Field of Science

With due respect sir, this does not make any sense

An article in the Hindu titled, 'The way to get man back on his feet' has the following paragraphs in it:
"It is the invisible forces of electromagnetic energy that keep us alive and all those frequencies like cellphones, microwave ovens, radio frequencies and even the scalar energy affect our DNA, RNA and protein synthesis."
"An added advantage is that energy signals travel at a phenomenal speed of 1, 86,000 miles per second, while chemical transmission is just one centimetre per second!! While drugs take months to get one back on one's feet after a major illness, energy healing takes only hours to days!" 
The Hindu, is an English daily in India with the third largest readership amongst Indian English dailies (~2.16m). It is also amongst the very few India dailies that have their own science reporters and I've always held their coverage in high regard. This article features in their open pages in the opinions section. I can assume safely that either they wanted the author to be ridiculed or that their standards have indeed fallen.

Some one needed to deconstruct the seemingly incoherent article and Amar Ghaisas took up that charge. He tries hard to uncover what the author, who is a former professor of cardiology, Middlesex Hospital Medical School, University of London and former Vice-Chancellor, Manipal University, might mean in his bizarre usage of the terms such as 'holistic medicine', 'alternative therapies', 'eastern philosophy' and 'quantum physics'. But try as he might, he fails to find any coherent scientific explanation for those thoughts.

See Amar's detailed effort here.

The Over-simplification Conundrum

I believe that those of us involved in science communication have at some point wrestled with this issue: In being able to effectively communicate the science as we know it, we are often blamed for over-simplification to reach the masses or going into too much detail to ending up not reaching the masses.

Not losing your audience's interest is the goal of any communicator. But when it comes to writing about scientific issues, we scientists have a tendency to try to get the facts straight and be as clear about what we know and what we don't know. And rightly so, we've been trained to pay attention to detail that is part of our jobs. But a friend recently said to me, 'We scientists pay so much attention to details sometimes, that we fail to recognize the peril in it!'

The conversation began because someone shared the image above. It's part of advertisements made for Mercedes-Benz. I had read about the left-right brain myth and kindly pointed it out to my friend, when he came back with that retort. Although I appreciate the artistic beauty of the image and that the over-simplification done in this case causes no 'real' harm to the society, I am against over-simplifying just to be able to make something popular.

My friend interjects, 'If you tell a common person that "Oh, this is all a myth. Everything is integrated to every other part of the brain" the common man soon looses interest and in the end does not get anything out of it. But if you can take one step at a time after talking about the left-right dichotomy, he may feel interested.'

As a matter of fact, the only thing a common man may get out knowing about the left-right brain is to pleasure of learning something new (because the 'methods' I know that have been 'developed' to help someone improve their left brain by doing left brain activities are bollocks). If the 'something new' you have taught the reader isn't even right, and he discovers that later, then you have (or worse, science has) lost a loyal listener.
Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. - Einstein's Razor
Looking at the bigger picture, it is important to help people have the most accurate beliefs from the beginning. Thus, when communicating scientific matters, one must not sacrifice details for artistic/populist reasons. The solution, of course, is to give as accurate a picture as possible to anyone but do it in a manner that is attractive (may be by tailoring it to your audience or using audio-visual aids or consulting with experts who usually have a neat explanation). This is definitely one of the main reasons why science communication is hard but also why it is worth doing it.

The Truth about Antioxidants and its coverage in Indian newspapers

Guavas on sale in Bangalore
(Source: Wikipedia)
Times of India (TOI) published an article today which claimed that guava is the healthiest fruit and pineapple is the least! 

The claim is based on a study that evaluated 'the amount of natural antioxidants level of [sic] 14 fresh fruits commonly consumed in India'. The article cited the study that was published in Food Research International, an Elsevier journal. But surprisingly when I looked up the paper it appeared that the results of the study were published in May 2010!

Antioxidants have been featured as a healthy choice for a long time. An article in Slate mentions that the story began in the 1940s when Denham Harman proposed that 'the same free radicals that were cutting into petroleum industry profits could also simply and completely explain the phenomenon of aging. Better yet, he said, their effects could be ameliorated by something called antioxidants'.

As tempting as the theory seems, unfortunately as the same article points out, there is no evidence of antioxidants inducing any health benefits. Instead, a meta-analysis of studies that assess the effect of antioxidant supplements on mortality showed that 'treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E may increase mortality. The potential roles of vitamin C and selenium on mortality needs further study.'

Having previously read the article in Slate, when I came across the article in TOI it struck me as odd that a 18-month old research paper suddenly seemed to surfaces in not only Indian newspapers but also in a British and a Malaysian newspaper within 24 hours. I got in touch with the lead researcher on the paper, Dr. Sreeramulu, congratulating him and expressing my surprise. He responded quickly and said, "Yesterday they contacted me about the work (and) today (the) article appeared in Times of India. (In the) morning my friend informed me about this." I also, asked him who funded his research, to which he said, "I am a regular staff member of NIN (National Institute of Nutrition), Hyderabad. Our Institute funded the work as (an) intramural project."

I asked him about the funding of the project given that the antioxidant market worldwide is pretty big. According to a report it has been growing at ~4% annually with reported sales of $3.7 billion in 2007 (the slate article calls it a $23 billion industry but I couldn't find the source for that). Having not got any satisfactory answer to the reason why TOI showed sudden interest, I thought it might be worth looking at what the coverage of antioxidants in top Indian newspapers.

Here are the search results for 'antioxidants' on TOI, Hindustan Times & The Hindu websites.

Sure enough I got plenty of articles mentioning the many studies that show antioxidants do wonderful things and many that reported the extraordinary antioxidant content in some foods. But amongst all that noise I found only three articles that mentioned studies showing adverse effects or no effects (here, here & here).

The lack of coverage of the studies showing adverse effects or no effects can be attributed to the fact that may be fewer such studies are reported but that would be a mistake. That alone cannot account for the dismal numbers. The answer then may be lies in the fact that the media has a bias towards publishing 'feel-good' stories, especially in the health section. But it might also be equally due to some media houses doing favours for big supplements manufacturers.

I wouldn't lament about all this much if only next time when an article about antioxidants is written they give the reader a balanced view. A simple sentence such as, 'conventional wisdom claims the positive effects of antioxidants but many studies have shown no-effect and in some cases, harmful effects in the use of antioxidants' can be included to that effect.

Alas! I cannot expect such things from Indian newspapers, can I?

And, of course, the mystery of why world media suddenly showed in the story also remains unsolved.

What Science Has Taught Me

If I've gained anything from being a student of science then it is the realisation of the sheer power of the use of the scientific method.
I have used the scientific method every day in my research work, where, of course, not using the method is like being a scholar of Greek literature who does not use Greek alphabets. And yet I've felt the real power of the use of this method outside the chemistry laboratory.
The scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, and/or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. 
To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.
In the past few years, I've treated (knowingly or unknowingly) everything that I do as an experiment. Every action has consequences and from these consequences one gains new knowledge. If one cares enough then one may also be able to 'measure' many of the resulting outcomes from an action and use the results to further one's goals.
Despite what everyone believes, I find it hard to use the knowledge that I gained in the lab only in the lab. Actually my pleasure knows no bound when I am able to apply lessons from one area of work in totally unrelated areas. I may not be able to prove to you that I have used the scientific method in 'everything' that I've done but I have enough proof to show that I've used it to do many things
Not least the scientific method has come to the rescue and helped me improve the way I perceived things around me. Its not surprising that I am now an atheist and not a fence-sitter that I had been all my life previously.
The practice of science has also made me bolder
In the lab, we have to analyse the risk of every experiment that we have decided to do before actually doing it. We fill out COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) phrases for each of the chemical used in the reaction before setting up the reaction. COSHH phrases are simple phrases that explain the risk associated with the chemical and the safety protocol that should be followed to safeguard from the risks involved.
When you do this day in and day out at work, I won't be able to believe any scientist who says that they have never (consciously or unconsciously) applied the same principle to things they do outside the lab. I won't be able to believe them because it's a dead simple protocol to follow which can save you a lot of trouble and not using it might actually be a foolhardy thing to do.
Now, you will think that if I start analysing the risk of doing everything I do then that will make me less likely do many things. Actually, it's quite the opposite. The practice of science and proper risk analysis has made me bolder. That's because it turns out that the risk of doing most things is far too less than we anticipate. And we do anticipate the risk of doing anything, mostly unconsciously. 
Before I do something I analyse the risk of doing something and if it seems reasonable then I do it. This allows me to learn a lot more and experience a lot more. The act of consciously analysing the risk gives you a truer estimate of the risk involved which is usually lower than the risk our unconscious mind estimates. I suppose that the unconscious mind is biased to give us a higher estimate because evolutionarily that might have helped human beings survive in the hostile environments that they lived in.
Of course, these are not the only things that I've learnt from science. I've just begun the list.

Confessions of a Wikipedia Addict

I bet this has happened to you - you Google something and the top hit comes up as a wikipedia article. You smile (FTW!) and quickly click on it. Now depending on how familiar you are with what you are searching, you either read the first few lines that briefly introduce the subject to you or if you know that already then you quickly press CTRL + F and search for the specific term you were looking for. While reading or searching for the exact piece of information you come across a term which you aren't quite familiar with. You want to know more. Then you realise that it is hyperlinked and you think, "Sweet! Another wikipedia page! FTW!" and without thinking twice, you click on it. You are on a new wikipedia page again, you read the introduction and then you click on a relevant link in the contents. You start filling up the gap that pointed you to this wikipedia page when you find another unfamiliar term which is hyperlinked too (FTW!). And the cycle begins.

If it has not happened to you, doesn't matter. It has happened to me. Many times a day. I will readily confess to be a wikipedia addict. If I don't snort some knowledge everyday, I suffer from withdrawal symptoms. There is the tingling in my fingers reaching to type 'W', 'I', 'K', 'I' in the address bar of my Google Chrome window. My anxiety levels go up (FFS, how can I not check if wikipedia has some information on this?). I get irritable, quite a bit. If at the time some unfortunate bloke makes the grave mistake of asking me a question, I turn in slow motion (like in the movies when an action seen is about to play) and stare back at him with wildly angry eyes. In my head I am shouting 'Wikipedia-it you douche bag!!'. Well sometimes that happens not quite in my head alone.

If I am kept away from wikipedia for any more than a few hours, I develop another very common withdrawal symptom - mental confusion. In those few hours, I seem to lose track of all the information processing that my brain usually does so well with the aid of well-hyperlinked wikipedia pages. I don't know whether the aorta was found before the Greek Parthenon or the Axis of Evil was indeed involved in the Atlantic tsunami. At this point, I sincerely hope that I am given back access to wikipedia. Not to the offline version because there might have been 100,000+ edits since that offline version of yours, I ain't interested in that. I like to snort the fresh stuff.

Anymore time away from wikipedia and things take turn for the worst. This has happened to me only once in my life before. A whole day (yes, 24 hours!) without wikipedia. I don't remember very much, I only have hazy images in my head. People who saw me in that state have said that I did not respond to being called by name. Instead, I was jolly happy (sic) staring at the blank wall. I suspect so many questions may have come to me that they probably stopped the flow of blood to my brain. I don't remember how I returned to normalcy but I have a clear memory of staring at this map.

The doc who attended to me at the time said that when I was finally given access to wikipedia again, I opened a new wikipedia page every five seconds. Of course. No wonder it took me some time to return to my normal speed (three seconds/page). I am not sure he knew enough about my addiction. FFS, the English Wikipedia has 3.7 million articles, how could he not search for my condition on wikipedia??

The Treasures of Urine

Michelle Clement's post on What can urine tell us? has arrived at an opportune time. I am reading John Emsley's The Shocking History of Phosphorus and much of the first chapter is about the discovery of phosphorus from urine.

Alchemists of the day were desperately and highly secretively searching for the philosopher's stone. Henning Brandt, the discoverer of phosphorus, thought because urine is golden there must be something in it which make is to golden. Possibly gold?

In his attempts to isolate gold out of urine, Brandt evaporate urine to a paste and heated the residues hard to find shining vapours rising from it. When condensed he found that the shining liquid burst into flames if brought in contact with air. So he started collecting the vapours under water instead. The waxy, white solid that formed at the bottom was phosphorus.

So why phosphorus from urine? We tend to eat a lot more phosphorus than is needed by our body. So most of it is excreted.
A typical sample of urine from an adult male contains (per litre) - 52 g creatine, 21 g urea, 6.5 g chloride, 4 g sodium, 2.2 g potassium, 2.3 g amino acids, 1.4 g phosphorus, 0.7 g ammonia and  0.3 g magnesium.
Although Brandt had discovered this light-giving element in 1669, he did not divulge the method of obtaining phosphorus until 1678, by which Johann Kunckel, professor at the University of Wittenberg, had succeeded to isolate phosphorus and was touring the  European royal courts showing off the element and claiming to be its discoverer.

For many years it was thought that Kunckel discovered phosphorus, until papers from Leibniz (yes, the same calculus guy!) revealed that he had conversed with Brandt's wife about the discovery of phosphorus and which finally gave credit to the its true discoverer.

It seems that for at least a hundred after its discovery, urine remained the only source to obtain elemental phosphorus. Even today 3 million tonnes (worth ~$1 billion) of phosphorus is obtained from human excreta. Such are the treasures of urine.

Healing Polymers by Light

Polymers that can be healed could extend the lifetime of materials in so many applications. Chemists from the US and Switzerland have for the first time developed polymers that can be healed by exposure to ultraviolet light alone.
In the recent years, many strategies have been developed for healing polymers. In many cases, they are healed by heating to the glass transition temperature which transforms the polymer from its hard state into a molten state enabling the polymer chains to reform. Unfortunately, this technique is slow and difficult to use in practice. To overcome the problem, a method was needed to manipulate polymeric structure at the molecular level.
Burnworth et al. used supramolecular polymers which are lower molecular mass polymer units held together in long chains by metal-ligand bonds. These non-covalent bonds are weaker than the bonds that hold hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a water molecule but strong enough to enable the new material to possess polymer-like properties.
Healed by UV light
Metal atoms have special affinity to electron rich ligands. This allows metal atoms to form metal-ligand bonds in a polymer with ligand groups present in it its structure.
More importantly, working with these metal-ligand bonds has enabled the researchers to manipulate the bonds at the molecular level with light energy. A polymer sheet deliberately cut to 50% of the film thickness was exposed to UV light in the range of 330 – 390 nm. It was observed (as seen in the picture) that the polymer ‘healed’ by filling up the cut that was made earlier.
Metal-ligand bonds of the kind present in this polymer allow for the conversion of light energy into heat. In this case, the light energy causes the surface of the polymer to rapidly heat up to 220 °C in a very short time. The healing occurs in this state when polymer is allowed to flow and re-arrange. The advantage of using light energy lies in its specificity. Unlike heat energy, it is possible to direct light energy to precisely those areas which require repair.
Also because different metal-ligand complexes absorb light at different wavelengths it should be possible to tune the wavelength of light needed for healing. Thus, one can imagine that it may be possible to heal a broken mobile phone case just by keeping it in sunlight.
Reference: Mark Burnworth et al., Nature, 472, 334.

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