A Fuzzy Infiltrator – Improving Penguin Studies

America has a seemingly undying love of penguins, and for understandable reasons. Their babies are awkwardly waddling adorable fluffballs; their adults are graceful swimmers of freezing seas; their cartoons are endearingly spunky. Zoos and aquariums across the country offer penguin experiences, letting fans get up close and personal with the waterfowl. As penguin habitats become increasingly threatened by global climate change, these warm and fuzzy feelings help encourage conservation efforts and build support for scientists who study the animals.

Yet for wild penguins, a human encounter is often a source of discomfort rather than delight. The presence of people increases stress in penguins, raising their heart rates and changing hormone levels in ways that can harm reproduction. This puts conservation scientists in a bind: they need to work closely with penguins to obtain good data, but their very presence can harm the birds they want to study. Yvon Le Maho, a French Antarctic scientist, recently published a study in Nature Methods that offers a clever workaround for this conundrum: remote-controlled penguins.

Courtesy of Popular Science

Le Maho and his colleagues reasoned that penguins would be far less stressed by an intruder if it looked more like one of their own kind. To this end, the scientists designed a remote-controlled car topped by a stuffed animal version of a penguin chick. Getting the rover right was a matter of trial and error; the researchers tried five different versions of their device, including a fiberglass version that seemed to disturb the birds even more than undisguised humans did.

Once the team developed a suitable penguin “spy,” they compared the responses of penguins to approaches by humans and the car. By measuring penguin heart rates and observing their behavior, Le Maho and collaborators determined that the birds were four times less stressed when the car made its way into their territory. The disguised rover could join an emperor penguin creche, a tightly packed circle of penguin chicks, without arousing suspicion. Adult emperor penguins even began to sing at the contraption, leading Le Maho to comment, “they were very disappointed when there was no answer. Next time we will have a rover playing songs.”

Although the fuzzy little car seems frivolous, its built-in radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader allows it to identify tagged penguins without disturbing them, which is very important for studying the community structure and distribution of the birds. Similar devices could be designed to zip past other wary wild species; the scientists note that their penguin car also went unmolested by elephant seals, which in their words “generally react strongly when humans approach their tails.” If researchers add cameras and microphones, the car might someday get a bird’s-eye view of penguin life. Of course, in the case of these flightless waterfowl, that perspective will be stuck to the ground.

Book Review – The Violinist’s Thumb

If Nicollo Paganini, the titular musician of Sam Kean‘s “The Violinist’s Thumb,” had lived in the 1960s rather than the 1800s, the book may well have been named “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll.” According to period reports, the 19th century virtuoso was a dervish of womanizing, opium abuse, and brilliant concerts, haunted by recurring health problems that ended his career well before old age. This combination was often attributed at the time to Paganini’s purported pact with the devil, but if he had lived even closer to the present, it may have been attributed to a more scientific cause. Modern doctors have retroactively conjectured that the violinist suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue that would have given Paganini both his legendary flexibility and infamous ill health.

“The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean. Courtesy of Amazon.

Kean recognizes the timeless interest of Paganini’s story and makes it a key example of the book’s major theme: DNA influences our bodies, brains, and behavior in powerful and unexpected ways. From the implications of Neanderthal interbreeding for human immunity to the role of parasite genes in the addictions of animal hoarders, the author casts a wide net over the weird world of genetics. Equally comfortable with the scientific and human sides of his subjects, Kean’s writing is packed with juicily evocative (and humorous) details that illuminate larger biological concepts.

This penchant for anecdotes makes “The Violinist’s Thumb” often read like a collection of short biographies, very accessible and a bit eclectic. In perhaps the book’s best chapter, Kean weaves the personal lives of Thomas Hunt Morgan and three of his lab assistants around a solid primer on the discovery of chromosomal behavior. The details of Morgan’s relationships with his assistants (such as the time he bailed Calvin Bridges out of a sticky situation with a confidence woman) are fascinating in their own right, but Kean ensures that they also illustrate the progress of scientific discovery; in this case, Morgan’s American familiarity with his underlings meant he was more willing to listen to their good ideas than were many European investigators.

Although each individual story is told with great aplomb, Kean’s scattershot approach does leave the book feeling somewhat weak in terms of overall structure. At times, “The Violinist’s Thumb” can feel like a popular science textbook, covering a wide range of topics in genetics without fully uniting them in the overarching narrative of DNA’s human impacts. But more often than not, the engaging nature of the examples led me to forgive the author for his strong focus on particulars.

The book’s witty style makes it a quick and enjoyable read, stuffed with specifics that impress the reader and beg to be shared among friends. The science is solid throughout, but Kean’s discussions of its personal implications are what truly stand out. As the author concludes in his last chapter, “the most profound changes that genetic science brings about likely won’t be instant diagnoses or medicinal panaceas but mental and spiritual enrichment—a more expansive sense of who we humans are, existentially, and how we fit with other life on earth.”


A Shot in the Dark – The Perils of Sharing Vaccine Science

One of Wikipedia’s most interesting articles is simply titled “List of common misconceptions.” The contents range from the invention of baseball (Alexander Cartwright, not Abner Doubleday, first codified the rules) to elephant graveyards (which do not actually exist), covering the kind of “folk knowledge” that might be erroneously relayed in a grade-school classroom. Most of these myths are harmless misunderstandings, but the fact that the article exists at all points to the frustrating difficulty of correcting false information on a societal scale.

Some misconceptions, however, have effects beyond making people sound foolish at cocktail parties. The belief that vaccinations cause autism, thoroughly debunked by the best available science, has led to a decrease in rates of vaccination against preventable diseases in many areas across the United States. This reduction in immunity among the population in turn leads to outbreaks of diseases long thought controlled, such as whooping cough, which killed 10 Californian children in a 2010 outbreak linked to clusters of unvaccinated individuals. Public health officials strive to combat the misconceptions spread by “anti-vaxxers” such as Jenny McCarthy, but too often their efforts are unsuccessful. A new study published in the journal “Pediatrics” now suggests that these messages may be worse than useless: exposing parents to scientifically based vaccine information can reduce their intent to vaccinate their children.

Surprisingly, this political cartoon may actually be understating the danger of antivaccination beliefs. Courtesy of ixdaily.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, and his colleagues wanted to examine the effectiveness of different strategies for promoting vaccines. The researchers interviewed over 1,700 American parents via the Internet to determine their initial attitudes towards vaccines, then exposed them to one of four pro-vaccine messages. The “autism correction” message presented the scientific consensus on the safety of vaccination, relying heavily on statistics and links to journal articles. The “disease risks” message instead focused on the possible dangers of vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as brain damage, deafness, and death. The last two messages, “disease narrative” and “disease images,” employed more personal information, respectively presenting a mother’s harrowing story about her unvaccinated infant and photographs of children riddled with the worst symptoms of measles, mumps, and rubella. Finally, the parents were interviewed again to determine any changes in their beliefs.

Depressingly, none of the messages achieved their intended purpose of increasing vaccination intent. Presenting the “disease risks” message had no effect, while the “disease narrative” and “disease images” methods increased the belief in serious side effects. The “autism correction” approach was partially successful, as parents exposed to this message were less likely to believe in the vaccine-autism link than before reading the information. However, this same group of parents also became less likely to actually vaccinate. Although this effect was due almost entirely to changes in attitudes among parents who had previously reported a distrust of vaccines, the researchers were surprised that factual information could cause a “backlash” response.

In a recent interview with The Communications Network, Nyhan offered a possible explanation for these undesirable results. “It’s uncomfortable for [parents] to be told that this attitude or belief they have is wrong or perhaps based on incorrect evidence, and so they’re going to try to butcher that belief by saying, ‘Oh, why do I not like vaccines? Well, maybe it’s not the autism thing, but I have some other concern.’ In the process of bringing those ideas to mind, they may end up coming to believe more strongly in these concerns or objections they have to vaccines than they otherwise would have.”

Nyhan’s other work has revealed possibilities for countering the backlash effect. As reported by Shankar Vedantam, social science correspondent for National Public Radio, presenting factual information that counters a person’s deeply held beliefs may damage that person’s self-esteem. Boosting the self-esteem of parents before offering vaccine information “might help them take in the new information because they don’t feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.” While this strategy hasn’t been tested for scientific information, it represents a promising new alternative to previous (and counterproductive) messages. The research suggests that public health officials must take a different approach if they hope to protect children from well-intentioned misconceptions.


Book Review – Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole” is surely an imposing title, one that evokes feelings of inevitable cosmic dread. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, the affable astrophysicist and host of the recent “Cosmos” reboot, assures the readers of his essay collection that they have nothing to fear from the gravity-generating giants. Instead, he invites his audience on a fascinating survey of astronomical and general scientific topics, one whose short chapters and breezy style make for quick and engaging reading.

“Death by Black Hole” by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Courtesy of Amazon.

After struggling with the general brashness of Richard Dawkins (as mentioned in last week’s review), I found Tyson’s style to be welcoming and accessible. He makes excellent use of the essay format, limiting the scope of each chapter to a topic that can be discussed briefly but thoroughly. Tyson does not shy away from or gloss over the complex concepts that arise in his work as an astrophysicist, such as the application of spectroscopy to determine facts about cosmic objects. In that case, he skillfully contrasts numerous concrete examples of the information that can be determined from simple color photographs and broader spectra to show how important the technique is to our understanding of the universe.

As the book is assembled from a collection of essays Tyson wrote for the “Universe” column of Natural History magazine, the text does repeat some examples and covers similar territory in several chapters. But the author has generally done a good job at exploring a wide range of material, helped by broad but useful section groupings such as “When the Universe Turns Bad” and “Science and Culture.” The latter section is especially enjoyable, making perhaps the best use of Tyson’s dry and self-deprecating humor. In a section where he explains the errors in the stars of the night sky in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” he recounts a dinner conversation he had with the director. “What better occasion to tell him of his errant ways with the Titanic sky. So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, ‘The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!'”

Both astronomical novices and seasoned space fans can find something to enjoy in “Death by Black Hole.” It’s an entertaining and accessible read, and with each short chapter taking ten minutes or so to read, the book lends itself to quick jaunts into the wonders of the cosmos, each with its own mind-expanding rewards.



Book Review – The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

If I’ve been posting a lot of book reviews lately, it’s due to the long, lazy days of summer and the fortuitous proximity of the Campbell County Public Library. But I’ve been trying to keep my reading list on the somewhat enlightening side, and to that end, I recently picked up “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by famed (and infamous) biologist Richard Dawkins. Evolution is far from new territory for Dawkins and his books, but as he explains, in none of his previous works has he attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of the support behind the central tenet of biological science.

“The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins. Courtesy of Amazon.

And in this respect, Dawkins largely succeeds. Starting much like Darwin and “On the Origin of Species” in his reliance on artificial selection in domesticated plants and animals, the author segues through selection by nonhuman animals (such as that of insects for floral nectar production) before explaining the impersonal forces of natural selection proper. He addresses geological dating in a particularly lucid overview of the different radioactive “clocks,” gives examples of rapid evolution, and challenges the fallacy of the “missing link.” Perhaps the best chapter in the book uses embryogenesis to demonstrate how change on the smallest biological level can propagate upward, causing drastic alterations in an organism’s form upon which natural selection can operate.

When Dawkins becomes engrossed in the details of a scientific concept, as in a pages-long description of the Lenski Long-term Evolution Experiment, his writing is powerful and convincing. Yet he seems not to recognize this strength, and it is here that the book begins to falter. Too often he chooses to gloss over the finer points of a given example, waving away the complexities with a dismissive and superior tone. “For reasons that need not concern us here” and “I won’t pursue the matter further” are common phrases throughout; in other places, he chooses to make amusing digressions or employ footnotes instead of continuing the thrust of the argument in the main text. One gets the sense that his celebrity as one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism caused the editors of the book to take a lighter hand, and the work suffers for it.

Perhaps most importantly, Dawkins takes an openly combative stance towards those whom the book purports to reach: advocates of creationism and intelligent design, whom he designates as “history deniers.” For example, he devotes an embarrassingly large amount of space to a transcript of an interview he conducted with a creationist over fossils of humanity’s ancestors, taking a perverse glee in the inability of his subject to look at the evidence as it stood. But the book itself is about that evidence, and presumably about giving those not yet convinced of the beauty and truth of evolution another perspective. A calmer, friendlier tone may not attract the media coverage Dawkins seems to crave, but it might go a long way toward winning over the other side.

Book Review – Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

America’s burgeoning “foodie” movement owes much to Michael Pollan. The author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” opened the eyes of many readers to the issues surrounding modern agricultural production, from out-of-touch government subsidies of corn growers to the disconnect between the expectations and realities of industrialized organic produce. In his 2013 book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Pollan shifts his focus from the farm to the table, providing an elegantly written primer into the art and science of turning food into meals.

“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan. Courtesy of michaelpollan.com

The book’s subtitle of “natural history” is well chosen, as Pollan’s approach to the science of his subject is more akin to that of a Victorian museum than a modern, specialized laboratory. He chooses to divide the world of cookery into four thematic sections mirroring the classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. In each part, the author delves firsthand into a fundamental food preparation technique, telling the narrative of his own experience as he riffs on the chemical and cultural significance of the process. The style is highly observational, but in the best way, expansive and richly detailed.

Pollan begins with the most “primitive” of cooking styles, that of meat over flame, by diving into the world of Southern whole-hog barbecue. The technique takes on quasi-religious significance for its practitioners, and the author riffs brilliantly on the similarities between ancient burnt offerings and modern masters of the fire pit. After the pyrotechnics of this section, he moves into the kitchen, ostensibly discussing the many pot dishes made by braising in water. But it is from this humble beginning that Pollan establishes the main message of the book: cooking for oneself and one’s family and friends is among the most physically and psychologically healthful of activities.

He continues to expand on this point as he moves through the more esoteric techniques of baking and fermentation, representing air and earth in turn. As he explains, learning to make “advanced” products like bread and beer provides an irreplaceable sense of self-reliance, as well as a greater appreciation in consumption. The common thread of patience ties all four parts together: cooking, whether the slow burn of a barbeque pit or the months-long curing of cheese, cannot be rushed, and in this way stands in opposition to the breakneck pace of modernity.

In “Cooked,” Pollan has written an endlessly engaging and thoughtful treatise on why cooking matters. Like the products it describes, the book is a feast for the senses and the mind, an inspiration to cook further. The author offers a handful of recipes in an appendix just for that purpose, and a reader can’t be blamed for heading straight to the kitchen.

From the Vaults – The Science of MSG

Editors note: To welcome any readers that may be coming to my blog from my recent post regarding GMOs on LIVESTRONG.COM, I’m reposting one of my earlier discussions about another misunderstood topic in food: monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

As discussed in last week’s article, some creative scientists are examining the changes in Hawaiian seafood menus over time for useful data about fishery abundance. If researchers were to study another set of menus, those of Chinese restaurants in the United States, they would find a similarly interesting trend: from the early 1970s onward, many menus began to advertise the absence of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in their cuisine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, has labeled MSG as a “generally recognized as safe” food ingredient since 1959. A sudden change in public perception led to these changes, but the roots of that perception are surprisingly obscure.

Courtesy of closter1chinesefood.com

Although MSG was only formally discovered in the early 20th century by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, the compound from which it is derived, glutamic acid, is one of the 20 amino acids necessary for proteins (and therefore life itself). The body recognizes the importance of glutamic acid through the sense of taste in foods like asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. Just as the tongue’s taste buds detect sodium chloride as salty, sucrose as sweet, or quinine as bitter, they register glutamic acid as its own unique taste, designated by Ikeda as “umami,” a Japanese word for “delicious” or “yummy” that is often translated as “savory.” MSG is simply glutamic acid that has been stabilized through the addition of sodium; for comparison, MSG contains one-third the amount of sodium per unit volume as table salt.

Asian cooking traditionally derived umami flavor from ingredients such as seaweed (from which Ikeda first isolated glutamic acid) and dried tuna, but by the 1950s, purified MSG was available to the United States as the seasoning Ac’cent. Restauranteurs and food processors were quick to adopt the ingredient as an inexpensive way to bolster the flavor of their products. No concerns were raised by the substance’s inclusion until 1968, when a Chinese-American doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok reported feeling a number of ill effects after eating at Chinese restaurants in the United States.

As BuzzFeed’s John Mahoney outlines, Dr. Kwok hypothesized in the New England Journal of Medicine that his symptoms may have been “caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants,” and after the New York Times covered the story, a flurry of experiments were conducted to confirm his suspicions. Many of these studies did report an association between high doses of MSG and symptoms such as headaches and flushing, but they lacked the proper scientific rigor of double-blind design (in which both the experimenter and subject do not know which treatment is being administered) or placebo controls.

Better designed experiments over the following decades failed to confirm the results of earlier research, and a comprehensive review by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology concluded that were was no association between MSG and short- or long-term health issues in humans. Despite this research, a number of groups have continued to advocate about the perceived dangers of the compound, and MSG has been absent from baby food since 1969. Yet as the scientific consensus stands, one should feel no fear in enjoying a plate of egg foo young from a Chinese restaurant, even if the menu is silent about the presence of MSG.