Archive for June, 2007

Victorian Doctors: Not As Dumb As You Think

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 27, 2007 2:20 pm

cholera by deathAmerican Scientist has an erudite, detailed review of two recent books on John Snow, not the former secretary of the treasury but the doctor who solved the mystery of cholera in 19th-century London (spoiler: it was the water). Reviewer Christopher Hamlin likes the book okay but takes the authors to task for their “presentism”—roughly, for praising Snow in hindsight for being right while demonizing his contemporaries who advanced theories that happened to be wrong.

Hamlin says that the scientific community wasn’t ruled by folklore, superstition, and venality, as the books suggest, but rather that they had fairly reasonable, scientific paradigms that led them to disagree with Snow. For instance, other doctors criticized Snow’s theory because he simplistically assumed that the cause of cholera entered through the mouth because it caused problems in the gut. (Other theories at the time involved an inhaled pathogen.)

Seeing that modern medicine has shown that an STD cause body-wide immune deficiency, that listening to a song help fix a brain dysfunction, and that a bacteria entering through the mouth and can change the entire culture of a country, this particular paradigm of Victorian medicine doesn’t sound so backward.

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Aphrodisiac Squared: Viagra-Powered Oysters

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 22, 2007 9:41 am

oysterAustralian marketing executive George May is growing oysters in Viagra-infused water and intends to sell them in Asia as a doubly potent aphrodisiac (oysters being reputed for centuries to put people in the mood). The product is still in R&D, and Pfizer is threatening to sue May for using the term ViagraOysters, but this idea just might be crazy enough to work… at least in China, where intellectual property is not exactly a respected notion.

The Australian National Nine News gets credit for the best headline on the subject: “Viagra oysters face stiff opposition.”

(via The Gist, which intimates that bizarre, questionable usage of Viagra has jumped the shark.)

Absolute Blackness on Mars

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 22, 2007 2:20 am

there's a hole in the planetThe HiRISE astronomical imaging project has a striking picture of a spot on Mars’ surface that looks like total blackness to their Earth-based camera—it sees no light beyond the background noise level.

The conventional explanation would be that it’s a steep hole.

But until we get some direct evidence I thinkwe shouldn’t rule out the possibility that it’s something much stranger, like a chunk of the black material that makes up the monoliths in 2001.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom

Worst Science Article of the Week

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 15, 2007 12:56 pm

bad article!A few weeks ago I DiscoBlogged about a thoroughly dumb Mayo Clinic press release and BBC news article on a “vertical workstation”—a standard treadmill Elmer’s-ed to an office desk for giants—that was supposed to help pudgy people lose weight as they worked. Since then I’ve found myself thinking that there must be a lot of lazy, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise just bad science reporting out there, and DiscoBlog could do a great service to its readers by pointing out those articles that should be taken with not a grain of salt but an entire Salar de Uyuni.

I forgot about that idea until hitting this AP article about how some parts of the world will be helped by global warming. Reading it convinced me that DiscoBlog should, nay, must take on this task of defending the world from crimes against science journalism. I hereby begin that mission by naming it the Worst Science Article of the Week.

What’s wrong it?

First off, the headline: “Surf’s up, Buffalo: The good side of global warming.” You’d think by reading the first half of this headline that global warming just might bring surfing to Buffalo. But toward the end of the article we read, “So … surf’s up, Buffalo? Probably not. While oceanfront cities might have to build seawalls to hold back the ocean in a warming world, some researchers believe the freshwater Great Lakes will evaporate a bit.” I’d say that this basically makes the headline a lie. Blatantly false. Contrary to the truth.

The other big problem is here: “[Canada] would see a 220% increase in international tourist arrivals by the end of the century, followed by Russia with a 174% jump, and Mongolia, up 122%.”

How the hell do these researchers know how many tourists are going to go to Canada—let alone Mongolia— in 2100? No, seriously. How. I’d love to know. This is obviously an extremely complicated system that depends on millions of un-trackable variables, and there’s no reason to crank some silly result out of a silly algorithm purporting to forecast the number of tourists a hundred years from now. You can add some caveats about not being sure, maybe put some error bars to the graph, but this is straight-up hoodoo. No one should try to pass this off as science, and no one should report it as such either.

Discover Proven Wrong: One Pencil Can Write a Book

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 12, 2007 4:10 pm

biconderogaIn “20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Pencils,” we asserted that “the average pencil holds enough graphite to draw a line about 35 miles long or to write roughly 45,000 words. History does not record anyone testing this statistic.” That claim is now—as Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler would say—”inoperative.”

Keith Eldred organized a group of volunteers working around the clock at the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to transcribe the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird with one standard-issue Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. (Actually, for part of the transcription it wasn’t exactly “standard issue”: when the pencil got too short to hold, the plucky transcribers lashed it to a wooden splint and taped that to a flat-nosed, unused pencil, thus forming the “Bi-conderoga.” Somewhere, Richard Dean Anderson is clapping.)

After one month and 100,000 words, the volunteers finally finished. Eldred recently took a victory lap on NPR.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

The World Today Is a Little Bit Sadder

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 12, 2007 2:55 pm

mr wizard… after Mr. Wizard died. I fondly remember watching “Mr. Wizard’s World” on many an afternoon when I was a kid.

RIP Don Herbert.


The Great Evolution Smackdown

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 7, 2007 3:47 pm

brownieReverend Brownback
is not amused.

On May 31, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his views on evolution; basically, he don’t buy it, especially where it conflicts with his particular, very zealous Catholicism. His op-ed has, predictably, drawn tons of flak, including an interesting and outspoken response from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne on

Coyne rightfully takes Brownback to the woodhouse for a few very weak points:

– Brownback botches his argument on “punk eek.”

– The senator accepts microevolution—”small changes over time within a species”—but seems too emotionally blinded to realize that a bunch of small changes can, lo and behold, make a big change. You wouldn’t want to be his retirement adviser.

– Brownback is downright spooky when he says that elements of evolutionary theory that don’t agree with religious “truth” should just be chucked out. This subordination of empiricism to philosophical diktats has a long and horrible history, from Galileo to Darwin to Lysenko.

Coyne also does a good job making a subtle point that scientists don’t emphasize nearly enough: “While mutations occur by chance, natural selection, which builds complex bodies by saving the most adaptive mutations, emphatically does not. Like all species, man is a product of both chance and lawfulness.” The randomness involved in evolution is one of the most radical and scary things about it, and he’s right to point out that there is an underlying structure to the way it all plays out.

But Coyne also makes some mistakes in his essay, falling into the some of the familiar excesses of the pro-evolution side.

– Coyne says Brownback “rejects evolution if ‘it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence.’ Using that criterion he’d have to reject all of science, including physics and chemistry!” This overlooks the fact that Darwin’s idea really does pose a different kind of challenge to an orthodox religious perspective, first of all because of its content (the origin of people) and second of all because of its radical and amazing nature (random mutations as Creator). If you don’t believe that Darwin’s idea is particularly shocking, check out the many books by devoted evolutionists that say exactly this. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett calls evolution a “universal acid” that is so powerful that it “eats through virtually every traditional concept.” No wonder the creationists over at Answers in Genesis are in a tizzy.

– Several times in the essay, Coyne seems to take particular delight in deriding the ability of religion or spirituality to do anything good. “It’s doubtful whether any ‘truth’ (in the sense of something that conforms to fact) can be gained through spirituality alone.” But isn’t it possible that there truths that are not just facts? The words here are literally true, but the philosophical implication is that religious truths are suspect even if they don’t conflict with scientific fact. Here Coyne is overstepping the role of scientist. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong—his philosophy is credible as anyone else’s—but his defense of science shouldn’t include philosophy.

– Coyne continues on in a similar vein: “But what is ‘spiritual truth’? It is simply what someone believes to be true, without any need for evidence. One man’s spiritual truth is another man’s spiritual lie.” When I read this the first thing that came to mind was the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Thomas Jefferson was famously empirical and irreligious but still refers back to truths “without any need for evidence,” to use Coyne’s wording. Would Coyne want us to just scrap our bedrock values, like the the rights to life and liberty, and have a completely rational debate about what our values should be? It might work out fine, but myself, I’ll take the safe bet and stick with “self-evident” universal human rights.

I agree with Coyne on the critical points in this piece—rah, rah, evolution—but even as a fellow partisan I do feel that he comes off as a little bit superior, which is one of the longtime gripes about evolution’s heavies. He snipes, for example, that Brownback’s phrase “atheistic theology” is an oxymoron. I think we should give Brownback enough credit to accept that he knew that. It seems clear that he was intentionally using the paradox to point out that evolution was sometimes advanced with almost religious fervor—a point that Coyne’s piece will do little to dispel.


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