March 22, 2005


At Yahoo! News, James J. Kilpatrick expounds on "lame-duckiness," "miserablism," and other neologisms.

March 18, 2005

!3 Things I Know Nothing About...

13 things that do not make sense news service
Michael Brooks
19 March 2005

1 The placebo effect

DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect...

2 The horizon problem

"... Look across space from one edge of the visible universe to the other, and you'll see that the microwave background radiation filling the cosmos is at the same temperature everywhere. That may not seem surprising until you consider that the two edges are nearly 28 billion light years apart and our universe is only 14 billion years old.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so there is no way heat radiation could have travelled between the two horizons to even out the hot and cold spots created in the big bang and leave the thermal equilibrium we see now.

This "horizon problem" is a big headache for cosmologists, so big that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions...

3 Ultra-energetic cosmic rays

FOR more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic rays that should not exist. Cosmic rays are particles - mostly protons but sometimes heavy atomic nuclei - that travel through the universe at close to the speed of light. Some cosmic rays detected on Earth are produced in violent events such as supernovae, but we still don't know the origins of the highest-energy particles, which are the most energetic particles ever seen in nature.
But that's not the real mystery...

4 Belfast homeopathy results

MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum...

5 Dark matter

TAKE our best understanding of gravity, apply it to the way galaxies spin, and you'll quickly see the problem: the galaxies should be falling apart. Galactic matter orbits around a central point because its mutual gravitational attraction creates centripetal forces. But there is not enough mass in the galaxies to produce the observed spin...

6 Viking's methane

JULY 20, 1976. Gilbert Levin is on the edge of his seat. Millions of kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the soil, then there must be life on Mars.

Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the nutrients, metabolising them, and then belching out gas laced with carbon-14.

So why no party?...
7 Tetraneutrons

FOUR years ago, a particle accelerator in France detected six particles that should not exist. They are called tetraneutrons: four neutrons that are bound together in a way that defies the laws of physics.

Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei together...

8 The Pioneer anomaly

THIS is a tale of two spacecraft. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972; Pioneer 11 a year later. By now both craft should be drifting off into deep space with no one watching. However, their trajectories have proved far too fascinating to ignore.

That's because something has been pulling - or pushing - on them, causing them to speed up. The resulting acceleration is tiny, less than a nanometre per second per second. That's equivalent to just one ten-billionth of the gravity at Earth's surface, but it is enough to have shifted Pioneer 10 some 400,000 kilometres off track. NASA lost touch with Pioneer 11 in 1995, but up to that point it was experiencing exactly the same deviation as its sister probe.
So what is causing it?...

9 Dark energy
IT IS one of the most famous, and most embarrassing, problems in physics. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at ever faster speeds. It's an effect still searching for a cause - until then, everyone thought the universe's expansion was slowing down after the big bang...
10 The Kuiper cliff

IF YOU travel out to the far edge of the solar system, into the frigid wastes beyond Pluto, you'll see something strange. Suddenly, after passing through the Kuiper belt, a region of space teeming with icy rocks, there's nothing.

Astronomers call this boundary the Kuiper cliff, because the density of space rocks drops off so steeply. What caused it? The only answer seems to be a 10th planet...
11 The Wow signal

IT WAS 37 seconds long and came from outer space. On 15 August 1977 it caused astronomer Jerry Ehman, then of Ohio State University in Columbus, to scrawl "Wow!" on the printout from Big Ear, Ohio State's radio telescope in Delaware. And 28 years later no one knows what created the signal. "I am still waiting for a definitive explanation that makes sense," Ehman says...

12 Not-so-constant constants

IN 1997 astronomer John Webb and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant quasars. On its 12-billion-year journey, the light had passed through interstellar clouds of metals such as iron, nickel and chromium, and the researchers found these atoms had absorbed some of the photons of quasar light - but not the ones they were expecting.

If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light passed through the clouds.

But that's heresy...

13 Cold fusion

AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.

That's quite a turnaround...

Read the whole thing
{Hat tip to Aaron Krowne at}

March 17, 2005

Federal Resources for Educational Excellence Posted by Hello

We've regularly featured links to Federal Resources for Educational Excellence, "... a working group of more than 30 Federal agencies formed in 1997 to make hundreds of Federally supported teaching and learning resources easier to find."

To give you some idea of the depth and breadth of these resources, I direct your attention to the Educational Technology page, which includes departments such as the Parents Guide to the Internet, a primer on the Internet for parents; the Virtual Reference Desk, which connects people with people who can answer questions and support the development of skills; Global Science and Technology Week, which suggests how schools and communities can generate excitement about disciplines that underpin breakthroughs in medicine, space exploration, and much, much more.

But that's not all: Agencies and organizations participating in the FREE working group run the gamut from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to the The White House, 51 in all.

Whether you're in school, or the parent of student, or a teacher, or just interested in education, or would like to see what good the Government can do, for a change, you will be well rewarded by spending time at the Federal Resources for Educational Excellence website.

March 16, 2005

Man, That Neanderthal Can Sing!

Neanderthals Sang at High Pitch?
Discovery News
Jennifer Viegas
March 14, 2005

Neanderthals possessed strong, yet high-pitched, voices that the stocky hominids used for both singing and speaking, according to recent British news reports.

Did he sing falsetto? Posted by Hello

The theory suggests that Neanderthals, who once lived in Europe from around 200,000 to 35,000 B.C., were intelligent and socially complex. It also indicates that although Neanderthals likely represented a unique species, they had more in common with modern humans than previously thought.

Read the rest here
{Hat tip to}

March 14, 2005

The Legacy Of Fleming - 50 Years On

Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter
14 Mar 2005

About 5,000 people die from such infections out of the many millions who go into hospitals each year.

But 70 years ago, the situation was much worse.

People could often die from a sore throat if the infection spread to the lungs.

And pneumonia and post-operative infections killed one in three of those who got them.

Within a decade that figure had dropped to just a few per cent. The reason - penicillin.

It was the world's first antibiotic when it was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming, who died 50 years ago on Friday.

The scientist, who was working at London's St Mary's Hospital at the time, stumbled upon the antibiotic partly by accident in 1928.


During some routine research, he noticed a mould had developed on a dish on which he had been growing a bacteria but had forgotten about while he was away on holiday.

What grabbed his attention was that the mould seemed to have destroyed most of the bacteria.

Sir Alexander extracted the antibacterial substance from the mould and penicillin was officially found.

It was another 12 years before the antibiotic was ready for commercial use following tenacious, but often overlooked, work by Oxford University scientists Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and Ernst Chain.

By the end of World War II, the US was mass producing the antibiotic and using it to treat soldiers' war wounds.

And once peace was restored, the public began demanding to be given the so-called "wonder drug".

At the end of the 1940s more than 250,000 patients a month were being prescribed penicillin to treat a variety of diseases from blood poisoning and pneumonia to syphilis and gonorrhoea.

The drug also allowed doctors to carry out increasingly more invasive treatments, which would have been impossible before because of infections.

Kevin Brown, curator of the Alexander Fleming Museum and author of a biography of the scientist, Penicillin Man, said it was one of the most important discoveries in medical history.

Sir Alexander Fleming discovered
penicillin by accident
Posted by Hello


"Before Fleming's discovery there really was not treatment for infectious disease. It was a killer," he said.

"It seems strange now, but that was the way it was. When it came onto the market it revolutionised medicine."

Mr Brown said it also brought fame to the scientist, who was born in 1881 in a remote area of Ayrshire in Scotland.

"The public really took Fleming to their hearts. He was unassuming and quiet. It was a case of the little man who had become a real success."

Dr Anne Hardy, from London's Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, said Sir Alexander's discovery, for which he was later knighted and won the Nobel Prize, also benefited the whole of medical profession.

"In particular, it transformed public perception of what medicine could do. For the first time people became aware of what doctors could really achieve."

But Dr Hardy said the antibiotic became a victim of its own success as it was soon over-prescribed and resistance started building up.


"All antibiotics are used badly and penicillin was no different. Patients were literally demanding it from their doctors and they got it," she said.

By the mid to late 1940s other antibiotics started coming onto the market to challenge penicillin.

The major two were streptomycin - effective against TB, something beyond even the "wonder drug's" powers - and cepholosporin.

But in 1959, four years after Sir Alexander's death, scientists made a breakthrough in their fight against antibiotic resistance with the first generation semi-synthetic penicillins, which were tailor-made to combat individual diseases such as meningitis.

Other generations followed, but scientists have still struggled to keep pace with the evolution of germs - the hospital superbug MRSA is penicillin-resistant.

Over recent years, penicillin use has declined by about a quarter - in line with most antibiotics - as doctors have become more cautious about overuse.

And Dr Simon Campbell, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, believes the pharmaceutical industry is on the brink of losing interest in the penicillin family of antibiotics.

But not everyone shares such a prognosis. Dr Robert Bud, who is researching a history of antibiotics and is principal curator of medicine at the Science Museum, points out that penicillins are still the most widely-used form of antibiotics.

"It is true GPs prescribe it less these days. It used to be common to get if immediately for earache, but doctors will more often wait these days, and sometimes they simply offer a painkiller at first."

However, it is this caution which may ultimately safeguard penicillin for future generations, Mr Bud believes.

"Compared to many other countries such as France, Britain has relatively low levels of penicillin-resistant pneumonia-causing streptococcal bacteria, just a few percent.

"If we are careful I think the use of penicillin will continue."

Half a century after his death, that seems a fitting tribute to one of Britain's most famous scientists.

March 13, 2005

Check out the Web of Letters:
Type in a word or phrase, and press the button. Poof! Up comes your word, in letter images.

(Hat tip:

March 12, 2005


Brainboost, a provider of state-of-the-art natural language question answering systems, today announced that Old Dominion University's Center for Advanced Engineering Environments (CAEE) has selected the Brainboost Answer Engine as a key component for a breakthrough research platform under development. {hat tip to ResearchBuzz}

March 11, 2005

Brain Awareness Week Teaches Kids How Their Brains Work

The fifth annual Brain Awareness Week (BAW), a science and health education fair to teach 5th?8th grade students about the brain, will take place March 14?18, 2005 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will present short lessons on brain health and neuroscience on March 16th and 17th. Participating institutes include the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

BAW is an annual international partnership of government agencies, scientific organizations, universities, and volunteer groups organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 200 pre-eminent neuroscientists dedicated to advancing education about the brain.

?Brain Awareness Week is an outstanding opportunity not only to teach kids about the amazing power and resilience of the brain, but also to get them interested in neuroscience,? said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of NIMH, the lead institute in this year?s program. ?This year, NIMH?s exhibit will be staffed by some of our most promising junior neuroscientists.?

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
NIDA invites students to play ?Who Wants to be a NIDA Neuroscientist?? Patterned after the popular TV program ?Who Wants to be a Millionaire,? the game encourages students to test what they know about how illicit drugs and nicotine act in the brain. Participants will answer a series of questions on a variety of topics related to how street drugs affect the brain. If they are unsure of an answer, a NIDA neuroscientist will be on hand to serve as their ?life line.? Winners receive a certificate, and everyone receives NIDA publications designed for students and parents.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
NIMH?s presentation, ?The Wonders of the Brain,? is about perception. Led by young scientists in the NIMH Division of Intramural Research, students explore how the mind plays tricks with images it sees, such as an optical illusion drawing of an elephant with too many legs. One interesting scientific anomaly that the students explore is the Stroop effect. Students are asked to say the color of a printed word, not to read the word itself. For example, for the word, ?red? printed in blue ink, the student should say "blue." However, the word itself can interfere with the process of naming the color of the word. The exhibit encourages participants to think about how their brains work and to become brain-aware.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Step inside NIAAA?s novel, multi-sensory exhibit and see the amazing ?Drunken Brain,? pulsating with electricity and basking in a world of colored lights and eerie sounds. An NIAAA neuroscientist will explain why alcohol interferes with sensory perception, movement, balance, and memory, and demonstrate which brain circuits are involved in alcohol dependence and alcoholism. Then, students will visit ?Roger?s Party,? where another NIAAA scientist will talk about why people decide to drink and what happens to the brain and body during an episode of binge drinking. Party guests will also attempt to navigate an obstacle course while wearing ?Fatal Vision? prism goggles. These goggles throw off eye-muscle coordination, which allows students to experience the loss of muscle coordination and balance that occurs during alcohol intoxication.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Eating: It?s A Brain Thing. It is often difficult for young people to understand how their brain controls behavior. Dr. Andrea Sawczuk of NINDS will take students on a guided tour of how their brain controls the every-day activity, yet highly complex activity of eating. Students will choose a food, transport it to their mouths, then smell, taste, chew and, finally, swallow the food. Dr. Sawczuk will explain what happens in the brain at each stage of the activity. Student will learn what part of their brain is involved in each stage and how their brain controls the eating process.

Attendance is by pre-registration only. Schools interested in attending future events may contact Karen Graham at the Dana Foundation at 202-408-8800 for more information.

Because this event is located on an Army post, media wishing to attend must contact Courtney MacGregor at 202-782-2671 to pre-register their names and, if applicable, vehicle information (make, model, color, license plate, and state of registration). Media should use the main entrance at 6900 Georgia Avenue, NW, which intersects with Elder Street.
Christine, at, digs up the answer to yet another of life's nagging questions: How do I eat spaghetti without getting it all over me?
from Science World, via FindArticles

"A final reckless flick of the wrist can accelerate the spaghetti speed to over nine feet per second"

March 10, 2005

Nothing less than the origin of the Universe from Federal Resources for Educational Excellence.
See Cosmology 101 (via NASA)