Counterintuitive, not Inconceivable

On Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk writes “counter-intuitively, demographers generally find that the conditions necessary for people to choose fewer children include radically lower child, infant and maternal mortality. […] The less certain you are your children will live to adulthood, the more likely you are to have more of them.” This makes reassuring health care vital to a world that already has seven billion human mouths to feed. But should high technology be the automatic standard? Compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. has a higher rate of death in childbirth—a rate that doubled between 1987 and 2006. Given proper pre-natal care, and access to emergency intervention, there may be safer (and less energized) places to have a baby than a hospital. Mark Hoofnagle challenges more assumptions on Denialism Blog, writing “We know abortion is more common where it is illegal. […] Banning abortion does not save lives. It results in more abortions, and more lives lost.” Some countries outlaw abortion even when the embryo implants outside the uterus, having little chance of survival and a good chance of killing its mother. Hoofnagle concludes, “The hypocrisy of calling this position pro-life is demonstrated by cold hard data. More women die. More fetuses are aborted.”

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Celestial Square One

On Dynamics of Cats, Steinn Sigurðsson flags a few foreboding articles on the future of NASA. Sigurðsson says the orbiting telescope Galex, or Galaxy Evolution Explorer, will be shut down later this year despite continuing to function. NASA has withdrawn from the international research mission known as ExoMars, and many other “2011-12 programs appear effectively suspended pending the 2012-13 budget, to the point where an entire funding cycle will be lost for some lines.” Meanwhile, Ethan Siegel conjures up an apt scenario on Starts With a Bang, writing “Let’s pretend that, for all of our history on Earth, we had never once bothered to look up with any instruments beyond what our own eyes could offer. […] What would we find, today, if we turned our attention upwards for the first time ever?” From neighboring planets to the stars to extended nebulae and distant galaxies, our existing technology would allow us to peer deeper and deeper into the universe and quickly arrive at a conclusion that historically took centuries: the Big Bang theory. Of course, we’ve employed every technological advance every step of the way. There’s something innately human about keeping an eye on the stars. And although old habits die hard, they also run out of money.

Reassessing Chronic Illness

On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski surveys a new report on chronic illness released by the Institute of Medicine. Borkowski writes, “diabetes and heart disease are what leap to my mind—in part because they’re so tied to the lifestyle factors of smoking, inadequate exercise, and poor nutrition, and in part because they cost our health system so much money.” But other physical (and mental) afflictions beleaguer tens of millions of Americans (116 million of which, for example, suffer from chronic pain). In total, the IoM report “highlights nine ‘clinical clusters’ that together ‘encompass and flesh out the range of key issues that affect the quality of life of patients with the full spectrum of chronic illnesses,'” and Borkowski summarizes each of them. She also notes that “more than one-fourth of the US population has two or more chronic conditions and the prevalence of multiple chronic conditions increases with age.” Managing and perhaps someday preventing chronic illness will make for a happier future, but each disease presents its own complex dynamics. On ERV, Abbie Smith explains that cancer can develop resistance to treatment just like bacteria and viruses do. She writes, “Because of the genomic diversity of the population of tumor/bacteria/virus, when you apply the treatment, there is a small sub-population that is resistant to the treatment.”

A Class of 51

The Fordham Institute recently released their assessment of state science standards with a handy color-coded map—and California was the only state to receive a solid “A,” along with the District of Columbia. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers wonders how his state will ever get into college with a lowly “C.” He writes, “The Institute does a fairly thorough breakdown, so there are some bright spots: Minnesota is doing a good job in the life sciences, but where we got dinged hard was on the physical sciences, which are ‘illogically organized’ and contain factual errors.” But at least Minnesota wasn’t one of the twenty-seven states to get a “D” or an “F.” Greg Laden repaints the Institute’s map with only two colors, making a “Pass/Fail” version of the assessment. At first glance the blocks of red and blue look electoral, but much of the South is blue with passing grades, while Oregon and half of New England are red for failure. Obviously, the quality of education depends on complexities far exceeding geographical and political alignment. Greg Laden writes, “It is an interesting report to browse through, and you can get your PDF copy of it here for free! Also, have a look at this overview from the NCSE. How did your state do?”

Full Speed Ahead?

On We Beasties, Kevin Bonham reports that scientists have genetically enabled E. coli to digest a sugar found in algae. Bonham writes, “Scientists have been picking this bug’s locks for decades, and it’s already been engineered to make not just ethanol, but many other useful products as well.” With the ability to metabolize sugar from a source as prolific, low-maintenance, and renewable as algae, E. coli could become a much bigger player in biofuel production. Meanwhile, Greg Laden considers the State of the Union address from an environmental perspective. Laden gives President Obama a pass for his pragmatic approach to an incendiary political issue, but admits that some of us might have preferred “a fire and brimstone demand to step up our national efforts to address Global Warming and the other issues related to the high rate of release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere.” Laden says we must first elect a more unified Congress willing to enact science-based policy. In the meantime, the USDA’s revised plant hardiness map shows that “all the climate zones have moved north permanently.” And in 2012, that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

Fresh Meat, Fresh Data

Posted to the homepage on January 20, 2012

On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith shares the results of her latest study into methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. She and her team “looked at not only conventional meats, but also ‘alternative’ meat products” labeled “raised without antibiotics” or “raised without antibiotic growth promotants.” Smith writes, “In our previous paper, we found MRSA on 1.2% of 165 meat samples. In the current study, we found a higher prevalence—6.6% of 395 samples were contaminated with MRSA.” She believes the current, higher number more accurately reflects the prevalence of MRSA in pork, due to a new sampling method (and not a rise in contamination). Overall, the study “didn’t find a statistically significant difference in MRSA prevalence on conventional versus alternative pork products,” and of the several strains isolated, “76.9% were resistant to two or more antibiotics and 38.5% were resistant to three or more antibiotics tested.” In short, make sure to cook your ham. Meanwhile, on Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel explains how to visually present the kind of numerical data gathered in the MRSA study. Orzel asks, “Are you just comparing two numbers? Looking at how some property changes over time? Trying to characterize a distribution of numbers?” There’s a graphic for every scenario.