Archive for September, 2007

Pepsi—Maybe Don’t Drink It; Definitely Don’t Touch It

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 28, 2007 5:41 am

Some Pepsi flavoring is dangerously corrosive. Just so you know.

Worst Science Headline of the Week:

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 25, 2007 1:51 pm

Study: Acupuncture works for back pain

You need only read the first sentence of the article to get the actual news: “Fake acupuncture works nearly as well as the real thing for low back pain, and either kind performs much better than usual care.” Oops.

acupuncture sham headline



They Came from Space… Superbugs!

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 24, 2007 4:20 pm

Unlike the space tourists who have paid tens of millions of dollars to throw off the surly bonds of gravity, I’ve never had a desire to fly to the moon or beyond. Sure, space is fascinating, but hurtling through it in a cramped capsule just doesn’t sound appealing (overseas flights are bad enough). Now, a new study suggests that along with tipsy astronauts, cramped quarters—and the risk of explosion—there’s one more thing for space travelers to worry about: superbugs.

A research team led by astrobiologist Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State University found that getting a lift to and through space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis increased the virulence of Salmonella typhimurium, the same bacteria that infects human digestive tracts, to very unpleasant effect. Space travel altered the expression of more than 150 S. typhimurium genes, and the resulting strain kills mice more quickly—and at lower doses—than earthbound S. typhimurium (animals that you might call “ground controls”). The authors believe a protein called Hfq may regulate the bug’s response to the effects of microgravity and other space conditions.

Researchers suspected something strange would happen to bacteria in space, given that they act a bit wonky when grown in NASA-designed space-simulating labs. But it wasn’t until the intrepid bacteria returned home that scientists could measure the real effects of space.

As we aim for more distant targets such as Mars, spaceflights will inevitably get longer, and infectious disease is a real concern; during the notorious Apollo 13 flight, one astronaut suffered from a urinary tract infection. By noodling out the cellular mechanisms of dangerous bacteria with experiments like these, scientists may find new ways to keep nasty critters from infecting us—especially those of us with the guts and gumption to ride rockets into space.

Bees Kill Hornets by Suffocating Them… Unless They Don’t…

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 17, 2007 12:23 pm

New Scientist recently ran an interesting article about Greek scientists who say that Cyprian honeybees can kill an attacking hornet by suffocating it: “they will instantly form a lemon-sized ball of about 150-300 bees to engulf any hornet that ventures too close to the entrance,” thereby choking off the much larger insect’s oxygen. But there’s a big hole in the researchers’ theory.

bees suffocate hornet

The closely related Japanese honeybee swarms hornets in a similar way, killing by a totally different mechanism: the center of its lemon-sized bee ball heats up to 50 degrees Celsius, baking an offending hornet to death. Researchers discovered this in the mid-1990s using thermal imaging equipment. Makes sense.

So how did the Greek researchers find out how the Cyprian honeybees finish off hornets? “By a process of elimination,” says New Scientist.

Uh, does that really count? What if there’s some mechanism that the researchers haven’t thought about or can’t detect?

The Far-Reaching Health Effects of 9/11 Air Pollution

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 10, 2007 9:20 am

First the people in the towers died. Then the rescue workers. Now first responders are succumbing to a 9/11 illness. The next victims: tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who worked and lived in Lower Manhattan—all of whom were told that the air was safe.
While the people who died in the towers and the first responders have gotten much attention from the nation and the press—witness the lead feature from 60 Minutes last night on first responders—the ordinary citizens have gone relatively unnoticed.

So Discover has released a package that focuses directly on this final group of 9/11 victims. The first part is a feature story on how the federal and city governments did not live up to their responsibility to protect the people in Lower Manhattan from air pollution. The second is an interview with Philip Landrigan, the doctor in charge of monitoring the far-reaching health effects of 9/11 on people in New York.

Discover is also creating a forum for people to talk about health problems caused by the pollution from the collapse of the Twin Towers. We invite readers to include their comments on this subject below—either about effects on their own health or their thoughts on the issue and how it’s been handled.

We will gather the information presented in this forum and pass it along to medical authorities and members of Congress to help construct a clearer picture of the scope of the problem.

Color Help for Geeks: How to Tell Cadet Blue from Gull Gray

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 4, 2007 11:55 am

As someone who has a much better systemizing faculty than color-perceiving faculty (I’m red-green color blind, which does have its advantages), I admit to having had some trouble synchronizing my names for certain hues with everyone else’s names for them.

So I’m a big fan of this online color-naming application that some nice Web developer has opened up to the world, including us color dissenters. The app lets you pick any of 17 million color combos from an 8-bit color wheel, like the ones used in graphics programs, and then tells you which of 1,500 esoteric names applies.

If you’re curious, cadet blue is 9EACC2, while gull gray is right next door at 9BA5B5.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

Breaking the Curse of the Mosquito

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 4, 2007 9:17 am

Last Friday I was with a friend who was attacked by a horde of rampaging mosquitoes, while the other people in the vicinity (including lucky me) were spared by the fiends. I was skeptical when she claimed that this was a common occurence, that mosquitoes especially like to bite her.

mosquito odor repellent

Now some research suggests it may well be true: Mosquitoes do in fact prefer the smell of certain people based on how much carbon dioxide, octenol, and other chemicals that they exude. The researchers behind this study say they want to make a better mosquito repellent by including some chemicals that will block the particular smell neurons they’ve identified. That could help not only mosquito-cursed folks like my friend Natalie but the millions of people who die every year from mosquito-born diseases.


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