NTS LogoSkeptical News for 21 April 2003

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Monday, April 21, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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In the News

Today's Headlines - April 21, 2003

from United Press International

REHOVAT, Israel (UPI) -- Israeli investigators said Tuesday that they have found a new technique to measure the age of ancient metal artifacts.

The method parallels radiocarbon dating, which has been used by archaeologists for decades to determine the age of bones and other organic material.

Until now, scientists had no direct way of determining the age of archaeological finds made of stable metals, including lead. But researchers have found that turning lead into a superconductor by super-freezing the metal, then looking at the level of oxidization -- rust -- made distinct by the process, could provide a new way to peer into the past. http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20030415-120247-7512r

from The Los Angeles Times

PLAYA GRANDE, Costa Rica -- The leatherback sea turtle, the massive and mysterious reptile of the Pacific Ocean, has outlived the dinosaurs by 65 million years. It has survived fiery asteroid strikes and ice ages that chilled the globe.

But it doesn't look as if this prehistoric innocent will survive us.

Beset by poachers on land and snared in fishing gear at sea, the Pacific Ocean's population of leatherbacks has plunged 95% in the last 22 years, scientists say. They estimate that fewer than 5,000 nesting females remain in the Pacific.

"I never thought this ancient creature would be vulnerable to extinction," said Larry Crowder of the Duke University Marine Lab. "Unless something changes, the Pacific leatherback will be extinct within 10 to 30 years."


from United Press International

Nanotech Aids Gene Therapy Efforts

Researchers have attached bits of DNA to a scaffold of nano proportions, a development that could revolutionize treatments of cancer and other diseases...

Mass Produced Therapeutic Proteins on Horizon

The barrier to mass producing therapeutic proteins could be knocked down soon...

Revised Thoughts About Earth's Blanket

The layer of solid rock that blankets the semi-molten mantle below the Earth's surface is shallower than previously thought, new research reveals...


Postmodernism and truth

By Daniel Dennett


Here is a story you probably haven't heard, about how a team of American researchers inadvertently introduced a virus into a third world country they were studying.(1) They were experts in their field, and they had the best intentions; they thought they were helping the people they were studying, but in fact they had never really seriously considered whether what they were doing might have ill effects. It had not occurred to them that a side-effect of their research might be damaging to the fragile ecology of the country they were studying. The virus they introduced had some dire effects indeed: it raised infant mortality rates, led to a general decline in the health and wellbeing of women and children, and, perhaps worst of all, indirectly undermined the only effective political force for democracy in the country, strengthening the hand of the traditional despot who ruled the nation. These American researchers had something to answer for, surely, but when confronted with the devastation they had wrought, their response was frustrating, to say the least: they still thought that what they were doing was, all things considered, in the interests of the people, and declared that the standards by which this so-called devastation was being measured were simply not appropriate. Their critics, they contended, were trying to impose "Western" standards in a cultural environment that had no use for such standards. In this strange defense they were warmly supported by the country's leaders--not surprisingly--and little was heard--not surprisingly--from those who might have been said, by Western standards, to have suffered as a result of their activities.

These researchers were not biologists intent on introducing new strains of rice, nor were they agri-business chemists testing new pesticides, or doctors trying out vaccines that couldn't legally be tested in the U.S.A. They were postmodernist science critics and other multiculturalists who were arguing, in the course of their professional researches on the culture and traditional "science" of this country, that Western science was just one among many equally valid narratives, not to be "privileged" in its competition with native traditions which other researchers--biologists, chemists, doctors and others--were eager to supplant. The virus they introduced was not a macromolecule but a meme (a replicating idea): the idea that science was a "colonial" imposition, not a worthy substitute for the practices and beliefs that had carried the third-world country to its current condition. And the reason you have not heard of this particular incident is that I made it up, to dramatize the issue and to try to unsettle what seems to be current orthodoxy among the literati about such matters. But it is inspired by real incidents--that is to say, true reports. Events of just this sort have occurred in India and elsewhere, reported, movingly, by a number of writers, among them:

Meera Nanda, "The Epistemic Charity of the Social Constructivist Critics of Science and Why the Third World Should Refuse the Offer," in N. Koertge, ed., A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp286-311

Reza Afshari, "An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights," in Human Rights Quarterly, 16, 1994, pp.235-76.

Susan Okin, "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" Boston Review, October/November, 1997, pp 25-28.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, London and New Jersey, Zed Books Ltd. 1991.

My little fable is also inspired by a wonderful remark of E. O. Wilson, in Atlantic Monthly a few months ago: "Scientists, being held responsible for what they say, have not found postmodernism useful." Actually, of course, we are all held responsible for what we say. The laws of libel and slander, for instance, exempt none of us, but most of us--including scientists in many or even most fields--do not typically make assertions that, independently of libel and slander considerations, might bring harm to others, even indirectly. A handy measure of this fact is the evident ridiculousness we discover in the idea of malpractice insurance for . . . . literary critics, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, cosmologists. What on earth could a mathematician or literary critic do, in the course of executing her profession duties, that might need the security blanket of malpractice insurance? She might inadvertently trip a student in the corridor, or drop a book on somebody's head, but aside from such outré side-effects, our activities are paradigmatically innocuous. One would think. But in those fields where the stakes are higher--and more direct--there is a longstanding tradition of being especially cautious, and of taking particular responsibility for ensuring that no harm results (as explicitly honored in the Hippocratic Oath). Engineers, knowing that thousands of people's safety may depend on the bridge they design, engage in focussed exercises with specified constraints designed to determine that, according to all current knowledge, their designs are safe and sound. Even economists--often derided for the risks they take with other people's livelihoods--when they find themselves in positions to endorse specific economic measures considered by government bodies or by their private clients, are known to attempt to put a salutary strain on their underlying assumptions, just to be safe. They are used to asking themselves, and to being expected to ask themselves: "What if I'm wrong?" We others seldom ask ourselves this question, since we have spent our student and professional lives working on topics that are, according both to tradition and common sense, incapable of affecting any lives in ways worth worrying about. If my topic is whether or not Vlastos had the best interpretation of Plato's Parmenides or how the wool trade affected imagery in Tudor poetry, or what the best version of string theory says about time, or how to recast proofs in topology in some new formalism, if I am wrong, dead wrong, in what I say, the only damage I am likely to do is to my own scholarly reputation. But when we aspire to have a greater impact on the "real" (as opposed to "academic") world-- and many philosophers do aspire to this today--we need to adopt the attitudes and habits of these more applied disciplines. We need to hold ourselves responsible for what we say, recognizing that our words, if believed, can have profound effects for good or ill.

When I was a young untenured professor of philosophy, I once received a visit from a colleague from the Comparative Literature Department, an eminent and fashionable literary theorist, who wanted some help from me. I was flattered to be asked, and did my best to oblige, but the drift of his questions about various philosophical topics was strangely perplexing to me. For quite a while we were getting nowhere, until finally he managed to make clear to me what he had come for. He wanted "an epistemology," he said. An epistemology. Every self-respecting literary theorist had to sport an epistemology that season, it seems, and without one he felt naked, so he had come to me for an epistemology to wear--it was the very next fashion, he was sure, and he wanted the dernier cri in epistemologies. It didn't matter to him that it be sound, or defensible, or (as one might as well say) true; it just had to be new and different and stylish. Accessorize, my good fellow, or be overlooked at the party.

At that moment I perceived a gulf between us that I had only dimly seen before. It struck me at first as simply the gulf between being serious and being frivolous. But that initial surge of self-righteousness on my part was, in fact, a naive reaction. My sense of outrage, my sense that my time had been wasted by this man's bizarre project, was in its own way as unsophisticated as the reaction of the first-time theater-goer who leaps on the stage to protect the heroine from the villain. "Don't you understand?" we ask incredulously. "It's make believe. It's art. It isn't supposed to be taken literally!" Put in that context, perhaps this man's quest was not so disreputable after all. I would not have been offended, would I, if a colleague in the Drama Department had come by and asked if he could borrow a few yards of my books to put on the shelves of the set for his production of Tom Stoppard's play, Jumpers. What if anything would be wrong in outfitting this fellow with a snazzy set of outrageous epistemological doctrines with which he could titillate or confound his colleagues?

What would be wrong would be that since this man didn't acknowledge the gulf, didn't even recognize that it existed, my acquiescence in his shopping spree would have contributed to the debasement of a precious commodity, the erosion of a valuable distinction. Many people, including both onlookers and participants, don't see this gulf, or actively deny its existence, and therein lies the problem. The sad fact is that in some intellectual circles, inhabited by some of our more advanced thinkers in the arts and humanities, this attitude passes as a sophisticated appreciation of the futility of proof and the relativity of all knowledge claims. In fact this opinion, far from being sophisticated, is the height of sheltered naiveté, made possible only by flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power. Like many another naif, these thinkers, reflecting on the manifest inability of their methods of truth-seeking to achieve stable and valuable results, innocently generalize from their own cases and conclude that nobody else knows how to discover the truth either.

Among those who contribute to this problem, I am sorry to say, is, my good friend Dick Rorty. Richard Rorty and I have been constructively disagreeing with each other for over a quarter of a century now. Each of us has taught the other a great deal, I believe, in the reciprocal process of chipping away at our residual points of disagreement. I can't name a living philosopher from whom I have learned more. Rorty has opened up the horizons of contemporary philosophy, shrewdly showing us philosophers many things about how our own projects have grown out of the philosophical projects of the distant and recent past, while boldly describing and prescribing future paths for us to take. But there is one point over which he and I do not agree at all--not yet--and that concerns his attempt over the years to show that philosophers' debates about Truth and Reality really do erase the gulf, really do license a slide into some form of relativism. In the end, Rorty tells us, it is all just "conversations," and there are only political or historical or aesthetic grounds for taking one role or another in an ongoing conversation.

Rorty has often tried to enlist me in his campaign, declaring that he could find in my own work one explosive insight or another that would help him with his project of destroying the illusory edifice of objectivity. One of his favorite passages is the one with which I ended my book Consciousness Explained (1991):

It's just a war of metaphors, you say--but metaphors are not "just" metaphors; metaphors are the tools of thought. No one can think about consciousness without them, so it is important to equip yourself with the best set of tools available. Look what we have built with our tools. Could you have imagined it without them? [p.455]

"I wish," Rorty says, "he had taken one step further, and had added that such tools are all that inquiry can ever provide, because inquiry is never 'pure' in the sense of [Bernard] Williams' 'project of pure inquiry.' It is always a matter of getting us something we want." ("Holism, Intrinsicality, Transcendence," in Dahlbom, ed., Dennett and his Critics. 1993.) But I would never take that step, for although metaphors are indeed irreplaceable tools of thought, they are not the only such tools. Microscopes and mathematics and MRI scanners are among the others. Yes, any inquiry is a matter of getting us something we want: the truth about something that matters to us, if all goes as it should.

When philosophers argue about truth, they are arguing about how not to inflate the truth about truth into the Truth about Truth, some absolutistic doctrine that makes indefensible demands on our systems of thought. It is in this regard similar to debates about, say, the reality of time, or the reality of the past. There are some deep, sophisticated, worthy philosophical investigations into whether, properly speaking, the past is real. Opinion is divided, but you entirely misunderstand the point of these disagreements if you suppose that they undercut claims such as the following:

Life first emerged on this planet more than three thousand million years ago. The Holocaust happened during World War II. Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald at 11:21 am, Dallas time, November 24, 1963.

These are truths about events that really happened. Their denials are falsehoods. No sane philosopher has ever thought otherwise, though in the heat of battle, they have sometimes made claims that could be so interpreted.

Richard Rorty deserves his large and enthralled readership in the arts and humanities, and in the "humanistic" social sciences, but when his readers enthusiastically interpret him as encouraging their postmodernist skepticism about truth, they trundle down paths he himself has refrained from traveling. When I press him on these points, he concedes that there is indeed a useful concept of truth that survives intact after all the corrosive philosophical objections have been duly entered. This serviceable, modest concept of truth, Rorty acknowledges, has its uses: when we want to compare two maps of the countryside for reliability, for instance, or when the issue is whether the accused did or did not commit the crime as charged.

Even Richard Rorty, then, acknowledges the gap, and the importance of the gap, between appearance and reality, between those theatrical exercises that may entertain us without pretence of truth-telling, and those that aim for, and often hit, the truth. He calls it a "vegetarian" concept of truth. Very well, then, let's all be vegetarians about the truth. Scientists never wanted to go the whole hog anyway.

So now, let's ask about the sources or foundations of this mild, uncontroversial, vegetarian concept of truth.

Right now, as I speak, billions of organisms on this planet are engaged in a game of hide and seek. It is not just a game for them. It is a matter of life and death. Getting it right, not making mistakes, has been of paramount importance to every living thing on this planet for more than three billion years, and so these organisms have evolved thousands of different ways of finding out about the world they live in, discriminating friends from foes, meals from mates, and ignoring the rest for the most part. It matters to them that they not be misinformed about these matters--indeed nothing matters more--but they don't, as a rule, appreciate this. They are the beneficiaries of equipment exquisitely designed to get what matters right but when their equipment malfunctions and gets matters wrong, they have no resources, as a rule, for noticing this, let alone deploring it. They soldier on, unwittingly. The difference between how things seem and how things really are is just as fatal a gap for them as it can be for us, but they are largely oblivious to it. The recognition of the difference between appearance and reality is a human discovery. A few other species--some primates, some cetaceans, maybe even some birds--shows signs of appreciating the phenomenon of "false belief"--getting it wrong. They exhibit sensitivity to the errors of others, and perhaps even some sensitivity to their own errors as errors, but they lack the capacity for the reflection required to dwell on this possibility, and so they cannot use this sensitivity in the deliberate design of repairs or improvements of their own seeking gear or hiding gear. That sort of bridging of the gap between appearance and reality is a wrinkle that we human beings alone have mastered.

We are the species that discovered doubt. Is there enough food laid by for winter? Have I miscalculated? Is my mate cheating on me? Should we have moved south? Is it safe to enter this cave? Other creatures are often visibly agitated by their own uncertainties about just such questions, but because they cannot actually ask themselves these questions, they cannot articulate their predicaments for themselves or take steps to improve their grip on the truth. They are stuck in a world of appearances, making the best they can of how things seem and seldom if ever worrying about whether how things seem is how they truly are.

We alone can be wracked with doubt, and we alone have been provoked by that epistemic itch to seek a remedy: better truth-seeking methods. Wanting to keep better track of our food supplies, our territories, our families, our enemies, we discovered the benefits of talking it over with others, asking questions, passing on lore. We invented culture. Then we invented measuring, and arithmetic, and maps, and writing. These communicative and recording innovations come with a built-in ideal: truth. The point of asking questions is to find true answers; the point of measuring is to measure accurately; the point of making maps is to find your way to your destination. There may be an Island of the Colour-blind (allowing Oliver Sacks his usual large dose of poetic license), but no Island of the People Who Do Not Recognize Their Own Children. The Land of the Liars could exist only in philosophers' puzzles; there are no traditions of False Calendar Systems for mis-recording the passage of time. In short, the goal of truth goes without saying, in every human culture.

We human beings use our communicative skills not just for truth-telling, but also for promise-making, threatening, bargaining, story-telling, entertaining, mystifying, inducing hypnotic trances, and just plain kidding around, but prince of these activities is truth-telling, and for this activity we have invented ever better tools. Alongside our tools for agriculture, building, warfare, and transportation, we have created a technology of truth: science. Try to draw a straight line, or a circle, "freehand." Unless you have considerable artistic talent, the result will not be impressive. With a straight edge and a compass, on the other hand, you can practically eliminate the sources of human variability and get a nice clean, objective result, the same every time.

Is the line really straight? How straight is it? In response to these questions, we develop ever finer tests, and then tests of the accuracy of those tests, and so forth, bootstrapping our way to ever greater accuracy and objectivity. Scientists are just as vulnerable to wishful thinking, just as likely to be tempted by base motives, just as venal and gullible and forgetful as the rest of humankind. Scientists don't consider themselves to be saints; they don't even pretend to be priests (who according to tradition are supposed to do a better job than the rest of us at fighting off human temptation and frailty). Scientists take themselves to be just as weak and fallible as anybody else, but recognizing those very sources of error in themselves and in the groups to which they belong, they have devised elaborate systems to tie their own hands, forcibly preventing their frailties and prejudices from infecting their results.

It is not just the implements, the physical tools of the trade, that are designed to be resistant to human error. The organization of methods is also under severe selection pressure for improved reliability and objectivity. The classic example is the double blind experiment, in which, for instance, neither the human subjects nor the experimenters themselves are permitted to know which subjects get the test drug and which the placebo, so that nobody's subliminal hankerings and hunches can influence the perception of the results. The statistical design of both individual experiments and suites of experiments, is then embedded in the larger practice of routine attempts at replication by independent investigators, which is further embedded in a tradition--flawed, but recognized--of publication of both positive and negative results.

What inspires faith in arithmetic is the fact that hundreds of scribblers, working independently on the same problem, will all arrive at the same answer (except for those negligible few whose errors can be found and identified to the mutual satisfaction of all). This unrivalled objectivity is also found in geometry and the other branches of mathematics, which since antiquity have been the very model of certain knowledge set against the world of flux and controversy. In Plato's early dialogue, the Meno, Socrates and the slave boy work out together a special case of the Pythagorean theorem. Plato's example expresses the frank recognition of a standard of truth to be aspired to by all truth-seekers, a standard that has not only never been seriously challenged, but that has been tacitly accepted--indeed heavily relied upon, even in matters of life and death--by the most vigorous opponents of science. (Or do you know a church that keeps track of its flock, and their donations, without benefit of arithmetic?)

Yes, but science almost never looks as uncontroversial, as cut-and-dried, as arithmetic. Indeed rival scientific factions often engage in propaganda battles as ferocious as anything to be found in politics, or even in religious conflict. The fury with which the defenders of scientific orthodoxy often defend their doctrines against the heretics is probably unmatched in other arenas of human rhetorical combat. These competitions for allegiance--and, of course, funding--are designed to capture attention, and being well-designed, they typically succeed. This has the side effect that the warfare on the cutting edge of any science draws attention away from the huge uncontested background, the dull metal heft of the axe that gives the cutting edge its power. What goes without saying, during these heated disagreements, is an organized, encyclopedic collection of agreed-upon, humdrum scientific fact.

Robert Proctor usefully draws our attention to a distinction between neutrality and objectivity.(2) Geologists, he notes, know a lot more about oil-bearing shales than about other rocks--for the obvious economic and political reasons--but they do know objectively about oil bearing shales. And much of what they learn about oil-bearing shales can be generalized to other, less favored rocks. We want science to be objective; we should not want science to be neutral. Biologists know a lot more about the fruit-fly, Drosophila, than they do about other insects--not because you can get rich off fruit flies, but because you can get knowledge out of fruit flies easier than you can get it out of most other species. Biologists also know a lot more about mosquitoes than about other insects, and here it is because mosquitoes are more harmful to people than other species that might be much easier to study. Many are the reasons for concentrating attention in science, and they all conspire to making the paths of investigation far from neutral; they do not, in general, make those paths any less objective. Sometimes, to be sure, one bias or another leads to a violation of the canons of scientific method. Studying the pattern of a disease in men, for instance, while neglecting to gather the data on the same disease in women, is not just not neutral; it is bad science, as indefensible in scientific terms as it is in political terms.

It is true that past scientific orthodoxies have themselves inspired policies that hindsight reveals to be seriously flawed. One can sympathize, for instance, with Ashis Nandy, editor of the passionately anti-scientific anthology, Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988. Having lived through Atoms for Peace, and the Green Revolution, to name two of the most ballyhooed scientific juggernauts that have seriously disrupted third world societies, he sees how "the adaptation in India of decades-old western technologies are advertised and purchased as great leaps forward in science, even when such adaptations turn entire disciplines or areas of knowledge into mere intellectual machines for the adaptation, replication and testing of shop-worn western models which have often been given up in the west itself as too dangerous or as ecologically non-viable." (p8) But we should recognize this as a political misuse of science, not as a fundamental flaw in science itself.

The methods of science aren't foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible. Just as important: there is a tradition of criticism that enforces improvement whenever and wherever flaws are discovered. The methods of science, like everything else under the sun, are themselves objects of scientific scrutiny, as method becomes methodology, the analysis of methods. Methodology in turn falls under the gaze of epistemology, the investigation of investigation itself--nothing is off limits to scientific questioning. The irony is that these fruits of scientific reflection, showing us the ineliminable smudges of imperfection, are sometimes used by those who are suspicious of science as their grounds for denying it a privileged status in the truth-seeking department--as if the institutions and practices they see competing with it were no worse off in these regards. But where are the examples of religious orthodoxy being simply abandoned in the face of irresistible evidence? Again and again in science, yesterday's heresies have become today's new orthodoxies. No religion exhibits that pattern in its history.

1. Portions of this paper are derived from "Faith in the Truth," my Amnesty Lecture, Oxford, February 17, 1997.
2. Value-Free Science?, Harvard Univ. Press, 1991.

This is the final draft of a paper given at the 1998 World Congress of Philosophy. Daniel Dennett's most recent book, Freedom Evolves, has just been published by Viking Press.

Scientists hunt for life around alien suns


By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 19/03/2003)

A hunt for intelligent species who inhabit worlds orbiting alien suns was launched yesterday.

Scientists began to use the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to study around 150 spots identified as the source of possible signals from extraterrestrial civilisations by a sky survey conducted using the biggest "distributed computing" project on the planet.

The shortlist was drawn up after more than a million years of computation by 4.3 million computers worldwide using SETI@home, a program disguised as a screensaver that pops up when a computer is idle and analyses data from the 1,000 ft telescope in search of intense or unusual signals.

Candidates for re-observation include not only a strong radio signal and a signal observed more than once in the same spot and frequency range, but also the signal's proximity to a known star and whether that star has planets.

"This is the culmination of more than three years of computing, the largest computation ever done," said David Anderson, a computer scientist at University of California, Berkeley, and director of SETI@home.

The results are expected within three months. However, Mr Anderson is cautious about raising expectations that the project will find ET.

Although he puts the probability at "much less than one per cent", his colleague Dr Dan Werthimer is even more pessimistic - "a one in 10,000 chance". After spending 24 years on the search, Dr Werthimer has returned several times to look again at promising locations and frequency ranges. He has been disappointed each time.

People in the News: Kidman is steering clear of Scientology

Saturday, April 19, 2003


Well, well. It seems that along with divorcing Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman also divorced the Church of Scientology. MSN.com reports that church members haven't seen the Oscar-winning mama in quite some time.

"Actually, when I knew Nicole, she seemed to think there was nothing better than Scientology," said Kelly Preston, wife of John Travolta. The couple is among the higher-profile Hollywood Scientologists.

But since her 2001 split from Cruise, who is still rather active in the church, Nicole doesn't even hang out with other Scientologists, much less participate.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Pagan origins of Easter

From: J. Scott Evans

As you might expect, some aspects of Easter have pagan origins. Ironically, xians continue to practice the idolatrous rituals of Easter ;-) That the word Easter derives from the Scandinavian "Ostra" and the Teutonic "Ostern" or "Eastre," both Goddesses of mythology signifying spring and fertility whose festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox, makes me giggle uncontrollably. Some references:





Creationism isn't science


Sunday April 20, 2003

Re: Julie Quinn's column ("Fear and confusion silence school prayer," Other Opinions, April 15). Ms. Quinn states, "The science teacher is afraid to answer questions regarding creationism and God and teaches only Darwinism despite curious student minds wanting to know all theories."

Ms. Quinn should realize that creationism is not a theory, since theories are subject at times to change and can be wrong. Supporters of creationism insist that it is literal fact.

Any 10th-grade biology student with a rudimentary knowledge of the book of Genesis could punch more holes through the creationist argument than there are in a cooking strainer. Creationism isn't bad science. It is pseudoscience. Let's leave it in the Sunday school classrooms and out of the high school science classrooms.

Gerard Kay


A crusade after all?

from the April 17, 2003 edition


Plans of some Christians to evangelize as they offer aid pose dilemma for Iraqi reconstruction. By Jane Lampman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor When President Bush called his war on terrorism a "crusade," he backtracked quickly in the face of intense reaction at home and abroad. Now many people are worried that, in the case of Iraq, that inopportune choice of words may turn out to hold more than a modicum of truth.

As Christian relief agencies prepare to enter Iraq, some have announced their intent to combine aid with evangelization. They include groups whose leaders have proclaimed harshly negative views of Islam. They are also friends of the president. The White House has shrugged its shoulders, saying it can't tell private groups what to do, though legal experts disagree.

Gamma-ray burst mystery solved

BBC NEWS By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Scientists may have solved one of astronomy's major puzzles - the origin of powerful gamma-ray bursts.

For a few seconds a gamma-ray burst can pour out more radiation than anything else in the Cosmos.

About once a day a flash of high energy radiation coming from deep space and lasting only a few seconds is detected by satellite observatories orbiting the Earth. The enormous power of the energy bursts has long mystified astronomers.

Now, thanks to a burster that was remarkably close in cosmic terms, their true nature may have been revealed. The bursts seem to come from exploding stars called supernovae.

"There should no longer be doubt in anybody's mind that gamma-ray bursts and supernovae are connected," says Thomas Matheson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, a member of the team that made the discovery.

Outshining the Universe

In the late 1960's US military satellites designed to look for clandestine nuclear tests picked up powerful bursts of radiation coming from deep space.

They appeared to come from far beyond our galaxy, from distances comparable with the overall size of the Universe.

But coming from such large distances meant that the energy in the burst was incredible and astronomers struggled to explain them.

Various theories were proposed including collisions between black holes or neutron stars that would have liberated vast amounts of energy. But no explanation was completely satisfactory.

As technology improved astronomers were able to react more swiftly to these fleeting events and turn their telescopes towards them while they lasted, where they sometimes detected a fading optical glow from the same strange object.

The breakthrough began on 29 March when the High-Energy Transient Explorer satellite (Hete) detected one of the brightest and closest gamma-ray bursts ever seen.

Located in the constellation of Leo, the 30-second burst, designated GRB 030329, outshone the entire Universe in gamma rays. Its optical afterglow was still over a trillion times brighter than the Sun over two hours later.

Caught in the act

After news of the latest burst was relayed around the world astronomers working at the 6.5-metre Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) at Mount Hopkins in Arizona were able to interrupt their schedule to look at the burster.

"We caught it in the act," says Matheson. "The burst was approximately two billion light-years from Earth, as opposed to other bursts located upwards of 10 billion light-years away.

"For the first time, we were measuring an event no other human beings had seen before," adds Krzysztof Stanek of Harvard. "The MMT was our magic time machine that we used to capture this catastrophic cosmic event."

The astronomers detected direct evidence that the afterglow of the burst exhibits the same patterns as light from a supernova.

A supernova is the explosion of a star at least eight times as massive as the Sun. When such stars deplete their nuclear fuel, they no longer have the energy to support their mass.

Consequently, their cores implode, forming either a neutron star or (if there is enough mass) a black hole. The stars outer atmosphere is blown off into space.

At the moment researchers cannot yet determine the timing of the gamma burst relative to the supernova (whether one preceded the other or whether both began at the same time), but the same event - a star explosion - was certainly the trigger for both, they say.

"All gamma-ray bursts may have associated supernovae that are too faint to observe," says Matheson who believes that because the burst was both close and bright, the supernova was detectable.

"It was detailed observations of the afterglow on subsequent nights that provided the vital clues. In the fading light astronomers spotted the telltale signs. The mystery may be solved," he says. Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2003/04/16 09:06:21


Is handwriting analysis legit science?



Dear Cecil:

What's the Straight Dope on handwriting analysis? I know that handwriting experts' testimony can be accepted in court, so there must be something to it. But I have a hard time believing that a smart criminal wouldn't be able to change his writing to avoid detection. On a related issue, can an "expert" really tell something about your personality from your handwriting (e.g., that loops in your g's and y's indicate a high sex drive)? If that were true, it would seem that one's handwriting would change from day to day, which it doesn't. --Kristin in Sausalito, California

Saturday, April 19, 2003

Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain


When People Meet God

Like most other peoples, Spaniards have long wondered about God and the saints--what they want from mortals, how they affect human affairs, even what they look like. The most direct evidence has come from face to face meetings with the holy ones. These meetings are the subject of this book.

In the past 150 years, divine apparitions to Catholics have been given worldwide publicity. In nineteenth-century France, a number of local visions played a part in the reestablishment of abandoned shrines and a revival of devotional Catholicism. (1) The two most famous were at La Salette in 1846, where the Virgin threatened famine and chastisement unless the world repented, and at Lourdes in 1858, where the Virgin confirmed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed four years earlier by Pius IX. In 1917 appearances of the Virgin to three children at Fatima stiffened popular resistance to the first lay government in Portuguese history and became the symbol of the Church's opposition to Bolshevism. These visions in turn inspired others in Spain. Since 1900 there have been over thirty episodes of public apparitions, largely of Mary. Most of them, like the ones occurring at the time of this writing (the fall of 1979) are at rural sites and have received scant international attention.

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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Today's Headlines – April 18, 2003

from The New York Times

Scientists who study AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases say they have been warned by federal health officials that their research may come under unusual scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services or by members of Congress, because the topics are politically controversial.

The scientists, who spoke on condition they not be identified, say they have been advised they can avoid unfavorable attention by keeping certain "key words" out of their applications for grants from the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those words include "sex workers," "men who sleep with men," "anal sex" and "needle exchange," the scientists said.

Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the health and human services department, said the department does not screen grant applications for politically delicate content. He said that when the department singles out grants it is usually to send out a news release about them. But an official at the National Institutes of Health, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said project officers at the agency, the people who deal with grant applicants and recipients, were telling researchers at meetings and in telephone conversations to avoid so-called sensitive language. But the official added, "You won't find any paper or anything that advises people to do this."


from The Chicago Tribune

BAGHDAD -- Health-care specialists swept into the vial-littered halls of Iraq's public health research center Thursday in an effort to assess whether a sickening stew of germs and bacteria was released there during a looting rampage three days earlier.

Marines guarded the Central Public Health Laboratory, where Iraqi scientists maintained specimens of a wide range of diseases, and the National Center for Drug Control and Research, where drugs were tested on animals.

The risk to public health was unknown Thursday night. The military surgeon in charge of the cleanup assessment said a hazardous-materials team had been summoned.

"It's very serious, and we have to get a handle on what was in there," said Dr. Kevin Moore, who likened the Iraqi laboratory to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. "We have no idea what the danger is."


from The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Ancient plant and animal DNA found in undisturbed soil sediment can be used to unlock secrets about life hundreds of thousands of years ago, researchers say.

Scientists analyzing soil from Siberian permafrost and from caves in New Zealand said they found evidence of DNA from animals that died out thousands of years ago and from plants that lived about 400,000 years ago.

Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, a co-author of the study appearing in the journal Science, said the study found that soil fragments the size of a sugar cube can contain large amounts of DNA from those ancient life forms.


from The Associated Press

LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) -- A cell phone that will be able to tell the difference between a "dirty bomb" and someone who's undergone radiation treatment is among the next generation of anti-terrorism tools being worked on by national weapons lab scientists.

The device, known as RadNet, is designed to make calls, surf the Web, act as a Personal Digital Assistant, pinpoint locations with Global Positioning System technology and sniff out nuclear materials with a cutting-edge sensor. It is one of several national security projects under development at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"It almost sounds like science fiction, but it's here today," said Simon Labov, director of the new Radiation Detection Center at Lawrence Livermore, which celebrated its formal opening Thursday with a display of the RadNet and other devices.


from The Associated Press

NEW YORK - The 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix structure is being observed this year.

Perhaps heightening the celebration is the fact that James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who shared a Nobel Prize for this scientific revolution, are around for the occasion.

But the birthday party has a dark side and a tragic absentee, as this week's "NOVA" documentary explains.

The missing person is Rosalind Franklin, who, despite her extraordinary accomplishments, was kept an outsider in the men's world of science. She is the unsung heroine of DNA, just as she has been for a half-century.


commentary from The Chicago Tribune

On the 10th anniversary of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' release of the Mosaic Web browser, director Dan Reed reflects on the dreams that inspire people to create, discover and invent tools that transform society.

I am more fortunate than most, for reality has exceeded my dreams. I still play with my childhood toys.

As a child, I was fascinated by science; though growing up in rural Arkansas, I never met anyone with an advanced scientific degree, much less a practicing scientist. I read voraciously, exhausting the science books in the school and community libraries, and I conducted experiments using all the apparatus that simple shop tools and my skill would allow--light boxes for controlled plant growth and electromagnets for simple electricity and telegraphy experiments.


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Friday, April 18, 2003

Geologists skeptical as NASA warns of Peru glacier


LIMA, Peru (Reuters) -- NASA has warned that a glacier in Peru's Andes Mountains could break apart and cause an avalanche in a populated valley, but geologists said on Wednesday the U.S. agency was being alarmist.

RELATED • NASA • U.S. Geological Survey

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration said this week its Terra satellite had detected an "ominous crack" in the Cupi glacier, calling it a "potential glacial disaster-in-the-making" near the tourist town of Huaraz, 168 miles (270 km) north of Lima.

"Should the large glacier chunk break off and fall into the lake, the ensuing flood could hurtle down ... reaching Huaraz and its population of 60,000 in less than 15 minutes," NASA said in a statement.

The NASA warning was splashed across the front pages of several tabloid newspapers in Peru, reviving memories of an earthquake and avalanche which killed about 70,000 people near Huaraz 25 years ago.

Benjamin Morales, head of the Andean Geological Institute and considered Peru's leading expert on glaciers, said it is normal for Andean glaciers to have "thousands of cracks" but inaccurate that an avalanche would reach Huaraz in 15 minutes.

"The information is poorly constructed. The problem is (the report's) repercussions," Morales told Reuters. "No one can repair this now. People are already alarmed."

Morales said he had asked officials from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for further information.

Experts 'puzzled' by announcement Huaraz, surrounded by the spectacular snow-capped Cordillera Blanca mountain range, is a prime climbing and hiking destination for both Peruvian and foreign tourists.

Ronald Woodman, head of the Peruvian Geophysical Institute, agreed the news of the glacial crack was exaggerated.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory "wanted to publicize the important work they are doing, but there is no imminent threat," he said.

Jeff Kargel of the U.S. Geological Service said that "judging from the satellite image alone we cannot say that a collapse of the glacier into the lake and flood is imminent."

Kargel, chief investigator of Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, a 23-nation consortium that monitors the world's glaciers, said he was "puzzled" by NASA's statement but acknowledged the Cupi glacier should be watched.

"There are certainly conditions here which could allow for a dangerous situation," he said. "This glacier is one that warrants a close eye."

Alan Buis, spokesman at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said NASA had not meant to alarm the population.

"Our intent is to show that a NASA instrument is able to monitor a situation like this and is providing data that can be useful in studying the situation," he told Reuters.

The Power of Prayer in Medicine


By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
WebMD Medical News

Nov. 6, 2001 -- Here's more evidence that -- in medicine, as in all of life -- prayer seems to work in mysterious ways.

In one recent study, women at an in vitro fertilization clinic had higher pregnancy rates when total strangers were praying for them. Another study finds that people undergoing risky cardiovascular surgery have fewer complications when they are the focus of prayer groups.

The fertilization study -- conducted at a hospital in Seoul, Korea -- found a doubling of the pregnancy rate among women who were prayed for, says Rogerio A. Lobo, MD, chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University School of Medicine in New York City. His study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

"It's a highly-significant finding," Lobo tells WebMD. "I'm first to say we don't know what this means."

The randomized study involved 199 women who were undergoing in vitro fertility treatments at a hospital in Seoul, Korea, during 1998 and 1999. All women were selected for the study based on their similar age and fertility factors, Lobo tells WebMD.

Half the women were randomly assigned to have one of several Christian prayer groups in the U.S., Canada, and Australia pray for them. A photograph of each patient was given to "her" prayer group. While one set of prayer groups prayed directly for the women, a second set of prayer groups prayed for the first set, and a third group prayed for both groups.

Neither the women nor their medical caregivers knew about the study -- or that anyone was praying for them.

"We were very careful to control this as rigorously as we could," Lobo tells WebMD. "We deliberately set it up in an unbiased way." That meant not informing patients they were being prayed for, so it would not influence the women's outcome. Whether the patients were praying for themselves -- or if others were praying for them -- "we don't know," he says.

The women in the "prayed for" group became pregnant twice as often as the other women, he says.

"We were not expecting to find a positive result," says Lobo. Researchers have re-analyzed the data several times, to detect any discrepancies -- but have been unable to find any, he says.

Lobo admits there may be some "biological variable" that they have not discovered, which could account for the high success rate among the prayed-for women. He and his colleagues are already planning a follow-up study also involving in vitro fertilization.

The second study involves 150 patients -- all having serious heart problems, all scheduled for a procedure called angioplasty, in which doctors thread a catheter up into a clogged heart artery, open it up, and insert a little device called a stent to prop it open.

Patients who were prayed for during their procedure had far fewer complications, reports lead author Mitchell W. Krucoff, MD, director of the Ischemia Monitoring Laboratory at Duke University Medical Center and the Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center in Durham, NC.

His study appears in the current issue of the American Heart Journal.

Krucoff enrolled 150 patients who were going to have the stent procedure, and then randomly assigned them to receive one of five complementary therapies: guided imagery, stress relaxation, healing touch, or intercessory 'off site' prayer -- which meant they were prayed for by others, or to no complementary therapy.

All the complementary therapies -- except off-site prayer -- were performed at the patient's bedside at least one hour before the cardiac procedures.

Seven prayer groups of varying denominations around the world -- Buddhists, Catholics, Moravians, Jews, fundamentalist Christians, Baptists, and the Unity School of Christianity -- prayed for specific patients during their procedures.

Each prayer group was assigned names, ages, and illnesses of specific patients they were to pray for. None of the patients, family members, or staff knew who was being prayed for. None of the patient-prayer group matchings were based on denomination.

"This was a very rigorously controlled study, just as we would look at any therapeutic -- a new cardiovascular drug, a new stent -- and see the results in terms of patients' outcomes," Krucoff tells WebMD. The goal was to determine which therapies warranted further study in a bigger trial.

Those in the "prayed for" group had fewer complications than any of the patients, including those receiving other complementary therapies, he says. "Although it's not statistical proof, it's not certainty, it is suggestive -- to the point that we've already begun a phase II trial."

He has already enrolled more than 300 people in a phase II study.

Why did prayer produce the best outcome? "There are no satisfactory mechanistic explanations," he says. That's why studies that measure patients' outcomes are best for this kind of study, he says. Even if you don't understand why it's happening, at least you have something to measure -- how the patient did."

Both studies are "well-controlled," preliminary trials "providing more evidence that there's something to it all," says Blair Justice, PhD, professor of psychology and psychobiologist (mind-body medicine) at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

Justice, who has followed prayer research for several decades, reviewed the reports for WebMD.

"Research into prayer has been going on a lot longer than is reflected in mainstream journals," Justice tells WebMD. "Since the 1980s, there have been several well-controlled prospective studies, good evidence that this wasn't some product of a good imagination."

Some of the studies conducted in Europe involved nonhuman organisms -- enzyme cells, bacteria, plants, animals -- which could not be affected by other complicating factors, including faith. Groups were assigned to pray for their growth; then the prayers were reversed, and people were praying against growth. Each time, the plants responded according to the focus of the prayers.

"There seems to be something to it," he says.

While current technology does not allow researchers to understand the mechanism behind prayer -- what makes it work -- it's much like gravity and other natural phenomena that were considered mysterious forces by earlier cultures, Justice tells WebMD.

"Keppler was accused of being insane when he said tides were due to the tug of lunar gravity, even Galileo considered it to be ravings of a lunatic -- until Marconi proved the theory," he says.

"It's just like anything else, you don't have to believe in it for prayer to have an effect," says Justice.

© 2001 WebMD Corporation. All rights reserved.

Does Praying for Better Health Work?


By Michael Smith, MD
WebMD Feature

Dec. 17, 2001 -- Studies have shown prayer to do everything from enhancing pregnancy rates to improving the safety of surgery. But new research from the Mayo Clinic sheds doubt on those findings, and questions the role that prayer really plays in medicine.

Earlier this year, one study showed that women undergoing in vitro fertilization were more likely to get pregnant when strangers prayed for them. Another study showed that praying for people undergoing balloon angioplasty to open up a clogged heart artery resulted in those patients having fewer post-surgical problems.

But a new study, also in people with heart disease, did not find any benefit from intercessory prayer -- prayer by one or more strangers on behalf of another.

These researchers sought to improve the reliability of previous studies by using strict research criteria used to evaluate more traditional treatments. They report that prior research has not truly evaluated whether people who were prayed for do better in the long run.

So, over a two-year period, they randomly assigned almost 800 people with heart disease to receive intercessory prayer or not, for 26 weeks after leaving the hospital.

The intercessors -- those doing the praying -- were from local religious groups and had no contact with the patients. They did receive personal information about the patients, such as name, age, sex, and general medical condition. Neither the patients nor their families were aware of whether they were being prayed for.

Researchers followed each person to see if they had any further heart problems or died during that time. There was no difference between the groups.

In a separate study, lead author Paul S. Mueller, MD, and colleagues reviewed much of the research done to date on the use of prayer for improving health.

Mueller, a Mayo Clinic internal medicine specialist, says that although the relationship between religion/spirituality and health seems valid, there is currently no way to establish its real effect. In a news release, he suggests that the link is complex -- made up of psychological, behavioral, and biological factors.

Both of the new studies appear in the December issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

None of the experts, including Harold G. Koenig, MD, who wrote an editorial accompanying the research, suggests that there is no role for religion in medicine. But he agrees with Mueller that the medical evidence will likely never be good enough to justify doctors prescribing religion to nonreligious people.

Koenig says that if you are religious, discussing your spirituality with your doctor is appropriate. But you should not expect your medical doctor to address any complex spiritual needs you might have.

Stephen L. Kopecky, MD, Mayo Clinic cardiologist and senior author of the study on heart disease and prayer, makes an important point. In a news release, he says that his study was not able to measure the 'power of God,' nor should prayer for patients by loved ones, relatives, and friends be interpreted not to play a potentially important role in the healing process.

The back and forth debate on prayer and health continues. Given the difficulty of putting prayer through rigorous scientific testing, however, we may never know the precise effect that a stranger's prayer has on healing.

© 2001 WebMD Corporation. All rights reserved.

Canadian Filmmaker Probes Mystery of James Bone Box

Tue April 15, 2003


02:40 PM ET By Leah Eichler TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici recalls the day he stumbled into the Tel Aviv home of antiquities collector Oded Golan and first saw the 2,000-year-old limestone box believed to have contained the bones of Jesus' brother James.

Like some long-lost treasure out of Indiana Jones, the plain stone burial box -- known to scholars as an ossuary -- and its inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," captivated the two-time Emmy award-winning filmmaker. Was it real? Where did it come from? Who was James?

The box was perhaps the earliest known reference to Jesus outside the Bible and a phenomenal archeological discovery.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

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Today's Headlines – April 17, 2003

from The Washington Post

The new lung infection that has triggered an international health emergency is unquestionably caused by a previously unknown virus related to germs that cause the common cold, the World Health Organization announced yesterday.

Dutch scientists have produced the final pieces of evidence needed to conclusively link the microbe, known as a coronavirus, to the disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), scientists at the United Nations body concluded.

While researchers have been focusing for several weeks on the virus as the probable cause of SARS, the definitive connection is nonetheless a milestone in the global health crisis. It will allow scientists racing to fight the epidemic to focus exclusively on the virus. It could speed development of better tests, aid efforts to find a treatment and accelerate work to produce a vaccine.



Lead levels now widely believed to be safe in children actually produce a severe impact on intellectual development, researchers report today.

Blood levels of lead below current federal and international guidelines of 10 micrograms per deciliter produce a surprisingly large drop in IQ of up to 7.4 points, a U.S. team reports in today's New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers estimate that one in every 50 U.S. children has lead levels above that guideline and that one in every 10 has levels of 5 micrograms/deciliter or above -- well within the dangerous range.

"People have been asking, 'How low [a lead concentration] is low enough?' " said Dr. Richard Canfield of Cornell University, one of the leaders of the study. "The fact is, in our study, we found no evidence for a safe level. There is no safe level of exposure."


from The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Geron Inc. claims it has found a better way to clone pigs, a discovery that could alleviate a severe shortage of replacement organs and tissues for people.

Geron-funded scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland primed mature pig eggs in a special soup in the lab for two days before starting the cloning process, a technique they said improved the chances of a live birth. Most researchers begin cloning as soon as they harvest eggs from the donor pigs.

The Menlo Park-based company said Wednesday that it has received a patent for the Roslin work and will help in the race to develop cloned pigs genetically engineered for their human organ transplant potential.


from UPI


It is easy to fake a voice recording and hard to detect, Oregon researchers have found.


Some of the toxins in the environment could be coming from the interaction between sunlight and a common ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps, new research has found.


In terms of firefly flashes, the longer the shine, the more attractive the male, Tufts University researchers have found.


from The Christian Science Monitor

HAVANA – This crumbling, isolated throwback to a cold-war past is probably one of the last places you'd expect to find the sciences of the future.

In Old Havana, wood-paneled pharmacies with crystal chandeliers and empty shelves attract more gawking tourists these days than customers. Food is so scarce that the government urges citizens to grow fruit and vegetables in small urban plots to supplement their diet.

Yet this struggling island nation is chipping away at a longtime US embargo with an unlikely tool: biotechnology.


from The New York Times

SUMMER thunderstorms will be here soon, and with them the inevitable lightning that can fry a modem, PC or home entertainment system.

The classic household guardians against damage from power spikes are surge protectors, typically inexpensive power strips, usually with five or six outlets, equipped to absorb some of the surplus electricity. But these devices offer limited protection, particularly against the substantial power surges that occur, for instance, when lightning strikes a nearby power line.

Now a small start-up company in Savannah, Ga., Storm Shelter Electronics, hopes to help customers prevent that kind of damage by offering surge protection with a wireless twist.

The company's new device has a pager that receives alerts from a lightning detection network. When the network pages the device that lightning is nearby, the device disconnects computers, televisions and other electronic devices and switches them to a battery backup. When the pager receives an all-clear from the lightning network, the device can restore the original connection.


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The cruelty of crucifixion
Doctor explains the full extent of Christ's suffering


Article published April 12, 2003


For 17 years, Dr. Thomas McGovern has studied one of the pivotal events in history: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

He has pored over scripture, reviewed medical research, and interviewed experts around the globe about the physical suffering of Christ in his final hours.

Dr. McGovern believes that while modern-day Christians are aware that Jesus suffered, they don't fully comprehend the agony and brutality of his death on a cross - a punishment so barbaric that it was banned in the 4th Century by Roman Emperor Constantine.

'CREATIONISM LITE' 'Intelligent design' skeptic


BGSU visiting scholar says theory is political, not scientific

Article published April 5, 2003


Advocates of "intelligent design" are not making any new religious or scientific arguments, according to Dr. Michael Ruse. Their biggest contributions have been in politics, including inroads into Ohio's public school science curricula.

"Certainly the idea of intelligent design goes back to the Greeks, to Plato and Aristotle, who said the hand and the eye could not have been created just by chance but there must have been some intelligence that put them together," said Dr. Ruse, a philosophy professor at Florida State University who is lecturing as a visiting scholar this week at Bowling Green State University.

Creationism, which teaches that God created life on Earth as written in the biblical book of Genesis, has been barred from public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Intelligent design, or ID, proposes that an unspecified intelligent entity was responsible for creating life on Earth. It is a scientific principle used in other areas of study besides biology, adherents say.

The designer could be God, but it also could have been space aliens, according to ID theory.

The challenge to Darwin's theory of evolution has been hotly debated for months in Ohio, where the state Board of Education in December adopted language that, for the first time, says local school districts can critically analyze evolution. The wording also uses the term "intelligent design," the first time any state has acknowledged the theory in its science guidelines. Local school boards are now drafting curricula based on the new guidelines.

A leading authority on Darwinism, Dr. Ruse described ID as "creationism lite" and said its advocates have shrewdly disguised a religious theory as science in presenting their case to politicians and school boards.

Proponents of intelligent design say the study of the origin of life cannot be proved by scientific tests or observation, and that all viable theories should be included in public schools. For decades, they say, Darwinian evolution has been taught without critical analysis or in light of alternative concepts on the origin or life, which implies that it is an unquestionable fact, not a theory.

Dr. Ruse, 62, a native of Birmingham, England, earned his doctorate at the University of Bristol. He has written 18 books and next month will publish his 19th title, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?

While ID does not specify God as the entity responsible for creating life, Dr. Ruse believes that is the underlying belief of most proponents.

"Without wanting to accuse them of deliberate dishonesty, in fact they do not believe that [space aliens created life on Earth]," Dr. Ruse said. "Almost to a person, they subscribe to a fairly conservative reading of Protestant Christianity.

"So on one level, it's quite right that intelligent design could be anything. It could be a hobgoblin that created the world. First of all, I don't think it's true. And I don't think those people think it's true. Get them to put out their real agenda."

Dr. Ruse said it's possible to be a Darwinian and a Christian, "but both sides have to give." He also said evolution can function as a "secular religion."

"If you ask me if evolution is a science, if Darwinism is a science, I say, 'Yes, of course it is,'" he said. "The kind of things being done in biology labs at Bowling Green State University is science. But I also think many people make more of their science than the science itself. It can create a whole way of looking at the world."

Many influential philosophers rejected intelligent design theory long before the current debate arose, Dr. Ruse said.

"Kant said that if God designed the world, how do you explain all the evil in the world, or hemorrhoids, or the pain and discomfort people have with lower back problems? This certainly suggests that the kind of God who lets all these things happen is not all that powerful, as Hume suggested," he said.

While there are questions about aspects of evolution, Dr. Ruse said it is part of the ongoing advancement of science.

"Obviously, one's got to reinterpret things in the light of modern science," he said. "But I think evolution is a fact. It's a well-established fact that you and I are the sons of monkeys just as the Earth goes around the sun.

"The causes of evolution, and whether natural selection is the only cause, is something that scientists are still working on. A lot of details have to be worked out. An awful lot of issues are open to study. It's not a bad thing. It's a wonderful time to be an evolutionary biologist."

Dr. Michael Ruse will speak on "Darwinism and Christianity: Does Evil Spoil a Beautiful Friendship?" at the Philosophy Undergraduate Innovation and Research Awards starting at 11:45 a.m. today in the Bowen-Thompson Student Union at Bowling Green State University. His talk is free and open to the public.


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News
Number 633 April 16, 2003 by Phillip F. Schewe, Ben Stein, and James Riordon

THE FIRST SINGLE-MOLECULE, SINGLE-BASE-RESOLUTION DNA SEQUENCING has been carried out by a Caltech group. In this new approach, the bases forming the backbone of the typical DNA molecule are viewed one by one in the act of replicating. To be more exact, a DNA polymerase molecule, acting as a genetic xerox machine, copies a single strand of DNA by adding complementary base units to it; the "fuel" for this process, the base molecules being added, were fluorescently labeled beforehand (by attaching site-specific, light-producing fluorophore molecules), so the DNA sequence could be observed by microscope observations (schematic setup figure at www.aip.org/mgr/png ). Sequencing single-molecule DNA strands is intrinsically difficult because of the high linear data storage density: the bases are only about 3.4 angstroms apart along the DNA helix. Past efforts to sequence bases through their fluorescence have been complicated by background noise, a problem avoided by the Caltech scientists through careful use of two laser pulses, one for producing pinpoint fluorescence and another for nulling or "bleaching" the fluorescence in order to prepare for the next base identification.

Stephen Quake (quake@caltech.edu) and his colleagues can currently identify no more than about 6 bases in a row, so this research is still at the proof-of-principle stage. However, within about two years or so, Quake believes, his process should be a factor of ten faster than standard gel-electrophoresis techniques used to sequence DNA molecules on a wholesale level, and several orders of magnitude cheaper. (Braslavsky et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 1 April 2003.)

CHARGE SYMMETRY BREAKING has been observed in two experiments reported at the recent American Physical Society meeting in Philadelphia. In the 1930s, physicist Werner Heisenberg proposed that the neutron and proton are simply slightly different manifestations of the same particle, called the "nucleon." Modern nuclear physics endorses this view: plenty of nuclear reactions proceed exactly the same way if a proton takes the place of a neutron, or vice versa. However, this close similarity breaks down in some cases, leading to a situation known as "charge symmetry breaking" (CSB). In separate experiments at the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility (IUCF) and the TRIUMF cyclotron in Canada, researchers have made groundbreaking new measurements of CSB (which, incidentally, is a nuclear-physics phenomenon completely different from charge [C] conjugation in particle physics). Such CSB measurements can provide deep insights into why nature gave the neutron and proton slightly different masses. At an even more fundamental level, the CSB measurements can potentially yield more precise values of the mass difference between the up and down quarks that make up protons and neutrons. Nuclear theorists are busily analyzing these new experimental results to put tighter constraints on the up-down mass difference.

At the APS meeting, Ed Stephenson of Indiana University (stephens@iucf.indiana.edu) announced the first unambiguous identification of a rare process: the fusion of two nuclei of heavy hydrogen to form a nucleus of helium and an uncharged pion, one of the subatomic particles responsible for the strong force that binds nuclei together. This process would not exist at all were it not that nature allowed a small violation of charge symmetry. Over a two-month period, researchers observed this rare reaction several dozen times, giving physicists enough data to test theories of charge-symmetry breaking.

Representing a collaboration at TRIUMF, Allena Opper of Ohio University (opper@ohiou.edu) discussed the detection of CSB in another nuclear reaction: the fusion of a proton and neutron, which produces a charged pion as one of its products. Viewed from a perspective or ("reference frame") at which the proton and neutron meet at the center, the reaction, repeated man times, produces a small excess of pions (0.17%) in a preferred direction. Such an asymmetry is a hallmark of CSB. Taken together, these new CSB results promise a wealth of information on such things as the slightly different electromagnetic fields inside each nucleon. As it turns out, such fields may contribute to the proton-neutron mass difference, as they carry energy which convert into a small amount of mass.

TUNABLE PHOTONIC CRYSTALS. Photonic crystals affect the flow of photons in much the same way that electronic devices affect the flow of electrons. Most photonic crystals, however, have specific properties that cannot be varied once the crystals are made. A few types of photonic crystals, such as fluid suspensions of colloidal silica, can be modified on the fly, but the time required to change configurations is inconveniently long. Researchers at Brown University have now made photonic crystals that can be modified in milliseconds. The tunable photonic crystals consist of a class of materials known as holographic-polymer dispersed liquid crystals (H-PDLCs). Complex structures are defined in the material by exposing it to an interference pattern produced by a set of four laser beams. Liquid crystal droplets form in regions where the laser light interferes coherently; these droplets constitute a photonic crystal. An electric field applied to the suspension of liquid crystals modifies the refraction index of the droplets, which changes the spectrum of light that the photonic crystals transmits. The new photonic crystals are easily constructed on a wide range of scales, which allows them to affect a wide spectrum of light, and can replicate sophisticated structures including diamond lattices as well as anisotropic lattices that affect light differently depending on the direction of propagation through the crystal. Potential applications of the tunable photonic crystals include filters to selectively block certain light frequencies. With further improvement, they may also lead other optical devices such as to novel lasers and optical waveguides. Jun Qi of Brown University (jun_qi@brown.edu, 401-863-3078) described the tunable photonic crystals in a paper he presented recently at the Optical Fiber and Communication Conference in Atlanta (for more information on the conference, see the website www.ofcconference.org ) .

PHYSICS NEWS UPDATE is a digest of physics news items arising from physics meetings, physics journals, newspapers and magazines, and other news sources. It is provided free of charge as a way of broadly disseminating information about physics and physicists. For that reason, you are free to post it, if you like, where others can read it, providing only that you credit AIP. Physics News Update appears approximately once a week.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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In the News

Today's Headlines - April 16, 2003

from The New York Times

UNITED NATIONS, April 15 — Monkeys experimentally infected with a new coronavirus have developed an illness similar to the mysterious human respiratory disease SARS, and it is now almost certain that the coronavirus causes the disease, a World Health Organization official said here today.

Dr. David L. Heymann, executive director in charge of communicable diseases for W.H.O., said the agency "is 99 percent sure" that SARS is caused by the new coronavirus based on the monkey experiments in the Netherlands. Experiments on animals are necessary because the lack of an effective treatment for SARS and the relatively high death rate make it unethical to conduct such experiments on humans.

Preliminary findings show that the monkeys developed an illness resembling SARS after the coronavirus was put in their nostrils. Some monkeys developed pneumonia, and examination of their lungs under a microscope showed that the coronavirus caused a pattern of lung damage similar to what affected humans have suffered.


from The Washington Post

Is there still time to dampen the flames of the SARS epidemic to the point where it can burn itself out? That's the most pressing question in medicine today. A research team in London is trying to answer it by the end of this week.

The researchers, at the University of London's Imperial College, are building a mathematical model that shows how the mysterious, sometimes fatal infection spreads. In numbers and equations, they are expressing the behavior of both people and the coronavirus that appears to cause SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Their goal is to provide insights useful to public health authorities in several countries who are trying hard to keep the epidemic from going worldwide.

For nearly two weeks, Roy Anderson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, and five other scientists have been analyzing data collected from Hong Kong and Canada, the places the outbreak has been best chronicled. While SARS appears to have originated in China's Guangdong province last fall, the information from that country is not complete enough to be useful.



Washington - Investigators are considering the possibility that a long, narrow slit opened between two of the toughened panels at the front of Columbia's left wing, providing a pathway for super-hot gas to attack the wing's structure during re-entry.

While the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has paid close attention to the leading edge of the wing for weeks, new information is helping the panel refine working theories on what may have happened to the doomed shuttle.

The board is concerned NASA may have missed signs of underlying weakness in aged panels or associated structures. The U-shaped panels are made of a material called reinforced carbon-carbon.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

So you jack up the amount of fish you eat, pump the omega-3s, and make your heart healthier and happier than it's ever been. But at the same time, are you accumulating toxic levels of mercury and making a mess of your brain and nerves?

It depends, scientists say.

What kind of fish, how large the fish are and your individual tolerance for mercury are all factors in choosing a mercury-safe seafood diet. You can eat fish often -- if you choose carefully.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish as the species high in mercury, and warns children and women of childbearing age to avoid them. All four are large fish that feed on smaller fish and live long enough for high levels of mercury in the ocean to accumulate in their flesh. Some scientists think other fish that live a long time, notably tuna, belong on the list as well.


from The Los Angeles Times

Scientists announced the formal completion of the human genome Monday -- a milestone marking the end of the first chapter of the genetics revolution and the dawn of a more arduous chapter two -- figuring out the meaning of it all.

The next challenge will stretch far into the decades to come: determining the function of all 3 billion DNA letters, and understanding how those letters direct the growth, life, reproduction, disease and death of human beings.

To that end, government scientists Monday outlined their research road map for the future in a document to be published this week in the scientific journal Nature. Among the major initiatives is a project known as ENCODE, which will analyze 1% of the genome in detail to identify every functioning element it contains. Also highlighted was the HapMap project, which will catalog the minute genetic differences between people to help track down genes associated with complex traits, predispositions or diseases.


Fortune teller's advice turns woman to crime


An elderly woman was caught shoplifting in China after a fortune teller advised her to eat some free meat.

The well-to-do woman was caught stealing meat from a supermarket, says China Today quoting the Dalian Evening News.

The woman, in her 60s, had visited a fortune teller who predicted a mishap in her home in Dalian, Shandon Province.

She asked how the bad luck could be avoided and was told to make sure her family ate some free meat.

The woman first planned to ask her friends to give her some meat but the fortune teller told her that "gift meat does not count".

She was caught in a supermarket when she put two pieces of cooked meat into her mouth and tried to pocket more. She had wanted to save some for her grandson.

Story filed: 08:46 Tuesday 15th April 2003

James: "Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus"


The article below describes a limestone burial box, an ossuary, which may have contained the bones of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The New Testament repeatedly refers to James, who was the leader of the Jerusalem Church until his own stoning to death in 63 C.E. If this ossuary is indeed genuine, it would mark a major extra-Biblical confirmation of the historical Jesus.

James was the primary opponent to Paul, who described himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. James represented the views of the Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. He may be viewed as the first bishop of the Jerusalem Church.

ASTA adds its Voice for Evolution

NCSE is pleased to announce a further addition to Voices for Evolution: a statement from the Arkansas Science Teachers Association, reading in part: "ASTA is opposed to any religious view being taught in the public schools as science. ... both curriculum and selection of instructional materials for public schools must reflect established scientific evidence."

For the full statement, go to http://www.ncseweb.org/article.asp?category=2, click on Statements from Educational Organizations, and then click on Arkansas Science Teachers Association. And be sure to visit the ASTA web site at http://www.aristotle.net/~asta/.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x 305
fax: 510-601-7204




"Blessed Mother Theresa September 5, 1997 Note: Mother Theresa died at 9:30pm on the evening of September 5, 1997, in the mother house of her convent in Calcutta. At around 8:15pm that evening, Mother Theresa awoke and summoned the other nuns to gather around her. She told them,

"I have had a vision of things to come. Our Lord Jesus Christ has bidden me to disclose it to you so that you might be prepared for a time of woe and be safeguarded from evil. The Four Horsemen spoken in the book of Revelation, have mounted their steeds. Their ride begins. You will hear their hoofbeats within five years time." (Mother Therese was quite specific as to the timing of the first three scourges, Plague, War and Famine.)

"The plague will break out first in Asia in August 2002. At first it will be ignored by world health authorities, but it will spread and its victims will multiply rapidly â€" millions and millions of poor souls. As the plague rages, the true identity of the Beast of Revelation will be revealed; a creature who delights in death, pain and misery. This man will come from Iran, and will proudly display the number 666….. With contemptuous ease, the Beast will assassinate Saddam Hussein early in 2003 in a murder plot involving Arab Sheikhs, and he will spread his power through Iraq and Saudi Arabia…. War will break out in the Middle East in October 2003. It will start with the assassination of a major figure….This shocking event will provoke a wave of suicide attacks against the United States….. Like the plague, the war will escalate quickly…A brief, bloody, global confrontation will ensue. America will emerge victorious, but with great loss of life, and the economy in ruins. Enter the third Horseman â€" Famine." ….But when things are at their very worst, and the winter bites hard, the fourth Horseman makes his appearance. This rider is not `Death' as in Revelation, but becomes `Hope'… Hope will become the promise of a new message from Our Lady of Fatima. Hundreds at the Shrine will witness the Virgin predicting victory in the war, and a 1000 year Era of Peace on earth."

Peruvian Gourd Reveals Ancient Andean Religion

Mon April 14, 2003 04:03 PM ET
By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The image of a fanged deity inscribed on a 4,000-year-old Peruvian gourd indicates an early Andean civilization practiced religion a thousand years earlier than previously believed, scientists said on Monday.

Carbon dating of the fragment found at a looted Peruvian cemetery by a husband and wife team of anthropologists in July 2002 showed it was from around 2250 BC.

"This appears to be the oldest identifiable religious icon found in the Americas. It indicates that organized religion began in the Andes more than 1,000 years earlier than previously thought," said Jonathan Haas of The Field Museum in Chicago.

Full story:

SARS Hits Religious Group in Toronto

Tue April 15, 2003 10:42 AM ET TORONTO


(Reuters) - Canadian health officials said on Monday that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has spread to a tightly knit religious group in Toronto, with 31 probable and suspect cases. There are 10 probable and 19 suspect cases, and two people believed infected by a health care provider, Sheela Basrur, Toronto's medical officer of health told an evening news conference.

Turnips Touted as SARS Cure in Beijing

Tue April 15, 2003 10:44 AM ET


BEIJING (Reuters) - A turnip a day keeps the SARS virus away, or so many in China's capital believe. Turnip prices have jumped in Beijing after the vegetable was touted as a key ingredient in a potion to fight the deadly virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, peddlers said.

Carrots, leeks, garlic and ginger have leapt in popularity, too, after the popular Star Daily tabloid published a recipe for fighting SARS last week that included those ingredients along with turnips.

"A lot of people want turnips," said vegetable vendor Hu Benqiang, adding that he expected prices to keep rising.

Long, white turnips are already selling for three yuan per kilogram (kg) at one neighborhood market, up from 2.40 yuan (10 pence) per kg last week, said Hu. Wholesale prices have shot up more than 30 percent.

Chinese citizens have been trying antibiotics, cold medicines and home remedies such as boiling vinegar and eating whole cloves of raw garlic to fight SARS. One official health newspaper recommended dead silkworms and cicada skins as part of another recipe.

Health experts say there is no known cure for SARS, which has infected more than 3,300 people and killed at least 144 -- nearly half of them in China -- since it emerged in China's southern province of Guangdong in November.


Psychologist Rachel S. Herz found that college students stymied by a computer game exhibited their frustration during a later word test when they were in a room with the same scent. Herz presented her study at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) April 13, 2003.

Onward Christian soldiers


Conservative fundamentalists with close ties to President Bush are planning a new missionary push in Iraq -- and they might already be converting U.S. troops to their cause.

April 15, 2003 | Now that the Big Brother busts of Saddam Hussein are crashing to the ground from Basra to Kirkuk and widespread looting and violence have filled the power vacuum, Iraq remains tense and its future is murky. There, people are more concerned with things like water and medical care than the abstract world of politics. But in the West, a growing corps is squabbling over the spoils of war. While winners and losers in bids for reconstruction contracts and humanitarian opportunities are still being sorted out, one group seems certain to gain an avenue into the country: Southern Baptist Convention ministers prominent in the galaxy of the religious right. Among them is Charles Stanley, the former two-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a close ally of former President George Bush and a fervent supporter of the current president's war on Iraq.

Are you rapture ready?


The rapture is going to strike without warning.

The rapture is going to happen suddenly.

The rapture is going to be one of the most astonishing events to ever occur.

Resurrection skeptic goes to baroque extremes



What better time than the Christian holy week to look once again at the sometimes- strained relationship between science and religion.

Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, has just published an article in Skeptic magazine arguing in favour of a "natural" explanation for the Resurrection.

The article is in the tradition of seeking alternative explanations for miraculous events in the Bible, but this is a particularly extraordinary example.

Persinger starts with experiments he and colleagues at Laurentian performed with rats 10 years ago. They were exploring the mechanisms of temporal-lobe epilepsy, a form of the disease in which patients temporarily lose consciousness but don't suffer the spectacular grand mal seizures seen in other epilepsies.

Temporal-lobe patients also tend to exhibit an unusual set of personality characteristics, such as feeling that they've been "chosen" and being preoccupied with religion.

Temporal-lobe seizures are usually triggered by some sort of scar in that region of the brain.

In an attempt to mimic this situation in rats, Persinger made an unexpected discovery: When rats were injected with the right drugs (like reserpine) while being physically restrained at the same time, their body temperature plummeted and, for all intents and purposes, they appeared to have died.

But days later — three days, in fact — they revived, although their brains were extensively damaged in the experiments. They were unable to groom themselves and had lost their memories.

In his Skeptic article, Persinger uses these experiments to concoct a scenario for the Resurrection, but the connection is anything but straightforward.

First, he argues that Christ might have had the same kind of temporal-lobe sensitivity as seen in many modern patients with that form of epilepsy.

The features Persinger lists include Christ's wide range of emotions, his oratorical powers and his undeniable preoccupation with God, salvation and life after death.

The physical restraint part of it is easy: Christ was pretty well immobilized on the cross. But the drugs needed to induce the death-like state are a problem: Where did they come from?

Persinger muses that Christ and the disciples might have been familiar with the use of plant extracts to induce trance-like states, as practised by some sects. But even that supposition leaves open the question of when such a drug was consumed.

Perhaps the sponge offered to Christ while he was on the cross contained such a drug? Might he have consumed it at the Last Supper? One thing is for sure: Without a reserpine-like drug, the scenario falls apart.

The theory then requires a drugged and restrained Christ to enter into a state resembling death, to be taken down from the cross, only to recover and rise again. Persinger even extends his theory to the post-Resurrection era, arguing that Christ's wanderings and seeming lack of awareness of people familiar to him might represent the residual brain damage seen in the lab rats after they underwent this traumatic experience.

This article is another in a long tradition of seeking natural explanations for the supernatural: The Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of planets; a tidal wave accompanying a volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean explains the parting of the Red Sea.

None of these explanations ever seems to be a comfortable fit. Special pleading is usually required, and Persinger's argument for the Resurrection is an extreme example of this.

How could this elaborate network of circumstances ever be realized?

I have to admit that at one point I wondered if the article was a clever parody of the rational scientist's need to explain absolutely everything, no matter how baroque the explanation. But Persinger is a hardcore skeptic, and I have to assume he's serious.

There is a rule in science called Occam's Razor. It stipulates that the simplest reasonable explanation of something is likely the correct one. I'd apply it here.

If you don't believe in the Resurrection, why go to the extremes of using experiments with drugged and restrained rats to create an extremely unlikely, even unbelievable, theory?

Just argue that the story was made up by the creative authors of the Gospels and leave it at that.

Jay Ingram hosts the Daily Planet show on the Discovery Channel.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.

In the News

Today's Headlines - April 15, 2003

Findings May Alter Humanity's Sense of Itself, Experts Predict
from The Washington Post

Thirteen years after its launch as the most ambitious biomedical research project ever undertaken, the Human Genome Project yesterday was declared officially complete, having revealed in exquisite detail the genetic blueprint underlying all human life.

But citing Shakespeare's famous assertion that "what's past is prologue," project leaders immediately looked ahead, unveiling a formal plan to catapult the genetic findings into every sphere of life -- including plans that even proponents said would raise difficult social, ethical and legal questions.

That roadmap for future studies calls for new research into the role that genes play in race and ethnicity; in influencing personality traits and behaviors, including mental illness; and in other politically sensitive aspects of the human condition. Experts predicted that the results will have profound societal impacts and will ultimately revamp humanity's sense of itself.


from The New York Times

A Russian mathematician is reporting that he has proved the Poincaré Conjecture, one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics.

The mathematician, Dr. Grigori Perelman of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, is describing his work in a series of papers, not yet completed.

It will be months before the proof can be thoroughly checked. But if true, it will verify a statement about three-dimensional objects that has haunted mathematicians for nearly a century, and its consequences will reverberate through geometry and physics.

If his proof is accepted for publication in a refereed research journal and survives two years of scrutiny, Dr. Perelman could be eligible for a $1 million prize sponsored by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass., for solving what the institute identifies as one of the seven most important unsolved mathematics problems of the millennium.


from The New York Times

A child in China so infectious that he is nicknamed "the poison emperor." A Chinese doctor who infects 12 fellow guests in his Hong Kong hotel, who then fly to Singapore, Vietnam and Canada. An elderly Canadian woman who infects three generations of her family.

Watching as the mysterious illness called severe acute respiratory syndrome hopped around the world and exploded in new outbreaks, epidemiologists began to ask themselves an unsettling question: is it carried by "superspreaders"?

The notion that some people are hyperinfective, spewing germs out like teakettles while others simmer quietly like stew pots, has been around for at least a century, ever since Typhoid Mary became notorious in 1907.


from The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- Death rates from cancer are falling for all Americans, but black Americans are still more likely to die of cancer than whites, the American Cancer Society said yesterday.

In a special report on cancer and blacks, the organization said blacks are usually diagnosed with cancer later than whites, and they are more likely to die of the disease.

This could be because of unequal access to medical care, because blacks are more likely to have other diseases such as diabetes as well, and perhaps because of differences in the biology of the cancer itself, the report added.


Efforts under way to save treasures
from The Chicago Tribune

Chicago researchers raced Monday to find ways of keeping the looted treasures of Iraq's ancient civilizations from leaving that country, joining a growing call for the United States to help buy back and return thousands of items stolen from Iraq's national museum.

Students at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, a center of research on that region's antiquities, were scanning photographs from old Iraqi museum catalogs to alert border guards and art dealers to artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq. Looters ransacked an irreplaceable repository of ancient Mesopotamian culture at the museum in the days after U.S. troops captured Baghdad.

An emergency meeting of UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, was scheduled for Thursday in Paris, where experts will plot strategy for keeping the priceless collection from disappearing into the international black market.


from The Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency is concerned that a synthetic chemical found in nonstick cooking pans, stain-resistant carpets and other common products may cause developmental problems in children, officials said Monday.

The concern was prompted by an industry laboratory study submitted to the EPA a year ago. It showed unexpected deaths and slowed sexual development in the pups of female rats exposed to the chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid. In addition, low levels of the chemical have been found in the blood of the general human population.

In response to those two developments, the EPA has taken the unusual step of ordering an accelerated study of the risks to humans posed by the widely used chemical.


Disgraceful conduct

In The Dallas Morning News letters to the editor today:


I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms the conduct of certain members of the Texas House Insurance Committee at a public hearing on mental health insurance legislation Monday night, April 7. During the hearing, several committee members joined a stand-up comedy routine presented by the Church of Scientology at the expense of individuals living with mental illness.

Mocking persons with disabilities is disgraceful. The injury is aggravated when the offending parties are elected leaders in a position to make life-and-death policy decisions affecting access to medical care for the disabled.

The Church of Scientology is a cult that is well-known for its opposition to modern medical psychiatry. Medical advances over the last decade now offer new hope for meaningful and productive lives for individuals living with mental illness, but only if they have access to treatment. It is truly unfortunate when ignorance and discrimination are greater barriers to recovery than the actual illnesses.

House committee members need to demonstrate that they were not duped. They should support several bills equalizing health benefits for mental health services that are now before them.

Mental illnesses are common, real and treatable. The social costs of untreated mental illness are profound – in disrupted lives, destroyed families and increased demand for public social services. Our legislators must do their part to make treatment available.

Tim Simmons, president, Mental Health Association of Greater Dallas, Dallas

Scientists get ready for a big search for ET signals


Associated Press
San Juan, (Puerto Rico), March 15

Scientists searching for life on distant planets are about to use the world's premier radio telescope to zoom in on promising radio signals isolated by volunteer home computer users around the world.

Astronomer Dan Werthimer will lead a group from the University of California Berkeley for three days' work at the Arecibo Observatory starting on Tuesday.

Articles of Note

Be very afraid
by Ben Goldacre
The Guardian


"It was the MMR story that finally made me crack. My friends had always seemed perfectly rational: now, suddenly, they were swallowing media hysteria, hook, line and sinker. All sensible scientific evidence was twisted to promote fear and panic. I tried to reason with them, but they turned upon me: I was another scientist trying to kill their baby."

The onslaught begins...
by Ben Goldacre
The Guardian


"As I rush towards the hideous reality of my 30th birthday, I am very excited to read about Longevity, a new kind of anti-ageing tablet that "delivers 2-AEP directly to outer cell walls to strengthen, seal and protect them". The tablets have been awarded the National Council on Ageing's Silver Fleece award for "the product that makes the most outrageous or exaggerated claims about human ageing". Last year's winner was "Clustered Water", and their panel recently announced that "no effective anti-ageing intervention currently exists". The marketers of Longevity have fought back, however, and their website has listed happy customers: John Wayne, Yul Brenner, Anthony Quinn, Princess Caroline of Monaco." Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I can tell, at least three of those people are dead already."

Cloned human embryo reported
By Wendy Goldman Rohm
Boston Globe


"A Kentucky fertility specialist says he has created a cloned human embryo that he plans to implant in a woman in the next month if genetic tests show that the embryo is healthy. Scientists say it could be the most credible human cloning experiment to date."

Human cloning 'flawed'
BBC News


"Human cloning may never be possible because of a quirk of biology."

Cold fusion
by Mark Pilkington
The Guardian


"On March 23 1989, two respected chemistry professors, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, made an announcement that looked, briefly, like it might change the world forever. They claimed to have achieved nuclear fusion - normally produced by the intense heat and pressure inside stars - in a glass jar, at room temperature. This was "cold fusion". What's more, their fuel cell was pumping out four times the energy that was going into it. As the University of Utah's press release stated, the pair may have discovered an "inexhaustible source of energy" - the Holy Grail of physics."

The battle for American science
by Oliver Burkeman and Alok Jha
The Guardian


"One of the first signs that something was changing came in March last year in the suburbs of northern Atlanta, when people started talking, a little more frequently than might be expected, about mousetraps. It was hardly unprecedented in the US that a group of local parents should be lobbying for their children to be taught that evolution was a disputed theory, not a fact. But the way some of them were doing it was new, which is where the mousetraps came in."

Bills aim to alter mix of Medical Board
Charlotte Observer


"Accusing the N.C. Medical Board of unfairness in its treatment of certain physicians, groups representing black physicians, alternative medicine practitioners and trial lawyers are pushing state legislators to change the way board members are selected."

Internet Ads Promising Cures and Protection
New York Times


"Type "SARS" into an Internet search engine and advertisements from a variety of companies pop up offering products as diverse as health supplements, disinfectants and special protective suits that marketers say will keep the new disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome, at bay."

Ghost soup? You haven't heard the rest of it ...
by Hector Mackenzie
Glasgow Herald


"WHEN reports emerged in China last week about a 'ghost soup' made out of female skeletons, many people's reaction was total disbelief. But a few police sources maintained that bones, apparently dug up from caves near the tourist resort of Hangzhou in east China's Zhejiang Province, were being used to make a soup designed to cure a range of ailments."

Scientists seek answers to phenomenon
by Anchalee Kongrut
Bangkok Post


"Scientists will launch a probe into the Naga fireballs phenomenon in Nong Khai province in May, said the deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology."

No more Gulf War Syndromes
Scripps Howard News Service


"The war is winding down, with remarkably few coalition casualties. Yet soon somebody will try to start another casualty list, that of a second Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). The only way to stop it is to finally acknowledge that, in any meaningful sense, no such thing as GWS exists."

Homicide ruled in death of man with missing organs
Philadelphia Daily News


"The bizarre death of Willie James Kent, a homeless man who was found with his internal organs mysteriously missing, was officially ruled a homicide yesterday by the Philadelphia medical examiner's office."

Believers Buy Tapes of 'Horse Talker'
Associated Press


"She doesn't call herself a horse whisperer, but Sheila Ryan says she can communicate with the animals."

Royal fairytale bewitched by sex and vampires
By Lawrence Bartlett
South African Press Association


"A bizarre tale of a bewitched palace, sexual jealousy and the murder of a beautiful royal bride is holding Malaysians spellbound as it unfolds in a sombre courtroom."

Funeral for Lizard Believed to Be Son


BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - A woman in central Thailand held a funeral for a monitor lizard believed to have been the reincarnation of her 12-year-old son, who died in a road accident nearly two years ago, a report said Monday.

Jamlong Taengnian, 53, and her relatives gathered at the family's house on the outskirts of Bangkok for the ceremony following the death of the reptile Saturday afternoon, The Nation newspaper reported.

A photo of Jamlong's deceased son, Charoen, was placed beside the reptile's lifeless body. ``I am so sad. I feel as if I have lost my son a second time,'' Jamlong was quoted as saying.

Hundreds of people had visited the house in Nonthaburi, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles north of Bangkok) in recent years to see the lizard allegedly possessed by the dead boy's spirit and thought to bring good luck.

The lizard was first found lying under a photograph of Charoen during his funeral in June 2001 and reportedly followed the boy's parents to their home.

Jamlong named the lizard Yui, her son's nickname, and allowed it to sleep in her bed and gave the lizard milk and yoghurt, her son's favorite foods, reports said.

Monitor lizards, which have gray skin marked by yellowish scales, live near water and are good swimmers and tree climbers. They are not aggressive.

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