Sunday, October 12, 2014

Discover Again

I used to post a list of articles from the latest issue of Discover magazine somewhat regularly (such as here, here, and here), but over the past year or even two, it seems as though their stories have been less compelling.

Until the November 2014 issue, which just arrived. There were half-a-dozen noteworthy articles or short entries.

It took a village. New research indicates that early hominid mothers shared baby-wrangling duties, including shared breast-feeding. And that this was a major factor in the increased size of brains as we evolved toward Homo sapiens: babies could be born increasingly unable to take care of themselves for a long period of time, which allowed more brain development to happen after birth. So, in essence, cooperation among females came first, creating what we think of as humans.

Stinking to high heaven. In keeping with the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, researchers recently found that smelling a putrid odor primes people to respond more strongly from disgust when asked about socially controversial issues. They "subsequently expressed dramatically more conservative attitudes about premarital sex, pornography and religion -- including increased belief in Biblical truth -- than those who sniffed an odorless concoction. The topic of same-sex marriage proved especially repugnant to those who had been subjected to the stench." So perhaps all the manure in rural areas contributes to making rural people more conservative... huh. I wonder if this holds up for people who live around chemical plants. What about Gary, Indiana, for instance? The whole place smells revolting.

Bye-bye birdies. Whenever you hear someone say that wind turbines kill birds, remember these two graphs:

Cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year, vs. 234,000 birds a year for wind turbines. That's more than 10,000 times as many. That's why the wind turbines aren't even visible in their spot on this bar graph. It's just too small an amount, relative to the giant killer-cat bar.

So you might say, there aren't that many turbines yet. Doesn't that account for the low absolute numbers? No. Each cat kills almost seven times as many birds as a wind turbine. And our cars and the trucks we depend on for delivering goods kill twice as many as those killer cats, if you compare a mile of road to a single cat.

Conversation's gender gap. I hate the sexist doofery that proclaims women talk more than men, when my experience in mixed groups is that men talk more and don't listen even when the women do talk. A recent study put some numbers to the question by eavesdropping on different types of conversations, and found that "in a laid-back lunchtime atmosphere, men chatted just as much as women; in a cooperative, task-driven environment, women won out -- but only in small groups. Men out-talked their female peers in groups of six or more..."

Trial and error. The most disturbing story of all in the issue was a longer piece describing a crisis in cancer research practices. Lines of cancer cells (like HeLa) are propagated and shared or sold by researchers. So if you want to test a new thyroid cancer treatment, for instance, you need thyroid cancer cells to try out your treatments in a petri dish before you can move to animal or human trials. However, for the past 10 years or so, scientists have begun to realize that the cell lines they were distributing are not the types of cancer they thought they were -- that through contamination or mislabeling, they are other types of cancer, most often melanoma or cervical cancer, which propagate more readily. So all too often, treatments for one kind of cancer were tested on the wrong kind of cells.

Once this type of contamination was recognized as a problem, you'd think that -- being scientists! -- the researchers would come up with a way to fix the problem, but no. Too many people's publications and research careers have been built upon work with a faulty foundation. Systems that would counter the problem -- such as requiring testing of the cell lines to assure they are the correct type of cancer before exposing them to experimental treatments -- for too long were not required for funding or publication. It's only in the last year or so that journals have begun to require this obvious standard before accepting a paper for publication. The NIH still doesn't require it for funding.


BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Wow. I didn't know cats were such efficient killers of birds in the wild. And the info about cancer cells is pretty mind-blowing at a time when science seems so sophisticated.

Pete Hautman said...

Regarding birds and cats: One thing they left out is the number of birds killed for human consumption in the U.S. It's somewhere north of 12 billion a year. Not that I don't eat my share of chicken...

Daughter Number Three said...

Right, Pete... good point!