Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Drinking Water, Lithium, and Suicide

August 8, 2010

Over at my day job, at, a debate is brewing about whether Washington should spike our drinking water with lithium because two studies concluded that places with higher levels of naturally occurring lithium in their drinking water had significantly lower suicide rates.  The argument put forward by bioethicist Jacob Appel was interesting but spooked those who think the government has no right to alter our moods, even if 13,000 lives might be saving by doing so.  He argued that people who really objected could just opt out by buying bottled water.

Then a geneticist at Yale weighed in and argued that the studies showing the life-affirming effect of drinking-water lithium were pretty shoddy.  Then I jumped in with a wrap-up on the subject called Death by Cruise Ship, Lithium, and Suicide.


Science Cheerleader

May 26, 2008

My friend Darlene Cavalier (we worked together, in the Late Cretaceous, at Discover magazine) has a provocative op ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer about public support for science. Darlene, who was once a cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers, is the brains behind the new blog ScienceCheerleader.

In the Inquirer, she makes the economic case for Washington investing in science: “Roughly half the nation’s growth in gross domestic product over the last 50 years has arisen from science-related innovation, yet the U.S. government invests less in all physical sciences research than International Business Machines Corp. spends a year on research and development. The United States, long the center of science innovation, is producing fewer scientists. And a commonly cited projection suggests that more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia by 2010.”

Rat Nose Best

October 3, 2007

If the Rat Anti-Defamation League was happy with “Ratatouille” (a word, incidentally, whose spelling I butchered beyond recognition for my spell checker and was correctly ascertained by Googling “Disney rat movie”), it will be ecstatic with the study reported by cooking-science expert Harold McGee. Remy, it seems, can not only cook, he can taste the difference between organic and nonorganic food, and has a clear preference for the former.

When given a choice between biscuits made from organic wheat and ones made from conventional wheat, Swiss lab rats consumed the organic biscuits in greater numbers. Score one for the natural foodies of our species who claim that organic chow is not only healthier but tastier, too.

Earth Isn’t Doomed After All

September 13, 2007

If you are feeling down because of the protracted war in Iraq, the anniversary of 9/11, or the ineptitude of the international chess federation to put forward a coherent plan for choosing a world chess champion, here’s some news to cheer you up. A team of astronomers in Naples, Italy, believes that five billion years from now Earth may be able to outlast the expected apocalyptic swelling of the Sun to 100 times its current diameter. In the current issue of Nature, they report the discovery of an Earthlike planet that survived its own sun’s explosion.

The Scientific Skinny on Chocolate and Chips

July 4, 2007

During Fourth of July revelry, which often includes overindulgence of saturated fatty acids (in burgers and sausages and other barbecue fare), it is easy to fall behind in the news.  In case you missed it, the esteeemed Journal of the American Medical Association reports today the results of a study at the University of Cologne, in Germany: the daily consumption of a little dark chocolate30 calories worth, the equivalent of one and a half Hershey’s Kisseslowered blood pressure a small but statistically significant amount (2.9 points for systolic pressure and 1.9 for diastolic).  Although the magnitude of the reduction is small, even a three-point decrease in systolic pressure correlates to an impressive eight-percent reduction in stroke mortality.  So now dark chocolate joins red wine as heart-healthy staples that should be consumed daily in mo0deration.  How sweet it is!

Also in food-science news is a fascinating piece in The New York Times by Harold McGee on crunchiness and crispness in potato chips.  Crunchiness is a sign of freshness.  The crunchy sound as you bit down on a chip is the breaking of potato cells made brittle from frying.  If the cells are moist at all, they lose their brittleness; the chip won’t sound crunchy and will taste stale.  The perfect chip, McGee argues, has the shape of a horse’s saddleas does the universe itself, according to recent cosmological thinkingbut saddle-shaped chips are unfortunately hard to find in the rough-and-tumble existence familiar to most bags of chips. 

Times taste testers who sampled nearly fifty brands of chips had a favorite: Kettle Brand Lightly Salted from Kettle Foods in Salem, Oregon.  “An assertive chip that looks darker than most but also delivers more potato aroma and tatse.  A pleasingly light, crisp texture.”

R.I.P., Mr. Wizard

June 14, 2007


Sadly, Mr. Wizard has finally retired, not just from television but from the corporeal world.  Don Herbert, the host of “Watch Mr. Wizard,” the  science show for children that ran on NBC from 1951 to 1965, died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 89.  In my kooky Sixties household, I was limited for awhile to half an hour of television of week, so “Watch Mr. Wizard” had to compete with “Howdy Doody” and later “Gilligan’s Island”  But the folksy Mr. Wizard, who had no advanced education, sometimes won out and fueled my childhood interest in science.  The conceit of the show was that he always performed a science experimentone with a minimum of equipmentfor a kid from the neighborhood.   

Mr. Wizard’s cultural significance can’t be overestimated.  According to his obit in The New York Times, “During the 1960s and ’70s, about half the applicants to Rockefeller University in New York, where students work toward doctorates in science and medicine, cited Mr. Wizard when asked how they first became interested in science.”

“All the NEWS That’s Fit to Print”

May 19, 2007

The What’s Offline department in today’s New York Times reported the news that Working Mother magazine has reported the news that The European Journal of Social Psychology has reported the news that scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia have found that coffee is medicinally goodif it’s the other person who is drinking it.  Two cups of coffee apparently make someone to whom you’re talking more open-minded to your point of view. 

Okay, this is an amusing research result but the report in the aforementioned European journal is not newsit’s a year old.  So now my blog has reported the news that today’s New York Times has reported the news that Working Mother magazine has reported the news that The European Journal of Social Psychology has reported the news that scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia have found that coffee is medicinally goodif it’s the other person who is drinking it. 

The researchers down under found that “with caffeine consumption we are more likely to attend to, and agree with, persuasive arguments.  The experiments involved asking people their attitudes about voluntary euthanasia before and after reading persuasive arguments against their initial beliefs. Prior to reading the arguments, the participants consumed orange juice with either caffeine (equivalent to two cups of coffee) or no caffeine (placebo).”