Father Physics

On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel counts down to—what else?—Isaac Newton’s birthday. Opening a link on this advent calendar yields not a chocolate, but an equation and an important piece of the physics puzzle. For December 19th, we come to “one of the most revolutionary moment in the history of physics,” Max Planck’s “formula for the spectrum of the ‘black-body’ radiation emitted by a hot object at temperature T.” Chad writes that Planck’s initial mathematical trick became “the opening shot of the quantum mechanical revolution that completely changed physics.” For the 18th, Chad delves into statistical mechanics and entropy, writing “The key realization that makes it possible to extract predictions without needing to know the state of all 1027 atoms making up some object is that such huge systems can be described statistically.” But we’re working backwards; if you want the whole story, start on December 1st with “the absolute cornerstone of what’s now known as classical mechanics,” Newton’s second law of motion. The most recent items are below, and don’t hesitate to get excited as the 25th draws near.

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Vaccine Varieties

On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski examines the ethical dilemma of testing the anthrax vaccine in children. If a widespread attack were to occur, we would want to know the safety and efficacy of the vaccine beforehand. But is an attack likely enough to warrant testing the vaccine on children? On ERV, Abbie Smith explains how vaccines are made: “Sometimes we use dead viruses. Sometimes we use crippled viruses. Sometimes we dont need to use whole viruses at all—little chunks of the virus are fine. Sometimes we just need chunks of the virus, but we keep them dressed up in hollow membranes.” Sometimes none of these approaches work (against diseases such as HIV, TB, and malaria). However a new vaccine against malaria may prevent about half of infections. Other vaccines can be nearly 100% effective. Such is the case with the HPV vaccine, which the CDC is now recommending for boys as well as girls. The vaccine protects against several variants of human papillomavirus, which can cause changes in a cell’s DNA that lead to cancer. In fact, from 2001 to 2004, HPV caused 71.7% of oral cancers. Finally, on Respectful insolence, Orac considers the efficacy of the flu vaccine, which reduces the infection rate from 2.7 out of 100 adults to 1.2 out of 100. Orac writes, “our current generation of vaccines are far from perfect, but they do pretty well and, given how safe they are, currently represent the best defense we have against influenza.”

Cracking Microbial Code

On Tomorrow’s Table, Pamela Ronald shares a breakthrough in the study of bacterial communication. Although bacteria have been known to use a limited chemical vocabulary, for the first time they have been observed to use a protein as a signalling mechanism. Ronald writes, “Ax21 is a small protein. It is made inside the bacterial cell, processed to generate a shorter signal and then secreted outside the bacterium.” In the species studied, perception of Ax21 caused nearly 500 genes—ten percent of the bacterium’s genome—to change expression. Thus galvanized, individual bacteria assemble into “elaborate protective bunkers” called biofilms, producing “a virulent arsenal including ‘effectors’ that are shot directly into the host to disrupt host defenses.” As Ronald says, “this process transforms the bacteria from a benign organism to a fierce invader.” While the bacterium in question infects a rice plant, Ax21 and similar proteins may play the same role in other pathogens—including those that infect animals and humans. But we multicellular types are not defenseless: Ronald and her team have shown, for the first time, that a host’s immune receptors can overhear the microbial call-to-arms and prepare for war. 2011 Nobel Laureate Bruce Beutler also discusses Ronald’s work as it relates to his own, beginning at 40:45 in his Nobel Lecture of Dec. 7.

Putting Down the Pipeline

Like addicts, we would love to stick to what is easy, familiar, and dependable. The withering consequences of our actions, abstracted to an intangible future, are easy to deny. Prominent politicians say that global warming is a fantasy, that we can keep doing what we’re doing, that everything will be okay. Meanwhile their speech is paid for by the same corporations we enrich with our emissions. These corporations are addicted to our money like we to their energy and plastic, but corporations are not people, and unlike us, will never have the will to quit. Recently a number of groups including the Charles G. Koch foundation funded a new study hoping to blame the steep increase in temperature since 1970 on urban “heat islands.” Greg Laden explains, “Urban areas can be warmer than surrounding non-urban areas because there is a lot of combustion, pavement and other structure can collect solar heat and retain it for a while.” James Hrynyshyn continues “Their hypothesis is that too many of the thermometers used to record temperatures over the last 200 years have been located in or near cities, and so have produced a warming bias produced by the waste heat generated in urban areas.” But instead the study produced a graph nearly identical to the iconic “hockey stick” it was intended to debunk. Ethan Siegel says that the new work confirms “with great precision the results of the previous studies, showing a rise over the past 60 years of an average of 1 degree Celsius, with the rise accelerating over the past 30 years.” But it’s the next 100 years we really need to consider.

No Cure for Cancer

On The USA Science and Engineering Festival, Joe Schwarcz writes that in the media’s “drive to capture public attention, science sometimes takes a back seat.” He offers an accurate headline for one study: “Large daily dose of blueberry powder may reduce the growth of a rare type of artificially induced breast cancer in a special variety of immune suppressed mouse.” But only claims made relevant to the individual will sell newspapers—not to mention cereals and snack bars cooked up with the latest isolate. More than money, exaggerated headlines can cost us a false sense of hope. But we should still eat our fruits and vegetables. Orac examines the credulity of cure-seekers on Respectful Insolence, saying “we humans like control”—and when disease takes away our sense of control, “we instinctively seek ways of being more in control, or at least of feeling as though we are in control.” This may be one reason for the enduring appeal of quackery—it offers simple explanations and certain outcomes that an honest oncologist just can’t provide. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers dismisses the claim that woo killed Steve Jobs. PZ writes, “an early flirtation with ‘alternative’ medicine might have contributed somewhat to lowering the odds of survival, but that what killed him is cancer. And cancer is a bastard.”

Throwing (Fossilized) Bones

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers tries to imagine an ancient squid, preying on reptilian whales and arranging their vertebrae as a testament to its glory. He writes “I love the idea of ancient giant cephalopods creating art and us finding the works now. But then, reality sinks in: that’s a genuinely, flamboyantly extravagant claim, and the evidence better be really, really solid. And it’s not.” The claim comes from a fossil site in Nevada, where a cluster of ichthyosaur remains have long been thought to come from “an accidental stranding or from a toxic plankton bloom.” But paleontologist Mark McMenamin thinks the ichthyosaurs may have perished in deep water, which would require a different explanation for the arrangement of their bones. PZ continues, “this fossil bed is being over-interpreted as a trace fossil, with the bones arranged by intent, by an intelligent cephalopod, which they have not seen. Furthermore, a line of discs is being seen as a picture of a cephalopod tentacle, classic pareidolia.” Still, we can appreciate an imaginative hypothesis. And on Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle shows us just how resourceful modern cephalopods can be—opening jars, protecting themselves with coconut shells, and hunting sharks. Observing real animal behavior, it’s only a short leap to mythology.