Book Review – Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

Few symbols are more indicative of the modern Christmas season than a jolly Santa Claus, clad in red and white furs, ascending up a chimney with a finger to his nose. But where did that imagery come from? Was it the vivid imagination of Clement Clark Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”? Or, as recounted by Andy Letcher in his book “Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom,” was it a distorted folk memory of Siberian shamanism? After all, the hallucinogenic fly-agaric mushroom shares the red and white coloring of St. Nick, shamans were said to climb out the smoke-holes of their yurts while entranced, and reindeer that had eaten the mushroom were occasionally killed and eaten for a secondhand intoxication.

“Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.” Courtesy of Goodreads.

The theory of a bemushroomed Santa is most likely false; the idea was first tossed out in modern times and taken up by enthusiastic members of the counterculture. But the truth behind the history of magic mushrooms is just as interesting as the wildest fiction. Letcher uses countless anecdotes like the Santa tale to illustrate that the current view of hallucinogenic fungi as (mostly) harmless “trippy” or “spiritual” drugs is almost entirely a product of the 20th century. The prevailing attitudes towards the fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) and psilocybe mushrooms are as much the result of the cultures in which they are consumed as of the mushrooms’ own mind-altering effects.

And the attitude of most cultures towards all mushrooms for the majority of history was one of fear. Letcher draws on ancient sources such as the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder to show the confusion and mistrust that surrounded fungi; these organisms that were not quite animals and not quite plants were regarded as “mysterious and problematic.” When hallucinogenic species were consumed by accident, the effects were considered far from desirable, and doctors employed emetics and stomach pumps to counter what they viewed as serious cases of poisoning.

Yet a small number of societies have historically used mushrooms in a mystical context, including the aforementioned Siberians and several Mexican shamanic groups. Letcher animatedly explains how this latter tradition was “discovered” by an unlikely Western visitor: Gordon Wasson, a respectable American banker, whose books and articles sharing the mushroom experience caused the practice to explode from the 1960s onward. He then provides a thorough overview of the scientists and misfits who popularized mushrooming, from the growers who learned to cultivate the caps to the visionaries whose accounts gave new trippers a framework of “timewaves” and “self-transforming machine elves.”

Letcher’s wide-ranging narrative handily dispels many of the myths surrounding the magic mushroom, grounding its usage in a solidly contemporary context. Although his writing can at times veer to the overly academic, making critiques of structuralist and Freudian philosophies that are beyond the depth of a popular science work, it is always imbued with a delightful blend of authority and irreverence (Letcher both holds two doctorates and plays the bagpipes in a self-described “acid folk” band). Reading “Shroom” is itself a trip, and one well worth taking.



Internet Roundup – Merry Christmas Science

The holiday season is both wonderful and stressful, and it’s certainly thrown this blog’s regular posting schedule for a bit of a loop. But when you get the chance to relax with a rum and eggnog, I’d encourage you to check out this collection of Christmas-themed articles exploring the science of the season. Merry Christmas!

Couldn’t agree more, Santa! Courtesy of PLoS.

New York Times – To Be Born on a Christmas Morn: What exactly are the odds of being born on Christmas Day?

NPR – How To Build An Indestructible Gingerbread House: A civil engineer takes on the challenge of confectionery construction.

Scientific American – Why Rudolph Should Never Have Joined Santa’s Reindeer: The dangers of navigating air traffic through fog as thick as pea soup, even with a shiny red nose.

Popular Science – The Physics of Emperor Penguin Huddles: How do these seasonal birds of a feather actually flock together?

International Business Times – Santa Science: Fact Checking Saint Nick’s Christmas Ride, Rudolph’s Nose And Elf Labor Abuse: A rational discussion of just what Santa must go through on his journeys to good girls and boys.

Wired – The Curious Evolution of Holiday Lights: Modern displays are a far cry from the first electrified Christmas trees.

Arizona Science Center – Why Does Fruitcake Last So Long?: A video answer to the mystery behind everyone’s favorite holiday treat.

Getting the Lead Out – Particle Shielding and History

If the Superman comics teach us anything accurate about physics, it’s that the Man of Steel’s X-ray vision is powerless to see through a shield of lead. What the comics don’t reveal is that not all lead is created equal when it comes to shielding objects from radiation. The older the lead, the better the protection, and this situation is creating an unexpected conflict between two groups of researchers who would otherwise keep to themselves: particle physicists and Roman archeologists.

Superman and Batman are stymied by the lead-masked Composite Superman! Courtesy of Dial B for Blog.

This difference arises from a curious fact: although lead’s density and very positive nucleus make it an excellent absorber of X-rays and gamma radiation, all samples of lead are themselves slightly radioactive. Lead ore contains small amounts of radioactive uranium 235, which decays over time by emitting particles in the form of alpha and beta radiation. The decay chain of uranium 235 includes radioactive lead 210; this isotope gives off beta radiation with a half-life of 22 years. When lead ore is processed to extract lead, the uranium is removed from the resulting metal. The lead 210 in the metal then continues to decay without being replaced by decaying uranium, so the overall radioactivity of the sample decreases over time.

While freshly mined lead is just starting its process of decay, ancient Roman lead has had about 2,000 years, or nearly 91 lead 210 half-lives, for its radioactivity to dissipate. This means that for every octillion (that’s a 1 followed by 27 zeroes) lead 210 particles present in a Roman ingot when it was purified, roughly one remains to the present day. For most purposes, this difference is insignificant, but for scientists working with particle detectors, it’s absolutely crucial: the background radiation given off by new lead creates “noise” that can drown out the very rare “signal” events sought by particle physicists.

Large quantities of ancient lead can be found in shipwrecks. One recent expedition off the coast of the Italian island of Sardinia uncovered over 33 tons of the metal, most of it believed to be originally destined for slingshot ammunition in the Roman civil war resulting from the Catiline Conspiracy. Most of the lead will still end up in Italy, but for an entirely different purpose: shielding the detector of the CUORE (Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events) at the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics.

Archeologists, however, are worried about the irretrievable loss of history that comes from melting down these ancient ingots. Elena Perez-Alvaro, an English archeology graduate student, raised the issues in a recent paper, arguing that “the study of sunken vessels is essential to history because entire continents have been discovered, colonised, invaded and defended by sea.” The lead is often inscribed with Latin phrases that describe its origins and the ancient companies that mined and shipped it, providing invaluable information to historians. If the companies that sell the lead to physicists fail to record the writing before smelting the metal down, the data can never be replaced.

It’s possible to reach a compromise that benefits both camps of researchers: for the CUORE lead, the inscriptions are being carefully removed from each block and sent to archeologists before melting. Without this level of care, however, science may be guilty of stripping the past to investigate the future.

Follow-Up Roundup

Many of the stories I’ve previously covered on Sword of Science have resurfaced in the news within the past couple of weeks, too many to give each of them the full attention they deserve. I’ve compiled a number of links to the latest information on these topics, together with the links to the original SoS articles. Catching up seems like a fine way to spend a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon.

The proposed Mars One lander, which would be the first private mission to Mars. Courtesy of the Mars One Foundation.

The Arctic 30 – Although all of the 30 Greenpeace activists arrested by Russian authorities during a protest of Arctic drilling have been released on bail, the international group has been ordered to remain in Russia during the legal proceedings. Russia’s decision is in direct conflict with that of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, who ruled in late November that the 30 should be allowed to leave the country and that their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, should also be released.

Mars One – The private Mars colonization project has announced plans for an unmanned mission to the planet in 2018 that will prepare the way for its eventual astronauts. The aerospace firms Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. have signed agreements with Mars One, which plans to fund the mission largely through selling corporate sponsorships of its spacecraft and advertising rights to its broadcasts.

3-D Firearms – On Monday, the Senate passed an extension to the Undetectable Firearms Act, which outlaws the sale, manufacture or possession of firearms that can escape the notice of scanning technology. Congress debated the strength of the act in light of advancements in 3-D printing; although current printed gun designs call for the inclusion of some metal, these parts can be easily removed to make the firearms completely undetectable.

NSA Surveillance – The revelations of former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden continued last week with documents suggesting that the NSA conducted operations inside virtual gaming worlds such as those of World of Warcraft and Second Life. The agency claims that terrorists could use the communication functions of these games to plan operations in secrecy, but none of the leaked documents indicate that any actual terrorist activity was foiled.

Sea World and “Blackfish” – The animal rights group PETA staged a protest of SeaWorld’s float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, hoping to bring visibility to the theme park’s mistreatment of killer whales as outlined in the documentary “Blackfish.” Although the mass of protesters stayed behind the crowd barricades, 12-year-old Rose McCoy leapt into the path of the float to chant “Boycott SeaWorld” before police removed her from the route. At the park itself, a number of high-profile musicians such as the Barenaked Ladies and Willie Nelson have canceled shows in light of the film.

The Friendly Skies – Civilian Drones

Pop sensation Lady Gaga is known for living on the cutting edge of music and fashion — consumer avionics, not so much. But the diva has indeed reached new heights in this field as well with the debut of a flying dress, named “Volantis,” that relies on the same technology used in multiple-rotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones. Although Gaga’s contraption will likely be confined to arena shows and festivals, drones are garnering significant attention from less fanciful parties as practical tools for everyday life.

Volantis, Lady Gaga’s drone dress. Courtesy of Billboard.

The web retail giant Amazon recently made waves with its test of “Amazon Prime Air,” a proposed express delivery service that would deploy an “octocopter,” an unmanned, eight-rotor helicopter, to drop packages directly at the customer’s doorstep. Domino’s Pizza recently sponsored a successful drone delivery of another sort, using its prototype “DomiCopter” to send two pizzas to a hungry buyer. While Domino’s plans to start up a flight academy for pizza pilots should its plans take off, Amazon aims to automate its drones, using GPS coordinates to direct them from a distribution center to their destinations.

Importantly, both Amazon and Domino’s were forced to conduct their recent tests outside the United States due to the current regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently forbid the civillian operation of UAVs outside the operator’s line of sight. Although some exceptions are made for university research, the vast majority of drones in the US are operated by federal law enforcement: the FBI has spent at least $3 million on UAVs in support of its operations, while the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are testing drones for future deployment.

While the FAA has released a plan for the incorporation of civilian drones into US airspace by 2015, some commentators worry that the agency is moving too slowly for the pace of the technology. As the Washington Post’s Brian Fung writes, the regulatory lag “offers a concrete example of what the country stands to lose, as the market for civil drone use picks up globally.” And the global market is expected to explode: Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the aerospace think tank Teal Group, predicts that civilian drone sales will reach $8.2 billion by 2020.

However exciting the prospect, pizza delivery will make up only a small portion of this market. One of the largest predicted applications is precision agriculture: by equipping UAVs with cameras and sprayers, for examples, farmers can determine exactly where pesticides or herbicides are needed and quickly apply the chemicals without wasted effort. Drone fleets could also prove invaluable to mining operations, where constantly updating images could inform managers about important changes in open pit mines.

Although civilian drones may be some years away in the US, the Chinese delivery company SF Express is already using UAVs to deliver small packages, and Canada has a certification program in place for aspiring pilots. Perhaps a little healthy international competition will help America move forward on freeing its skies to drones… and maybe Lady Gaga.

Follow-Up: Genetic Disease Testing and the FDA

In June, I published a post on genetic disease testing after the highly publicized double mastectomy of actress Angelina Jolie, who had the procedure after a genetic screen showed she possessed a version of the BRCA1 gene associated with breast cancer. Consumer genomics has since garnered attention from the US Food and Drug Administration, which claims that manufacturers of home genetics kits are effectively selling unlicensed medical devices. The FDA’s scrutiny of genetic testing recently escalated in a strongly worded letter sent to Anne Wojcicki, the CEO of 23andMe, the largest American manufacturer of these tests.

Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, courtesy of 23andMe.

In this warning letter, FDA director of in vitro diagnostics and radiological health Alberto Gutierrez ordered 23andMe to “immediately discontinue marketing the PGS [Personal Genome Service, the company’s genetic testing kit] until such time as it receives FDA marketing authorization for the device.” Although the company has previously attempted to register some of the tests included in the PGS under 510(k) applications, which bypass costly clinical trials by proving that a test is substantially the same as one already on the market, the FDA claims that these efforts are insufficient for the long list of conditions assayed by the kit

The letter focuses on the risks of false positives and negatives, using the same BRCA test that Jolie took as an example. “[I]f the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.”

Wojcicki has apologized for her company’s failures to comply with the FDA’s past information requests, saying that “We stand behind the data that we return to customers—but we recognize that the FDA needs to be convinced of the quality of our data as well.” However, the company has issued no comment on whether it will discontinue sales of its kits while it prepares regulatory submissions to the government.

UPDATE: 23andMe has announced that while it will continue to sell its kits, it will restrict the results of the tests it releases to its customers to ancestry and raw data. None of the company’s previous health-related claims will be included.

Crowdsourcing Roundup – Christmas for Science

Today is Cyber Monday, the unofficial start of the online holiday shopping season. Although there are certainly deals to be had on the latest technology and clothing, a number of less-traveled sites offer a chance to buy the gift of knowledge. Using similar models to that of the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter, science platforms such as Sciflies, RocketHub, and Microryza offer contributors the chance to patronize cutting-edge research and receive detailed updates from the scientists involved (as well as the occasional souvenir). Any one of the projects in this roundup would be a great way to make this Christmas a festive season for science.

Santa’s favorite element, courtesy of CsCharms

Do Asian elephant calls have grammar-like elements? – It’s been said that elephants never forget, but are they remembering words? Michael Pardo, a doctoral student at Cornell University, plans to spend six months in the forests and grasslands of Sri Lanka recording Asian elephant calls to find out. By digitally manipulating the calls and then playing them back to other elephants, he hopes to determine what similarities the vocalizations share with human language.

CAT: Launch a Water-Propelled Satellite into Deep Space – The use of water as rocket fuel makes a lot of sense: it’s cheap, plentiful, and could be gathered in the form of ice from space itself. Benjamin Longmier of the University of Michigan and colleagues plan to use their Kickstarter funds to run experiments on their plasma propulsion system, culminating in a launch of a small “CubeSat” to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond.

Can we forecast the perfect ski day? – In an appropriately wintry project, Tim Garret of the University of Utah is developing a high-speed camera capable of taking millions of photographs of falling snowflakes. While themselves beautiful (and, of course, unique), the images will help Garret and his colleagues develop better computer models for predicting snowfall and snow development.

What are the Golden Eagles in Arizona eating? – The United States has two native eagle species: the famous Bald Eagle and the lesser-known Golden Eagle. Michelle Losee, a doctoral student at Antioch University, hopes to bridge the knowledge gap for an important bit of Golden Eagle ecology. The funds she raises will be used to cover her field expenses as she explores the diets of nesting eagles, supporting efforts to conserve these majestic birds.

How does a parasite create zombie-like behavior? – This project may have been more appropriate around Halloween, but it’s simply too interesting to ignore in this season. In a tale straight from a horror story, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infects carpenter ants and hijacks their bodies, maneuvering them into favorable positions for spreading the fungus further. Scientists are mystified as to how this occurs, but Charissa de Bekker of Pennsylvania State University plans to compare the activation of genes in ants before and after the fungal takeover to find out.