Why read about Science?

This post is about why should anyone bother to write about science, to ‘do’ science writing. But really I’m interested in two other things here, consider this post a conversation starter. Firstly, you, the reader, why do you read about science? Or if you don’t, what would it take for you to do so? (Also, how did you get here?) And secondly, science writers, why do you think science writing is important? Why should people write about science? What do I mean by science writing? Firstly, I guess it applies equally well to ‘science communication’ in general, but I want to focus on science writing here. Not actual scientific papers and journals, I’m more thinking of anything that takes that kind of information in one end and squirts out something more accessible to a non-specialist at the other end. It can be anything along the spectrum from blogging and social ...(Read More)

Science Hubb update: Designs, facebook pages and being published! Yay!

This post is just on a few things I thought I’d update you with about what been going on lately with Science Hubb. First up, and least consequential, I made a new logo and header things for the site, which you can see above. I struggled for a while trying to thing of designs that felt appropriate and then actually designing it – procrasta-designing? –  but am fairly happy with it now. What do you think? Does it bring together the idea of different areas of science in a ‘hub’ (or circle, as the case may be…)? Some of the elements are supposed to represent subjects from earlier posts like the Bar-headed goose and whale.

Food fight: Bacteria’s biological warfare

You’re not just eating for one. You’re eating for trillions. We like to think of ourselves as an individual, but the truth is we are never alone. We are a buzzing hive of bacteria and other microbes that make up our ‘microbiome’. They eke out a living in whatever niches they can find, our skin or parts of our digestive system; we are an ecosystem. Like all ecosystems there is competition for resources, and some microbes don’t take it lying down, they fight. I’ve written before about Cholera’s spring loaded dagger, but microbes have many means at their disposal, some release enzymes to chew off important bits of their competitors, or poison them. But a few go a step further; they use biological warfare: unleashing viruses to kill off the competition.

Fighting fat with… fat?

What do explosives and weight loss have in common?* To find out we need to go back to World War One, to a munitions factory in France. People working with explosives were running high temperatures and losing weight. Some dangerously so. This was no fever, due to some viral or bacterial infection. It was due to a chemical they were using, similar in structure to TNT: dinitrophenol (DNP). Later, in the 1930s, DNP popped up again, this time marketed as a treatment for obesity. It failed due to its high toxicity. We now know how DNP causes these bizarre effects; it short-circuits a key process used by cells to store energy in chemical form, releasing it as heat instead. We’ve since discovered that this is a trick mammals are born to do to. A type of fat, called ‘brown adipose tissue’, or BAT, does the same trick as DNP, only ...(Read More)

A dried up celibate kleptomaniac

If there’s one thing that biologists agree on, it’s that sex is good. Really good*. Huge amounts of time and energy are invested in it. Well, alas, not so much in the act per se, as much as in finding a way to have sex; to tempt a mate or dispatch a rival. But is it really worth the ego busting knock-backs, the frustration, the time and energy? One quirky animal certainly doesn’t think so; it’s had a dry patch on a geological timescale. For the last 80 million years or so a small pond and fresh water dwelling animal called a bdelloid rotifer has done away with sex, and males, entirely. How has it managed for so long without sex? Simple. It steals.

My enemy’s enemy is my… enemy?

Like a kind of Russian doll infection, a prolific human parasite—responsible for almost 250 million infections annually—can itself harbour a parasite, a virus. You might reasonably feel a sense of something akin to schadenfreude; glad it’s getting a dose of its own medicine, so to speak… But you may be too hasty. The very presence of this virus—though it doesn’t infect human cells—in its parasite host could be making infections worse, or even stymying our attempts at  relieving the infection. The parasite in question, with around 3.7 million people infected in the US alone, is the most common protozoan infection in the industrialised world: Trichomonas vaginalis (TrV). It infects the human genitourinary tract of both men and women causing Trichomoniasis; in fact, it can only live in the human genitourinary tract (an ‘obligate human parasite’). Women are more likely to experience symptoms than men, and while generally mild,  it can be bad. Its ...(Read More)

An Unlikely Traveler In The ‘Death Zone’…

It’s called the ‘death zone’. The area above 8,000 meters where humans can no longer acclimatise to the effects of altitude; the oxygen is too low, the air too thin. We can only venture there briefly if we want to survive*. Yet despite the thin air and low oxygen there are reports of an unlikely visitor: geese. The geese in question are bar-headed geese. Normally residents of areas in China and Mongolia that migrate to over-winter in India. Unfortunately, slap-bang in the middle of their migration route lies the home of Everest, the highest mountain range in the world: the Himalaya. How bar-headed geese travel at such altitudes is something of a puzzle for physiologists. Flying for any distance in the death zone is remarkable; it takes 50% more power to fly and with only 40% of the oxygen available (60% reduction in the partial pressure) than at sea level the metabolic costs ...(Read More)

Waking the (Tiny) giant…

Nestled safely away within your cells, among your DNA, lies something…foreign. An invader. Something you weren’t born with, hidden, evading your immune system and waiting to make its next strike: a ‘latent’ virus. In all probability, there are armies of different viruses performing this same trick throughout your body. Remaining silent; some of their own mysterious accord, others kept in check by your immune system or by random mutations, rendering them useless. Now researchers at The Ohio State University and the University of Oxford have worked out how some of these viruses can reactivate in healthy people, and once again go about their nefarious mindless deeds: hijacking our cells machinery, producing more of their own kind, and causing disease. An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it. — James Lovelock In healthy people latent viruses aren’t generally a problem, occasionally annoying, but rarely life threatening. However, ...(Read More)

Ancient whales, secret passages and diversity

Getting to see the relatives can be a chore for most, especially if they’re a long way away. Now imagine your relatives live in a different ocean, separated by a continent, and the only way there is frozen solid all year long. This is the problem that the Atlantic Bowhead whale populations face if they wish to meet their Pacific dwelling relatives; presumably separated millennia ago as the arctic froze, slamming shut the door of the Northwest Passage until recently. Or so it was thought. Sadly, the whale’s problems didn’t stop there; subsistence hunting by man resulted in some loss of numbers, and then as commercial whaling began they were put on the track of an endangered species. Fortunately, now commercial whaling has (mostly) stopped, they are recovering. Both the separation of populations and hunting have forced the whales through something of bottleneck; an event thought to impact on the ...(Read More)

Fall Fashions: Red or dead…?

 “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” – Albert Camus This is certainly true of the autumn here in Ontario. It’s spectacular. Parks and woods are alive with colour; yellows, oranges, golds and reds so impossibly deep it’s like a new kind of black. Some trees are a near uniform gold, others are a tortoiseshell mottling of all the hues of the autumnal palette. As the daylight hours dwindle and temperatures drop the trees respond; these are the signals to make ready for the coming winter. Veins in the leaves start to close, reducing the flow of sap, and production of the green pigment chlorophyll halts as trees reclaim nutrients and energy from leaves before finally shedding them. As it does so, the veil of chlorophyll is lifted; the tree line turns yellow, orange and gold. And red. For years the reds and purples—due to a ...(Read More)