Thursday, 3 September 2015

ISS to Destroy Planet

Is it me, or is the International Space Station about to throw its javelin of destruction at the earth?

Watch out!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

GMOs: Why the Disconnect?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post bemoaning the reluctance of the general public to catch up with the science of GMOs; it puzzled me as to why a technology that is so clearly a force for good in the world should be reviled as a kind of dirty, leprous freak. I have every confidence that in the fullness of time the public will get onboard and we will begin to reap the multifarious benefits such as increased crop yield, decreased pesticide use, increased drought resistance and increased nutritional content; in the meantime, though, we need to think of ways to push understanding forwards. A good place to start would probably be to try to understand what is at the heart of the distrust aimed at GMOs.

A paper published last month in Trends in Plant Science by a group of Belgian philosophers and biotechnologists may begin to do just that. They attempted to explain why there is such a wide gap between public opinion and the scientific evidence and why it is so persistent. The initial premise is that most people have no clue how GMOs are produced or what they even are. If you have no actual knowledge on a subject then you are far more likely to rely on intuition, folk biology and emotions. These can feel very compelling inside us and are easy notions to communicate to others.

One concept they proffer is that of psychological essentialism. This can make people think of DNA as an essential, primal, inviolable part of an organism, something intrinsic to it that makes it what it is, sort of the physical counterpart to a soul. If you take some of this essence from one organism and add it to another it can provoke a feeling of disgust. People also believe that the second organism will have some of the traits of the first. For example, an opinion poll in the US found that more than a half of recipients believed that a tomato that had fish genes incorporated into it would taste of fish. Which it wouldn't, by the way. This doesn't stop anti-GMO organisations playing up to such fears, however.

The paper looks at the disgust angle in some detail. It appears that many people think of the addition of genetic material more of as a contamination. Given that one of the main reasons our sense of disgust evolved was to stop us eating potentially harmful foodstuffs, this would be a compelling feeling in the absence of hard knowledge to counteract it. Once you feel that something is disgusting or amoral then it is very easy to believe almost anything else negative about it. I think this is very much a part of the strategy on immigrants today; first you make them seem sub-human, then you can treat them any way you like. Because the feeling of disgust is a subconscious one we will tend to look for a reason to justify it, and so we will grab on to any reason at hand, even a false one, as we all like to believe we're rational, sensible people.

These kind of primal intuitions about a topic are the most difficult to fight against. You can't use logic and reason to argue someone out of a position that they didn't arrive at through logic and reason. In terms of changing attitudes the authors best suggestion is that we just have to do our best to educate people as to the facts, starting with children of course. The problem with that is that the science of the classroom normally lags a decade or two behind the science of the laboratory and there are a lot of hungry people around the world that won't be able to wait that long.

Image used with permission

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

US Chimp Unemployment to Surge

Invasive scientific research on chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) appears to be on the verge of completely stopping in the United States. It comes as a result of a new rule introduced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service requiring all projects to apply for a new license. In this context, invasive research is defined as any that would harm, stress, harass or change the behaviour of an animal and would require a new permit. Even something as innocuous as drawing blood or taking a hair sample would need the new permit. And no one has applied for one. Not a single facility in the US has applied to continue with their research projects. This means that all work will have to have ceased by the September 14th deadline forcing chimpanzees across the country to down their rudimentary tools.

Public opinion in the US has been steadily but strongly turning against the concept of primate research in recent years and it would appear that none of the labs want to stick their neck out and risk the wrath of the populous. Behavioural research, which basically just involves watching the chimps, can continue.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. Whilst I'm very against the unnecessary suffering of any animal I think there are situations where it is necessary that they suffer. Put in slightly less jarring language, I am in favour of animal research when it is appropriate and properly managed. In the UK there is a law that requires anyone planning an animal experiment to apply the three Rs when doing so; wherever necessary they must Replace the use of animals; Reduce the number of animals; and Refine procedures to limit suffering. I'm very much in favour of these guiding principals.

My concern would be in the potential limits now placed on certain types of research. How much will this hold back progress? Will there be a commensurate increase in research in other animals to make up for the reprieve of the chimps? Perhaps more macaques will now be studied and the overall amount of suffering will remain the same?  I certainly don't know the answers but I will be watching developments in the US with interest.

chimp, pan troglodytes, research ban, animal testing, US


Thursday, 27 August 2015

Part Timer

I've been on holiday in Spain for the last week and internet access has been patchy so I'm taking the rest of the week off. I'm afraid you'll have to find your own science news for two days. Happy hunting!!

Friday, 21 August 2015

Einstein Does It Again

It is often said that scientists are close minded, that they will do anything to uphold the status quo. Anyone who says this has clearly never met a scientist. I promise you, every researcher out there wants to be the one to upset the apple cart and come up with some kind of paradigm shift in thinking that will lead to the immediate recall of all the textbooks. Whilst doing an experiment that repeats or confirms a previous finding is an essential part of the scientific method and needs to be done, it won't set the world afire.

This is the stage many physicists are at when it comes to the Standard Model. The Standard Model of physics is our best guess so far about how the components of matter all come together. It deals with all the sub-atomic particles we know about, their corresponding anti-particles and the four fundamental forces of nature. It works supremely well and has been verified by multiple, converging lines of evidence from different fields of physics. Much of the testing at the Large Hadron Collider has reaffirmed the Standard Model and many there are genuinely disappointed to have not yet discovered any 'new physics' with the most complicated machine ever built by man. The Standard Model has been broadly in place for several decades now and ever since it's inception physicists around the world have been desperately trying to break it. This week another group failed.

In an open access letter to Nature researchers from Japan and Germany report that they have once again shown that protons and anti-protons are completely identical to each other in every way except their opposite charge. They used a device known as a Penning trap to carefully 'weigh' the protons and anti-protons in the most accurate experiment of its kind to date. They were hoping to find a slight difference that would be a deviation from the Model and open up new avenues of inquiry. Alas, after thousands of iterations they found that they were similar to 69 parts in a trillion. They then repeated the experiment but this time to see if gravity affected the matter and anti-matter in different ways. Again, no dice. Whilst it's lovely to, once again, show how much of a boffin Einstein was and how great relativity is, it would have been incredibly exciting to have shown a crack in the edifice and start hammering away at it.

The Standard Model of physics