Archive | February 2013

Regulate Caffeine? No, Thanks!

PetfinderCupShould caffeine become a regulated substance? Not if I have anything to say about it. However, psychologist Jack James at Iceland’s Reykjavik University has other ideas.

James’ editorial in the current issue of the Journal of Caffeine Research carries the title, “Death by Caffeine: How Many Caffeine-Related Fatalities and Near-Misses Must There Be Before We Regulate?” Among other things, he suggests labeling requirements, restrictions on advertising, possible taxation, and age restrictions on the sale of caffeinated products.

James focuses on the toxicity of caffeine in various cases, especially when it comes to energy drinks. He concedes that much of the supporting evidence is anecdotal. He also notes that there’s a “general paucity of systematic data” about the extent of any harm. Therein lies the rub.

Without reliable data, how can policy makers know whether the potential benefits of regulation outweigh the costs? No, scientific information doesn’t have to be perfect before policy makers act. However, policy makers need reliable data to make reasoned decisions. After all, spending money on one regulatory program leaves less for other uses in the public or private sector.

Besides, practically every substance can be toxic if the dose is large enough. This isn’t to say that it’s okay to guzzle gallons of super-caffeinated energy drinks. Nor should people mistakenly think they can cancel out drunkenness with a few cups of coffee.

Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence is not science. Effects in individual cases could result from a placebo effect or even coincidence. Rigorous science requires controlled double-blind experiments that test a specific hypothesis. The ability to reproduce results and peer review add to the reliability of scientific research.

Perhaps more study might be appropriate for certain products. For now, though, I’ll continue to enjoy my coffee, iced tea, and the occasional can of Diet Dr. Pepper.

Remember that chocolate contains caffeine too. Anyone who tries regulating that will face a major rebellion!

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Live Long and Drink Coffee

Does coffee help you live longer? Neal Freedman at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics and his colleagues consider this question in a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Freedman talks more about the association of coffee drinking with mortality in an interview published in the February 19 issue of the Journal of Caffeine Research.

CoffeeMugAnd the answer is a resounding Maybe.

Freedman and his colleagues analyzed data from surveys of roughly 400,000 AARP members, collected over roughly a dozen years. The AARP members’ ages ranged from 50 to 71 when the study began in 1995-96.

When the researchers looked at coffee drinking and mortality for the entire group, they found a positive correlation between coffee drinking and death. At first gulp, this made it seem as if coffee drinking could cut short your time to live long and prosper.

However, the AARP study group also showed a strong correlation between coffee drinking and cigarette smoking. Freedman and friends analyzed the data again, this time controlling for cigarette smoking and several other unhealthy behaviors. Now the data showed a slight inverse relationship between coffee drinking and death. In other words, coffee drinkers who didn’t smoke were more likely to live longer.

So, what does the study mean? For one thing, I’m going to keep enjoying my coffee. After all, I do call this blog Summa Cum Latte. Perhaps more importantly, the study spotlights basic principles of statistics.

First, correlation does not necessarily mean there is a causation. The increased risk of death that the researchers first saw resulted mainly from the fact that cigarette smokers tend to drink coffee. Cigarette smoking does kill people. More than 1,200 Americans die every day from tobacco-related causes. Yup, that’s 1,200 per day!

Second, every statistical study has limits. The study showed that nonsmoking coffee drinkers had a 10-15% lower chance of dying. However, it did not say why that correlation existed. Nor did it say whether caffeine or another chemical in coffee might explain that result.

The survey questions didn’t distinguish between people who only drink decaf and those who only drink hi-test. The study likewise didn’t draw distinctions between different types of coffee preparations. These may be questions for further study, says Freedman.

This brings up a third point: Good scientific studies don’t just answer questions. They often raise issues for further investigation. Learning one thing should make us want to explore more. After all, science is a quest for discovery.

And now it’s time for more coffee.

Look Out Below!

A blinding light, a sonic boom, and then crashes and shockwaves.

That was the scene in central Russia earlier today as a huge meteorite streaked across the sky and exploded. Estimated to weigh about 10 tons, the meteorite entered Earth’s atmosphere at roughly 33,000 miles per hour. And yes, you can see it on YouTube.

Fragments of the meteorite shattered windows, wrecked roofs, and caused other damage. As a result, about 500 people suffered injuries. The largest affected city is Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow. Fortunately, no fatalities have been reported so far.

NASA announced later in the day that Russia’s February 15, 2013 meteorite event was not related to the near-Earth passage of Asteroid 2012 DA14. That asteroid’s orbit brought it roughly 17,000 miles close to Earth. Asteroid 2012 DA14 is now on its way away from us.

Such a huge meteorite is rare. Meteors, however, happen every day.

Most material striking the Earth arrives as meteoroids: bits of rock and dust left over from comets. Some meteoroids also come from asteroids that crashed into each other in space. Meteoroids travel quickly towards Earth at speeds as high as 160,000 miles per hour.

As meteoroids enter the upper atmosphere, they rub against air molecules. That friction is so great that the meteoroid starts burning up. That produces a flash of light, called a meteor. When chunks occasionally land on Earth, we call them meteorites.

While some meteors flash across the sky every night, you’ll see the most during a meteor shower. The Perseids in August is especially popular in North America. Summer weather makes it much more pleasant to lie outside and gaze up at the show.

For now, though, people in central Russia face some rebuilding, repairs, and healing. Literally and figuratively, today’s meteorite did some astronomical damage.

Year of the Snake—Movie Edition

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Snake starts this weekend, and that calls for a celebration—whether you’re Asian or not. It’s also a good time for a bit of snake science.

Earlier this year, scientists reported the discovery of a new snake in Mozambique, Thelotornis usambaricus. Don’t get too chummy with this twig snake, though. This reptile’s venom is deadly, and there’s no known antidote yet.

Winter is also a good time to snuggle up and watch a snake movie. Snakes on a Plane is probably my all-time favorite. Not only is the 2006 Samuel Jackson drama a good action flick, but it’s got one of the best titles of any film in the last ten years. While the scenario is unlikely, it also makes a good science point: Not all snakes and venoms are alike. Knowing what type of snake struck can save precious time for a bite victim.snakeclipart

Of course, snakes slither through lots of horror movies—some of which are quite horrible. For a lighter take on a venomous snake, check out the 1955 comedy, We’re No Angels. Viewers never actually see Albert’s pet coral snake, Adolf. But Adolf proves that snakes don’t have to be big to be deadly. And Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov deliver fantastic performances in a classic Christmas movie.

On the flip side, you’ve got to love the Incredibly Deadly Viper in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. For one thing, the name shows that scientists have a sense of humor. The herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery bestowed the name on the snake as a joke. More importantly, while all snakes are cold-blooded, they’re certainly not all killers. In fact, the majority of snakes are not venonous. The trick lies in knowing which is which.

Happy Year of the Snake!

What’s your favorite snake movie?
And what’s your favorite snake science fact?

Study Smarter

A new scientific study suggests ways to study science—and other subjects—more effectively. That’s good news for students staring down the prospect of mid-terms or finals. Psychologist John Dunlosky at Kent State University and his colleagues compared ten study strategies. Their report appears in the January 2013 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot—such as rereading and highlighting—seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance,” Dunlosky said when the report was released. In other words, buying dozens of colored highlighters won’t magically make you an A student.flashcardsSmall

So, what works better? The research team gave high marks to practice testing. Think flash cards and similar activities.

High marks also went to distributed practice. Basically, distributed practice is the opposite of cramming. Instead of trying to jam everything in right before a test or in one shot of class time and homework, the method spreads learning and practice with the subject matter out over time.

The plus side: You don’t necessarily need scads more study time to do better in school. Switching how and when you study can yield better grades, even if the total study time stays the same.

The downside: Nothing in the study supports osmosis as an effective study technique. I’d always hoped that as long as I had to spend the effort lugging textbooks around, the material would magically get absorbed in the process. Too bad.