Archive | March 2013

Listen Up, Peeps!

This just in: The American Bird Conservancy has just declared the Peep (Marshmallicious delicious) this year’s “Easter bird of the week.” Repeating the organization’s 2011 choice was a “no brainer” for ABC President George Fenwick.

Perhaps more surprising was ABC’s decision to split the Peep into four bird species. ABC’s press release explains:

Up until now, scientists have recognized only the familiar “yellow” form of peep as a full species; but there is currently support in the ornithological community for granting separate species status to the blue, teal, pink, and purple forms, currently considered color morphs. “There simply isn’t any evidence that these forms interbreed,” said ABC senior scientist Dr. David Wiedenfeld. “While they can often be found roosting in the same box, the fact is that nobody has ever seen an intermediate bird between the color morphs,” he added.

Marshmallow Peeps by Just Born

Marshmallow Peeps by Just Born

Of course, Peeps aren’t real birds. They’re marshmallow treats. Nonetheless, ABC’s press release provides a moment to think about what makes a species separate.

Not interbreeding is one point, as Wiedenfeld notes. At a minimum, however, a species must be capable of breeding with members of its own species. Peeps aren’t alive, either.

Thus, in a strict scientific sense, Peeps fails to qualify as a species. Far be it from me to quibble with the American Bird Conservancy, though. After all, this is the kind of science folks are sure to eat up.

Happy Easter!


Forget Old Age. Why Does This Matter Now?

“Physical activity during youth may help reduce fracture risk in old age.” I believe his headline from a March 23 press release by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. I accept that Swedish researcher Bjorn Rosengren and his colleagues followed sound methodology in their current and retrospective studies of student athletes compared to non-athletes. And I follow the reasoning that more physical activity during childhood builds bone mass. More bone mass means a lower risk of fractures in old age.

Maybe the news will persuade legislators and school boards to keep funding for gym and sports strong in schools. Unfortunately, the news will probably convince few, if any, children and teens to turn off the computer or TV and head outside to play. Old age is too far in the future for them. Even their parents probably aren’t worrying about old age—either for themselves or their kids.

Health professionals who deal with tobacco education finally get this idea. Twenty-five years ago, the anti-smoking messages all focused on cancer, heart disease, and other long-term effects. Within the last decade, though, there’s been much more emphasis on the immediate consequences of smoking.

Robert Klesges at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital stressed this when I interviewed him a few years ago. “The average adolescent is more concerned about the quality of their breath than the quality of their blood pressure.” As for long-term consequences, many teens’ attitude was, “Who cares? I’ll be old or dead by then anyway.”

Bad breath and worse performance in sports are immediate bad consequences that most teens want to avoid. Just as importantly, a huge majority of teens prefer to date nonsmokers. So say 80 percent of tenth graders in the 2012 Monitoring the Future Study. More than half of all high school students in the study disliked even being near people who were smoking.

Other messages appeal to teens’ sense of independence. Tobacco companies need new customers to replace the 1,200 people who die every day from smoking-related diseases. Teens who don’t smoke don’t get trapped in a costly addiction that sucks dollars out of their wallets and into the coffers of big business.

Fortunately, teens seem to be listening. Combined data for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in 2012 Monitoring the Future Study showed that less than 11 percent had smoked cigarettes with in the past month. Let’s hope that trend continues.

Let’s get more physical activity in our lives too. Maybe we’re not worrying about old age yet. But feeling good and looking good right now are great reasons for all of us to get moving.

Why I Sometimes Don’t Take Sides

Arriving home after a short trip to Florida, I found a letter from Hannah. The Colorado high school student recently did a research project and used my book, The Debate Over Genetically Engineered Foods: Healthy or Harmful? Hannah found the book to be very helpful. However, she wrote:

I noticed in the book that you never took a stand on the subject and gave great points to both sides, but do you really have an opinion that you are not sharing? Do you always sound unbiased in your work because I read a couple unrelated articles, and of the ones I read, you never chose a side.

GMfoodsMy two-page response to Hannah is en route via U.S. Mail. Because she raises a good point about objectivity, I want to share part of my response here.

Yes, my letter explained, I deliberately did not take sides in the book. The book was for the educational market, and its goal was to help students and other readers develop their own informed opinions. Beyond this, the book is journalistic. In other words, it reports on its subject. As I explained to Hannah:

More generally, my book about genetically engineered foods and many of my other books and articles fall into the category of journalistic writing. Good journalists aim to report the news fairly. While they definitely have views, they also recognize that objective, independent reporting makes their writing more credible and reliable. For more on this topic, check out “Principles of Journalism” at Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism website.

Other writing styles take a specific position on issues. Newspaper editorials and many online blog posts state their authors’ positions in an attempt to sway public opinion. I do this in some of my Summa Cum Latte blog posts. Legal briefs in court cases also take definite positions. Those court filings aim to persuade judges to rule in favor of one side instead of another.

In my personal view, there’s a place for both reporting and commentary. Unfortunately, the lines often blur in our current media. Yes, many people want to know Fox News or Salon’s take on hot items in the news. But if all our news sources are slanted, it’s harder for Hannah and others to arrive at their own informed opinions.

When you read an article or watch any news show, consider whether it’s objective or biased one way or the other. Take this into account when you judge how reliable the information is.

And when you have a question about a position an author does or doesn’t take, write in and ask!

Time for a Gravity Tractor?

Neil deGrasse Tyson wants a gravity tractor. Then if an asteroid comes careening on a collision course with Earth, we could tow it out of the way.

The possibility of a collision isn’t too far-fetched. Earth had a relatively near miss last month when Asteroid 2012 DA 14 came about 17,000 miles close to Earth. If it had hit, we would have had big trouble. Scientists think an asteroid collision wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

NASA/JPL image by P. Chodas (NASA/JPL):

NASA/JPL image by P. Chodas (NASA/JPL):

Why not blast an asteroid out of the sky like Bruce Willis did in the 1998 movie Armageddon?
Well, dealing with debris could be a big problem. “In America we’re really good at blowing stuff up, and we’re less good at knowing where the pieces fall,” Tyson told The Daily Show host Jon Stewart this week.

A gravity tractor isn’t far-fetched either. The solution would also involve a rocket launch. But instead of blasting an asteroid, the rocket would hover near it. The rocket and asteroid’s gravity would pull on each other. Things made of matter do that.

As that starts happening, jets on the rocket would move it slightly away from the asteroid. Gravity would get the asteroid to follow the rocket. Do this early enough, and you could change the asteroid’s path. Then it would miss the Earth.

Actually, astrophysicists have been talking about this idea for years. “Gravity Tractors Beat Bombs,” announced the journal Nature in 2005. The same issue presented a gravity tractor design by NASA Johnson Space Center scientists Edward Lu and Stanley Love.

Funding isn’t available yet for a gravity tractor. But maybe it’s something to consider. As Tyson said, “I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the galaxy when aliens learn that we all went extinct from an asteroid when we had a space program that could have done something about it. That would just be embarrassing.”

Trash Talk: Plastics as Hazardous Waste?

My city, like many others, has us separate certain plastics and other recyclables from other trash. If Chelsea Rochman and colleagues at the University of California Davis and elsewhere have their way, plastics would become hazardous waste. So say those authors in a recent Nature commentary. (Nature 494, 169; 2013) I say it’s a bad idea.

Changing the law would impose more costs but add little extra protection. Part D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act deals with disposal of non-hazardous solid waste. Under current law, landfills for those wastes must already follow standards. Requirements include caps, liners, and leachate recovery systems. (Leachate is contaminated goo that might ooze out of a landfill.)

The article authors also suggest that calling plastics “hazardous waste” would let the government clean up vast amounts of plastic litter in U.S. waters. Don’t hold your breath.

Even if plastics disposal sites became Superfund sites, clean-up wouldn’t be automatic. Costly litigation against “responsible parties” can take years. Sites without obvious litigation targets must compete with others for funding. Determining proper response actions would also pose problems. And legal fees could be huge.

The Nature article does raise good points about the problems that plastics can pose to marine life and other organisms. However, many of those problems come from disposal that is already unlawful. Wouldn’t it be better to use resources to enforce existing laws?

Nations should work together to enforce treaties that forbid improper disposal at sea. Meanwhile, governments at home should strictly enforce laws against littering and other improper disposal. Stiff fines and penalties can recoup some clean-up costs. Punishing wrongdoers could also deter new violations. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers could work to design safer plastics.

Feel free to share your views. I’ve got to take out the trash.

Good Wine, Bad Science


Wednesday night’s dinner was a great opportunity to sample fantastic food and sparkling wines. There was some bad science too, but I’ll explain that in a bit.

First, the fun food and sparkling wines: Tiny tasting plates and sparkling wine samples made a great meal. Il Follo Prosecco, Cuvee Rose Brut accompanied mushroom phyllo purses and maple-glazed pork belly strips. Il Follo Prosecco, Cuvee Rustot Brut went with shrimp sticks with sweet chili sauce and risotto balls with red pepper coulis. Larmandier-Bernier Tradition Extra-Brut Premier Cru Champagne complemented tiny empanadas and mini beef Wellington bites. Raventos Blanc Cava, L’Hereu Reserva Brut matched a mini crab cake and hazelnut-crusted brie. Domaine Bott Geyl, Cremant d’Alsace, Paul-Edouard Brut worked well with a butternut squash shooter and scallops with orzo. Dessert was a chocolate-dipped strawberry. Yum!

Throughout the meal, the wine rep presented fun facts about the vintners, the wines, and pairings with food. She was generally pretty good, except for the bit about sparkling wine’s bubbles. Here’s where the bad science comes in.

The wine rep was right that the bubbles are carbon dioxide. She was flat-out wrong when she said they come from “the sugar and the yeast eating each other.”

After she repeated the error at least three times, though, the man behind me spoke up. “I still don’t understand where the carbon dioxide is coming from,” he said. “Why is it there?”

Okay, at that point I turned around. “The yeast is made of living cells,” I said. “The yeast eats the sugar and uses it for energy. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of that process.”

“Ah!” he said. “That’s right,” the wine rep added graciously. I’m not sure if she knew that my statements differed from hers. But at least the guy behind me got some accurate information.

So, what did I learn from the evening’s experience? First, think beyond champagne when shopping for sparkling wines. Good bottles of Prosecco sell for less than $20. Prices for the Cava and Cremant that we tasted were $20 and $22, respectively. All were dry and quite tasty.

Second, sparkling wines work well with fried foods, popcorn, and even potato chips. They do not pair well with spinach.

Third, we should all know basic biology. The wine rep picked out some tasty wines. However, not knowing about respiration hurt her credibility.

Last but not least: Good science, good taste, and tact all matter in many areas of our lives.