Archive for December, 2006

Science Poem of the Week (8)

By Josie Glausiusz | December 26, 2006 6:00 pm

When the British bumped Shepherd’s Pie off the school dinner menu* a decade ago, it heralded a wave of terror over the mysterious rise of mad cow disease (aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy) a cattle ailment caused by rogue proteins called prions that ate holes in the cows’ brains and later killed them. In March 1996, these fears proved justified when it was revealed that ten young people had been diagnosed with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, (vCJD) a novel form of the sponge-brained disease likely transmitted to humans via infected beef. Since then, 158 people have died of vCJD in the United Kingdom, and a handful elsewhere. Four-and-a-half million cattle were slaughtered in Britain, 200,000 of which showed the typical tremors of the disease. But whoever heard their side of the story? In The Mad Cow Talks Back, poet Jo Shapcott gives the stolid, stoic beast a chance to state its case.

The Mad Cow Talks Back
By Jo Shapcott

I’m not mad. It just seems that way
because I stagger and get a bit irritable.
There are wonderful holes in my brain
through which ideas from outside can travel
at top speed and through which voices,
sometimes whole people, speak to me
about the universe. Most brains are too
compressed. You need this spongy
generosity to let the others in.

I love the staggers. Suddenly the surface
of the world is ice and I’m a magnificent
skater turning and spinning across whole hard
Pacifics and Atlantics. It’s risky when
you’re good, so of course the legs go before,
behind, and to the side of the body from time
to time, and then there’s the general embarrassing
collapse, but when that happens it’s glorious
because it’s always when you’re travelling
most furiously in your mind. My brain’s like
the hive: constant little murmers from its cells
saying this is the way, this is the way to go.

Note: Jo Shapcott is a British poet who teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College, London. Her books of poetry include Electroplating the Baby (1988) whose title poem explains the chemical process of embalming an infant, Phrase Book (1992) and My Life Asleep (1998). As Shapcott explains on her web site, the term "mad cow," signals an explicit feminist message, as the phrase is also a standard male chauvinist insult. The Mad Cow Talks Back appears in Shapcott’s collection Her Book: Poems 1988-1998; it is reprinted here with kind permission of Faber & Faber.

*Personally, I can only say good riddance: I only have to smell this mashed-potato-and-minced-beef mess to be instantly transported back to the clatter of my primary school’s dining hall, where it was served regularly and alternately with equally unappetizing platefuls of gloppy, gristle-filled goulash. Banish the memory! Now, try this recipe for vegan Shepherd’s Pie.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

Podcast Predicts Senatorial Sickness

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 22, 2006 6:00 pm

Earlier this month, news was a-buzzing about South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson after he began slurring his speech and forgetting words in the middle of a conversation with reporters. He was first reported to have had a stroke, but doctors soon found out the senator was actually having a brain hemorrhage due to an arteriovenous malformation—a tangle of messed-up blood vessels—and they brought him in for emergency brain surgery. Not only was the senator’s life at stake but also control of the Senate, as Johnson is a part of the Democrats’ tiny 51-49 majority.

Arteriovenous malformations may have sounded familiar to Discover readers who read about the condition in the January 2006 Vital Signs column. Seeing as we just launched our Vital Signs podcast, we figured we’d podcast-ify that very topical column. So now, thanks to the power of the Internet, you can listen to the story unfold. (To listen to the podcast you can visit the Vital Signs page in iTunes or the podcast’s Web page.)

If you like this episode you might consider subscribing—you’ll get a new medical mystery delivered to your iPod every week (free of charge, of course).

Quantum Teleportation

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 18, 2006 6:00 pm

Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna recently used quantum teleportation to transfer information between two islands more than 87 miles apart, breaking the previous record of a just half a yard. But what exactly does this mean? And when will be able to teleport ourselves to tropical islands? Let us use a little story to illustrate the amazing—though sadly limited—power of entanglement-powered teleportation:

Thirsty for some electron lemonade, particle A heads to the town pub. There, particle A bumps into particle B, who is sitting at the bar. Soon they become attached at the hip—bound by the freaky laws of quantum physics, they share identical particle states (for example, the direction their electrons spin). But particle C jealously eyes particle B from a dark corner of the establishment. When particle A heads to the restroom, particle C jumps at its chance to steal particle B’s attention.

At this point, the quantum love triangle starts getting weird: Everything particle C does to particle B particle A experiences at exactly the same time in the restroom—as if particle B were a voodoo doll. And that’s what physicists call entanglement, which allows for “quantum teleportation”: the near-instantaneous transfer of information across a considerable distance.

Though this may seem like a joke, the idea has captured the minds of physicists since Einstein first theorized about the “spooky” property in 1935. Theoretically, quantum computers could use entanglement to beef up computer security and store far more data than today’s computers, but the technology is still far off.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Lisa Randall on Charlie Rose Show

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 14, 2006 6:00 pm

Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall—best known, of course, for her online chat on—appeared on the Charlie Rose Show last Tuesday. It should be clear which one is her and which one is Kissinger.


Science Poem of the Week (7)

By Josie Glausiusz | December 13, 2006 6:00 pm

The season is winter, but the weather is autumnal and unusually warm. At the green market in New York City’s Union Square, apples of all varieties are piled up and plied in slices on passersby. In Australia, researchers at CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, have located the gene that turns apples red. (The ruddy fruit’s colorful hue is due to anthocyanins, plant compounds that also act as antioxidants.) So it seems a good moment to consider a poem about a pomme, specifically:

The Apple
By James Crowden

The apple is a saucey little item,
Daughter of blossom, sits neatly in the palm,
Exquisite in its pert roundness
And asking to be admired and handled.

Look for instance at the much forgotten stalk
The secret timing of its fall from grace
The gravity of the situation, the earthly grasp
Or else the apple of your eye cradled in the sun,

Plucked in perfection from the tree of life,
The rosie skin that takes a shine,
Protects the inner flesh, firm and crisp and even,
Till young mouths are brought into play,

And teeth sunk into sweet sharpness,
The hint of summer lost in autumn,
Each subtle fragrance stored within the mind,
A host of memories, the DNA of myth, the pips,

Eve’s gift, a timely signal carried down the ages,
Sanctuary in miniature, sliced through,
The source of secret divination yields a fertile mind,
The inner core, now discarded, thrown away,

Rises up again, a shadey orchard meeting place
For slender youth, the tree itself
A secret assignation with the golden bough,
A song bird within a garden walled

Note: James Crowden is a poet and writer living in Somerset, England. He has worked as a shepherd, sheep shearer, cider maker and forester. His books include Blood, Earth & Medicine: A Year in the Life of a Casual Agricultural Labourer (The Parrett Press, 1991) and Cider: The Forgotten Miracle (Cyder Press Two, 1999) in which The Apple first appeared. In 1999 he was named poet laureate of Apple Day, an annual celebration of apples and orchards organized by the British environmental group Common Ground and held every year on October 21st. The Apple is reprinted here with kind permission of the poet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

Corey Powell on Science Friday

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 13, 2006 12:00 pm

Discover’s fearless editorial leader, Corey Powell, appeared on NPR’s Science Friday last week (at least his voice did). The show’s subject was best science books of 2006. But to get some truly deep context, they brought on Corey to talk about the best science books of all time, which we covered in our December issue and asked readers about online. Needless to say, he did Discover proud.


New York Women—Stop Being Sissies!

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 7, 2006 6:00 pm

There is an article in today’s New York Times about city women suffering back and neck pain from lugging heavy handbags. Apparently, fashion bags are growing bigger and clunkier by the minute, causing weary fashionistas to scream for Epson salts, massages, and ibuprofen. “My neck, my back!” This is an epidemic of sorts, said one Upper East Side massage therapist. As chiropractors develop specially tailored treatments for the purse-induced shoulder afflictions, Bliss Spa recommends a $150 deep tissue massage to combat tote trauma.

On the other side of the world, Nepali porters carry head-supported loads weighing 100-200% of their body weight up and down the world’s largest mountain ranges. East African women transport up to 70% of their body weight on their heads, and, miraculously, can carry head-loads up to 20% of their body weight without expending an ounce of additional energy.

Perhaps New York women should begin wearing loads on their heads, or at least switch to backpacks, which distribute weight more evenly across the body. But above all, women, stop being so weak! Support your spine, for heaven’s sake. One of the best ways to support the back is by engaging abdominal, oblique, and lower back muscles every minute of everyday—sitting in a cubicle, walking down the street, washing dishes, playing poker, etc. Quit slouching and discover that balancing any load, placed anywhere on the body, becomes a lot easier.

Trans Ban: Severe and Ineffective

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 7, 2006 12:00 pm

Yesterday, New York City issued the nation’s first municipal ban on trans fats in restaurant cooking. As dramatic as this embargo may seem, it’s addressing just one part of a huge, complicated problem, and it’s unlikely to accomplish much.According to the city’s Board of Health, trans fats are the most dangerous of fats because they raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and drive down levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. But according to the American Heart Association, saturated fat, not trans fat, is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol. Americans consume approximately four-to-five times as much saturated fat as trans fat by eating foods such as beef, veal, lamb, pork, butter, cheese, and milk—ingredients constantly used in restaurant cooking that are also rich in cholesterol, another major culprit behind heart disease. And don’t forget the salt shaker sitting on nearly every restaurant table in New York City. Sodium intake exacerbates hypertension, “the silent killer” that plagues one third of adult Americans, upping probabilities of heart attack and heart failure. And then of course, there is obesity. 20% of Americans are obese and thus at greater risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, and diabetes only compunds cardiovascular problems.

So we have multivariable health problem and a finely focused policy strategy. The Board of Health should step back and look at the bigger picture.

Reverse Eugenics?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | December 6, 2006 12:00 pm

We’ve long been warned about the evils of a genetically-engineered society full of designer babies selected for perfection. Now, a New York Times essay describes a counterintuitive finding from a survey of clinics that perform genetic screening: some are using genetic tests specifically to select embryos that will be born with diseases or disabilities. Yes, you read correctly. Some parents want to make sure their children have the same genetic condition they do.

The Fertility and Sterility study asked clinics around the country what types of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, they offer. Not surprisingly, most clinics provide testing that helps parents avoid implanting embryos with debilitating diseases. For example, 93% test for aneuploidy—an abnormal number of chromosomes, which can lead to miscarriages or cause diseases like Down Syndrome—and 82% test for single-gene disorders like Tay-Sachs disease and sickle cell anemia. 42% of respondents allow parents to determine the sex of their child for non-medical reasons, which may raise more than a few eyebrows. But the most striking find was revealed in two sentences of the 12-page report:

Some prospective parents have sought PGD to select an embryo for the presence of a particular disease or disability, such as deafness, in order that the child would share that characteristic with the parents. Three percent of IVF-PGD clinics report having provided PGD to couples who seek to use PGD in this manner.


The Times essay describes parents who view certain genetic conditions, like deafness or dwarfism, not as disabilities but “as a way to enter into a rich, shared culture.” Certainly, our society is finally beginning to acknowledge that some conditions commonly referred to as “defects” (to quote the Times’ headline) are just differences along the wide spectrum of human genetic variation, and tight-knit, vibrant communities like Gallaudet University testify to the bonds these parents hope their children will enjoy. But in a world where living with certain differences can still pose a very real challenge, should they be intentionally imposed on anyone? Would parents who made a conscious decision to do so feel comfortable sharing that decision with their kids? And do those of us who aren’t bona fide members of that “shared culture” have any right to ask these kinds of questions?

Science Poem of the Week (6)

By Josie Glausiusz | December 6, 2006 12:00 pm

In his anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, (Random House, 2003) the former United States poet laureate Billy Collins quotes a schoolgirl who writes, “Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.” Inspired “to remove poetry far from such scenes of torment,” Collins created a web site called Poetry 180: A Poem A Day for American High Schools. In a recent interview with the Savannah Morning News, he says, “I looked for poems with a human voice, so that I could hear someone talking to me . . . I tended to overlook poems by someone committing an act of literature. I like poems with a sense of humor, irony and lightness. Poems worth reading more than once, but that you get on the first bounce.”

Collins’ poem “Earthling,” which first appeared in The Apple that Astonished Paris, (University of Arkansas Press, 1988) seems to fit that description admirably, as well as being fuel for the current fascination with the planets of our solar system. It is reproduced here with kind permission of the poet.

By Billy Collins

You have probably come across
those scales in planetariums
that tell you how much you
would weigh on other planets.

You have noticed the fat ones
lingering on the Mars scale
and the emaciated slowing up
the line for Neptune

As a creature of average weight,
I fail to see the attraction.

Imagine squatting in the wasteland
of Pluto, all five tons of you,
or wandering around Mercury
wondering what to do next with your ounce.

How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,

157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.

Note: Billy Collins was appointed poet laureate of the United States in 2001 and held the post until 2003. He is the author of several books of poetry, including The Trouble with Poetry (2005); Nine Horses (2002); and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). Speaking of Earthling, he tells DISCOVER that, “Hunters look for upland birds, fishermen search for salmon, poets are on the lookout for metaphors.Those scales used to be the sole reason I would look forward to the class trip to the planetarium.One morning, I saw that a metaphoric possibility lay within. They provided a way to talk about the contentment that earthlings might be grateful for once they considered the impossibility of life on our other planets.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

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