20/20 Hindsight

Even the best and brightest can get things wrong, which is why science depends on corroboration to get things right. On Respectful Insolence, Orac investigates the conviction of six Italian seismologists for failing to warn people about an earthquake that killed 300. Orac writes “‘earthquake swarms’ are not uncommon in the L’Aquila region” and “a medium-sized shock in a swarm forecasts a major event within several days only 2% of the time.” But for accurately assessing the risk of a major event, the government employees have been sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel outlines the requirements for a truly scientific prediction, adding “some natural phenomena are simply presently beyond the reach of science.”  Meanwhile, on The Weizmann Wave, new research contradicts the hypothesis that certain lake bacteria can substitute arsenic for phosphate in their DNA. Rather than exploit the local abundance of arsenic, these bacteria “have actually evolved to reject it ever more efficiently.”

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A Republican Pound of Cure

On Respectful Insolence, Orac writes “the relationship between health insurance and, well, health is a question that can be addressed scientifically, which puts it right smack dab within the purview of science-based medicine.” Orac contradicts Mitt Romney’s statement that because a 1986 mandate requires hospitals to treat anyone needing emergency treatment, people don’t die for want of insurance. Orac writes, “Emergency rooms are not equipped to treat complex conditions; all they can do is to treat the acute problem.” And forced to eat expenses, private hospitals are liable to treat any patient who “failed a wallet biopsy” like a hot potato. Studies show that about 20,000 Americans die every year because they lack insurance. And they don’t do so cheaply. On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle notes “some 55% of emergency room care goes uncompensated” and those costs are often transferred to other patients. He calls this “one big stupid cost-shifting game that ignores the central problem.” Hoofnagle continues, “what is the point of stabilizing a patient with COPD and asthma as they come in the hospital in crisis every month, rather than just paying for their medications as an outpatient?” As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Beyond Cloud Nine

On Universe, Claire L. Evans notes the renewed appreciation than can come with a change in perspective—whether it’s seeing the space shuttle Endeavour roll past a Sizzler in South Central, or daredevil Felix Baumgartner leap towards the Earth from 24 miles up. Baumgartner, aided only by gravity and a spacesuit, broke the speed of sound during his four and a half minute freefall. And thanks to a video camera, he shared his experience with the world. Evans writes “The 21st century is an epoch of P.O.V. feats, of go-pros taped to helmets and steering wheels, streaming the direct visual stimulus of unthinkable feats directly to our eyes.” Meanwhile, on Built on Facts, Matt Springer explains why Baumgartner didn’t burn up in the atmosphere.

Coldest, Colder, Freezing, Cool

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have fostered chemical reactions at “one hundredth of a degree above absolute zero,” analogous to conditions in interstellar space. By merging two parallel beams of ultra-cold atoms, scientists kept them sedated enough for quantum behavior. Chemical reactions “took place in peaks, at specific energies – a demonstration of the tunneling that occurs when quantum particles act as waves.” While quantum chemistry is new, physicists have been chilling individual atoms for years—thanks in part to the work of new Nobel laureate Dave Wineland. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel explains that Wineland pioneered the use of lasers to reduce the kinetic energy of trapped ions. Orzel writes, “every time an atom or ion absorbs a photon of light, it gets a kick in the direction the laser was headed.” By only kicking ions when they are headed in the opposite direction, a laser can bring them close to a standstill. And a tip to the balding on Life Lines (with winter just around the corner): the sparse hair of elephants might “keep the animals cool as opposed to keeping them warm as it does for other mammals.” Research showed that with a little wind, elephant hairs “could improve heat loss by 5-20%.”

Pursuing Woo in Africa

Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” but cancer isn’t far behind.  Yet when hope springs, it can lead the sick to the unproven, to more dire disease, and death.  On Respectful Insolence, Orac tells the stories of two women—one Kenyan, one American—who avoided modern treatment for their breast cancers.  Orac writes, “Neglected tumors like this often bleed or rot—or both. It’s truly horrible to behold, and at this point there is nothing a surgeon can do except to recommend local wound care and hope that the chemotherapy works.”  Sometimes it’s not too late.  And sometimes even the earliest cancer is a foregone conclusion.  But in between, making an informed decision can save your life.  Meanwhile, on ERV, Abbie Smith writes that Gambian president Yahya Jammeh claims to have cured sixty-eight patients of HIV and AIDS with his “secret pot of herbs.”  Jammeh promises to integrate natural “medicine” into all the nation’s hospitals.

Just Whose Creation is This?

Paul C. Broun by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Congressman Paul Broun struck something into the hearts of empiricists everywhere with his remark that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”  Some of us were put off, others angered, possibly amused, or else afraid for the fate of the nation.  Greg Laden writes, “this man is saying that the Bible, which he takes absolutely literally, teaches us how to run our public policy and everything in society.”  And while Broun may be on the fringe of modern Christianity, he typifies today’s Republican platform, and even sits on the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology.  On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel says that if Broun is right, “then the Universe itself is lying to us.”  Tricky universe!  Ethan concludes, “considering the entire Universe was once so hot it had no neutral atoms, no atomic nuclei, and was entirely a furnace of ionized plasma, it did all come from the pit of hell!”  (And as space continues to expand, we have a lot more heavens to look forward to.)

Mr. Broun, if you believe God created the physical universe, then how can you deny physical laws?  If you think the Devil is concocting cosmic background radiation and fossilized dinosaurs to lead us astray, then whose Creation is this?  If you are a second-century Gnostic and believe the Demiurge created the physical universe and God’s reality is unseen, then what meaning can the book of Genesis, as a literal account of creation, possibly have?   If there’s more to the universe than meets the eye, can’t the same be true of the Old Testament?

Martian Myopia

Some people can't see beyond the tip of their nose.

Mars appears to be our twin in some ways—it is rocky, nearby, and of similar size. But after many a hopeful prodding, Mars remains a dead body. The rover Curiosity made a happy discovery last month, photographing river rocks in an ancient Martian streambed. This led Claire L. Evans to straighten out the legendary “canals” of Mars, popularized by astronomers such as Percival Lowell in the nineteenth century. Lowell’s carefully mapped waterways were much nearer than he thought—likely “projections of the vein structure of his own eyeball, a known nuisance among planetary observers using very high magnification.” No stranger to canals himself, Greg Laden writes “early research on Mars also suggested the possibility of ancient free water on the planet, and eventually, these suggestions panned out.” With a history of flowing water, could life on Mars have been far behind? Curiosity may soon have the answer.