A Letter to Dr. Oz from a PhD Microbiologist

Dear Dr. Oz,

As a TV host, book author, and "America's Doctor," you hold a powerful and privileged position to which few people inside or outside your profession could ever aspire. I must admit to being envious of your influence. I wish that more Americans were fascinated by the complicated nuance of biomedical research than are fascinated by miracle cures. Alas, they are not (yet). I'm working on it, though.

I am writing to you because I was deeply troubled by your rebuttal to the letter signed by ten medical doctors seeking your termination from Columbia University.

While I understand your desire to defend your reputation, your rebuttal failed to address any of the scientific and ethical concerns raised in the letter. Instead, your statement was full of ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies. Such a rejoinder is not what I would expect from somebody claiming to be a scientist (as you do), but far more typical of a person who has been thoroughly defeated in a scientific debate. In fact, your response reminds me of the sort of outburst one regularly hears from anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, climate change deniers, and the like.

For instance, you wrote:

"The lead author, Henry I. Miller, appears to have a history as a pro-biotech scientist..."

How is this relevant to the issue at hand, which is your promotion of unscientific alternative "remedies" and dubious ethical practices? Changing the topic by trying to smear Dr. Miller is simultaneously an ad hominem and a red herring fallacy. Also, how is being "pro-biotech" a bad thing, which you are clearly implying? I hold a PhD in microbiology, and I am vehemently pro-biotech because it will (and already has begun to) revolutionize the planet. I was pro-GMO when I first learned about them in my undergraduate molecular biology class in 2001, long before most people even knew what GMOs were. (In case you were wondering, despite my vocal support, I have never received a nickel from industry or its lobbyists.)

Furthermore, on your TV show, you sent your "investigative journalist" out to smear Dr. Miller's reputation. Nowhere in the segment did she seriously discuss Dr. Miller's credentials, such as him being the Founding Director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. That makes Dr. Miller perhaps the nation's #1 expert on GMOs and biotech regulation. No, the report conveniently left that analysis out. Instead, your "journalist" found two left-wingers, Lisa Graves (a progressive activist) and Gary Ruskin (an anti-GMO activist who has been harassing scientists with dubious FOIA requests), to call Dr. Miller a "shill" and a liar.

You then trotted out Dr. Joel Fuhrman, who has partnered with the exceedingly dishonest Whole Foods, to call your critics "anti-American." Anti-American, because they disagree with you, Dr. Oz? That's not investigative journalism. That's propaganda.

Now, back to your essay. You went on to write:

"Another of the letter signees, Gilbert Ross, was found guilty after trial of 13 counts of fraud related to Medicaid."

One of your TV guests killed somebody, then paid $2.3 million to the family in an out-of-court settlement. What does this have to do with anything? Nothing. I just thought I'd mention it because you seem to find the "guilt by association" fallacy persuasive.

I would also suggest that the only reason you haven't been arrested for fraud is because, mind-bogglingly, it is legal in this country to promote fake medicine. You have presented no fewer than 16 different weight loss miracles. You believe in talking to the dead. And you've promoted homeopathy.

Next, you go on to criticize the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) because they are pro-industry and have taken money from food and agriculture companies. Let's set aside the fact that a lot of fantastic science comes from industry. Let's also set aside the fact that combating chemophobia and pseudoscience, which is what ACSH does, is necessary because of people like you. And, let's set aside the fact that, as a non-profit, ACSH has to raise money from somebody, and industry is just as good as anybody else.

Let's set aside all that. Instead, I would like to focus on the fact that you take money from companies, too, such as Walmart, IcyHot, and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. (Okay, I can't blame you for that last one; Fabio is rather convincing.) Recently, WikiLeaks released emails from your show that strongly hint at a lucrative deal you were hoping to strike with Sony. Your speaking fee, according to your profile on All American Speakers, is a jawdropping "$200,000 and above."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making lots of money. But, how is your criticism of ACSH's finances anything other than pure, unadulterated hypocrisy?

I will end my lengthy letter by noting a piece that eight of your own colleagues wrote for USA Today. While they defended your employment at Columbia University, they still had this to say: "Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms." Further, your "unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships."

Aren't you ashamed by that? Aren't you humiliated that your colleagues hold you in such low regard?

Like you, I am a professional communicator. But, unlike you, I use my platform to tell people things they don't always want to hear. I don't have applause lines. I tell the truth as best as I understand it. I present data, even if I don't happen to like it. I don't offer miracle cures. I don't offer oversimplified, easy answers. In other words, I do what scientists and journalists are supposed to do.

That decision, to put integrity first, almost certainly won't earn me much fame or fortune. But, injecting science and reason into public debates allows "America's Microbiologist" (if I may) to sleep with a clear conscience.

Sincerely,

Alex Berezow, PhD
Founding Editor, RealClearScience

(AP photo)

Landing a Spaceship on its Tail is Really Hard

On April 14th, SpaceX tried to land another rocket on its tail. They failed spectacularly, but it was damn close! Why are they having so much trouble?

The problem is rooted in the most basic factors that shape the silhouette of a rocket ship. When launched from Earth's surface, the hardest part of a rocket's job is to overcome Earth's gravity and leave its atmosphere. For a reusable craft, the trip back down is brutal, too.

The ship is hindered by all of the air molecules it crashes into on its way up (and down). This aerodynamic drag adds to the rocket engine's massive burden. Drag resistance from air increases as you go faster through it. But it doesn't increase gradually, or even proportionally: doubling speed quadruples drag. If a rocket travels 50 times faster than a Ferrari, the rocket faces 2500 times the drag of the car. A narrow, sleek, pointy profile is absolutely critical for a rocket launching from an object with as much atmosphere as our planet.

The atmosphere creates a second obstacle for rockets. The extremely high velocity of the craft going both up and down causes the impacted air molecules to impart not only not only drag but dangerous amounts of heat to the ship. Small damage to the heat protection of a spaceship can turn its re-entry into a catastrophe. The necessity of a long pointy design to lessen air impact is thus doubly important. This physical form does come with one large cost.

Imagine if we took the rocket and laid it lengthwise across a huge balance beam. If we gradually moved the balance point of the rocket from the tail to the nosecone, we'd find a place along the length where it would balance perfectly suspended above the ground--if it didn't crack in half! This point would be the vertical location of the center of mass, or equivalently center of gravity, of the ship. This point is way high above the ground when the rocket is standing upright. Its altitude would also measure much higher than the width of the ship.

A high center of mass in a narrow object gives its upright stance a very tenuous balance. If carefully set perfectly on the tail, the ship will stand. But, shake up this configuration even slightly and the rocket tips over. The crucial tipping point is the moment that the center of mass tips out beyond the edge of the tail of the rocket on the ground. Once that happens the ship is doomed to fall unless it's immediately pushed back in the opposite direction.

A short, squat ship with a low center of mass point could lean much further before that low point could get far enough out from the center of the ship to project beyond the edge. As you shrink the diameter relative to the height however, stability drops quickly. On the far end of the narrowness spectrum, a hair-thin needle is likely to tip over with even a feather's touch. The rocket with its very thin aspect ratio is much closer to a needle than a coin.

SpaceX of course is well aware of this. They build small rocket thrusters, called attitude control thrusters, into the top of the rocket to push back against tipping. When the ship starts to tilt, one of these rockets can fire to give the top a little push back. In the most recent landing attempt you can see one of these thrusters firing on the left side of the nose at nine seconds in:

 

The ship almost rights itself, but it has just picked up too much momentum pushing it over. The firing thruster isn't strong enough to push the center of mass back over the tail.

Don't jeer these failures. Salute SpaceX for trying something so hard and nearly succeeding. They will probably make a successful tail landing soon. Progressing from one safe landing to nailing it every single time will be an even greater challenge. Still, their accomplishments are the most exciting news going in space travel right now.

(Image: AP)

Why Freud Was Not a Scientist

There is perhaps no figure in psychology more contentiously scrutinized than Sigmund Freud. The Austrian neurologist best known for creating psychoanalysis has both been hailed as a "revolutionary" and lambasted as a "fraud." One thing that is certain, however, as noted by io9's George Dvorsky, is that Freud's ideas have "transcended science" and invaded modern culture.

"Rarely does a day go by where we don’t find ourselves uttering a term drawn from his work: Mommy and daddy issues. Arrested development. Death wishes. Freudian slips. Phallic symbols. Anal retentiveness. Defense mechanisms. Cathartic release. And on and on and on."

But the primary reason why Freud's ideas are so ubiquitous is that they didn't transcend science; they bypassed them. If the notions of the id, ego, or superego had been subjected to rigorous peer review, they would undoubtedly not be as widely known as they are today. The same goes for dream analysis, the Oedipal Complex (the idea that adolescent boys lust after their mothers), and penis envy (a supposed stage in development where girls experience anxiety over the realization that they lack a penis). We now know all of these ideas to be wrong, and frankly, a tad whacko.

In 1996, UC-Berkeley's Frederick Crews, writing in the journal Psychological Science, concluded “Independent studies have begun to converge toward a verdict... that there is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas."

That damning conclusion might be a tad overstated. Psychiatric treatments premised on the most basic, bare-bones tenets of Freud's psychoanalysis seem to be effective at treating many mental disorders, including depression. Psychoanalysis, itself, was founded on shaky, unscientific grounds, however.

In 1991, historian of science Dr. Frank Sulloway reviewed six of Freud's principal case studies on psychoanalysis and found them to be "rampant with censorship, distortions, highly dubious 'reconstructions,' and exaggerated claims." Despite Freud's many misrepresentations, he couldn't mask the fact that half of his case studies ended in spectacular failure, with no relief for the patient whatsoever.

Writing for Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall further elaborated, "His approach was not scientific. He never tested his ideas with experiments that might have falsified his beliefs, and he ignored facts that contradicted his beliefs."

These aren't the actions of a true scientist. Rather than use data to construct meaningful theory, Freud theorized first, then attempted -- half-heartedly -- to produce data that fit. In essence, Freud was little more than an armchair psychologist, thought admittedly a well educated and influential one.

In Sulloway's opinion, Freud held back psychology. "Freud's training methods... represent a backward step toward the kind of learning based on authority and secrecy that typified scholasticism and alchemy prior to the Scientific Revolution," he wrote.

Psychologist Hans Eysenck agreed, calling Freud "a genius, not of science, but of propaganda, not of rigorous proof, but of persuasion, not of the design of experiments, but of literary art."

"At best, Freud is a figure of only historical interest for psychologists," Berkeley psychologist John F. Kihlstrom furthers. "He is better studied as a writer, in departments of language and literature, than as a scientist, in departments of psychology."

(Image: AP)

Big Tobacco's Dishonest Efforts to Get Muslims to Smoke May Be a New Low

Slowly but surely, cigarette smoking in the United States is waning. In 1997, 36.4% of Americans smoked. By 2013, the rate fell to 17.8%. Warned by ardent health teachers, turned off by rising sin taxes, and disgusted by unethical marketing tactics, Americans of all ages are choosing to live a tobacco-free lifestyle. 

The trend has not escaped the notice of Big Tobacco, which has realized the need to take its addictive products to new, emerging markets. High on Tobacco companies' priority lists are Islamic countries. But in the Middle East and other bastions of Islam, smoking is a tough sell.

"Islam has a spiritual and legal tradition that provides guidance on smoking to its adherents," writes Mark Petticrew, the Director of the Public Health Research Consortium and a Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And according to that guidance, tobacco is widely discouraged or even prohibited.

That hasn't stopped Big Tobacco, however. In order to circumvent the pious health sense of Islamic practitioners and convince them to use their deleterious products, cigarette companies have taken underhanded marketing to a whole new level.

To uncover these dirty tactics, Petticrew teamed up with Kelley Lee, from Simon Fraser University, Rima Nakkash, out of American University of Beirut, and Haider Ali of Open University Business School. Together, they perused pages and pages of industry documents. Their findings are published in the American Journal of Public Health.

First and foremost, the researchers noted a widespread effort to link anti-smoking sentiments to radical, extremist Islam. In an attempt to appeal to young people and capitalize on growing pro-Western sentiments, tobacco companies have sought to market tobacco use as an "expression of freedom, especially among women," and associate smoking with the values of liberation and independence. This is ironic, Petticrew and his co-authors noted, as addiction hinders personal choice. Moreover, the health effects of smoking, which include lung cancer and emphysema, severely restrict one's independence.

Memos also revealed a concerted effort by tobacco companies to recruit and pay off religious leaders and scholars to portray smoking as acceptable. Accompanying these bribes were attempts to "reinterpret the Koran." The researchers gave a damning example:

A presentation from 2000 prepared by the industry law firm Shook, Hardy, and Bacon gave an overview of the background to Islam and smoking with slides on smoking in the Qur’an—and that “making rules beyond what Allah has allowed is a sin in itself.”

"These tactics are consistent with previous actions by the industry to undermine science and policy on, for example, secondhand smoke, marketing restrictions, and the negotiation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control," the researchers comment.

A 2009 report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that tobacco use in the Middle East -- where Islam is prevalent -- is of "particular concern." In Jordan, 51% of men smoke, while in Egypt, 43.6% of men do. The epidemic is particularly alarming in Lebanon, where 52.6% of the adult population smokes!

In response to the current study, British American Tobacco told The Guardian:

"We are a global business that holds itself to strict standards of business conduct and corporate governance, manufacturing and marketing our products in accordance with domestic and international laws and observing the cultural and religious beliefs in the 200 countries in which we operate.”

52.6% of the adult population smoke

Tobacco use is of particular concern in the Middle East. - See more at: http://www.ispu.org/Getpolicy/34/1846/Publications.aspx#sthash.9LQ1ApjB.dpuf

Source: Mark Petticrew, Kelley Lee, Haider Ali, and Rima Nakkash.  (2015). “Fighting a Hurricane”: Tobacco Industry Efforts to Counter the Perceived Threat of Islam. American Journal of Public Health. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.302494

Jimmy Kimmel Is Late Night's Warrior for Science and Sanity. Here Are His Greatest Hits.

Celebrities are notorious peddlers of pseudoscience, and all too often, their antics face little skepticism from the mainstream media or the general public. But there is at least one man willing to call them out on their woo-y ways. That man is Jimmy Kimmel.

The host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC, Kimmel, a comedian, has poked fun at pseudoscience-y trends numerous times in the past. Here are his greatest hits.

The Hottie Body Miracle Diet: A Parody of Fad Diets

Fad diets rarely work and are often premised on junk science. But Jimmy has an idea for one that simply can't fail.

 

Organic Cold-Pressed Cleanse Juice... or Tang?

Cold-pressed juice is produced through crushing and squeezing instead of chopping and heating. The difference in processing supposedly preserves more vitamins and minerals, and also merits charging $8 or more for a 16-ounce bottle. Whether you get your money's worth in health benefits is questionable.

 

So You're Gluten-Free... But Do You Know What Gluten Is?

If you haven't been diagnosed with Celiac disease, there's often little reason for you to be on a gluten-free diet. Lots of people seem to be avoiding it, however, so Jimmy Kimmel asked some of them a simple question: "What is gluten?" (For the record, gluten is a protein commonly fount in wheat, barley, and rye.)

 

GMOs Bad! But What Are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms have been the subject of great public controversy. Sadly, the debate is filled with misinformation, like that GMOs are harmful (they aren't) and that GMOs are bad for the environment (generally not true). Many GMO opponents also don't seem to know what they are, as Kimmel found out.

 

A Message for the Anti-Vaccine Movement from Real Doctors

In this profanity-laden parody public service announcement, real doctors speak straight to the people who refuse to get themselves or their children vaccinated.

 

Vaccines and a Child's Right to Choose

Jimmy Kimmel has received a handful of hateful messages for his pro-vaccine and anti-stupidity stances, so he thought he'd be fair and give anti-vaxxers a chance to argue their points and spread their message.

 

(Image: AP)

Killer Whales Should Not Be Kept in Captivity

The release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013 shined the national spotlight on the perils and problems of killer whale capitivity. Focusing primarily on killer whale aggression against trainers at SeaWorld and the associated fallout in the wake of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau's death in 2010, the film made a strong case against keeping killer whales in captivity.

Last month, a new book was published that dives even deeper into the subject, making Blackfish look like a shallow swim by comparison.

When I turned to the first page of Beneath The Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, I expected to read an account purely written to tug at the heart strings, not appeal to a rational brain. I was pleasantly surprised to read a book featuring a healthy mix of gripping narrative and science-based evidence. With the help of journalist Howard Chua-Eoan, once an assistant managing editor at Time Magazine, former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove has written a damning exposé that further fuels the fire that Blackfish started.

It has convinced me that killer whale captivity must be radically changed or perhaps ended entirely.

Killer whales, also known as orcas, aren't really whales at all. Though in the same infraorder, Cetacea, they are actually dolphins -- the largest dolphins, in fact. They generally weigh between 6,000 and 15,000 pounds when fully grown and stretch 30 feet long from fluke (tail) to rostrum (nose). In the wild, they are apex predators, hunted by no animal apart from man.

In captivity, however, the tides are turned on man. In the half-century that humans have kept orcas in tanks, there have been dozens of documented incidents of aggression, resulting in six deaths. In the book, Hargrove's personal experiences, including many firsthand accounts of orca aggression, take center stage. But as a zoologist, I was more interested in Hargrove's insights into orca behavior, as well as the facts and figures associated with killer whale captivity. Personal anecdotes are persuasive, but they don't stand up to evidence-based argument.

I learned, for example, that orcas form complex societies reminiscent of those seen in chimpanzees. But in captivity, these hierarchies are severely muddled. Often, a dominant female (orcas are matriarchal) asserts herself, usually violently. In the cramped conditions of captivity, other whales suffer lacerations from her intimidating tooth rakes.

Captive orcas also suffer from a wide range of health problems not seen among wild ones. Their shallow pools render them vulnerable to higher-than-normal levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which suppresses their immune systems. They also spend more time exposed to the air than in the wild, often moving slowly due to the restrictive size of their habitats. Thus, orcas are prime feeding targets for mosquitos. In fact, two captive orcas have died from mosquito-borne illnesses. Perhaps the most emblematic health problem associated with captivity is the collapse of the orca's daunting, shark-like dorsal fin. Though not actually harmful, the deformity affects over half of killer whales in captivity. Less than 10% of animals in the wild are afflicted. 

Killer whales are extremely intelligent creatures, one of the few capable of passing the mirror self-recognition test. It's no surprise, then, that they are easily subject to boredom in captivity. One of the ways this manifests is paint nibbling. Whales often use their teeth to peel the paint off of their enclosure's inner walls, similar to a human biting his fingernails, if his fingernails were made of concrete. Almost all the whales in SeaWorld wear down their teeth, Hargrove says, dealing damage that requires regular dental procedures to prevent the growth of potentially deadly bacteria.

All of these issues contribute to a startling statistic. While most animals in captivity outlive their wild counterparts, orcas in captivity live shorter. Orca activists claim the gap is wide, while SeaWorld claims that there's no gap at all. The best estimates say that captive lifespan is slightly reduced, but improving. Male and female killer whales survive an average of 31 and 46 years in the wild, respectively.

I found Beneath The Surface to be surprisingly nonsensationalist. Hargrove isn't branding SeaWorld as evil, nor is he advocating complete orca liberation. The 57 whales at SeaWorld and other marine parks around the world "cannot be released into the wild," he reasonably asserts. "[T]hey would likely not survive in nature."

Instead, he urges SeaWorld and other parks to construct coastal sea pens and ensure that orcas are kept in sufficiently stimulating and social environments.

Animal captivity is neither inherently bad nor immoral. But the evidence is mounting that certain animals, particularly larger and more intelligent ones, are not well suited to it. Killer whales definitely fall into this category.

(Images: AP, Loadmaster)

'Ex Machina': The Science of Creepy Artificial Intelligence

Warning to reader: There are *SPOILERS* in this movie review.

Ex Machina, a suspenseful new film about artificial intelligence, is disturbing for all the right reasons.

Many of those who work in the field of artificial intelligence believe that, someday, AI will advance to the point that a computer or robot will be indistinguishable from a human. Any AI that accomplishes this feat will be said to have passed the Turing Test, named after Nazi codebreaker and ingenious British computer scientist Alan Turing.

When, exactly, this will occur is a matter of debate. Ray Kurzweil, an infamously optimistic futurist, believes that robots will essentially be calling all the shots in about 30 years, an event referred to as the singularity. How is this optimistic? Because Mr. Kurzweil also believes that, by the year 2045, we will be able to upload our minds into some sort of device that will allow our consciousness to live forever. So, perhaps it might be worth investing in some extra thumb drives.

Don't bother, Tom Hartsfield, our curmudgeonly physics blogger, would say. Not only do Mr. Kurzweil and other AI groupies improperly use the mathematical term singularity, but the entire idea of super-advanced AI borders on being physically impossible. As the soon-to-be Dr. Hartsfield explains, singularities (think: infinities) do not occur in nature. There is no such thing as something (in this case, artificial intelligence) growing at an exponential rate for all eternity. Eventually, it hits a limiting factor.

The reason, for instance, that bacteria and bunny rabbits have not overgrown the planet is because they run out of food, produce too much waste, and/or get eaten by something bigger. Similarly, the reason, according to Mr. Hartsfield, that we will not produce an infinitely intelligent AI is because we will run out of something, be it silicon or energy or rare earth metals. Besides, Mr. Hartsfield glumly notes that we can't even figure out how to model a worm's brain, with its pathetic 302 neurons and 6,000 synapses. The notion that we are even remotely close to modeling a human brain, which sports roughly 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, is sheer absurdity.

Bummer. Party pooper.

Thankfully, Ex Machina doesn't wade into this debate. It just assumes that an impressive AI will occur in the not-too-distant future, whether it be 25 or 500 years from now. Most technologists would probably agree that, singularity or not, exceptionally lifelike robots will come around sooner or later.

Ex Machina begins with Caleb, a clever programmer working for a search engine company, being flown by helicopter into a remote, undisclosed location hours away from civilization in order to meet his boss, Nathan. A tough-looking, reclusive alcoholic, Nathan invites Caleb to his secretive compound for the express purpose of analyzing a robot named Ava. Specifically, he wants Caleb to determine if Ava passes the Turing Test.

Caleb and Nathan begin by probing the basic questions: What counts as passing the Turing Test? What is consciousness? What is a real emotion? Can a real emotion be programmed? Caleb tries to discern answers by talking to Ava in multiple interview sessions.

That's when the film takes a more ominous turn.

Nathan ends up being considerably darker and weirder than Caleb suspected. Ava rather quickly becomes flirty with Caleb. While tantalized, Caleb is deeply unsettled. How can a robot have sexuality? Why would Nathan program the robot in such a way? Elements of seduction, deception, and manipulation appear -- all traits that are unmistakably human.

At the beginning of his visit, Nathan asks Caleb to answer the question, What do you think of Ava? However, by the end of his visit, it becomes increasingly clear that Caleb should have spent more time pondering, What does Ava think of me?

(AP photo)

The Kids Are All Right: The Scientific Case Against Overprotective Parenting

It has happened again. A little after five in the evening last Sunday, two children, 6 and 10, were taken by a stranger just two blocks from their home in Silver Spring, Maryland. But fortunately, this wasn't a kidnapping in the true sense of the word. The stranger was a police officer responding to a call from a concerned parent who reported two children playing by themselves in a park. Rather than take the kids home, a mere thirty seconds away, the officer instead drove the kids ten miles to Child Protective Services (CPS) in Rockville.

One can only imagine how agonizing this ordeal must have been for Danielle and Sasha Meitiv, the parents of the two kids. Danielle had asked her children to be home by six, and when they did not show up by 6:30, she and her husband frantically started searching for them. It wasn't until 8:00 PM that CPS notified them of their kids' whereabouts.

Believe it or not, it's the Meitiv's second brush with CPS. In February, the two were found responsible of "unsubstantiated" child neglect (yes, that is actually a thing) for allowing their two children to play at a nearby park and walk home unsupervised, a crime formerly known as "letting kids be kids."

Letting kids be kids is something that seems to be happening less and less these days, replaced by overprotective "helicopter" parenting (so called for parents who incessantly "hover" overhead). While parenting could once be as simple as telling kids to "do their homework" and "be back in time for supper," today it's hallmarked by child locks, tracking devices, never-ending praise, and enduring parental oversight.

Ironically, all that extra attention seems to benefit parents far more than children. Helicopter parents report living happier and more meaningful lives than hands-off parents. Contrast that with a plethora of studies examining the effects of overbearing parenting on kids: A study from Ohio State University found that excessive praise can cause children to develop over-inflated egos and narcisstic tendencies later in life. College students with controlling parents report significantly higher rates of depression and less satisfaction with life. Another survey found that students with helicopter parents have reduced psychological well being and are more likely to use anxiety medications.

Overprotective parenting isn't always salubrious for kids' physical health either. For example, many parents commonly withhold potentially allergenic foods from their young kids, lest they by some chance suffer a severe reaction. But, as landmark research published earlier this year demonstrated, preventing kids from eating those foods may be contributing to the rise in allergies! According to the CDC, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. Hyper-parented kids also exercise less and are more likely to be bullied.

What's strange is that all this worry about the safety of our children has arisen during one of the safest times in history to be a child growing up in the developed world.

"Bluntly put: It’s hard to think of a safer time and a better place than the United States of 2015 to raise children — but we act as though the opposite were true," Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, recently wrote at Science of Us.

A quick scan of the data, provided by the meticulous researcher David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire: The physical abuse of children declined by 55 percent between 1992 and 2011, while sexual abuse declined 64 percent; between 1997 and 2012, abductions by strangers also went down by 51 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle deaths among kids 12 and under declined by 43 percent in the last decade.

Maintaining a more watchful eye and fixating on our kids may simply be the new normal in this "Age of Irrational Parenting," Senior says. After all, we're having far fewer of them than we used to, so it only makes sense that we would treasure them to a more obsessive degree.

But common sense, and even a healthy amount of science, indicates that taking a slight step back is the best course of action. Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Human Development, at the University of California - Berkeley is one of the foremost experts on parenting. For decades, she has held that the best parents strike a balance between discipline and autonomy. They don't shower their children with praise, nor do they hem them in with excessive restrictions. They step in when necessary, but generally allow children to figure things out for themselves. Baumrind calls it the authoritative style of parenting.

The bond between parent and child is unique in every circumstance. The best science can do is offer a general framework. If decades of research could be distilled to a couple of suggestions, they might go something like this: Be responsive, not overprotective. Nurture, don't coddle. Above all, your children's lives are their own. Don't live through them.

Despite being labeled as neglectful, Danielle Meitiv seems to parent well within these recommendations. As she told ABC's Nightline, "Frankly I think that raising independent children and responsible children and giving them the freedom that I enjoyed is a risk worth taking."

(Image: Shutterstock)

Interstellar Trade Would Be a Tax Nightmare

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a respected professor at Princeton University, and an outspoken liberal columnist for the New York Times. But first and foremost, he is a huge nerd, and proud of it.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1978, Krugman's geekiness prompted him to tackle a matter of galactic importance: the economics of interstellar trade. Then a 25-year-old "oppressed" assistant professor at Yale "caught up in the academic rat race," Krugman crafted his "Theory of Interstellar Trade" to cheer himself up. Krugman's jocularity is evident throughout the paper, which was published online in 2010, thirty-two years after he stamped it out on a typewriter. Early on in the article, he even pokes fun at his chosen profession:

"While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics"

The key problem with interstellar trade, Krugman writes, is time dilation. When objects travel at velocities approaching the speed of light -- roughly 300,000 kilometers per second -- time moves more slowly for them compared to objects at rest. (For a great explainer of this effect, which is tied to Einstein's theory of special relativity, check out this video.) So the crew of a space-faring cargo ship might experience only ten years while thirty years or more might pass for the denizens of the planets they're traveling between. How then, does one calculate interest rates on the cost of goods sold? Trading partners will undoubtedly be many light-years apart and trips will last decades, so this is a vital issue to resolve.

Since the speeds of vessels will undoubtedly vary, but both planets should be moving through space at close enough velocities where time dilation wouldn't be a factor, Krugman contends that the interest costs should be tabulated based on the time shared by the two planets. But what about those interest rates? Won't they differ? Not necessarily, Krugman argues. Competition should lead them to equalize amongst interplanetary trading partners.

"Interstellar trading voyages can be regarded as investment projects, to be evaluated at an interest rate common to the planets," Krugman says. "From this point the effects of trade on factor prices, income distribution, and welfare can be traced out..."

"The picture of the world -- or, rather, of the universe -- which emerges is not a lunatic vision; stellar, maybe, but not lunatic."

What might drive one insane, however, are the inevitable tax headaches.

In 2009, Adam Chodorow, a professor of law and a faculty fellow at the Center for Law, Science & Technology at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law of Arizona State University, tried to solve the potential problems of boldly taxing where no man has taxed before. Again, time dilation would be an issue, Chodorow says. To illustrate the point, he raised the theoretical example of a deckhand, Darf McKibble, on a future trading vessel traveling at relativistic speeds, where one year on the ship is ten years on Earth.

"If we use the Earth’s frame of reference as Krugman says we must... Darf must file taxes 10 times in each of his subjective years, a significant burden for Darf. In contrast, if the answer is every [ship] year, he gets significant deferral, at least from an Earth perspective."

But if Darf is light-years distant from Earth, it will be rather difficult to file in a timely manner. Unless TurboTax finds a way to break the light speed barrier, there's no way Darf's return will arrive at the IRS before the April 15 filing deadline.

Chodorow raises another pertinent issue:

"What if Darf has investments on Earth at the same time he earns income on the ship? In that case, regardless of which year is chosen, Darf will either get significant deferral on his terrestrial income or he will be required to pay taxes on interstellar income at unreasonable intervals."

After much learned agonizing, Chodorow defers decisions on many of the finer tax details and recommends simplifying the process altogether.

"In-flight income is clearly subject to tax under current law and prevailing theory, but administrative concerns warrant excluding that income from the tax base until the intrepid taxpayer returns to Earth."

So there you have it. If you haven't finished your taxes yet, try hitching a ride on board a space ship bound for Tau Ceti.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Smiling Makes You Look Older

If you're happy and you know it there are a lot of reasons to show it. Past studies have found that smiling people are deemed to be friendlier, more attractive, and more memorable than people with neutral facial expressions.

However, a new study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review reveals a somewhat surprising effect of smiling: It makes you look older.

When Dr. Tzvi Ganel, a professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, looked to tackle the subject, he was surprised to find it relatively untouched. Just one study had been conducted, which asked participants to rate the age of people depicted to be angry, fearful, disgusted, sad, neutral, or smiling. Unsurprisingly, smiling people were judged to look younger than those who were angry, fearful, sad, or disgusted. There were no age differences between smiling expressions and neutral expressions, however.

Ganel saw shortcomings in the study's design.

"It is difficult to interpret these findings due to the fact that the experimental design included repeated presentations of photos of belonging to the same persons bearing different expressions. This may have biased overt age evaluations," he noted.

So Ganel sought to carry out a study that corrected the problems of the first. Across three experiments, sixty participants were shown pictures of 220 men and women with either neutral or smiling facial expressions and asked to estimate the age of the depicted men and women.

In every experiment, smiling faces were deemed to be older, and the differences were highly statistically significant.

"When people smiled, they were perceived as between 1 year to almost 2 years older than when they were presented bearing a neutral expression," Ganel described.

Ganel next sought to find out why. He noticed that smiling amplifies the appearance of wrinkles, particularly around the eyes, so he conducted another experiment, in which twenty participants estimated the age of people with smiling or neutral expressions in photos altered to make wrinkles more apparent (b) and twenty others estimated the age of people in photos altered to conceal wrinkles (c). Ganel found that when wrinkles were hidden, smiling individuals were no longer estimated to be older.

The study suffered from a couple of the usual limitations that plague psychology experiments. The participants rating the photographs were all college students, and the photographs were all of people aged 20 to 40. Thus, it is unknown if the effect will persist among older subjects, with facial wrinkles that are more pronounced and ubiquitous. Ganel has plans to fix both of these limitations in future studies.

Source: Tzvi Ganel. "Smiling makes you look older." Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 9 Apr. 2015. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-015-0822-7

(Image: AP)

What Scientists Really Think of the Public

The stereotype of a scientist is that of a bespectacled, socially awkward nerd who would rather play with insects than interact with other members of his own species. According to this conventional wisdom, the hermit-like scientist sits perched in his Ivory Tower, stroking his microscope and looking with condescension and contempt upon the uneducated, unwashed masses below. Talk with them... about science? Humph. Why bother?

That (only slightly exaggerated) characterization may be widely believed, but it's not actually true, says John Besley of Michigan State University.

Sure, scientists do think Americans are ignorant of science. When 1 in 4 Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the sun, it's hard to disagree. What is surprising, however, is that, according to Dr. Besley's research, a substantial proportion of scientists want to engage with the American public despite the fact that they perceive us as a bunch of noobs.

Dr. Besley sent surveys to 5,000 academic scientists, of whom 431 provided usable data. He found that 38% of scientists were willing to engage with the public online, an equal number were unwilling, and 26% were fence sitters. Probing deeper, Dr. Besley found that, contrary to his expectation that reluctance to engage the public was due to haughtiness, scientists expressed more mundane reasons for withdrawal: Lack of time, lack of ability to communicate effectively, and a belief that public outreach is not helpful to their careers. (It should be noted that in a separate publication, Dr. Besley discovered that online communication was the least popular form of outreach; scientists preferred more traditional news outlets or face-to-face discussions.)

Interestingly, Dr. Besley also uncovered that scientists feel that the public is willing to treat them fairly and to listen to their opinions. Importantly, scientists believe that discussing their research with the public is important and can make a difference. This, perhaps, comes as a bit of a surprise, given the increasingly polarized and contentious nature of public debates surrounding issues like climate change.

The main takeaway from Besley's studies is that many scientists want to talk about their research. The trick is to get the other 1/3 to open up more. One way to do this would be to require all federal grant recipients to do some sort of public outreach. Another way would be to change how universities award tenure, perhaps by giving extra points to professors who regularly hold public seminars.

While most academic scientists are not as outgoing as Bill Nye the Science Guy, it's nice to know that many want to be heard. That's a healthy sign for science.

Source: John C. Besley. "What do scientists think about the public and does it matter to their online engagement?" Science and Public Policy 42 (2): 201-214. First published online: July 15, 2014. doi: 10.1093/scipol/scu042

(AP photo)

Like, What's with Saying 'Like' Like All the Time?

Ummmm. Uhhhhh. You know. Liiiike.

No doubt you hear these words and phrases every single day, but have you ever wondered what each of them mean?

In 2006, University of California - Santa Cruz psychologist Jean Fox Tree asked laypeople. Um and uh were thought to indicate trouble with producing words, you know was considered a tool for checking for understanding and connecting with listeners, but like, well, like "defied definition."

"The use of like may be too subtle for laypeople to articulate," Fox Tree recounted. "Most researchers' views of like involve some kind of discrepancy between what's said and what's meant."

In days past, like often appeared in more traditional ways, as a verb, for instance: "I like that movie." Or a preposition: "He jumps like a frog." Now, like commonly functions as a discourse marker, a word with a somewhat empty meaning that punctuates or breaks up speech (often annoyingly so): "You were like, so scared!"

Like also functions as a way to introduce quotes: "I was all like, 'Whoa, look out!'" It's this usage of the word that has witnessed a meteoric rise over the past few decades.

In the 1980s, said was by far the most popular word used to introduce quotes, making up roughly 85% of all uses of "enquoting" words in speech among college students in Northern California. Like made up a measly 4% of such uses. By the 2000s, those numbers completely flipped. In a 2008 study, Fox Tree found that like was used 92% of the time when introducing quotes!

But the rise in like is not restricted to California college students. Indeed, the word is flourishing throughout the United States, particularly amongst Millennials.

Fox Tree attributes like's rapid ascendance to its functionality. For example, while said pigeonholes the speaker into precise quotations, like is more abstract and convenient, operating, according to Fox Tree, as:

a catch-all enquoting device to cover the many ways that a quote can be a selective depiction of the original including the words, delivery, emotional content, or any other aspect the speaker wishes to demonstrate. Speakers may choose to approximate wording with their quote, but they may also choose to use relatively accurate wording while demonstrating some other aspect of the original production.

Of late, the evolution of the English language seems to be marked by "survival of the simplest." Like may simply be the next step in linguistic evolution. Still, many consider the word a "verbal virus" whose spread must be halted at all costs. If that's true, their cries are almost certainly too late. We're like already infected.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Cold Makes Animals Live Much Longer. But Why?

A fascinating trend roughly holds across all bounds of life: Whether plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium, the larger an organism is, the longer it lives. True, there are notable exceptions. Antarctic sponges -- odd-looking multicellular animals -- are capable of living thousands of years! Compare that to vastly larger bowhead whales, the longest-living mammals. They weigh around 200,000 pounds, yet only manage 211 years at best.

What then is the sponges' life-prolonging secret? Obviously, a sponge is not a whale, so a host of factors could be at play, but let's focus on an obvious difference: internal temperature. Antarctic sponges and bowhead whales inhabit similarly cold regions of the Earth, the Antarctic and Arctic oceans, respectively. Yet the sponges maintain a much colder internal temperature than the whales. This difference has not escaped the learned gaze of biologists, who've noticed an intriguing pattern. From poikilotherms -- organisms with varying internal temperatures -- to homeotherms -- organisms with stable internal temperatures -- being colder is linked to a longer life.

The trend is best demonstrated by comparing similar organisms. For example, different species of sponges inhabiting tropical or temperate zones have shorter lifespans than their counterparts living in more frigid waters. In the laboratory, fruit flies live about twice as long at 21 °C versus 27 °C. C. elegans worms survive 75% longer when 5 °C cooler. Many species of fish live between 14% and 75% longer at colder temperatures. Even mice that had their core body temperatures reduced by just 0.3 °C lived longer, to the tune of 12% for males and 20% for females.

These are all fascinating results, but don't go freezing yourself with the hope of tacking a few extra years onto your life. If body temperature is reduced too much, most organisms will suffer hypothermia, which doesn't foster longevity in the slightest -- it can result in death. The graphs below -- representing poikilotherms on top and homeotherms on bottom -- make that fact very plain.

Why does cold tend to make organisms live longer? The answer is still very much up for debate. One explanation, the "rate of living" hypothesis, suggests that lower temperature promotes longevity by slightly slowing metabolism and reducing damage resulting from the by-products of metabolism. While intuitive, this is nowhere close to being proven. In fact, it suffered a big setback in 2007 when a large review found no link between metabolism and longevity in mammals or birds.

In a recently published review, researchers from the Institute of Integrative Biology at University of Liverpool offered a more nuanced explanation. They suggest that cold prompts changes in activity from hormone-releasing neuroendocrine cells, and that these changes in turn impact aging and longevity. If that seems like a vague explanation, that's because it is. Simply put, biologists are still stumped on why cold boosts longevity, but more specific answers could come from a familiar source: naked mole rats.

Already studied for their incredible ability to resist cancer, these small rodents, which weigh just 30 grams, live to an astounding 30 years. Similarly sized mice survive no longer than three years. The average lifespan for rodents is around nine. Notably, mole rats have an internal temperature that's roughly 3-5 °C cooler than other rodents. The reviewers suggest this may be a factor, and that it merits study.

If scientists can uncover the mechanism behind cold's life-extending powers, we just might be able to harness it for the benefit of mankind, no refrigeration required.

Source: Keil G, Cummings E, de Magalhães JP. "Being cool: how body temperature influences ageing and longevity." Biogerontology. April 2015. DOI: 10.1007/s10522-015-9571-2

(Top Image: AP)

8 Misleading, Unscientific, or BS Food Labels

Every single aisle at the grocery store is a menagerie of marketing. Buzzwords and phrases feature prominently on colorful products packed tightly on tall shelves, appealing to our ingrained desire to eat heartily while staying healthy. Though roughly 72% of Americans acknowledge that at least some of these call outs are meaningless, they still successfully create a false aura of health around the products they grace.

Here at RealClearScience, we get fed up fairly quickly with deceptive ploys that fly in the face of science. And, as a great many phrases on food labels fall into this category, we thought we'd make a list of the ones that leave the worst tastes in our mouths.

1. All-Natural. According to Consumer Reports, 59% of consumers look for "natural" on a food label, however most don't know what it means. That's not surprising, because right now it's essentially meaningless. We take umbrage with the term because, scientifically, nothing "unnatural" can exist.

2. Organic. To most consumers, "organic" means that a product is better for the environment, safer, better tasting, more nutritious, and produced without pesticides. None of those descriptions are necessarily true. These misconceptions have been deliberately promoted by the organic food industry and its proponents despite a lack of scientific evidence to support them.

3. No Added Sugar. Every bottle of Naked Juice proudly claims "No Sugar Added." Though technically true, the phrase is marketing wordplay designed to mask the fact that their juice already contains copious amounts of sugar, as much as a similar-sized soft drink! The type of sugar in Naked Juice, called fructose, normally isn't that bad when consumed in actual fruit, which contains fibers to counteract the negative metabolic effects of sugar. But in Naked Juice, those fibers are mostly absent, basically making Naked Juice a $4 can of soda. Naked Juice is easy to pick on, but many other companies are guilty of sneakily using the "No Added Sugar" slogan as well.

4. Hypoallergenic. A great many shampoos, lotions, and soaps claim to be "hypoallergenic," supposedly meaning that they're unlikely to cause some sort of allergic reaction. But, according to the Food and Drug Administration, the term literally means "whatever a particular company wants it to mean." Apparently, that's usually "nothing." As Chemical and Engineering News reported, when researchers analyzed 187 personal care products for babies last year, they found that 89% of the products contained chemicals known to cause skin rash, and 11% contained five or more known allergens.

5. Chemical-Free. To marketers, "chemical-free" indicates that a product is free of synthetic compounds. To chemists, the term is a hilarious misnomer. As two witty chemists noted last year in their ironically brief paper, "A comprehensive overview of chemical-free consumer products," there are no truly chemical-free products. That's because everything is composed of chemicals. 

Jokes aside, the phrase is problematic, as it perpetuates an irrational fear of chemicals. Just because a chemical was artificially created in a lab does not mean it's unhealthy. Just because a chemical occurs naturally does not mean it's beneficial. After all, arsenic compounds aren't at all good for you in elevated doses, and they're as natural as chemicals come.

6. Non-GMO. A great many products proudly display their lack of genetically modified organisms like a badge of honor, implying that GMOs are somehow evil. That's a company's choice, of course, but, at the same time, there's nothing wrong with having GMOs in a product. GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption. Moreover, GMOs have vastly increased crop yields and farmer profits, while reducing pesticide use. We should not ignorantly demonize such a worthwhile scientific advancement.

7. "Boosts Your Immune System." Though the claim comes in a variety of forms, they all imply the same thing: that the product will help prevent disease. Such phrases are specious at best. While a healthy diet certainly strengthens the immune system, no single food is known to prevent the common cold or ward off the flu. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Such claims... constitute impermissible health claims that have not been authorized by the FDA prior to marketing."

8. rBST-Free. rBST is short for recombinant Bovine somatotropin, a synthetic form of a hormone naturally occurring in cows. Since 1993, it's been injected into dairy cows to increase milk yields. In the past decade, its use has become controversial due to fears that the compound will adversely affect human health through the milk that we drink. Repeated FDA studies have shown that it doesn't. Just like the "Non-GMO" label, labeling something "rBST-Free" feeds on those fears, perpetuating the notion that the chemical is somehow dangerous, when it isn't.

(Image: AP)

The Real History of the Planet Vulcan: How a Planet's Death Birthed Relativity

On September 23, 1846, 35-year-old French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier became a celebrity in the world of science. His meteoric ascendance to fame came after months of learned toil. Earlier that year, Le Verrier found himself transfixed by Uranus' orbit -- it seemed to defy Johannes Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion and Isaac Newton's Theory of Gravitation. Assuming those theories to be correct, he settled on an explanation for Uranus' strange movements: there must be another planet lurking nearby. Performing dazzlingly complex calculations, he determined not only the hypothetical planet's orbit, but also its size, distance from the sun, and even its location. On September 18, 1846, he mailed his predictions to astronomers at the Berlin Observatory. The letter arrived the afternoon of the 23rd. That same evening, observatory assistant Johann Galle and astronomy student Heinrich d'Arrest peered out into space and spotted the planet in almost the exact location Le Verrier predicted. Eventually dubbed Neptune, it was the first planet discovered purely by mathematical means. What's more, its existence hugely substantiated Newton's Laws of Gravitation.

Fresh off his astronomical success, Le Verrier aimed to repeat it. Mercury's orbit suffered a similar, albeit slightly smaller disturbance. So naturally, he reasoned that an undiscovered planet must be to blame. In 1859, he officially predicted the existence of a new planet inside the orbit of Mercury, which he named "Vulcan." Later that year, he visited with Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, an amateur astronomer who claimed to have observed it. Satisfied with Lescarbault's account, Le Verrier took the observations for definitive proof of Vulcan's existence, and in January of 1860, he announced the discovery to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Once again, Le Verrier was widely lauded for his success, and Lescarbault was even inducted into France's Legion of Honor.

But then problems started to arise. Based on Lescarbault's data, Le Verrier calculated the orbit and size of Vulcan, and instructed astronomers on when and where to watch for the new planet. But when astronomers across the world looked, most of them found nothing. So Le Verrier recalculated and advised them to try again. Again, the vast majority of astronomers saw nothing except for Mercury and the bright, shining Sun. This saga played out over and over for more than a decade, each time with the same results.

Though evidence was turning against planet Vulcan, much of the scientific community continued to support Le Verrier. His calculations, coupled with Newton's theories, had proven spectacularly correct in the past. Why would they be wrong this time?

Over time, their faith dwindled, but it persisted even as late as 1876. In that year, a volume of the engineering magazine The Manufacturer and Builder reported that, "Our text-books on astronomy will have to be revised again, as there is no longer any doubt about the existence of a planet between Mercury and the sun." The author apparently chose to focus on the rare confirmatory sightings of Vulcan and to discount all the negative results. (Even in the 19th century, there was poor science journalism apparently.)

When Le Verrier passed away in 1877 at the age of 66, efforts to confirm the existence of Vulcan mostly died with him. However, it wasn't until 1915 that the planet was dealt a final deathblow, not by astronomy, but by Albert Einstein. His theory of relativity explained that the Sun's massive gravity actually bent space locally, which perfectly accounted for the perturbations in Mercury's orbit. At the same time Vulcan vanished, the celestial mechanics of the scientific giants Newton and Kepler were shown to be incomplete. Relativity's reign began.

Today, many people likely know planet Vulcan as the home of an eponymously named species of logical, pointy-eared humanoids from Star Trek. Few know of its grander position in history: as the planetary "product of a young Frenchman's mathematics" whose death served to cement one of the greatest physical frameworks for how our universe functions: Relativity.

(Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins)

Source: Sternberg, Robert J. Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid. Yale University Press. 2003.

Source: Baum, Richard. In Search Of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost In Newton's Clockwork Universe. Basic Books. July 4, 2003

The Nanobot Swarm Slowly Approaches

Science fiction often envisions the future as a playground of hulking robots, enormous intelligent computer networks, and miles-long spaceships. Storytellers even describe building spherical shells millions of miles across. Vast irresistibly powerful machines rule the world of tomorrow.

Nanobots build the same future in precisely the opposite way. The world is peacefully administrated--or terrorized--by robots as small as a single virus. Uncountably vast swarms of these minute robots drift through the air like dust or gang together to build larger structures atom by atom.

Scientists and engineers watching the progress of microscopic technology were the first to imagine manufacturing large matter atom by atom from scratch using nanometers-long machines. Upon the command to build, a massive number of these machines would grab every single atom needed for the project and put them together, one by one. Are these nanobots far-fetched? Yes. Technology like this would likely take centuries to develop if it is feasible at all.

Still, scientific progress continues to realize smaller and smaller machines. A report published last month created a very simple partially biological robot closing in on nanobot size. The paper can be read in its entirity for free. Researchers grew bacterial spores only 2000-5000 nanometers (nm) across, sprinkled with even smaller specks of material only 150 nm wide. Researchers call these specks graphene quantum dots, a fancy way of describing really small flakes of graphite, one atom thick.

The biological underpinning of these devices is very necessary. The machinery of DNA evolved over eons to create natural autonomous organisms capable of performing the remarkably complex tasks of building cells, changing those cells in reaction to external conditions, finding, capturing and digesting food, and replicating. All of this fits in a capsule a few thousand nanometers across. Nothing scientists have engineered comes even close to packing this level of capability into such a small volume.

The study harnesses the spore's naturally evolved ability to detect and respond to ambient humidity. The bacteria spore will swell in the presence of more external water and shrivel if conditions dry out. Meanwhile the graphite flakes spread across its outer skin are stuck in place. If the skin underneath swells like a balloon, the flakes riding upon it will spread further apart.

The tiny robotic spores are then sent to crawl across tiny electrodes drawn onto a surface. A voltage is applied to each pair of electrodes, making electrons want to travel from one electrode to the other. If air separates the electrodes, no electricity will flow. However, if a spore is crawling across the electrodes, some electrical current will hop across its body, from one graphite fleck to the next, bridging the gap. The drier the air, the closer together the flakes scrunch, the more electricity can bridge its way across the spore and into the opposite electrode. Researchers measure the rate of current flow and look for changes indicating varying humidity.

This discovery is one of many works taking the first tiny steps toward building nanobots, or at least slightly bigger microbots. The true limits of how small we can make things is unclear. As pointed out in an insightful (but pay-walled) commentary article in the journal Nature, the only nanobots that are currently feasible are those which use the incredibly powerful and tiny mechanisms of DNA-based biology to achieve their task of manipulating individual molecules. Nothing we design with our own hands is yet remotely close to this level of capability. Some of my own research requires a 100-pound instrument to manipulate a single molecule, and an attached modern computer to try it with any autonomy. Manipulation fails 99% of the time.

So, we have no reason to fear our robot overlords yet. We continually improve our abilities to manipulate the small, but the goal of creating a multitude of nanorobots with the power to build matter from the ground up, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, remains science fantasy.

(Image: AP)

What the Gases You Emit Say About You

You emit gas. The most obvious and offensive comes from your posterior, but that's not the only gas you emit. Your body is constantly oozing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- small molecules that easily enter a gaseous state due to their high vapor pressure -- in breath, sweat, urine, feces, and even saliva. VOCs are responsible, for instance, for the similar aromas that emanate from dairy farms and men's restrooms.

Though the field is still in its infancy, the detection of VOCs may be useful in diagnosing illness or other aberrancies. Perhaps the most infamous VOC test is the Breathalyzer, which detects the presence of ethanol via a redox reaction that converts an orange chemical into a green one.

But, as a review article in the Journal of Breath Research indicates, your breath gives away far more than just your fondness for booze. The presence of acetone, a sweet-smelling molecule that is the active ingredient in nail polish remover, indicates diabetes or starvation. Acetonitrile indicates the person is a smoker; mercaptans (which have a rotten, sulfurous smell) indicate liver disease; dimethylamine and trimethylamine (which smell like urine) indicate kidney failure; and the lack of isoprene indicates lung cancer. Your breath could even be used to detect exposure to pollutants or to help find you in the event you are trapped in a collapsed building.

Your other secretions tell different stories.

Saliva, the authors write, contains "VOCs derived from serum, blood, gingival exudate, nasal cavity, gastrointestinal reflux, food debris, microorganisms, commercial products and environmental pollution," and hence could be used to detect a variety of conditions. Similarly, earwax may reveal information about people's diets and environment. VOCs in urine could help diagnose metabolic disorders, such as Reye syndrome, or a whole panoply of different cancers. Fecal VOCs could indicate infections with pathogenic bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile or Salmonella, as well as inflammatory bowel disease.

The fact that such valuable information about a person's health can be determined simply by analyzing stinky gas molecules has implications about the future of preventive and diagnostic medicine. Still, researchers have a long way to go before a full analysis of your body's VOCs, dubbed the volatilome, becomes reality. Scientists must first compile an enormous catalog of volatilomes that characterize not only diseased and disease-free states, but the natural variation that will occur between healthy humans. That is an enormous task.

However, hopefully soon, it may be common practice at the doctor's office to breathe and/or fart into a device that will diagnose our ailments. A small, smelly, but quiet revolution in medical diagnostics may be brewing.

Source: Anton Amann, Ben de Lacy Costello, Wolfram Miekisch, Jochen Schubert, Bogusław Buszewski, Joachim Pleil, Norman Ratcliffe and Terence Risby. "The human volatilome: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath, skin emanations, urine, feces and saliva." J. Breath Res. 8 (2014) 034001. doi:10.1088/1752-7155/8/3/034001

(Image: Bad breath via Shutterstock)

The Hidden Meaning in a Dog's Wagging Tail

Little known fact: When a dog is alone, it will hardly wag its tail. Indeed, it may not even wag its tail at all. The appendage isn't some autonomous, unifunctional machine that never quits; it's actually a complex communication device. So, when there aren't any other living things around, there's little point in wagging it.

"In some ways, tail wagging serves the same communication functions as a human smile, a polite greeting or a nod of recognition," writes Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and an expert in dog intelligence. "Smiles are social signals and are thus reserved mostly for situations where somebody is around to see them. For dogs, the wag seems to have the same properties."

Tailing wagging in general is commonly thought to indicate that a dog is happy. It certainly can imply contentment, but anxiety, insecurity, excitement, curiosity, and submissiveness are other emotions also in a tail's repertoire of expression. Lucky for humans -- though -- happiness is easy to pinpoint.

"The more the wag spreads to the body, the happier I assume the dog to be," writes Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I call it a 'Full  Body Wag,' in which the tail, the hindquarters and sometimes even the chest of the dog swings back and forth."

Tail wags that communicate other emotions aren't nearly so flamboyant. A study published in 2007 found that dogs tend to wag their tails more to the right when they see something they're curious about and want to approach, and more to the left when confronted with something they want to back away from, an intimidating animal, for example. In 2013, the same research group published another study corroborating those results. They found that when other dogs viewed tails wagging to the right, they were more relaxed. But when they saw tails wagging to the left, their heart rates increased and they showed signs of stress and anxiety.

Those directional inclinations are slight, however, and can be difficult to spot. Other tail signals are easier to interpret. According to Coren:

The tail's position-specifically, the height at which it is held-can be considered a sort of emotional meter. A middle height suggests the dog is relaxed. If the tail is held horizontally, the dog is attentive and alert. As the tail position moves further up, it is a sign the dog is becoming more threatening, with a vertical tail being a clearly dominant signal meaning, "I'm boss around here," or even a warning, "Back off or suffer the consequences."

As the tail position drops lower, it is a sign the dog is becoming more submissive, is worried or feels poorly. The extreme expression is the tail tucked under the body, which is a sign of fear, meaning, "Please don't hurt me."

In terms of communication, we humans are truly oddities. Our heavy reliance on complex sounds in the form of language sets us apart in the animal kingdom. Thus, it makes sense to read your dog's body language and heed your own. Doing so will undoubtedly lead to a more enriching relationship with your "best friend."

(Sorry, cat lovers, science has yet to study the swaying of your pet's tail.)

(Image: AP)

Measuring Progress: Why Is Social Science Not as Successful as Natural Science?

On July 4th, 2012, particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider announced that they had discovered a new, massive particle. Follow-up experiments confirmed the finding less than a year later: It was the Higgs boson.

Discovery of the elementary particle that helps explain why objects have mass capstoned decades of learned prediction and further supported the Standard Model of particle physics, a theoretical framework that -- at the most fundamental level -- explains how things work.

Despite occasional adventures down dead-end alleys, the natural sciences, including physics, biology, and chemistry, have steadily advanced our knowledge. The Higgs was just another significant trophy in their case. But while natural science ever seems to be moving forward, social science often seems adrift. Yes, social science has turned out monumental advances, like priming in social psychology, capitalism in economics, or the recent rise in big data analysis from computational sociology, but they pale in comparison to physics' General Relativity, or biology's Theory of Evolution, or chemistry's Periodic Table.

According to influential philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, scientific revolutions "occur when disparities or anomalies arise between theoretical expectation and research findings that can be resolved only by changing fundamental rules of practice." Think the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, or the rise of modern medicine and anatomy. While it's easy to point to revolutions in the natural sciences, it's harder to think of revolutions in the social sciences.

Recently, Stefano Balietti, Michael Mäs, and Dirk Helbing, computational social scientists based out of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, openly wondered why progress in the social sciences is slower than in the natural sciences. They attributed the disparity to fragmentation. While most of the natural sciences are unified under large, sweeping theories supported by rigorous evidence, allowing scientists to work collaboratively under a common umbrella, the social sciences are often fragmented into competing theories. For example, psychology has dozens of different schools of thought. Sociology has three major perspectives. Economics, of course, features capitalism, socialism, and all sorts of other schools. Those subscribing to competing notions often cordon themselves off into their own respective groups and disregard conflicting evidence.

But retreating to an environment akin to a sounding-board hampers scientific progress, the researchers say. They urge social scientists to break free from their schools and seek out discussion and disagreement.

"We desperately need to create adequate venues for critical and interactive discussion to take place. This would be the best way to support scientific progress," they write.

Critics have also urged social scientists to reinforce theory with rigorous experimental evidence. In the last few years, you may have heard about social psychology's "replication crisis," in which many of the discipline's so-called "important findings" could not be repeated in the laboratory. Replication is a central tenet in the natural sciences, in essence serving to verify that something is correct.

In fact, many believe that the social sciences should model themselves after natural sciences. On face value, this seems like a great idea, but in practice, it may not work. After all, the physical world is not the social world. In social science, the subjects, -- namely people and cultures -- are extremely fickle and subject to all manner of irrationalities. You think it's hard to control every variable in a chemistry experiment? It's even harder in economics or social psychology, where one's laboratory is often the world, itself.

Perhaps it's not fair to judge the progress of social science versus that of natural science? The nature of the human animal and the culture it has birthed is a slippery subject, regularly harder to grasp than even the tiniest, most fleeting particle.

That's not an excuse, however. Social scientists, can, and should, strive to improve their fields of inquiry. Then maybe they'll stumble upon their equivalent of the Higgs boson.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Why Nothing Can Be Truly 'Unnatural'

For centuries, all across the world, human cultures have routinely labeled homosexuality as "unnatural," severely castigating those who seek intimate relations with the same sex. Though significantly diminished, that view is still prevalent today.

And it's just as wrong and unscientific as ever.

Opponents of homosexuality have offered a range of contentions to support their case, all of which fall to scientific evidence: That homosexuality is only restricted to humans. Wrong. It's documented in over 1,500 species. That reproduction is the only purpose of sexual acts and organs. Incorrect. Evolution has no purpose. Feet didn't originally evolve for dancing, nor mouths for kissing. Are those acts unnatural? That homosexuality is an evolutionary dead-end. Actually it's not. For example, female relatives of gay men actually have more children than those of straight men. Somehow, they seem to receive a fertility boost.

But at the heart of the matter, all of these discussions are defunct. Within what is permitted by the laws of nature -- in other words, what doesn't defy physics, biology, physiology, etc. -- nothing is unnatural.

"Whatever is possible is by definition also natural," Yuval Noah Harari sagely writes in his recent book Sapiens. "A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other."

By this definition, not only is homosexuality completely natural, so are GMOs, robots, modern medical treatments, chemical fertilizers, and -- well -- everything in existence.

(Image: AP)