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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

May 31, 2018

On This Week’s Show

  • The Nipah virus
  • The journal Scientific Reports retracts a paper...oops!
  • The mysterious case of the stolen asteroid
  • Speaking of asteroids, we learn how birds may have dodged the one that rubbed out the rest of the other dinosaurs
  • The Blue Streak Science A**hole of the Month
  • And the Pub Quiz

Listener feedback

NeilNextGen from London: “nice to see you guys back and podcasting every week. This is my favorite science podcast all time. I gotta say my favorite part has been the pub quiz. Keep up the good work.”

Neil, thank you so much for those words of encouragement.

Science News with Chris MacAlister and Nevena Hristozova

Introducing the Nipah Virus


Last time I covered an amphibian pandemic, this time we have a possible human one. There’s not much room for a jovial attitude for this story.

In the wake of health scares such as HIV, bird flu, Ebola and Zika there is a reason why governments consider a pandemic as one of the top threats to their population.  The new virus on the block is Nipah. Discovered just before the turn of the century in Malaysia and Singapore, and is on the WHO priority list of emerging diseases.

Recent case in Southern India: 11 fatalities & 25 hospitalisations.

The symptoms: fever, vomiting, disorientation, mental confusion, encephalitis and fatal in up 70% of cases.

How likely are you to catch it? Mercifully not very. The primary source of the virus is fruit bats. Other risks are from infected pigs and humans. Unlike Ebola, Nipah does not vertically transmit that easily.

Why is the WHO so concerned? Due to the range of fruit bats and the potential for mutation. The risk is heightened by the lack of any cure or vaccine.

Science News, Live Science

Scientific Reports retracts paper claiming neurological damage from HPV vaccine

That’s the type of story I really like seeing - it’s about a retracted study allegedly showing that the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine causes neurological damage.

The paper is question was submitted and published by a group led by Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, and became available online in November 2016. It describes impaired mobility and brain damage in mice given an enormous dose of HPV vaccine along with a toxin that makes the blood-brain barrier leaky.

After many complaints by peers that the experimental setup of the study is flawed and the conclusions are not of sound scientific integrity, the publisher decided to retract the paper despite the disapproval of the original authors.

Unfortunately, the damage might already be done, since the generally low HPV vaccination rates in Japan, had further plummeted since the conclusions made the headlines in the country. Much like what happened with the MMR vaccination rates and the retracted many years ago paper by the practice-banned MD Andrew Wakefield, whose antivax movement is single handedly responsible for the death of many people, including many children from vaccination-preventable diseases.

The main opponents of the Japanese paper are currently criticizing the publishers for taking so long to investigate the publication and retract it, since its publication it’s been unfortunately already cited over 20 times and has made the rounds in public madia scaring needlessly many away from a vaccine that is able to save numerous lives from cervical cancer - a very aggressive form of the disease which is reported to affect more than half a million new subjects every year.

Proud to say that one of the leading experts trying to debunk the paper is a professor from the University of Antwerp here in Belgium. Prof. Vorsters also pointed out that since there doesn’t seem to be a working method yet to counteract the antivax scare tactics, may be researchers and health professionals should rather focus on pointing out the usefulness of vaccines, rather than wasting efforts to disprove antivax claims.


Asteroid: Stolen From Another Sun?

Another month, another intergalactic visitor. But whereas Oumuamua was a tourist just passing through, asteroid 2015 BZ509 appears to be a bona fide immigrant to our solar system.

I want to take you on journey with me, of skepticism. When faced with a headline like this, my first thought is “How can anyone possibly draw that conclusion about a piece of rock orbiting our Sun?” Oumauamua was fine; it came from outside the solar system a swiftly pissed off again, but a resident asteroid?

My doubts were not helped when I found out that this conclusion is based on the asteroids retrograde (i.e backwards) orbit around the sun that seems to last the same time as Jupiter’s. That doesn’t seem like much to go off.

Now comes the modern day black magic; computer modelling. These models attempted to recreate the conditions that would allow this kind of orbit to form. The most surprising result from this model is that it suggests that the orbit has most likely been established for about 4.5 billion years.

4.5 billion years ago the planets themselves were only newly formed and as such it is not expected that there would be any resident retrograde orbits. Put all of this together and the most plausible explanation appear to be that a passing visitor has been caught in the gravity of our young solar system and has remained here ever since.

Royal Astronomical Society, LA Times

How birds may have escaped the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact

This story is a tribute for ‘the ones who made it out’. Recent re-evaluation of plant residue and fossil data shows that the birds might have escaped a narrow mass-extinction when the asteroid which killed off most dinosaurs hit Earth. We know that the Cretaceous era asteroid wiped out most dinosaurs, but we don’t rly think that it actually killed off 3/4s of life in general - including plants.

This new look into the data led Daniel Field at the University of Bath in the UK to hypothesise that the birds that made it out of the extinction were in fact the ground-dwelling ones - ancient ancestors of ducks, chickens, and ostriches for example, while the ones whose species perished were the ones relying entirely on vegetation for food, shelter, nesting… Two types of data hinted to the conclusion - one showed that the lineages of today's ground-dwelling birds are much more vast than the ones living in/on vegetation, but also the fact that in fossils layers laid immediately after the asteroid impact, almost entirely seeds of plants belongs to only a small number of species of ferns.

Once the forests developed gradually again, they presented a massive free ecological niche, which was taken once more by birds choosing to make use of these new habitats.

BBC News Science and Environment, Nature, National Geographic, Science News

A**hole of the Month

When I first got the idea for the A**hole of the Month for the month of May I initially had one person in mind, a member of the United States House of Representatives.

Specifically, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

But the more I read about this, the more I realized that the entire Republican-side of this committee is one colossal, flatulent asshole.

To be fair, there are Democrats on the committee, but they lack any real power since they’re the minority party, are probably as aghast and incredulous as I am.

It’s the Republicans on this committee...let me repeat the name of that committee. It’s the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. These Republicans wouldn’t know science if it came up behind them and bit them on their collective ass.

One thing I can guarantee, by the way, is that if we continue on the path recommended by this will indeed bite us all on the ass, for many generations.

Last week this committee held a hearing on how technology could be used to help us adapt to climate change.

One of the experts at the hearing was Philip Duffy, who is the president and executive director of the venerable Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. His is also a former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Dr. Duffy served as a Senior Advisor in the White House National Science and Technology Council, and as a Senior Policy Analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He’s held senior research positions with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And he holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford.

The guy has science chops, in a big way.

So, a lot of the questions and comments at this hearing were directed toward Dr. Duffy.

Representative Lamar Smith of Texas showed a chart which showed that rates of sea-level rise have only increased slightly compared with the rate of fossil fuel use.

To which Dr. Duffy pointed out that the chart was from a single tide gauge station somewhere near San Francisco, and that sea levels worldwide rise at different rates.

Strangely enough, Representative Smith somehow forgot to show any charts or graphs that reveal rising atmospheric CO2 levels or temperatures, both of which have climbed at a steady rate in recent decades, right in line as fossil fuel emissions have increased.

So in response to the chart Dr. Duffy replied, "The rate of global sea-level rise has accelerated and is now four times faster than it was 100 years ago.”

A smug Representative Smith asked."Is this chart inaccurate, then?"

To which Duffy replied, "It's accurate, but it doesn't represent what's happening globally; it represents what's happening in San Francisco."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California said he was concerned that established climate science (read that as actual science, and not made up bullshit)... he said he was concerned that science has not been questioned more by the committee.

This is a committee, by the way, which has accused federal climate scientists of fraudulently manipulating climate data and has even subpoenaed their records.

But the biggest blast of antiscience flatulence came when Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama questioned Dr. Duffy on the various factors that cause sea level rise, you know, peer-reviewed, testable, and repeatable science.

Instead he offered his own ideas as the why sea levels are rising.

Brooks actually put forth the proposition that erosion is a key factor in sea-level rise.

He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world's major rivers contribute to sea-level rise.

"Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up."

Duffy responded: "I'm pretty sure that on human time scales, those are minuscule effects."

I might add that we know the seafloor spreads at the mid-ocean ridges, and that seafloor is dragged back into the mantle at subduction zones.

Mountains rise, they get eroded, the earth’s crust spreads and it gets drawn back inside the mantle. Oh, and the earth is billions of years old...not 6,000 years.

Brooks doubled-down on his ignorance. Remember, this guy is a member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

He doubled-down by saying that Antarctic ice is growing.

To which Dr. Duffy replied, "We have satellite records clearly documenting a shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheet and an acceleration of that shrinkage,"

Brooks, arguing with the scientist countered, "I'm sorry, but I don't know where you're getting your information, but the data I have seen suggests…”

Duffy interrupted, informing Brooks of his sources,  "The National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration."

As an aside, earlier this year, NASA researchers determined that Antarctica's ice loss has accelerated in the last decade. Sea ice extent at both poles were at record lows last year.

There was another representative that brought up the notion that scientists in the 1970’s believed the earth was cooling.

This is a widely believed meme by the antiscience fringe that’s based on a fake Time Magazine cover from the 1970’s. That’s right I said FAKE. It was fake. It didn’t happen. It was a fake cover that suggested scientists were really concerned about global COOLING back then.

They weren’t.

Other media outlets picked this up and and ran with it like it was real. It wasn’t. It never was.

And there are even more morons today who cite that as evidence. The only thing it’s evidence of is science illiteracy, an abject failure of basic education.

Actual science from the 1970’s — certainly not as comprehensive today’s science on the subject  — in reality was sounding the alarm about just the opposite idea, that global warming is what we need to be concerned about. Even in the 1970’s the idea of global warming was not new. It was already decades old.

Yet in 2018 there are members of the, I still can’t get over it, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that lack even the most basic understanding of science.

In fact, they are unabashedly hostile to science.

And for that, you, the Republicans on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology are the Blue Streak Science A**holes of the Month.


Pub Quiz

Today it’s a cacophonous celebration of the letter C

Joining us in this cheerful ceremony are the chisel-chinned Chris MacAlister, and the captivating and convivial Nevena Hristozova.

  1. A group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body is also known as?
  2. We all know of the technology known as CRISPR or CRISPR/Cas9.  It’s a family of DNA sequences in bacteria and archaea, and this technology is used to edit the genomes of even more complex organisms. Question: What does the C in CRISPER stand for?
  3. Carcinology is the study of what?
  4. What is the largest living rodent in the world?
  5. What is the name of the very large flightless birds that live in tropical forests of northeast Australia and New Guinea?
  6. Who was the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences?
  7. What space mission ended on 15 September, 2017 with the so-called Grand Finale as it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn?
  8. What island-filled ocean basin is bordered by Mexico and Central America to the west and south west, the Greater Antilles to the north, to the east by the Lesser Antilles, and to the south by the north coast of South America?
  9. Diamond and graphite are different allotropes of what element?
  10. What is the geologic period that spans 79 million years from the end of the Jurassic Period to the beginning of the Paleogene Period 66 million years ago?

Where Are We Going?/Where Have We Been?

JD: Last week I attended a lecture at the University of California Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab. It was titled “Developing and evaluating solutions-based approaches for mitigating global change impacts in aquatic ecosystems”. The speaker was David Koweek, Postdoctoral Researcher, Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science. It presented some interesting strategies for dealing with issues such as apoxia, and lowered pH as a result of anthropogenic global warming.

They have these lectures on Wednesday afternoons at the Marine Lab, which is located in a stunning setting on the Sonoma coast. I may attend these a lot more often. Go birding in the morning. Crab sandwiches at Spud Point Marina for lunch, a little more birding, attend a lecture. Sounds like retirement to me.

JD: Next week I’m attending a talk at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco titled  “Are We Alone in the Universe?” The speaker is Lisa Kaltenegger of Cornell University. She’s gonna discuss exoplanets and  how we can determine which ones might be suitable for life, as well as techniques and future missions that could detect life on these worlds.

Chris: I visited a laboratory trade show for the first time last week which was a truly eye opening experience. I’ve been celebrating practical microbiology by running a charity beer festival and I’ve been exploring the rather trivial question of whether God exists on the blog.

Chris: This week I have an ISO17025 assessment at my lab, this is the international standard for testing and calibration laboratories. I will also be getting ecological with Matilda. We joined the RSPB at the weekend and we shall be making the most of their support to explore the living world around us.

In Closing

Until next time...follow the science!