50 Posts, 1000 Pageviews!

It’s been nearly half a year since I started Sword of Science, and I wanted to take this chance to thank everyone who’s been reading and following the blog so far. I look forward to continuing my posts on the current state of science and how it relates to society, and I hope you look forward to reading them. I encourage you to shoot me an email or tweet if there’s a scientific topic you’d like to see discussed, if you’ve seen a cool video that could work in a YouTube roundup, or just if you have general questions about anything I cover.

Due to an upcoming Illinois tour with my band Acker, Sword of Science will be going on hiatus through the end of November. Happy Thanksgiving, and I’ll be back in force for the start of the Christmas season!


Book Review – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In the process of a scientific education, it is easy to become caught up in the grand sense of continual progress evoked by textbooks and teachers. It becomes easy to forget that science is conducted by humans, subject to the same biases and oversights as the rest of our species. Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” reminds us of this human element and shows how the history of science is shaped as much by psychology as by observation.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, courtesy of Amazon.

Kuhn’s central insight is the existence of the scientific “paradigm,” a worldview that provides a set of assumptions about a given scientific field, questions which that field is expected to answer, and experimental techniques appropriate for answering those questions. Scientists, argues Kuhn, depend on paradigms to guide what he calls “normal science,” the day-to-day activity of making progress in their fields. Instead of actively seeking unexpected novelties, scientists guided by paradigms gather facts thought to be relevant to the paradigm, check the paradigm’s predictions, or determine how to apply the paradigm to a set of phenomena.

Paradigms give scientists a common vocabulary and set of techniques that allow them to make progress more rapidly than they could otherwise (or indeed, as Kuhn argues, to make progress at all). Areas of study in a pre-paradigm period have many competing schools of thought, none with widespread acceptance as the best way to look at the issues of the field or to determine what problems are important. Kuhn claims that many of the social sciences, such as economics and sociology, are still in this phase, where practitioners of a field disagree on a basic level about how that field should be defined. The physical sciences, such as astronomy and geology, have established paradigms, and practitioners with alternative views (geocentrism and young-earth creationism, for example) are not regarded as scientists at all.

Importantly, old paradigms are not immediately rejected when confronted with an observation that they cannot explain. As Kuhn writes, “novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.” He uses the discovery of the planet Uranus to illustrate this point: astronomers had noted “stars” at different points in the orbit of Uranus, but had failed to realize that these different stars were actually the same object. Sir William Herschel, nearly a century after the initial observations of Uranus, was the first see these stars as different points in the movement of a single object, and even then he classified it first as a comet, believing that all of the planets had already been discovered.

Through its trenchant analysis of past scientific developments, Kuhn’s book provides both scientists and laymen with a better understanding of the messy and convoluted process of discovery. Science never has all the answers, and even established answers are subject to change, but these characteristics are what make science such a powerful force for understanding the natural world.

Q&A – Casey Jones Fraser on Garden Grove Organics

The debate over the future of agriculture reentered the news this election cycle with the defeat of I-522, a law proposed in Washington state requiring the labeling of all foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold on supermarket shelves. Supporters of the measure claimed that it would give shoppers more control over their purchasing decisions, while opponents feared that the bill would create an unnecessary regulatory hurdle for farmers and manufacturers working with products already approved as safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.

Commentators such as Dr. Robert Wood of Seattle have argued that initiatives such as I-522 are often driven by a distrust of science rather than a rational consideration of the benefits and drawbacks. Indeed, a recent Canadian poll found that nearly half of those surveyed were skeptical of scientists on the issue of GMOs, while a poll conducted by ABC found that over half of Americans believe GMOs are unsafe to eat (despite their rigorous approval by the FDA).

Yet for some agriculturalists concerned with the practices of industrial agriculture that often accompany genetic engineering, such as increased herbicide use, reduction of biodiversity, and aggressive patent protection, science is a powerful ally. Casey Jones Fraser, owner of Garden Grove Organics in Covington, Kentucky, provides the tools and scientific expertise for aspiring gardeners in the Greater Cincinnati area to produce crops with organic and/or hydroponic systems. Fraser agreed to be interviewed about his business and the role science plays in his work.

Casey Jones Fraser, owner of Garden Grove Organics, courtesy of River City News

Casey Jones Fraser, owner of Garden Grove Organics, courtesy of River City News

Sword of Science: What inspired you to open Garden Grove Organics?
Casey Jones Fraser: After graduating college, I got a job with a company called Worm’s Way that sold garden supplies. Unfortunately, they were owned by a manufacturing and wholesaling company, so they could only carry limited brands and products. I helped a friend open a store similar to [Garden Grove Organics] in Cincinnati, but he didn’t find it profitable enough.  When he closed his shop, our customer base – all these sciencey, techy local gardeners – weren’t going to have a diverse supply house. I opened this place because I knew there was going to be a void in the market.

SoS: Would you say that scientific gardeners are your target niche?
CJF: Yeah, definitely. People who want to take gardening a step further than just buying plants and popping them in the ground, who really want to pursue the science of growing plants.

SoS: Science in the current agricultural narrative – genetic modification, industrial agriculture — is often portrayed as a negative force. How does that conflict play out with your customer base?
CJF: Well, I hate that some people say, ‘If you’re against GMOs, you’re against science.’ A lot of the gardeners that are growing their own food and herbs are pursuing a different branch of science; they’re not at all ‘anti-science.’ While occasionally we get the ‘hoodoo-voodoo, moon cycle–type’ gardeners, most of our customers are science-oriented gardeners who want to pursue the science of growing plants without altering the genetics. It’s almost science vs. science.

All of our plants are non-GMO, and we try to make sure that all the products we sell are safe for food crops. There’s a lot of complacency in modern agriculture in terms of safety, because it’s more about production. There seems to be an undercurrent of gardeners who want to pursue as big a production as possible within the limits of safe crops and safe products. So we’ve got the safety science guys, as opposed to [those with] a total yield orientation. Our guys are more quality-oriented, more safety-oriented, more [concerned with] nutrition density. It’s really about quality, then getting as good a yield as you can while maintaining that quality.

SoS: How many of your customers are trying to make this kind of production economically feasible?
CJF: We occasionally have some local farmers shop here. We also get regional greenhouse owners, because a lot of the equipment that we sell works really well for controlled environment agriculture. We’re a destination if you have a large facility and you need small, techy parts. We do get some farmer’s market people; there’s also a lot of community garden people, and we have some Covington restaurant owners who shop here to grow herbs for their own businesses.

The vast majority of my sales [in terms of volume] are smaller gardeners. I feel like that’s really who I’m here for, the small people who pursue this as a hobby. That’s the most fun, and that’s my target market.

SoS: What kind of scientific expertise do these small-scale gardeners most often need getting started?
CJF: Probably plant propagation, whether it’s seed starting, starting plants from cuttings, or even tissue culture. Getting plants going and then continuing to produce plants year round can be a real bear. You might have a spare room in your house; in the heat of the summer it may be 90 degrees, in the cool of the winter it may be 60 degrees, and you want the 75! That’s where people struggle the most at first, is setting up an environment that’s appropriate for propagation.

Second to that is setting up an environment that’s appropriate for full-time growth. The biggest struggle is turning an indoor environment into the equivalent of an outdoor environment. Replacing the sun, replacing wind, replacing rain, replacing naturally occurring nutrition; you’ve really got to put a lot of work into it, and if you don’t do it just right, you will fail.

SoS: What’s the state of nutrition like in hydroponic growing?
CJF: We pretty much know what plants need. The biggest struggle with nutrients is the number of products out there on the market, knowing what’s worth the money, and then understanding the difference between minerals and organics. Some of the hormones out on market right now are dangerous and shouldn’t be used on food crops, but sometimes companies want to sneak them into their products so that they perform better. So knowing what not to use is equally important as knowing what to use.

SoS: How do you plan expand your business in the future?
My dream is to put a greenhouse on the roof of this building someday. I would like to be in full-scale greenhouse produce growing, as well as to give tours. As a philosophy, we’re a retail store, but we’re committed to our customers producing, not consuming. We have products that are for sale, but they’re really just tools so that our customers can be producers. In everything we do, that’s really our goal: to create production, and not consumption

SoS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CJF: Always question manufacturer claims. Any time there’s a lot of hype behind any product, always do the research before spending the money.

Dr. Frankenstein’s Garage – Grinders and Biochip Impants

Researchers throughout history have often taken liberties with their personal well-being for the sake of science — think Benjamin Franklin and his kite experiment or the work of Justin Schmidt, who developed a scale for the pain of insect stings by suffering the wrath of over 150 different species. But even these brave souls may have hesitated at conducting personal implant surgeries without anesthesia, a trend that is gaining traction among a small community calling themselves “grinders.”

Biohacker Tim Cannon showing off his implant, courtesy of MotherboardTV.

Inspired by the philosophy of transhumanism, grinders believe that by intimately associating themselves with electronic hardware, they can begin to move beyond normal human capacities. The body modifications they develop aim to endow them with additional senses or interface with computers in ways that can’t be otherwise achieved. The practice is also known as “biohacking,” in a life sciences parallel to the practice of modifying computers for new purposes.

Tim Cannon, the biohacker depicted in the image above, put his philosophy into practice by implanting a sensor he and his colleagues at Grindhouse Wetware call “Circadia.” The device, approximately the area and thickness of a smartphone, is able to gather biological data and transmit that information via Bluetooth to an Android device (and from there, to the Internet). By monitoring pulse and temperature, for example, Cannon’s implant could catch a fever early and send a text message to his phone, warning him to seek treatment earlier than otherwise.

Another grinder, Lepht Anonym, has modified her fingertips with the goal of directly sensing the invisible magnetic fields around electronic devices. By implanting small discs of neodymium, a metal that emits an electric current in a magnetic field, next to her nerve endings, Anonym gained a new source of neural input that she could learn to interpret as the strength and shape of these fields.

While these new abilities are relatively inexpensive in terms of money — Anonym’s discs cost roughly $32, while Cannon’s chip cost around $500 — grinders pay dearly during the implant process. The only anesthetic available for Cannon’s home surgery was ice, and he prides himself on “raw dogging” the procedure. Without proper sterilization, Anonym has had several of her surgeries become infected, and she almost removed a finger on her first disc implant. The lack of medical approval for these implants leaves grinders little choice but to rely on their own determination and knowledge.

Yet to these self-experimenters, the pain is usually worth the reward of being on the (literal) cutting edge of the interaction between man and machine. In Anonym’s words, “Bodily health takes a big fuck-off second seat to curiosity. Though it hasn’t really changed my life, it’s just made me more curious.”

News Flash – FDA to Ban Artificial Trans Fats

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it had made a preliminary decision to classify the main source of dietary trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), as not “generally recognized as safe” for food use. The public may comment on the decision for a period of 60 days, after which the FDA will choose whether to finalize the action. Should the determination pass, PHOs will be classified as “food additives,” requiring special regulation for continued use.

Donuts containing trans fat, courtesy of BusinessWeek.

A mounting body of research has indicated that trans fats are responsible for a number of deleterious health effects. Their most well-documented impacts are on heart health: trans fats lower “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL), raise “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and increase levels of inflammation. Some animal studies have also suggested that trans fat intake could increase insulin resistance, a condition that often leads to Type II diabetes. In light of these risks, New York City passed a widely publicized ban on trans fats in restaurants in 2006, which has been credited with encouraging the FDA to propose the ban at the federal level.

The process for making PHOs was first discovered by German chemist Wilhelm Normann in 1902. By forcing hydrogen gas through vegetable oil on a nickel catalyst, Normann was able to add hydrogen atoms to the molecular backbone of the oil’s fatty acid molecules. The process “straightened” the molecules, allowing them to stack more easily instead of flowing past each other; at the visible level, this turned the liquid oil into a semisolid spread. Proctor and Gamble found that the new fat had useful properties in cooking and increased the shelf life of products in which it was used, and the company began to market the first PHO as Crisco in 1911.

Although small amounts of trans fats naturally exist in beef and dairy products, produced by bacteria living in the guts of cows, these quantities are insignificant compared to the trans fats found in artificial PHOs. If the FDA ban is successful, scientists estimate that roughly a quarter of a million heart attacks, a fifth of those occurring in the U.S. every year, could be eliminated. Restaurants have already been developing new cooking techniques for foods such as donuts and french fries, and Wal-Mart has given its suppliers until 2015 to eliminate trans fats from their products. Together with the ban, these measures are helping to create a healthier food environment for all Americans.

In the Crossfire – Pacific Fishers and the War on Drugs

America’s “War on Drugs” has claimed many casualties, but one group impacted by drug policy has no history of use, sale, or possession; it even lacks the opposable thumbs needed to roll a joint. The Pacific fisher (Martes pennanti), a rare relative of otters and minks native to the West Coast, is in danger of extinction due to chemical use at illegal marijuana cultivation sites in the Sierra National Forest, one of its crucial habitats.

The Pacific fisher, courtesy of Sierra Forest Legacy.

The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal in the state of California, but the drug is still considered a Schedule I substance under U.S. law, and federal agents continue to destroy hundreds of thousands of plants in the region every year. These raids have pushed some growers to establish grow sites on isolated portions of public lands such as forests and parks, which are more difficult to patrol. Operating outside any regulatory framework, these grows pose a number of environmental hazards, including watershed pollution, habitat destruction, and wildfire risk.

According to Craig Thompson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, a previously unrecognized problem is the unregulated use of rodenticides, or rat poisons, to prevent damage to marijuana plants. These poisons can impact a wide range of nontarget species, including the Pacific fisher. Thompson and his colleagues tracked fishers using radio collars over a five-year period, monitoring their home ranges and performing autopsies on any that died during the study. Of the 46 deceased animals analyzed, 39 (85%) tested positive for a rodenticide. When the home ranges of these fishers were examined, the scientists found that they contained significantly more illegal marijuana grow sites than the ranges of fishers that tested negative for the poisons. As the animals rarely entered into legitimate agricultural lands or human-inhabited areas, the team hypothesized that the grow sites were the sources of the rodenticides.

Although only one fisher died directly due to rodenticide poisoning, lower doses of these compounds still have dangerous effects. Sluggish reflexes, reduced rates of healing, and even brain damage can all result from exposure to rodenticides, rendering the fisher more vulnerable to starvation and infection. As Thompson explained, “By increasing the number of animals that die from supposedly natural causes, these pesticides may be tipping the balance of recovery for fishers.” The species is currently a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and its estimated U.S. population as of 2012 (roughly 4,600) is far under its historical numbers.

Regulating the environmental effects of marijuana production is impossible when production itself is outlawed. By providing a proper legal framework for marijuana growers, officials can create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly market, benefiting humans and fishers alike.