.

    Human history is absolutely full of examples of “impossible wild scientific theories” springing to life and then being viciously ridiculed and bludgeoned to death by people – scientists and lay-people alike – who hold their different view of the universe as somehow sacred and unchangeable. The rotation of the Earth around the sun, tectonic plate movement, and evolution of life come to my mind as prime examples of this.

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s work might be an amazing new discovery, or flawed, or completely wrong – I have no idea one way or another – but it seems extremely childish and a dis-service to Science to display the kind of over-emotional response her work has generated.

  8. Timmy

    Phil, I think you are confused about blogs versus journalism. You aren’t supposed to check your facts with independent sources or worry about your integrity! You are a blogger. Just link to other misinformed blogs, tell everyone your opinion, and then recant or deny it later. Your way is too much work!

    Another way is to make up nonsense words like @Uncle Al. “hydrolytically labile”? “Anchemeric?” What are you Lewis Carroll?

  9. Wzrd1

    That is the problem with faith based acceptance of anything. One can fall into the trap that the religious fall into, accepting something that was written at face value.
    Hopefully, Phil will remember this lesson in the future, especially regarding topics well outside of his field of expertise.
    I had personally thought, after viewing the press conference, “Cool, let’s see how it does after peer review.”
    As Phil mentioned, it did not survive in the wild.
    That IS the one thing I adore about science, the peer review that tries to render a report to dust, should it survive, advances are made. At times, the failure teaches as well.

  10. Eric

    Rosie Redfield is one of Wolfe-Simon’s critics who has been attempting to replicate Wolfe-Simon’s experiments for a few months now. She has a blog where she’s been tracking the work at http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com/.

  11. @Wzrd1 (#9)

    That IS the one thing I adore about science, the peer review that tries to render a report to dust, should it survive, advances are made. At times, the failure teaches as well.

    No, no, no. You got it all wrong. You see, science changes its mind all the time, therefore it’s totally unreliable and can never be trusted! ;)

    In all seriousness, I hear that argument way too often! I wonder why people make that argument as they sit behind a computer, in their house, with electricity and indoor plumbing, access to great medical technology, and looking at pictures of distant galaxies… Boggles the mind!

  12. Deno Stelter

    Phil,
    I read this article more as a condemnation of what happens to young scientists who dare to do great things. While the science paper was in need of more work (which paper isn’t?), I just don’t get why basically excommunicating Dr. Wolfe-Simon from the academic community was necessary. Her summary dismissal worries me, as a young grad student in astronomy. If we in the science community are so unwilling to allow young scientists room to fail and falter (albeit hopefully not so much in the public limelight), what does that say about us scientists? What is the use of being skeptical when we, deliberately or no, say this paper or any other peer-reviewed, major-impact-journal-accepted–paper (eg, Science or Nature), as being deadly to our careers?
    I have to say, the endless ad-hominem attacks that I read from senior scientists in biology and elsewhere made me think of your ‘Don’t be a Dick’ speech. Scientists as a whole broadly failed there, eh?

  13. Nebogipfel

    “In fact, I’d say a healthy dose of skepticism is always required, in every situation. It’s a highly useful tool.”

    Unless it’s climate science of course …..in that case you become a denier!

  14. Tom

    Don’t beat yourself up about this. Beat up NASA and Science for publishing the material without enough due diligence.

  15. patrick

    I thought it was interesting how the scientists that did the research reacted to the blogosphere’s critic. Basically saying that blogs had no business in commenting on the matter and to STFU.

  16. Chris

    Just curious, it’s been nearly a year, has anyone tried to grow these little buggers and settle this debate once and for all?

  17. Joseph G

    @ #7 TonyM

    Chris L, My understanding of how science should be done is for theories to be put forward, and then proved or disproved by careful observation and analysis. Scientists acting out “savagely” to anything at all doesn’t seem like a very healthy response.

    I think Chris was using a bit of artistic license. Certainly he didn’t mean that scientists are malicious or vengeful, in general – just that to an outside observer, these attacks can seem rather vigorous and impolite, to say the least. The object is to tear apart a study to find any possible weakness, and to the uninitiated, this may seem awfully close to attacking the person behind it, but I think that’s because in day-to-day interactions with people, most of us tend to go out of our way to be polite and non-confrontational. The discussion of science, among scientists, tends to be rather more direct (witness some of the stuff that the CRU folks were taken to task for in the media, simply because it was “rude”.)

    @11 Larian Laquelle:

    No, no, no. You got it all wrong. You see, science changes its mind all the time, therefore it’s totally unreliable and can never be trusted! ;)

    In all seriousness, I hear that argument way too often! I wonder why people make that argument as they sit behind a computer, in their house, with electricity and indoor plumbing, access to great medical technology, and looking at pictures of distant galaxies… Boggles the mind!

    Amen to that! It really pisses me off how people like Rush Limbaugh (who is able to broadcast simultaneously on thousands of stations thanks to a network of communications satellites that took a tremendous amount of science, spanning dozens of fields, to make possible) can benefit so much from the labor of scientists, and then declare them all a bunch of Ivory Tower eggheads (or worse, Ebil Commies) whom we should all ignore.

  18. CraterJoe

    @8 Timmy. Uncle Al meant to write “Anchimeric” which is a real term used in organic chemistry. I’ll leave the credibility and clarification to him.

  19. Dutch Railroader

    Dear Phil,

    I regret to say that NASA simply does not do due diligence WRT their press releases. I say this not in a cynical way, but as someone who has been involved in more than one release with them. The problem can actually go the other way. with the agency pressing the PI to say more than he or she wants, or stretching the significance or novelty of the results. That said, I never ended up saying more or less than I thought that I should. The veracity of the releases always falls on the PI. NASA can do an excellent job of getting the story out, but they never act as referees….

  20. Chris L.

    Joseph G,
    That’s exactly what I meant, thank you.

  21. Wzrd1

    @Larian, #11, can’t agree more. It boggles the mind that those deniers of science are using a computer, packed full of goodies that are the product of modern quantum dynamics using designs, yet disparage that very science. Or use the latest and greatest in modern medicine, again, packed full of the very science that they disparage.

  22. johnthompson

    Gee, who could have POSSIBLY seen this coming? I guess anyone who remembers the almost exactly similar hype fed and fueled by NASA over ALH84001. Chris L. @#1 got it pretty much exactly right that science worked the way it was supposed to, irregardless of the hype.
    Not that the hype was a good thing, as it clearly wasn’t and Dr. Wolfe-Simon’s career has probably been irrevocably damaged by it (and by her naive reaction to it).
    I found Tom Clynes’ article in PopSci to be nuanced, well-balanced, and extremely well written; pretty much the epitome of what good science journalism is all about. No one should think that it was his job or that of any blogger or commentator to reach a conclusion or to even help their reader reach a conclusion about the validity of the original work. That’s a job for professionals and they seem to be doing that quite well (I’ll note that essentially no one is calling for a retraction; the work may be proven to be wrong, but it wasn’t incompetent or fraudulent, and that’s an important thing to remember).

  23. Gary

    A lesson to be learned is that confirmation bias has a powerful influence on how well one can determine truth. You obviously wanted to verify the existence of an organism capable of living in a possible extra-terrestrial environment because you long for the discovery of an ET. Any scrap of apparent confirmation will do to support your dream. We all should realize and admit that most things we think could be true … are actually false. It takes a lot of evidence to confirm facts. One fact I am sure of is that press releases are not accurate or complete enough to depend on. I know this is true because I have never read one that fairly represents the research it touts.

  24. beerclark

    I was going to just make a comment.. but it now addresses something @17. Joseph G:

    ” The object is to tear apart a study to find any possible weakness, and to the uninitiated, this may seem awfully close to attacking the person behind it…”

    I think its a rather bold statement to imply that no scientist out there doesn’t have their own personal agenda, personalize a discussion, or are just plain asses that enjoy tearing people apart. The example I was going to mention from the start was the quote from Rosie Redfield in POPSCI’s article by Tom Clynes. She takes samples from the study and tries to reproduce them. Here is some of her comment:
    “The sample grew just fine,” Redfield says. “I went into this with a very strong expectation that the arsenic results would not be reproducible, so I wasn’t surprised by the findings. I assume the things I see, other researchers will too.” ….

    W-T-F?? “…I assume the things I see…”. The whole statement sounds like something from a climate change denier or and Intelligent Design scientist. And she is busy on her daily blog about how wrong Wolfe-Simon is in asserting something that is simply ‘impossible’.

    Its unfortunate that Wolfe-Simon has to suffer so much for NASA’s ‘media methodology’. The truth is… there will be a lot of attacks and personal agendas until about 50 years from now.. when everyone is dead.. and the truth will be known. And ‘obvious’.

    Phil: regarding your reporting of this… I never thought you used any poor judgement. You reported on and commented on a story with appropriate qualifications as to your training and understanding. I hope everytime a story goes sour, you don’t start restricting yourself more and more. You might end up turning into a ..[gasp].. Democrat! lol

  25. Lesson: A healthy dose of skepticism is always required, in every situation. Every situation, even those that we believe or agree with, not justice those we dislike. That is one of the Win problems I find with organized skepticism. They are skeptical about only a few things, generally things so silly they a very easy to be skeptical about.

  26. Joseph G

    @24 VinceRN

    That is one of the Win problems I find with organized skepticism.

    As opposed to Lose problems? Am I not hip to the lingo?

  27. Joseph G

    @24 beerclark

    I think its a rather bold statement to imply that no scientist out there doesn’t have their own personal agenda, personalize a discussion, or are just plain asses that enjoy tearing people apart.

    Oh, I didn’t say that that sort of thing never happened. Not at all! Just that that sort of stuff tends to be discouraged – if you’re a dickwad to the all other scientists in your particular field, and you need someone to review your next paper or something…

  28. Jess Tauber

    One of the things this might do is discourage researchers from trying to find out if other elements CAN be substituted for the usual suspects in biochemistry. Quantum mechanics doesn’t have all the answers, despite what some may claim. Relativistic shifts in electron velocities make a big difference in determining the chemical/physical properties of atoms, but they don’t start becoming overwhelming until higher up in the periodic table than the set of elements life uses. Maybe there is a connection here between these two facts. And holes in the screening of outer electrons also matter- which may be one of the reasons there are no rare earths in biochemistry. Of course many of the earlier elements also are far more abundant than the later ones, because of the way the various stellar nucleosynthetic mechanisms work, and this should be a factor in survival strategies. My own guess is that in the olden days far more of the periodic table was used in prebiotic and early biological regimes, and only later did living systems work out how to live without these other elements by having larger, coded biopolymers which did the heavy lifting, creating specificational context for reactions, etc. that before would have to be handled by simpler molecular species.

    So perhaps substitutions aren’t impossible after all. But in all contexts, or just ones that allow them, many of which no longer exist? For example boron may have been very important in the early prebiotic environment, but not so anymore. Chemical properties change in different environments, be they electrochemical, pressure, temperature, etc. What about isotopes? People in the nuclear business know that you can’t just use any old isotope of this or that element- won’t work. Even in chemistry this can make a difference, especially with early elements. Drink a glass of deuterated water and say goodbye to your wife and kids. We know that biological processes can change the mix of elemental isotopes, such as carbon and oxygen. Is this a passive or controlled process? Do organisms have ways of shifting the mix around to suit different cellular microenvironments? That would herald a whole new level of complexity to biochemistry. Would a different species of arsenic (or mix thereof) have made a difference? Finally, might other factors prevent replication of experiments, simply because those repeating them don’t have all the relevant information, which might also not be known to the original researcher(s)? A largish lump of dark matter passing through your apparatus that day, or a change in the solar weather pumping out a different flux of neutrinos and throwing off the nuclear properties of atoms very slightly? The Norse god Loki having fun?

  29. Hemogoblin

    @ 24. beerclark

    W-T-F?? “…I assume the things I see…”. The whole statement sounds like something from a climate change denier or and Intelligent Design scientist. And she is busy on her daily blog about how wrong Wolfe-Simon is in asserting something that is simply ‘impossible’.

    I see nothing wrong with her quotes?

    “The sample grew just fine,” Redfield says. “I went into this with a very strong expectation that the arsenic results would not be reproducible, so I wasn’t surprised by the findings.”

    Translation: “I thought the original paper got it wrong, so I strongly expected that this would not be reproducible. Experimentation bore that out.

    “ I assume the things I see, other researchers will too.” ….

    Translation: “I wasn’t able to reproduce it, so I expect others will not be able to either.

    Where’s the problem? Where in that does she seem like a “climate change denier or Intelligent Design scientist”?

  30. Steve Morrison

    @5:

    Vegans do not injest sufficient Vitamin B-12 (exclusively an animal metabolite). The P1 generation gets by for B-12 depots acquired in childhood. The F1 generation demonstrates a test of faith.

    I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the arsenic life kerfuffle, but vegans can also use B12 supplements (which are microbially produced). This page discusses vegan B12 needs and gives numerous links.

  31. The popsci.com.au article appears to have been pulled now, I am instead redirected to a search. Searching for “arsenic” gives no hits. Anyone know what happened to it?

  32. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    “In fact, I’d say a healthy dose of skepticism is always required, in every situation. It’s a highly useful tool.”

    Hang on a sec, Phil. Are you going to support this assertion with facts or evidence? If not, why should we take your word for it?
    ;-)

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Nebogipfel (13) said:

    Unless it’s climate science of course …..in that case you become a denier!

    So, are you sceptical that the sun will rise tomorrow?

    If so, why? We have every reason to suppose that it will, and no reason at all to suppose otherwise.

    If not, why not? If you are “sceptical” (as you seem repeatedly to claim) of the climatological consensus, why are you not sceptical of the consensus about the sun rising tomorrow?

    Seriously, the analogy is direct. There is no credible doubt that AGW is a real phenomenon, in the same way that there is no credible doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Tony M (7) said:

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s work might be an amazing new discovery, or flawed, or completely wrong – I have no idea one way or another – but it seems extremely childish and a dis-service to Science to display the kind of over-emotional response her work has generated.

    Not really.

    NASA did Wolfe-Simon a disservice with their hopelessly optimistic – and premature – press conference. At the very least the work should have been peer-reviewed and assessed in the appropriate forum – the relevant primary literature – before being brought to the wider public.

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Timmy (8) said:

    Another way is to make up nonsense words like @Uncle Al. “hydrolytically labile”? “Anchemeric?” What are you Lewis Carroll?

    Uncle Al’s comment (# 5) made perfect sense. But I do have a PhD in biochemistry. RNA is very hydrolytically labile. This feature of RNA is probably the reason that DNA exists.

  36. Nigel Depledge

    Wzrd1 (9) said:

    That is the problem with faith based acceptance of anything. One can fall into the trap that the religious fall into, accepting something that was written at face value.
    Hopefully, Phil will remember this lesson in the future, especially regarding topics well outside of his field of expertise.

    It was certainly a lesson for me.

    Having read the rather optimistic press, I tried to come up with ways in which it might be possible, without considering it too deeply or critically.

    If I go back and look at the comments on that original post, I expect I’ll see my opinion change during the course of the comment discussion. IIRC, there were some pretty persuasive arguments for why it was probably a load of hooey. And many of them were backed up with actual facts and stuff!

  37. Nigel Depledge

    Jess Tauber (28) said:

    One of the things this might do is discourage researchers from trying to find out if other elements CAN be substituted for the usual suspects in biochemistry.

    I disagree. What I think this episode may discourage is dramatic press releases of over-interpreted data. And such an outcome would be right and proper. NASA clearly did not learn from the ALH84001 kerfuffle.

    Quantum mechanics doesn’t have all the answers, despite what some may claim.

    Who has ever claimed that QM has all the answers for biochemistry?

    Relativistic shifts in electron velocities make a big difference in determining the chemical/physical properties of atoms, but they don’t start becoming overwhelming until higher up in the periodic table than the set of elements life uses.

    What do you mean? Life uses Iodine (for example), which is pretty far down the periods of the table. Look up “thyroxin”. If memory serves, life uses Molybdenum too, which is also in period 5. Arsenic is only in period 4.

    Or are you saying that the relativistic electron velocities don’t make much difference until you hit the lanthanides?

    Maybe there is a connection here between these two facts.

    I’m not convinced that your “facts” are facts at all.

    And holes in the screening of outer electrons also matter- which may be one of the reasons there are no rare earths in biochemistry.

    Well, I know almost nothing of Lanthanide chemistry, but Scandium and Yttrium are classified as Rare Earths, and they each have a single d-electron in their outer shell. In what way does this fit with your idea about screening of outer electrons?

    Of course many of the earlier elements also are far more abundant than the later ones, because of the way the various stellar nucleosynthetic mechanisms work, and this should be a factor in survival strategies.

    I think this is probably the main reason that most of the elements required by life (as we know it) are light ones.

    My own guess is that in the olden days far more of the periodic table was used in prebiotic and early biological regimes, and only later did living systems work out how to live without these other elements by having larger, coded biopolymers which did the heavy lifting, creating specificational context for reactions, etc. that before would have to be handled by simpler molecular species.

    I think this adds unnecessary complexity to ideas of early life. Never forget, early life never had to be anywhere near as competent as life is today, because its competition was also far less competent than it is today.

    So perhaps substitutions aren’t impossible after all.

    I would very much like to think that some substitutions are possible.

    But in all contexts, or just ones that allow them, many of which no longer exist? For example boron may have been very important in the early prebiotic environment, but not so anymore.

    Possible, but very hard to devise an experiment to test this.

    Chemical properties change in different environments, be they electrochemical, pressure, temperature, etc. What about isotopes? People in the nuclear business know that you can’t just use any old isotope of this or that element- won’t work.

    People in the nuclear business are carrying out nuclear reactions, so the nucleus is critical. However, when carrying out normal chemistry, the nucleus does not get involved (except in the way its charge density can influence the energy levels of its orbiting electrons).

    Even in chemistry this can make a difference, especially with early elements. Drink a glass of deuterated water and say goodbye to your wife and kids.

    Yes, those early elements are the ones on which a “harder” or “softer” charge on the nucleus can make a substantial difference. Obviously, the nucleus has the greatest influence on the innermost electrons. Generally, an atom’s outermost electrons are the only ones that participate in chemistry. If an atom has only one electron shell (so, hydrogen only, because He is hard to react with anything under any circumstances), then changes in the charge density of the nucleus will have a direct and significant effect. As is observed for deuterium.

    We know that biological processes can change the mix of elemental isotopes, such as carbon and oxygen. Is this a passive or controlled process?

    AFAICT, no-one has ever observed any active biological process that can sort isotopes of an element. So, it is probably a passive process, arising from the fact that the lighter isotopes tend to become more favourably incorporated into biological molecules. Can I mention the Nuclear Overhauser Effect here? I can’t remember any detail about it, but it sure as hell sounds good.

    Do organisms have ways of shifting the mix around to suit different cellular microenvironments? That would herald a whole new level of complexity to biochemistry.

    Unlikely. If this happens widely, it would have been observed by now. If it happens at all, it will be in a limited number of specialised organisms.

    Would a different species of arsenic (or mix thereof) have made a difference?

    No. Arsenic has only one stable isotope (As-75). And the other isotopes (73, 74 and 76) have half-lives in the range of hours to less than 100 days. I predict that no life would evolve to exploit any arsenic isotope except As-75, even assuming this has indeed happened.

    Finally, might other factors prevent replication of experiments, simply because those repeating them don’t have all the relevant information, which might also not be known to the original researcher(s)? A largish lump of dark matter passing through your apparatus that day, or a change in the solar weather pumping out a different flux of neutrinos and throwing off the nuclear properties of atoms very slightly?

    Obviously, the original researchers would have repeated their experiments before publishing them. Such random variations – if they do influence the result – would have given them inconsistent results that a conscientious scientist would have taken the trouble to investigate to at least some extent.

    The Norse god Loki having fun?

    I don’t think he’s that bothered with such detail.

  38. Hemogoblin

    What about isotopes? People in the nuclear business know that you can’t just use any old isotope of this or that element- won’t work. Even in chemistry this can make a difference, especially with early elements. Drink a glass of deuterated water and say goodbye to your wife and kids.

    Sure, you can say goodbye to your wife and kids. If you intend to leave them after drinking that glass of heavy water…
    Heavy water’s toxicity is extremely low – a lethal dose entails replacing about half your body’s H2O with D2O. Since it’s excreted just like regular water, the only way to accomplish that is to restrict your water intake to only heavy water for about a week or so…

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