Friday, 30 November 2007

The fountain of youth... for mice...


Yes, it's the holy grail of skincare, and scientists have managed it. Well, in mice, at least. They have managed to reverse the effects of age on the skin, giving two year old mice the skin that would be the envy of all of the younger (and presumably more youthful and pretty looking) mice in the cage.

The way they have managed it is to block the effects of a particular protein, NF-kappa-B. This is all well and good, but as the scientists stress, the problem is that NF-kappa-B is a rather important protein in lots of cellular processes, and blocking it for any length of time doesn't seem like a particularly good idea.

Interesting, yes. Likely to end up in Boots any time soon, no.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Swastika shaved on dog - cats wanted for questioning

It's was reported today that a German man is helping the police after a dog had a swastika shaved into its fur. Unconfirmed reports say that the police are looking for three cats with known neo-nazi leanings recently sighted near the Bavarian town of Straubing.

When asked about the incident, the dog, a 3 year old retriever called Goldberg, is quoted as having said "Woof, woof". Chief detective Dieter Flashmann later described his comments as "unhelpful". He added that the public should not attempt to approach any cats, as it would make them stupid.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Stem cells: My favourite kind...


I will admit that I have been looking for an excuse to use that picture for a while, and now I have the chance. Stem cells are something of a hot potato in the science world. They are “un-differentiated” cells, capable (given the right cocktail of chemicals) of turning into any different cell type. As such, they could be used to grow organs in the laboratory for research and eventually produce transplant tissues to help in currently incurable diseases like Motor Neurone Disease.

Up until now, however, these stem cells have only been available from embryos, sparking an ethical debate as to whether it’s right to destroy an unborn (human) life in order to potentially treat others in the future. It’s an ethical grey area, and has led to massive restrictions on the work that can be carried out.

Recent research, however, has found a way of creating these stem cells from adult skin cell samples. This completely removes the need to destroy any embryos, and therefore would close down any ethical debate, opening the field of research up much wider. The scientist Ian Wilmut, responsible for cloning Dolly the sheep, has seen so much promise in the new technique that he has abandoned his work on embryos to concentrate on this method instead.

Personally, I have no ethical problem with the use of human embryos for research, especially if it means that debilitating diseases stand a chance of being cured, but if this allows the work to progress faster, and allows the scientists to get on with their research rather than legal wrangling, then it’s a fantastic thing in my book.

Image: Where Are The Dogs Humping.com

Ball pits

If, per chance, you were hoping to turn your bedroom into a ball pit, Randall Munroe (of XKCD fame) has created a calculator that will tell you exactly what it would cost you to do so. You'll need to have a good idea of the area you want to cover, the depth you would like to achieve and your desired 'packing efficiency'. The calculator will also tell you exactly how many balls you will need.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Writing a book

You know what? Writing a book ain't half as easy as it seems. In my head, "writing a book" conjures up all manner of wonderful images - me in a quaint little cottage by the fire with a quill, me sitting at a snazzy laptop in front of a window looking down on New York, Sarah Jessica Parker style - none of which turn out to be true. Our office is more like a car crash in a nuclear war these days.

Undeterred (sort of) by our first venture into the literary quagmire that is writing a science book, we're marching on through. Somehow or other, there will be 1,000 articles in the hands of the publisher by January. But I think we can forget Christmas this year.

If anyone's interested - and you'd bloody better be else what the hell are we torturing ourselves for - it's called the Little Black Book of Science and it's out next year. Available from yours truly. Although not actually me personally, but the Null. Plug over - you can go back to your lives now.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Homeopathy. An interesting article.

I was doing some reading today, and I came upon this magnificent article. It's rather long, so I suggest getting some tea and biscuits at the ready, but it's a really well written article, and explains in simple terms the problem of homeopathy. In short, it's a non-scientific and potentially dangerous area of pseudo-science quackery, that is unfortunately given far too much credence in the modern world.

I am not against alternative medicine in ALL it's forms (some of which are talked about here), and in particular, some things like acupuncture HAVE been shown to be effective, particularly against back pain. BUT, homeopathy really does make me very angry indeed.

The real kicker for me is the prize offered by the James Randi Institute. If ANYBODY could prove, under scientific conditions, that homeopathy (or any supernatural phenomenon) really did work, then they would win a million dollars. The prize has never been successfully claimed.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

On this day...

A missive from Jas Singh:

On this day:

Sir William Herschel – was born I guess.

But was he a “Sir” on this day in 1738.

His birth seems to have upset the ecosystem: The winter of 1734 was the warmest for a hundred years, and 1732 and 1736 were probably the two best years of the century overall. Suddenly, in the autumn of 1738, the weather started to degenerate. There followed 28 disastrous months in which three successive and widespread bad harvests brought the worst famine of the century.

So there you have it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

More Asteroids... or... um... not.

Another space-rock story, this time without the... um... space rock.

If you were wondering, panicking even, about the asteroid that seemed on course for a very near miss, then don’t be. The Minor Planet Center at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which deals with these kind of things, issued a potential near-miss warning, after spotting the object, catchily-named “2007 VN84”, heading scarily close to Earth.

However, it was noticed that the location, speed, and direction of the object closely matched (in fact, exactly matched) a spacecraft, Rosetta, sent up in 2004 to chase a Comet and gather data. Cue some red faces in the astronomy lab.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too concerned anyway. If an asteroid’s going to hit earth, there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it anyway, and if I’m going to be splatted by one, I’d rather be blissfully ignorant about it.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Studies of the Bleedin' Useless

Forget Studies of the Bleedin' Obvious. We should do Studies of the Flippin' Pointless. There's some stuff that comes out that really just makes you think, "Do I really care?" Today, for example:

1 in 5 Britons sleep with new people when they go on holiday

Yes, thank you for that delightful insight into the sex lives of a fifth of the nation. Did I really need to know that? Am I going to be enlightened by this piece of information? Am I supposed to be shocked and appalled? Because I'm not. As far as I'm concerned, it's just another excuse to get "sex" into the the title of a press release.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Brainbows: Colouring-in for scientists.

Have you ever wondered what it would look like if you were to colour-in all of your brain cells individually? No? Well, now you needn't bother. Scientists at Harvard University have found a way of injecting cells with a variety of fluorescent labels, and can stain them up to 90 different colours.

The brain, being composed of roughly a hundred billion neurons (brain cells) all packed in rather densely, is somewhat tricky to study, but by labelling cells like this, scientists can examine the connections in the brain, and therefore help understand how it works.

Or so they claim. I have another theory. Growing tired of serious academic study, the scientists have simply come up with a more technologically advanced version of colouring-in, and are now spending their days just making pretty patterns out of slices of brain, to send home for their mum to stick on the fridge. No matter how "grown-up" you get, colouring in is still the most fun thing in the world.