Tuesday, 13 December 2011

17 year old wins $100,000 for research

This is fantastic...


More detailed information here:


Thursday, 9 June 2011

Faith and/in Science

This latest blog post again is long overdue. To overcome the gaps in writing I feel that the blog will have to evolve. So to continue in the correct fashion with the fundamental idea the same – Science for the masses, these articles may have to become more concise to become more regular. Of course I will attempt to post up a longer article here and there, when time allows or indeed the subject matter is overwhelmingly crying out for documentation on numerous blog rolls.

So this latest (more concise) post concerns what I read in the guardian today concerning the quest for the Higgs Boson. Many know the Higgs by its more common name as the ‘God particle’ as what it will do if discovered is unite theorems in the standard model of physics that are currently lacking the evidence of such a particle. Now I am not going to begin to explain quantum physics just yet (firstly as this is supposed to be a concise post, and secondly because that is not what this article is about) but I am going to talk about what the article concerned itself with, which is that because scientists are trying to discover a new particle then they by default have faith in god...

Before I continue I must put on record that I like the guardian. I think of it as a good newspaper with writers that can develop a well rounded argument. But it must seriously up its game if it is going to publish such articles as ‘Science is my god’ found here: http://t.co/jQoUTm8

My issue with this article is that it’s myopic, childlike view of a topic, taking a media given name (the ‘God’ particle) and immediately thinking that all the scientists, whether at CERN, the Tevatron or in a garden shed, must have faith in order to conduct any form of experimentation. This just simply isn’t true, especially for the search for the Higgs. These bosons are predicted by the standard model of physics. A model that does not rely on faith or belief. It hinges on something far more important; data, facts, truth.

This is what is so fundamental to science that it cannot be underlined enough. Science does not go hand in hand with faith – one can hope the Higgs is found, or hope an experiment goes well, just the same that one can hope for good weather or Tottenham Hotspur win the Premier League next year. This hope or faith does not underpin the subject matter, it is just a preferred outcome. We all have our preferences.

The beauty of science is that the presence or absence of a predicted moiety will only result two things: one theory being consigned to the waste bin, and another living on to be scrutinised another day. Long may this continue and I have faith in that being the case.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Glowing future?

This is my first post for over two months now. The temporary radio silence can be put down to a number of factors; a hectic university schedule, a three week trip to Hong Kong or of course an apathetic attitude towards writing with there always being something more prudent on the agenda... In truth it is probably a combination of factors. However, having a week off from my laboratory duties I thought I would dust off the keyboard (not typewriter as the last factory making those closed today – see here: http://t.co/IhUe6p7) and begin tapping away with musings regarding science.

So with numerous issues in science as potential topics for the latest post, I felt it would be best to discuss the topic that I have been asked about most by my colleagues and peers. A subject that has made international news, sparked global debate and fear, and crucially affected the mindsets of world leaders when making decisions on future energy production. This, of course, is the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown caused by the major earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 11th March 2011.

I by no means am going to go into the details of events and the current situation at the plant as I feel these issues have been well covered by news agencies around the world. However, what I feel has been overlooked by some, is the impact that this event has had on future energy production. Just a few days after the disaster, German Chancellor Angela Merkel shut down Germany’s seven nuclear power plants. Seen as a knee-jerk reaction by many, it was a ‘safety first’ approach from the German Chancellor. Right or wrong it stirred controversy, with a number of countries subsequently reviewing their nuclear policies, including the UK and USA.

Although decisions may be made in the shadow of fear caused by the Fukushima meltdown, they may actually be positive steps for green energy production and a boost for renewable energy. Or at least I sincerely hope so. Long has nuclear energy been viewed by sceptics as holding unnecessary dangers for energy production; nuclear meltdown, webbed hands, pink eyes, six fingers are things people fear... even in Norfolk (apologies to those affected.) Undoubtedly, sceptics of nuclear power will jump on the disaster and say that nuclear power is a ‘bad’ thing... This opinion is slightly myopic in my view. Nuclear power is a scientific marvel for producing large amounts of energy with minimal impact on the environment... an option that should not be overlooked, even considering the ramifications of this disaster...

I think what is clear is that the risks involved with nuclear power need to be understood and relevant funding attached to what has proven to be a potentially environmental and humanitarian detrimental method of energy production. Or of course... attach the appropriate funding to alternative sources...

What is a certainty is that the future policies introduced in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster will have widespread consequences for all, especially the policies of green energies promised by numbers of governments. What the outcomes of said decisions will be are at this point unknown. However, I feel that as the never changing media hype that propagates fear amongst the general public will pour cold water onto nuclear power, it gives the opportunity for other forms of energy production to emerge... hopefully...

For those of you well informed, you will notice that today marks the day of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s ironic that I have decided to write about nuclear power on such a date, and by no means was this purposeful. 25 years ago nuclear power was the future... science and technology has moved on in so many ways since then but yet the progress in energy production has seemed to move slower than our advancement in so many other fields. In my view, the Fukushima disaster could yield a new dawn for the advancement of many potential fields of energy production... but maybe I am just an optimist...

Friday, 4 February 2011

Fish is a known cancer risk

OK OK, so maybe the title of this post is a little misleading. Of course the benefits of eating oily fish outweigh the potential for negative impact as it is an excellent source of vitamin A and D as well as omega 3, an unsaturated fatty acid with many ‘potential’ health benefits. However I want to focus on a specific type of fish in specific cuisine that has a significant risk associated with it.

Chinese-style salted fish is a food which has been regularly consumed in Southeast Asia for many years. The method of preparation is to catch said fish, leave to soften (partially decompose) and then preserve with salt and eat at a later date. However what this food stuff is rich in is N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA.)  NDMA is an extremely toxic chemical that is known to be carcinogenic to humans in even the smallest of doses. This odourless, colourless chemical was originally used to produce rocket fuel in the 1970’s and is now a chemical for inducing cancer in rats in the laboratory. Someone even spiked someone’s drink with NDMA and ended up murdering both the person they intended and an 11 month old child. The electric chair was their punishment.

Although I’ve said NDMA is highly toxic it is also a common volatile amine. Naturally it is found in malt vinegar, cheese, beer, whisky, tobacco, and cured meats and fish and in high enough doses can result in severe hepatic toxicity – fibrosis (scarring) and liver failure can result. However NDMA doesn’t accumulate in the body and as such there shouldn’t be fear over going on a cheese binge. Having said that drinking and smoking does have a few associated risk factors...

What is interesting in all this is epidemiological studies have shown that the incidence of nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC for short, a cancer of the bit between your nasal passage and the back of your throat) is significantly high in regions where salted fish is part of the diet. And the studies suggest that it is the consumption of salted fish and NDMA that is the cause of the significant cancer levels in China. This research has not stopped there as there are obviously other regions in which salted fish is regularly consumed, namely in North Africa and Alaska. Again, the studies conducted here show a significant level of NPC in those who consume salted fish. I think we see the pattern...

This research isn’t new however – this news story (well I don’t ever remember seeing this on the news) was first published in 1982... almost thirty years ago. It was only through a colleague of mine at medical school that I learnt about running the risks of eating Chinese food. Before I always thought all I had to worry about was a dodgy curry.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

HIV AIDS, Whoonga and Probiotic yoghurt

I write this latest post on the back of reading a news story on the current ‘Whoonga’ drug craze that is gripping South Africa. A drug that has antiretroviral drugs, the drugs used to treat HIV incorporated into it. HIV and AIDS have been at epidemic proportions in Africa, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa where 22.5 million people are currently infected. South Africa is currently home to 5.6 million people infected with HIV and AIDS with the highest prevalence found in 33% of women between the ages of 25-29, and 25% of men between the ages of 30-35 infected with HIV and/or AIDS. Although the incidence rate in South Africa is reducing (the number of new cases per year) there are still clearly a huge number of people living with HIV and AIDS and the associated consequences of a highly stigmatised condition.

‘Whoonga’ is a very potent mix of antiretroviral drugs (the drugs used to treat HIV) rat poison, detergent and marijuana all crushed and mixed together before being smoked, with the individual smoking the drugs very quickly hooked. However, conflicting stories have come out over whether ‘Whoonga’ does actually contain antiretroviral drugs, and even if they did they wouldn’t deliver the high that conventional narcotics do. What is clear is that the dealers selling the drugs at 30 Rand per packet (anyone who has been to South Africa knows this is a hefty price for anyone from a township) claim that the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs are present and as such installing a mentality to the users that the ARV’s is what they crave. Stories have emerged that ‘Whoonga’ users are stealing ARV’s from hospitals, clinics, and mugging patients for their potentially life extending drugs. This, although deplorable, could be expected from an incredibly poor population addicted to a fairly common, free prescriptive drug, yet which is very expensive buying illegally from dealers. However, what this drug craze is fuelling is an underground market of drug cartels stealing antiretroviral drugs from hospitals and selling them to dealers. A Johannesburg police officer has already been implicated in such a crime. This is something that could compromise South Africa’s fight against HIV and AIDS with ARV’s becoming more difficult to get hold of for both clinics and patients because of a fear of theft and misuse.

With drugs more difficult to get hold of, the needy patient may become more desperate and seek more traditional and unconventional modes of treatment. I myself spent some time in Ghana a couple of years ago, and am familiar with this. Routinely, people claiming to be doctors would be selling HIV and AIDS soap – ‘wash away your HIV.’ The ‘doctors’ would visit small rural villages, visit those who couldn’t get to hospitals, and these locals would buy the soap. Of course there is no science behind anti-HIV soap and it is a complete con. One which even the hardiest of holistic/pseudoscience/complementary medicine Gillian McKeith supporters would find hard to defend. But desperate people do desperate things.
I recently watched an excellent programme by Sir Paul Nurse, the new president of the Royal Society. One of the people he met whilst investigating how science is portrayed and understood was an American man who had HIV and was given a prognosis of 3 years. He discarded his ARV drugs as soon as he was given them and began a diet comprising of a high number of probiotic yoghurts... 13 years later he is still alive and kicking... I don’t think I need to explain that neither bifidus digestivum or L.Casei Danone have antiretroviral properties, although it seems there may be a niche for an anti-HIV soap in the American market...

I believe that the current Whoonga craze in South Africa could detrimentally affect the fight against HIV and AIDS although what is far more important is the education of young people in transmission and safety.

“Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

Unfortunately, statistics are hard to find on the impact of ‘Whoonga’ due to it being a fairly recent development. Many of the stories are anecdotal and possibly open to interpretation. Having said that, the statistics I laid out in the first paragraph over the prevalence and incidence of HIV and AIDS in sub Saharan Africa are not open to interpretation and should be food for thought for everyone.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Big Issue!

Happy new year to everyone! This being the first nanosized blog post of the year, I felt I should write about a subject which is ever increasing in size. This topic is of immense importance as well as proportions in a time of cash strapped governments squeezing budgets to accommodate agenda’s. The topic I refer to is the big one – obesity.
I felt this post was aptly timed. New year is a time of resolution and change for many, with ‘must get fit this year’ often bandied about by individuals, some even lace up their trainers and go for a run, a very commendable achievement after one too many festive mince pies. Alternatively, you could do as Paul Mason is and sue the NHS for ‘allowing’ him to achieve his hefty former title of Britain’s fattest man, weighing 70 stone. I will try to resist this blog post becoming a rant about Mr Mason’s lack of personal responsibility and the cost to the general public for keeping up his sizeable weight (£5000 to reinforce the hospital floors before his £30,000 gastric band surgery, on top of the ca. £500,000 per year for general care.) But I feel this case may be just the beginning of the biggest challenge the NHS and our society faces in the coming years.
Levels of obesity in the UK have been rising for a number of years due to the availability of cheap high calorie food, reduced levels of exercise amongst the masses all accompanied by a poor level of knowledge regarding diet and exercise. The most recent NHS figures suggesting 66% of men and 57% of women are overweight with around 25% of the adult UK population classed as obese. A couple of quick points for those who are unaware... The method of measurement remains the body mass index (BMI) which is the weight of the individual in kilograms divided by their height in metres squared. A BMI of 25-30 is classed as overweight, 30 and above is classed as obese. The current UK average stands at around 27kg/m2. And can anyone tell me what a calorie is? (This is a fantastic question that many people have no idea about but will happily use the word ‘calorie’ frequently) A calorie is simply a unit of energy. Specifically it is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 litre of water by 1°C = 4.18 Joules. Consider yourself learned – no more excuses.
Now, aside from the potentially increased financial costs of feeding an overweight family, being overweight comes with a massive increase in health risks, everything from heart disease to various forms of cancer. These increasing levels of obesity and accompanying co-morbidities puts an ever increasing strain on already thinly spread NHS resources. Something that cannot continue forever. The NHS have already sold off car parks and allowed commercial reality take hold within the hospital with privatisation inside major hospitals – including commercial giants that are part of the problem. I know from personal experience Southampton General Hospital has inside its doors a set of solicitors specialising in, among other things, medical malpractice. As well as a well known fast food burger chain - an eerie place where patients will wheel their drips and overweight frames to pick up a bacon double cheeseburger.
I don’t know how as a society we have got to the stage where hospitals have fast food restaurants and their obese customers can consider suing the NHS that provides their frequently required care, but clearly something has gone wrong somewhere. Personally I would happily consider the suggestion of making obese patients pay for their NHS care. Although I can already see the difficulty with where you would draw the line with this method – do smokers pay for care too? What about those who drink too much? All I know is that the current trends cannot continue. Thankfully the obesity trend amongst children seems to have levelled off or even reduced (depending on which figures you look at) a very encouraging sign indeed. Hopefully today’s children will reduce the levels of obese adults in the near future. Regardless of how this impacts on future levels of obesity I believe everyone should take a little more personal responsibility. And what a time to do so. New year new you? Why not.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

New Year New Developments

I start this latest entry with an apology for the break in posts that has come over the last few weeks. Along with many people in the UK, I have been ill with flu. Not the greatest time of the year to be ill what with all the festive gatherings of family and friends, however I was determined to squeeze one more nano-sized blog post out before seeing in the New Year.
In recent posts I have discussed current news that concerns science and concerns science. This time I thought I would update my blog with an entry suitable for the time of year; religion, science and looking forward.
Science and religion have never bumped along well. (Think dark ages to name the best example of conflict.) One could consider them as two opposite sides of the same coin. I am of the opinion though that for both science and mankind to continue to progress and develop then religion (or should that be religious decision makers) have a role to play. The best example of this has been in the legal wrangling in America over the use of stem cells in research. Through the George Bush administration years of progress were arguably lost due to fundamental religious belief. The denial of this research is to deny many of the potential for cure from numerous diseases. This is not something I can condone. It was with the inauguration of Barack Obama that science, in this case stem cell research, can begin once again to progress and look forward.
2011 could herald a huge step forward. 12 people are due to undergo injection of retinal cells derived from human embryonic stem cells to cure a progressive cause of blindness. That’s right curing blindness. And if that wasn’t enough, 10 people are due to have spinal injections of stem cell derived cells in an attempt to cure their paralysis. Making blind people see and those paralysed able to walk – this sounds a fantastic development in science to me – verging on miraculous on a biblical scale for the religious among you.
This blog update could never possibly go into all the arguments between science and religion much as I would never want to. This update merely aims to voice my opinion on how for new technologies to progress for the benefit of the human race, there need to be concessions. Maybe on both sides. Having said that, many in one group will almost certainly find more scientific progress and more evidence harder and harder to swallow.

And finally...
Thank you all for reading my blog over the last couple of months, I’ve been successfully gaining views from over 12 countries. America, South Korea, France, Spain, India, Russia, Serbia, Germany and more. Wherever you are I wish you all the best for the coming year 2011... if of course you follow the Gregorian calendar.