There’s a buzz in the air these days, a loud one. I’m sure you’ve heard it but it could have easily been mistaken for a malfunctioning drone plane stuck in the trees. The sounds of summer are slowly becoming dominated by the mating songs of male Cicadas, as their relatively long lives culminate in a grand finale. And it sure is noisy.
You may have seen the recent headlines from the media outlets that announced the imminence of a “Cicadapocalypse”, but I can assure you that it will be significantly less dramatic than that. As usual, however, there is some truth behind the warning, only that there may be many more Cicadas around this year than in others, due to the strange periodicity of the Cicada lifecycle.
Cicadas are large-bodied insects, closely related to aphids and plant hoppers, who spend most of their lives as larvae eating roots underground before they pupate to adulthood and crawl up the nearest tree to mate and lay eggs before dying. In Eastern North America there are seven kinds, which are known as Periodical Cicadas, four species of which have 13-year lifecycles and the other three have 17-year cycles.Read more
What do we know about cats? You show them a litter box and they will from that moment on never make anywhere else in the house. Try that with a dog. Cats don’t have receptors for sweets, so you can’t train them by offering them sweet treats. In fact, you can’t train them at all. That’s supposedly because they are too smart to cater to human whims. I don’t know about that; after all, they will chase the beam of a laser pointer ad nauseum, never learning that they cannot catch it.
If you think your cat is affectionate towards you because he or she rubs up against your leg, think again. They are just marking you as their territory, so that if they find themselves in danger, they’ll know where to run for protection. Cats do have a remarkable ability to land on all fours if you toss them into the air, and they are pretty good at catching mice and birds that they will then offer as a present to the household where they happen to be living. If you want to reciprocate to this kindness, you can offer them a little catnip. They’ll immediately turn on their back and wait for some tummy rubbing. Why they respond to the scent of this flowering plant is a mystery since it doesn’t seem to offer any evolutionary advantage. Actually, not all cats are attracted, but roughly three quarters of them are. Some sort of genetic trait is likely involved. Furthermore, only mature cats are attracted, kittens are actually repelled by the scent.
The chemical in the scent of catnip that produces cat euphoria is nepetalactone. The plant does not produce this compound to attract cats. Since cats do not pollinate, and do not eat insects, there is no advantage to the catnip plant to attract felines. So we have to look elsewhere for any advantage offered to the plant by nepetalactone. It turns out that this compound happens to be a pheromone, or sex attractant, for aphids, the tiny sap-sucking insects that can sap the life out of a plant.
Obviously there is no advantage to the plant in attracting aphids. But there is an advantage in attracting aphid predators. The lacewing fly and creepy wasp find that aphids provide just the right environment for laying their eggs and have learned to hunt down aphids by going after the pheromone they produce. The catnip plant takes advantage of this phenomenon and churns out nepetalactone to attract the aphid predators that then lay their eggs inside the live aphids and end up killing them.
While cats love catnip, cockroaches do not. The scent of nepetalactone sends them skittering away. Removing the roaches’ antennae renders them indifferent to nepetalactone, revealing that it is receptors on these rather than on the feet or in the mouth that respond. Nepetalactone also repels a variety of biting insects, including the mosquito. But it’s not a good idea to use an insect repellant based on this chemical if you are on safari. Catnip attracts big cats too. Like lions, tigers and leopards. I don’t think you want these guys rubbing against your leg.Read more
Magnets are fascinating. Imagine the amazement of the ancient Greeks who discovered that some naturally occurring stones, later named magnetite because they were found in a region of Greece called Magnesia, attracted iron. The stones also quickly attracted superstitious beliefs. Magnetite was said to have had magical powers, the ability to heal the sick and frighten away evil spirits. Archimedes, in an undoubtedly apocryphal story, is said to have used magnetite to remove nails from enemy ships and sink them. Magnets never sank ships, but they were used to guide them. We are talking about the compass.
Thousands of years ago the Chinese also noted the properties of naturally occurring magnetite. When made into the shape of a needle and floated on water, the magnetite always lined up in a north south direction! By about 1000 AD, the Chinese had developed the compass that became the key to navigation. But magnets have also been used to navigate people away from reality. In the 1800s physician Anton Mesmer had people hold onto magnetized rods to attract disease out of their body. Mesmerism, as his antics came to be called, often worked. The success of the treatment had nothing to do with the magnets, rather it was based on the belief of the patient. Magnets are great placebos. Today, magnetized bracelets can be purchased to energize the gullible. And you can buy magnetic laundry disks for insertion into washing machines to allow laundry to be done without the use of detergents. The claim is that the magnets ionize water and thereby increase its cleaning ability. Nonsense.
Advertising for these products often attacks commercial detergents accusing them of containing cancer causing chemicals and hormone disruptors. The claim is that the magnetic disks reduce health risks by eliminating exposure to these substances while also saving money since there is no need to purchase detergents. Furthermore, use of the disks prevents the release of toxic substances into the environment. That all sounds very “green.” References are given to a patent for the laundry disks, as well as to a study supposedly demonstrating their cleaning efficacy.
It is important to understand that the only requirement for obtaining a patent is novelty. In this case, since nobody before had the idea of putting magnets into a washing machine, the patent was not hard to get. When it comes to the patent, there is no need to show that the magnets actually do anything, just that their use in this context is novel. How about the study carried out by a testing lab that examined the cleaning efficacy? Technicians actually took bundles of clothes, washed them in a magnet equipped washing machine and demonstrated they came out cleaner than they went in. Surprise, surprise! Water is an excellent solvent and cleans remarkably well even without any detergent. The “study” had no control. That is, there was no comparison between laundering with just water and laundering with the magnetized water.
Is there any rationale that the magnets can actually do something? Water is diamagnetic, which means that it will be repelled by a magnet. But the effect is very, very, small. If a vial of water is placed on a piece of floating Styrofoam and a strong magnet is brought close, it will slowly move away from the magnet. An interesting phenomenon, but nothing to do with cleaning ability. But there is something about the advertising for the laundry disks that is not contestable. They are guaranteed to last for fifty years, a guarantee that is indeed safe since magnets do not rot. That is more than what can be said about the claims of their miraculous cleaning properties.Read more
Virtually no day goes by without an alert from the media about some chemical in the environment that is suspected of harming our health. It may do this by disrupting our hormones, triggering cancer, causing heart disease, affecting brain development, or any combination of these. Among numerous other substances it might be oxybenzone in sunscreens, tetrachloroethylene residue in dry cleaned clothes, caramel colouring in cola drinks, arsenic in rice or phthalates in plastics. The allegations are generally backed up by references to the scientific literature but interpreting the data in practical terms is very challenging. It has been said that our ability to collect data has outstripped our ability to analyze what the data means.
Take endocrine disruptors for example. These are chemicals that can in some way interfere with the chemical messengers we call hormones. Such interference can cause cancer, developmental issues, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, obesity and reproduction problems, especially if exposure is during the critical period of development between a fertilized egg and a full formed baby. This is the time when cells multiply quickly and take on their individual characteristics. Exposure to chemicals that would be innocuous in an adult can at this point have serious consequences. It stands to reason that effort should be made to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors particularly during pregnancy.
But here’s the rub. We are awash in endocrine disruptors, both natural and synthetic. There are dozens and dozens of chemicals that when tested on cell cultures in the lab or in animals have hormone disruptive effects. Yes, there are the usual suspects like bisphenol A, phthalates and parabens, but numerous others don’t get much play in the press because they occur in nature. Naringenin in oranges and grapefruit, genistein and daidzen in soy, hops in beer, nicotine in tobacco caffeine in coffee and indole in corn can all be shown to have the ability to disrupt hormonal activity. The same goes for resveratrol in red wine, as well as for ethanol which is the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. Of course the effects of all of these are dose dependent and route of exposure dependent. Inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure can have very different effects.
I am certainly not saying that we should have no worries about chemicals to which we are exposed. We do need to be concerned about alcohol, lead, smoke, mercury, some pesticides and some flame retardants, but we also need to understand that just because some substance in a pure form causes an adverse effect in a test tube or in an animal doesn’t mean that its presence in a consumer product presents a risk. There are thousands of chemical reactions going on in our body all the time including numerous ones that break down potential toxins. The human body and its interaction with chemicals is far too complex to yield simple answers.Read more
"I hate plastics. We should get rid of them.” So began an email I received. The correspondent went on to talk about how plastics are a plague on the environment, how they contain chemicals that contaminate our food supply, disrupt our hormones, cause autism and ADHD and use up valuable petroleum deposits. What prompted the email was some comments I made about different plastics having different properties and how there were some concerns with some but not with others. The disturbing part of the message was the insinuation that I must be in the pockets of the plastic industry since I did not agree that plastics were substances forged in hell. That allegation is easy to answer. I get zero funding from the petroleum or plastics industries. My allegiance is to the scientific method. Where that path leads, I go.
It is true that plastics can be an environmental plague. But plastic shopping bags don’t jump into rivers or trees by themselves, and empty bottles that should be recycled don’t leap into garbage cans unaided. People are the problem. As far as using up petroleum resources, only about 5% of oil goes towards plastic manufacture, and in North America the prime raw material is actually not petroleum but natural gas. I should add that while plastics are mostly made from fossil fuels, this is not the case exclusively. Polylactic acid, widely used today, is made from corn and there is extensive research in the area of “green chemistry” to produce a variety of polymers from plant products.
What about the bit about contamination of our food supply? Anytime two surfaces come into contact, there is an exchange of chemicals. Indeed, it is possible that trace amounts of plastic chemicals with endocrine disruptive properties may end up in our food supply, but the dose is so small that any sort of harmful effect is very unlikely. Heat increases the release of chemicals, so it is better to use glass or ceramic for warming up food, although plastics labeled as microwave safe contain no easily leached components. As far as ADHD and autism go, the fact is that nobody knows the cause. There is much speculation ranging from genetics and microbiome imbalances to environmental contaminants but plastic ingredients would come way down the list. It is true that we can definitely live without plastic microbeads in cosmetics and even without synthetic fabrics, although resorting to cotton poses a whole range of other problems. But the suggestion to get rid of plastics is simple-minded nonsense that amounts to lack of seeing the forest for the trees.
Our life today depends on plastics. They are vital components of our airplanes, our cars, our buildings, our TV sets, our food production and drug manufacturing equipment, as well as numerous consumer goods ranging from shampoo bottles to shower curtains and toothbrushes. Yes, you could make toothbrushes from wood and pig bristles, but nylon is a lot better. Modern medicine could not function without plastics. Intravenous tubing, blood bags, burn dressings, artificial limbs, heart-lung machines, artificial joints, pacemakers, MRI machines, CAT scanners and x-ray equipment and white dental fillings rely on plastics. And just try to make a computer without plastics. Right now you are reading this on a computer or cell phone that could not function without plastics. Mr. McGuire in the Graduate was right: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Benjamin: Yes, sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Benjamin: Yes, I am. Mr. McGuire: Plastics!”Read more
According to a study in the European Heart Journal, a single angry outburst can have immediate adverse effects. That’s because anger causes an increase in blood pressure and a release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Indeed, the risk of a heart attack or angina is nearly five times higher in the two hours following an anger outburst than at other times, and the risk of stroke is four times higher. Let’s not get too carried away with this though, because at any given moment the risk of a heart attack or stroke is very low, so even a five fold increase in risk isn’t that great. To put the numbers into perspective, researchers estimate that if 10,000 healthy people have one anger outburst a month over a year, one of them will suffer a heart attack or a stroke as a result of the outburst. Among people who have other risk factors such as smoking, being overweight, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, there would be four cardiovascular events over a year with one monthly outburst. But among people who get angry more often, which is not an unusual scenario, the risk rises significantly. For example, if 10,000 people who also have other risk factors have five angry outbursts a day, some 600 of them will have a heart attack or stroke.Read more
Science can make for a strange bedfellow. I had just finished recording a video showing off one of my favourite sweaters and expounding on the ingenuity and the environmental benefit of it being made from recycled polyester bottles when an article appeared on one of my newsfeeds about how “your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply.” The message was that the very fabric I was so high on may be unravelling the fabric of society.
I must say I was puzzled by the headline, but on glancing through the story, the details of the problem quickly came out in the wash, as it were. Synthetic fabrics are not exactly inert and release microscopic bits of fiber when washed. The particles may be microscopic, but their number is anything but. Researchers at the University of California found that a synthetic fleece jacket releases hundreds of thousands of microscopic fibers, about 2 grams in total, with each wash. Wastewater treatment removes some of this debris, but most of it ends up in rivers, lakes and oceans where it can be consumed by wildlife. The fibers then can bioaccumulate up the aquatic food chain, right up to people consuming fish. Whether this presents a risk is not known, but bits of plastic are not a desirable dietary component. The clothing industry is sensitive to the problem and is working on coatings for fabric that would reduce shedding. Also in the works are washing machines that prevent the release of microfibers by using pressurized carbon dioxide instead of water.
The shedding of microfibers from synthetic fabrics is not the only way tiny pieces of plastic, invisible to the naked eye, end up in water systems.” Microbeads,” introduced into consumer products such as toothpaste and exfoliating skin products as abrasives, are a bigger concern. Six varieties of the tiny beads are used. Those composed of either polyethylene, polypropylene or expanded polystyrene are more likely to float, whereas the ones made of polyvinyl chloride, nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are more likely to sink. McGill biologist Anthony Ricciardi has found microbeads in significant numbers in sediment at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, meaning possible contamination of fish that feed on the riverbed.
Microbeads range in size from 10 millionths of a meter to one millimeter. Their round shape makes them much less irritating than irregularly shaped, abrasive exfoliants like apricot kernels or walnut shells that have sharp edges. Also, because the particles are tiny spheres, they act as little ball bearings, allowing for easy spreadability of creams and lotions as well as a smooth texture and silky feel. There’s more. Imperfections in the skin tend to be visible because of the contrast between how they reflect light compared with the surrounding tissue. Microbeads with their ability to scatter and diffuse light can minimize the appearance of fine lines and improve skin tone. When it comes to toothpaste, though, they make a minimal contribution to polishing the teeth and may actually become embedded in gum tissue. Why are they there? Since the microbeads can be produced in various colours they can also increase the visual appeal of a product.
A single container of face wash can contain hundreds of thousands of the microspheres. While the virtually indestructible plastic beads are not themselves toxic, once they enter the water, they attract potentially toxic substances such as PCBs, triclosan and nonylphenols. Like the microfibers, microbeads can then become part of the aquatic food chain, eaten by fish and then by people. Once consumed, the beads may also leach out plastic additives like colourants, plasticizers and ultraviolet light stabilizers.
Researchers have found fish both in the oceans and the Great Lakes contaminated with microbeads. Besides carrying toxins, the beads can cause internal abrasions and can stunt growth of the fish by giving them a false sense of being full. One-third of fish caught off the south-west coast of England have been found to contain microbeads and Belgian researchers studying seafood from German farms and French supermarkets found that an average portion of mussels can contain about ninety microplastic particles, and an order of oysters about fifty. The beads have also been found to lodge in the guts of crabs as well as in their gills.
The number of microbeads that end up in the environment is staggering. In New York State alone some 19 tons go down the drain every year. Most wastewater plants are not equipped to filter out such fine particles and while they could be retrofitted, the expense would be prohibitive. Drinking water poses less of a problem because municipal water treatment plants can filter out the tiny particles although a sampling of German beers found microbeads in every bottle, with the water used being the likely source. Both Canada and the U.S. have moved to ban microbeads and manufacturers have started the process of phasing them out. Researchers agree that there are still too many unknowns to fully assess the environmental damage caused by microplastics but given that they do not contribute significant benefits they should be eliminated.
But the problem of plastic waste in the oceans is greater than can be accounted for by microfibers and microbeads. Other tiny particles form from the breakdown of plastic bags, bottles and all sorts of containers that get discarded end up in waste streams that empty into the ocean. “Biodegradable” on a label means that the plastic has been shown to degrade under ideal composting conditions, but these do not exist in the natural environment. Estimates are that the ratio of plastics to fish by weight in the oceans is 1:5 and with our current callous attitude towards “reduce, recycle, reuse,” it is set to increase to 1:1 by 2050.
Given these concerns, I don’t think I can wear my “made from a plastic bottle” sweater with the same pride as before. And I may even feel a bit of apprehension tossing it into the laundry basket.Read more
To take or not to take, that is the question many people have been asking themselves about vitamin D supplements. As is so often the case in science, there is no concrete answer. This in spite of close to 2000 studies published in the scientific literature. What that means is that if an effect exists, it is likely to be small, because if it were significant it would have revealed itself.
There is no question that a deficiency of vitamin D is responsible for rickets and that vitamin D supplements can help. But beyond that, the situation is quite murky. Given that rickets is a bone weakness problem, it is reasonable to explore whether vitamin D supplements can protect against fractures, particularly among the elderly. There are consistent observational studies showing an association between low vitamin D levels in the blood and greater risk of fractures. However, studies on supplementing the diet with vitamin D have not shown spectacular results. When the studies dealing with fractures are pooled, the evidence that emerges is that taking roughly 1000 IU of vitamin D and 500 mg of calcium can have an effect on fracture reduction, but not a very significant one. The data indicate that roughly fifty people would have to take vitamin D and calcium every day for ten years to prevent one fracture. There is no increased advantage to taking more than 1000 IU a day.
Vitamin D supplements have also been claimed to be of help in multiple sclerosis, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory tract infections. In the case of MS, it is well known that the incidence increases with latitude, suggesting that decreased exposure to ultraviolet light leading to a reduced formation of vitamin D in the body may play a role. But supplementation with vitamin D has not been shown to have a clinical effect. Neither has benefit been shown for depression or respiratory tract infections.
There has also been much interest in exploring the potential of vitamin D supplements in preventing cancer given that observational studies have consistently shown that people with low blood levels of the vitamin have a greater risk of cancer, especially of the breast. But the question here is whether low levels predispose to cancer, or whether cancer causes vitamin D levels to drop. A few studies, mostly in women, have shown that supplements reduce the incidence of cancer but in general the total number of cancer cases in these trials is too small for sweeping generalizations. Nevertheless, the trend in the cancer studies is towards showing at least a minor protective effect with vitamin D. So, the bottom line is that vitamin D is no panacea, but may play a small role in preventing fractures and possibly some cancers. Given that there is no recorded downside to dosing with 1000 IU a day, and that the supplement is cheap, it seems that taking a 1000 IU vitamin D supplement is not unreasonable, especially for women. The potential benefit is very small, but the risk is essentially zero. Read more
The marble and granite statue in the Boston Common depicts a physician in medieval clothing holding a cloth next to the face of a man who seems to have passed out. An inscription on the base of the statue reads “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain, first proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. 1846.” No names are mentioned.
It was on Oct. 16, 1846, that dentist William Morton ushered in the era of surgical anesthesia by putting printer Gilbert Abbot to sleep with fumes of ether from an inhaler he had devised. Surgeon John Collins Warren then proceeded to remove a tumour from the patient’s neck without any of the usual screaming or thrashing about.
Warren looked up at the doctors who had witnessed the event in the surgical theatre that would become known as the “ether dome” and proclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”
That was in reference to a failed attempt by another dentist, Horace Wells, to demonstrate anesthesia with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, at the same hospital. In that case, Wells hadn’t waited long enough for the nitrous oxide to take effect and the patient howled in pain as Wells attempted to extract a tooth. He exited in disgrace to the cries of “humbug.”
Although Morton gets credit for the first organized demonstration of ether anesthesia, he certainly was not the first to experiment with the chemical. The sleep-inducing effect of ether was first recorded 300 years earlier, when famed Swiss alchemist, philosopher and physician Paracelsus noted that its vapours would induce a state of unresponsiveness in chickens. Ether does not occur in nature, so where did Paracelsus get it?
In 1540, German physician and botanist Valerius Cordus discovered that heating alcohol with sulphuric acid, then known as oil of vitriol, yielded a new highly flammable substance with a characteristic smell. Vitriol was the archaic name for compounds that today are termed “sulphates.”
Cordus discovered that heating a solution of green vitriol, or iron (II) sulphate, a naturally occurring mineral, yielded “oil of vitriol.” Then in the 17th century, German-Dutch chemist Johann Glauber found that burning sulphur with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) produced sulphuric acid.
Potassium nitrate decomposes to yield the oxygen needed to convert sulphur to sulphur trioxide, which dissolves in water to produce sulphuric acid. In the 19th century, potassium nitrate was replaced by vanadium pentoxide, which acted as a catalyst allowing for easier production of sulphur trioxide. This was the method used to produce the sulphuric acid needed for the synthesis of ether in the 1800s.
Before ether’s triumphant performance in 1846 at Massachusetts General, it had developed a reputation as a recreational substance. Middle-class partygoers and medical students both in Europe and America frolicked under the influence of ether. More curiously, drinking ether was common in Europe and was particularly popular in Ireland, where the Catholic Church promoted abstinence from alcohol and asked people to pledge not to drink alcohol. Drinking ether was a way to get around the pledge. Ether was sold in pubs and shops until the 1890s, when it was classified as a poison.
Dr. Crawford Long had taken part in ether frolics as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and when he took over a rural medical practice in Georgia in 1841, he recalled that ether frolickers sometimes developed bumps and bruises of which they seemed to be oblivious.
Could ether be used to relieve pain, he now wondered? The answer came when he delivered his wife’s second baby with the aid of ether anesthesia. Long went on to perform a painless dental extraction, and in 1842 used an ether-soaked towel to put James Venable to sleep before proceeding to excise two tumours from his neck. But Long was not an academic, was not interested in publishing, nor did he crave fame or fortune.
It was two years after William Morton’s celebrated demonstration that Long documented his efforts in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal in a paper titled “An account of the first use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations.”
He described a number of cases, including the amputation of two fingers of a boy who was etherized during one procedure and not the other. Long reported that the patient suffered terribly without ether but was insensible with it. The reason he had waited to publish, he said, was the need to overcome criticism by local colleagues, who had suggested that the ether effect was just an example of mesmerism, which at the time was promoted as a pain-reduction method.
With his publication, Long added his name to the list of people claiming to have been the inventors of ether anesthesia. There was William Morton, of course, and Charles Jackson, a physician who had given up medicine to establish a private laboratory for analytical chemistry, where he also taught students, including Morton, who had come to expand his scientific knowledge.
Jackson claimed that he had introduced Morton to ether anesthesia, and the two got involved in a rancorous battle for years. There was also a Berkshire Medical College student, William E. Clarke, who claimed he had first used ether to put patients to sleep.
It was because of the controversy that the Boston monument does not bear the name of any of the claimants. But it does bear a biblical quote from Isaiah: “This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts which is wonderful and excellent in working,” addressing the worry people had that relief of pain was somehow interfering with God’s will.
The quote suggests that medical intervention is itself a gift from God and is backed up by a relief on the statue depicting a woman who represents Science Triumphant sitting atop a throne of test tubes, burners and distillers, with a Madonna and Child looking on with approval. There is also a Civil War scene on the side of the monument with a Union field surgeon standing ready to amputate a wounded soldier’s leg. The soldier sleeps peacefully. Thanks to ether, he would feel no pain.Read more
Everyone has skeletons in their closet. There’s at least one in mine. A couple of years ago while on a cruise I pinched a spoon from the dining room. It wasn’t because of any lack of spoons at home, it was because no matter how hard I tried I could not bend this one. I tried with two hands, I tried by pushing against the table, I even tried placing the handle under my heel and tugging on the head. No give at all. I had to have that spoon!
I’ve been practicing magic as a hobby ever since I was a teenager. It has turned out to be a perfect fit with my career because of the numerous scientific principles involved in creating the illusion of contravening the laws of nature. And that is what magic is all about. Seeing someone levitate, or vanish inside a cabinet, or appear out of thin air, requires an apparent suspension of the laws of nature. The key word of course is “apparent,” because all such effects are accomplished by clever scientific means. A magician, however, attempts to ensure that the audience will not discover those means. Science can also appear magical, but in this case, we relish in scuttling the magic with down to earth explanations. Just think about it. Isn’t an airplane with hundreds of people aboard flying through the air magical? How about taking pictures with your smart phone and sending them around the world in seconds? Or a seed growing into a plant or a new life being created from the meeting of cells? But magic is converted into science with an appropriate explanation.
I have found performing magic to be an excellent springboard for a discussion of scientific methodology and for fostering the critical thinking needed to prevent being swept away by the tsunami of pseudoscience generated by a rapidly multiplying bevy of charlatans. When you can demonstrate how “psychic surgery,” a procedure by which diseased tissues are apparently removed without an incision, can actually be accomplished by sleight of hand, you have given believers something to think about. Similarly, a demonstration of “mental” effects with a clear declaration that these are done by clever chicanery can help convince at least some that trickery may be involved when psychics perform seemingly scientifically inexplicable feats.
One such feat is “psychokinesis,” or the ability to move objects using only the power of the mind. Psychokinetic effects were first popularized in the middle of the nineteenth century when Angelique Cottin in France claimed that electric emanations from her body allowed her to move objects without touching them. She convinced many observers of her power, but critics offered quite down to earth explanations about how such effects could be performed by natural means. Since that time numerous psychics have claimed psychokinetic powers, with Uri Geller being perhaps the most famous. In the 1970s he beguiled audiences and even some scientists with his apparent ability to bend metal with the power of his mind. He gets credit for introducing the phenomenon of mental spoon bending, an effect upon which he built quite a spectacular career.
Magicians were also astounded. Not by the effect, which can be accomplished by a number of established methods, but by how the public was so ready to swallow a “paranormal” explanation. Conjurers were quick to reproduce the spoon bending trick, pointing out that the only requirement was a modicum of sleight of hand. This brings us back to my pilfered spoon.
When I do the spoon bending trick, I first hand out the spoon to the audience with a challenge to bend it. Once it is established that it can withstand all efforts, I proceed to bend it “with the power of my mind.” But in rare cases, some strong men have managed to bend the spoon and destroy my performance, so I’m always on the lookout for super-strong spoons. I can tell you that Crystal Cruises have such. They absolutely cannot be bent, except in the hands of a magician who is equipped with a “special something.”
But why am I talking about tormenting cutlery? Because last week, thanks to colleague Tim Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta, I learned that “Integrative Pediatric Medicine Rounds” at his University were set to feature a talk on “Spoon Bending and the Power of the Mind.” The seminar would be given by an “energy healer” who has been described as being “a Reiki Master teacher, a certified Trilotherapy practitioner, a Yuen Method practitioner and a teacher of popular Spoon Bending and Tantric Sex workshops.” So this was not to be a workshop on critical thinking, which could have been appropriate. The prospective speaker actually claimed that 75% of attendees would be able to bend spoons with their mental energy!
The scientific community reacted with vigour to this assault on reason, and the resulting extensive media coverage caused the seminar to be cancelled with some weasel explanations being provided about the workshop “being withdrawn by the presenters.”
The “presenter” was to be Anastasia Kutt, who is not some wacky outsider, but is listed in the University’s Directory as “a research assistant in the “Complementary and Alternative Research and Education (CARE) Program” and is also involved in research activities and organizing events.” What sort of events? Given her interest in topics such as Tantric Sex and spoon bending one wonders.
Criticism of this spoon bending fiasco should not be construed as an attempt by the mainstream scientific community to curb free speech or to police academic research. Rather it is an appeal for reason and for vigilance against quackery sneaking into “integrative medicine” programs which are becoming increasingly popular.
I don’t know how Ms. Kutt bends spoons, but I’d be willing to fly to Edmonton at my expense to find out. If she can bend my Crystal Cruise spoon I’ll eat a University of Alberta Integrative Health Program hat.Read more
We hear a lot about food these days. Whether it is about healthy choices, food security and feeding the planet, environmental impacts of food production or the science of GMO biotechnologies, hardly a day goes by without food appearing in our headlines.
Curiously, the most readily available source of low-fat animal protein found just about anywhere in the world (outside of Antarctica) is largely ignored by most food cultures. It might be time we start talking about eating insects, or entomophagy.
Putting our icky aversions aside for a moment, there are many good reasons to consider eating insects. Apart from their widespread availability in the wild, they can easily be raised indoors, with a fraction of the footprint (both in terms of land use and carbon emissions) of domestic livestock such as cattle or pork. Also, insect is a lean meat, with up to three times the protein content and with a fraction of the fat, with crickets compared to beef for example. Also, it is a versatile food, which can be eaten raw, cooked or processed, such as being dried and ground into a flour for baking.
Entomophagy is not new or strange to many people around the world, to be sure. One can easily find bulk crickets or woodworms in the markets of Singapore, or termites and grubs in the Ghanaian markets in Accra. Eating insects is also commonplace in cuisines from Brazil, Australia, Japan, China and more. So why is it that entomophagy still carries a taboo in Canadian/American cultures?
The answer may be partly psychological in nature, partly economic and the two are surprisingly linked. Clearly, our western culture carries with it a strongly ingrained entomophobia, or fear of insects, and we don’t tolerate them in our homes, on our lawns, in our crops or even in our thoughts. There is such a widespread phobia of creepy crawlies of any kind that billions of dollars are spent annually on the propaganda of their evil ways and on chemical pesticide solutions to their eradication from every corner of our lives.
This fanatical intolerance of insects was very deliberately fostered and nurtured by post-WWII chemical pesticide companies looking to promote the magical properties of their pesticides (like DDT) and bolstered by an imaginative TV and film media industry that created blockbuster entertainment about killer cockroaches, an attack of the giant ants or tales of mutant wasps that attack human brains via the ear canal. Ouch, scary stuff!
The net effect of this anti-insect campaign has been one in which most of us would rather squish a bug than pop it into our mouths. I am confident, however, that because this is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned... or better yet, prevented in the first place by reaching out to children and teaching them about the joy and wonders of our critter cousins, before it is stamped out of them by society. Children are naturally curious about all aspects of nature and are particularly intrigued by bugs.
A few weeks ago, I was invited by the teachers at my 3-year old son’s Montessori school to give an insect-related show-and-tell. I managed to borrow several specimen of Stick Insects and Madagascar Cockroaches to bring in for the kids and I was thrilled to see the glee and eagerness from every child who wanted to touch and hold and play with these exotic insects. I kept thinking that the response would have been very different from an adult audience. What a shame it is that this joy of nature is bred out of us as a whole eventually.
Around 15 years ago, back when I was a keen Graduate student in an entomology lab at Laval University in Quebec City, I visited the Insectarium in Montreal for an insect-tasting event. In the foyer of the museum, a dozen chefs were set up behind linen-clothed tables and were preparing gastronomic cuisine of one kind or another, all of which involved insect ingredients. I eagerly ate a multi-course meal consisting in part of ginger-glazed scorpions, garlic-fried crickets, beetle flour cookies and angel-food cake garnished with zesty ants.
At some point during my entomological smorgasbord I noticed that I was being observed by a cautious and curious 8-year old boy, who seemed to take delight in the sight of a grown-up (sort-of) hungrily gobbling down some fried crickets, when I offered him a little taste. The boy reached out his hand to try one when he was noticed by his mother, who was standing just a few feet away.
In the blink of an eye, the poor boy was yanked by the arm, with a shriek from his mother, so brusquely that you could almost hear the socket pop! I mistakenly thought that they were here for an insect-tasting event.... apparently not.
Unfortunately, the boy was so traumatized by his mother’s reaction that it is most likely that his interest in insects was cut short on that very day, one in which a trip to the insectarium could have otherwise promoted a long-term fascination. Too often, our developed entomophobia is inherited directly from our parents, passed down from generation to generation.
We’ve got a long way to go as a society before we are collectively comfortable with all that insects may have to offer us in our lives and maybe even more to consider eating them as regular food.
So whether our conversation about food is related to the challenges of feeding 8 billion+ humans with a smaller ecological footprint or simply to explore the diversity of foodstuffs from the almost 1 million species of insects that exist, we need to start by shifting the flavour of the conversation first, from entomophobia to entomophagy.
Obviously, if we are to have any kind of positive conversation about bugs at all, we need to start with the children and to build pro-actively towards a society that can work with insects and not just against them. Maybe there would be a place for a new “Dickie Dee”-style street vending delivery cart for insect foods.... I can see it now: “Doc Brown’s Bugs ‘n Bites” will be the next food craze coming to a neighbourhood near you. Listen for the chimes as they come around the corner, playing something by The Beatles, of course.
Dr. Adam Oliver Brown
Here is a link to my Facebook page, where you can see some pics and videos of the insect visit with the school children: https://www.facebook.com/DrAdamOliverBrown/Read more
The place was Edinburgh, Scotland. The occasion, the Edinburgh Science Festival. There were a number of captivating presentations, but my biggest thrill came from looking out the hotel window. A light rail track was being constructed just outside and the workers were busy welding. My eyes popped when I saw what they were doing. I was looking at a live thermite reaction! I had talked about this reaction in class on numerous occasions and marvelled on it in videos, but had always deemed it too dangerous to perform.
A chemical reaction that produces heat is said to be “exothermic.” The most common example would be the combustion of a fuel. Light a candle and you can feel the heat that is produced. The hottest part of a flame, where the colour is a light blue, can reach a temperature of about 1400 degrees Celsius. But that is a low temperature compared to the 2500 degrees produced by the “thermite” reaction between aluminum and iron oxide. Essentially, this reaction involves the transfer of oxygen from the iron oxide to aluminum to yield aluminum oxide and metallic iron. At this high temperature, the iron is in its molten form and sets fire to any combustible material in its path, making the thermite reaction ideal for use not only in welding, but also in incendiary bombs and grenades.
Back in 1893, German chemist Hans Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce pure metals from their ores. The classic method for extracting iron relies on heating iron oxide ore with carbon. The carbon is converted to carbon dioxide as it strips oxygen from the iron, leaving behind metallic iron. Some unreacted carbon, however, tends to contaminate the iron. Goldschmidt was looking for a way to produce iron without the use of carbon and hit upon the reaction of iron oxide with aluminum. He was impressed by the remarkable amount of heat produced and suggested that the reaction he had discovered could be used for welding. In 1899, the thermite reaction was put to a commercial use for the first time, welding tram tracks in the city of Essen.
It didn’t take long for the military to realize the potential of this extreme exothermic reaction in warfare. In 1915, the Germans terrorized England by using Zeppelins to drop incendiary bombs based on the thermite reaction. By the Second World War, the battle was on not only between Allied and German armed forces, but also between their scientists and engineers who sought to produce more effective incendiary devices. The Germans came up with the “Elektron” bomb, named after Elektron, an alloy composed of 86 per cent magnesium, 13 per cent aluminum and 1 per cent copper that was used for the casing of the bomb.
This alloy burns with a very hot flame, but requires a high temperature for ignition. The thermite reaction was up to the task. When an Elektron bomb hit the ground, a small percussion charge of gunpowder ignited a priming mixture of finely powdered magnesium and barium peroxide. This reaction produced the heat needed to ignite the thermite mix of aluminum and iron oxide, which in turn ignited the highly combustible casing. The Allies developed similar types of bombs resulting in the most destructive air raid in history, which was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but the firebomb raid on Tokyo in March 1945. An Allied bombing of Dresden the same year with incendiary bombs virtually destroyed the whole city. During the Second World War, the Allies dropped some 30 million 4-pound thermite bombs on Germany and another 10 million on Japan.
Thermite hand grenades were also used during the war to disable artillery pieces without the need for an explosive charge, very useful when silence was necessary to an operation. This involved inserting a thermite grenade into the breech of a weapon and then quickly closing it. The great heat produced by the thermite reaction welded the breech shut and made loading the weapon impossible. Alternatively, a thermite grenade was discharged inside the barrel of an artillery piece making it useless.
During the Vietnam war, thermite grenades found a different use. From the start of hostilities, putting a crimp into the enemy’s food supply was part of the U.S. military strategy. Since rice was a staple for the Viet Cong, destroying rice paddies was a primary goal. At first, attempts were made to blow up rice stocks and destroy paddies with hand grenades and mortars, but this proved to be maddeningly difficult. The next idea was to burn the rice paddies with thermite grenades. All this did was scatter the rice grains, which could then still be harvested. Another approach was needed.
Enter “Agent Blue,” an arsenic-based herbicide, unrelated chemically to the more infamous Agent Orange. Agent Blue affects plants by causing them to dry out, and as rice is highly dependent on water, spraying Agent Blue on rice paddies can destroy an entire field and leave it unsuitable for further planting. The U.S. used some 20 million gallons of Agent Blue during the Vietnam war, destroying thousands of acres of agricultural fields and defoliating wooded areas that the Viet Cong used to ambush American troops.
Recently, the thermite reaction made the news in a different context. Conspiracy theorists purport that it was thermite explosives planted inside the World Trade Center that brought down the twin towers in a CIA coordinated plot. They also maintain that the moon landing was faked and that the U.S. government is hiding the bodies of aliens. Some also claim that the rise of Donald Trump was engineered by a Democratic conspiracy and that on the verge of being elected he will announce “fooled you.” Wouldn’t that be something? It would trump the thermite reaction for heat generated.Read more
During a recent talk on the relation between the body and the mind, I mentioned the newest anxiety-relieving craze, colouring books. Aimed at adults, these feature intricate patterns that provide quite a challenge for staying inside the lines. The contention is that focusing on the special patterns distracts the mind from anxiety and stress. Evidence is sketchy, but millions of colouring books are flying off the shelves, topping best-seller lists. That in itself says something about our society.
After my talk I was approached by a lady who claimed she had something better than colouring books to relieve anxiety and slipped a vial full of pills into my hand. She didn’t seem like a clandestine drug pusher so I thought I would look down and find some pills of lorezapam or maybe St. John’s Wort. Such was not the case. The label on the vial read “Arsenicum album 30C.”
No, she was not trying to poison me. These were homeopathic arsenic pills based on the curious notion that a substance that in large doses causes certain symptoms can, in homeopathic potency, repel the same symptoms. Since arsenic poisoning is associated with anxiety and restlessness, a person suffering such symptoms should find relief in a homeopathic dose of arsenic. In the bizarre world of homeopathy, potency increases with greater dilution, and a dose of 30C is said to be extremely potent. Such a pill is made by sequentially diluting a solution of arsenic a hundred fold thirty times and then impregnating a sugar pill with a drop of the final solution. At a dilution of 30C, not only is there no trace of arsenic left, there isn’t even a water molecule that has ever encountered any of the original arsenic.
Homeopathy is a scientifically bankrupt practice that was invented over two hundred years ago by German physician Samuel Hahnemann who was disenchanted with bloodletting and purging, common medical procedures at the time. He was a good man who searched for kinder and gentler treatments and homeopathy fit that rubric. Since knowledge of molecules was almost non-existent at the time, Hahnemann could not have realized that his diluted solutions contained nothing. Actually, the truth is that they did contain something. A hefty dose of placebo!
Now here is the kicker to this story. Hahnemann was quite accomplished in chemistry and actually developed the first chemical test for arsenic. In 1787 he found that arsenic in an unknown sample was converted to an insoluble yellow precipitate of arsenic trisulfide on treatment with hydrogen sulfide gas. When in 1832 John Bodle in England was accused of poisoning his grandfather by putting arsenic in his coffee, John Marsh, a chemist at the Royal Arsenal, was asked to test a sample of the coffee. While he was able to detect arsenic in the coffee using Hahnemann’s test, the experiment could not be reproduced to the satisfaction of the jury and Bodle was acquitted. Knowing that he could not be tried for the same crime again, he later admitted to killing his grandfather.
The confession infuriated Marsh and motivated him to develop a better test for arsenic. By 1836 he had discovered that treating a sample of body fluid or tissue with zinc and an acid converted any arsenic to arsine gas, AsH3, which could then be passed through a flame to yield metallic arsenic and water. The arsenic would then form a silvery-black deposit on a cold ceramic bowl held in the jet of the flame and the amount of arsenic in the original sample could be determined by comparing the intensity of the deposit with that produced with known amounts of arsenic.
The Marsh test received a great deal of publicity in 1840 when Marie LaFarge in France was accused of murdering her husband by putting arsenic into his food. Marie was known to have bought arsenic from a local chemist which she claimed was to kill rats that had infested the house. A maid swore that she has seen her mistress pour a white powder into her husband’s drink and Marie had also sent a cake to her husband who was travelling on business just prior to his becoming ill. The dead husband’s family suspected that Marie had poisoned him and somehow got hold of remnants of food to which she had supposedly added arsenic. The Marsh test revealed the presence of arsenic in the food and in a sample of egg nog, but when the victim’s body was exhumed the investigating chemist was unable to detect arsenic.
To help prove Marie’s innocence by corroborating the results of the investigation of the exhumed body, the defense enlisted Mathieu Orfila, a chemist acknowledged to be an authority on the Marsh test. Much to the defense’s chagrin, Orfila showed that the test had been carried out incorrectly and used the Marsh test to conclusively prove the presence of arsenic in LaFarge’s exhumed body. Marie was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The controversial case captured the imagination of the public and was closely followed through newspaper accounts making Marie LeFarge into a celebrity. It would also go down in the annals of history as the first case in which a conviction was secured based on direct forensic toxicological evidence. Because of Mathieu Orfila’s role in the case, he is often deemed to be the “founder of the science of toxicology.” The Marsh test became the subject of everyday conversations and even became a popular demonstration at fairgrounds and in public lectures. This had an interesting spin off. Poisonings by arsenic decreased significantly since the existence of a proven, reliable test served as a deterrent.
As far as claims about relieving anxiety with homeopathic arsenic go, well, they cause me anxiety. I think I’ll flush those homeopathic tablets down the drain (no worry about arsenic pollution here) and buy a colouring book.Read more
“We've had more people reverse cancer than any institute in the history of health care, so when McGill fails, or Toronto hospitals fail, they come to us. It can be stage 4 cancer and we reverse it.” You can imagine why that quote caught my eye. Both McGill and University of Toronto have world-class cancer treatment centers, but unfortunately, when it comes to stage 4 cancers, which are the most deadly, the chance of successful treatment is low. So, who is it that claims success where the latest evidence-based treatments fail? “Dr.” Brian Clement, who runs the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, apparently has the answers that have evaded mainstream researchers. What sort of doctor is this fellow? One who has some sort of accreditation as a “nutritionist” from a diploma mill where they apparently teach some, let us say, “interesting” science. I’m judging by the following rather fascinating outpouring of nonsense-bedecked drivel from the Hippocrates Health Institute.
“Based on modern biophysics and ancient Chinese medicine, color frequencies are applied to acupuncture points using a light pen and crystal rods. This promotes hormonal balance, detoxification, lymph flow and immune support while reducing headaches and sleeplessness. Working on cellular memory where the cause of disease resides, color puncture promotes healing from within.” And all you have to do is shell out $120 for a 50 minute treatment. All this of course is laughable, but when it comes to claims about curing cancer, the humour quickly vanishes with the realization that it is real people with real cancer who are being duped. And going by the following asinine promo, that is just what is happening.
“One of the major treatment goals of The Cancer Wellness Program at Hippocrates Health Institute is to strengthen the basic vitality, flow, and coherency of a person’s BioEnergy Field upstream to affect and change their downstream physical mass. The changes in a person’s vibrational frequency or bioenergy field, once stabilized, changes the electrical/chemical milieu in their body so that it is more difficult for their cancer or tumor mass with its own specific vibrational frequency to be sustained.”.
This is inane claptrap is far from the only type of cancer treatment Hippocrates offers. Intravenous vitamins and wheat grass implants are standard fare. Implanted where? Well, let’s just say in areas where the sun doesn’t shine. Clement maintains that “every disease known to man, plus premature aging, can be successfully dealt with on a diet of organic plant based foods.” Apparently not mental disease, given that Clement surely follows this diet. Patients are also told to give up meat and dairy, and are asked to swallow some rather bizarre ideas. Genetics don’t matter much, Clement says, and what doctors say about the BRCA gene predisposing to breast cancer is false. On his regimen, this mental wizard claims, tens of thousands of people have reversed the final stages of cancer. I would love to see the evidence for that. This charlatan is in Canada right now, giving talks, mostly to entice First Nations people to visit his Institute in Florida for treatment. Just like that given to the unfortunate 11-year-old Ontario girl who suffered from leukemia. That had a very sad outcome. Let’s just say she was not one of the tens of thousands of patients that Clement claims to have successfully treated.Read more