The Coming Posts!

PhysicsFest 2012!

If you’re in the Williamsburg area it would be a crime to miss the annual open house held by the Physics Department. PhysicsFest hosts lab tours, demos, student poster sessions, and the much-beloved and ever-present liquid nitrogen ice cream (we’re quite the connoisseurs of it by now). I’ll have the full write-up with pictures, interviews, and maybe even a video- I’ve got my sights set on recording the hovercraft (yes, hovercraft) demonstration.

The Month in Science Days

October boasts two significant days to the science community; one is, well, today! Mole Day (after Avogadro’s number, 6×10^23- 10/23, get it?) is a celebration of science used to get kids interested in chemistry and physics, often celebrated with the creation of cute little stuffed moles (make your own with this pattern, they’re easy). Another one, more personal to the college, William Small’s birthday. Been wondering about that heading of mine, “A Small Scientist”? Well, it’s because of him and how his name was given to William and Mary’s physics department!

The Importance of Animal Studies According to Research Students

For many students, working with animals is the first true hands-on taste of biology offered in the classroom. Via dissection they are able to see with their own eyes the structure of body that, while vastly different from our own human ones, bears enough of a resemblance to be informative and, for some, inspiring. It’s one of the most essential lessons to learn going forward with animal experiments:  even though what one sees in the animal trial may not directly translate, the techniques and underlying principles present in the trial translate to humans and provide vital information when hypothesizing how a trial may affect a human.

When it comes to psychology, nothing can replace witnessing with one’s own eyes how fundamental concepts such as conditioning “click” into place when working with lab rates, Danielle Weber (’14) says. Danielle is a psychology major at the College and worked with conditioning rats as part of her research methods course. “You realize that it can take just a few mistakes on your part to through the learning off track; it can be frustrating but also extremely rewarding once the rat learns. You can’t understand that just by reading a textbook.” Animal studies, according to Danielle, help snap concepts into focus and really bring research out of the theoretical realm and into reality.

For this reason, when Judith Graham posted to the Association of Health Care Journalists critiquing the coverage of animal trials in the media, stating “researching findings in other members of the animal kingdom do not tell you anything about what will happen in people, necessarily”,  it ruffled more than a few feathers. This argument challenged fundamental practices about research, mainly you start with trials on animals (such as lab rats, worms, and insects), see how the experiment or trial affects them, and use that knowledge to decide whether or not to go forward with the trial should be brought to humans.

Based on Danielle’s comments and those of Brianna Waller (’14), a neuroscience major, Graham is missing a fundamental point. Even if the research does not directly translate to humans, the practices therein do, or at least provide a basis for what is not a viable option.

Graham takes issue with animal studies being reported en masse, as she feels they could raise false hope or provide false information. It’s certainly true that the media has jumped the gun on research in the past, but this does not invalidate the worth of the indications animal studies provide (and is usually the fault of the media rather than the science, when it’s really boiled down to it- I’m looking at you, anti-vaxers). Briana’s experiments, both in her research lab and in her biology courses themselves, have had her experiment with altering conditions on frog embryos and elucidating the biological pathways of nematodes with the intent of applying the knowledge gained to human diseases and their treatment; now, it would be ridiculous to argue that a frog and a human embryo are identical, but it’s a fair guess that if something is harmful to a frog embryo it will be harmful to a human embryo, and that’s essential information for pregnant mothers to know. These studies provide an indication, and that indication can be the difference between life and death.

“It always drives the point home that we, as humans, are animals even though humans as a whole forget this,” Briana states. However, she does warn against relying too much on animal studies- not because she believes them to be irrelevant or to not translate, but because of the ethics attached to animal experiments.

The utility of animal studies, however, when in the hands of those who respect and understand the value of their animal subjects (as Briana emphasizes), cannot be contested. A student of neuroscience or psychology can assure you of that.

Astronomy Night Liveblog!

7:05 PM –

A beautiful, crisp, cloudless day has turned into an equally clear evening, and now all that’s left to do is wait for it to get just a bit darker. There’s not much to see just yet, according to Professor Vold, but the Hercules Cluster should be visible soon along with other objects. It should shape up to be a great night for the Meade telescope to be put to good use! For now, there’s general chatter in Small 122… about breathing fire with cornstarch?

We’re a safe bunch here at the SPS.

(We are also providing tutoring, as is always done on Thursdays at 7 PM, which is a great resource to take advantage of!)

7:14 PM-

We’re on the roof! Setting up scopes, the big dome is open- things are starting to get well under way! It’s also still a beautiful night, so it’s quite pleasant just to be outside. A discussion of where the North Star is under way (we THINK we found it) so that we can aim in that general direction, but first the scopes need to come out. Professor Vold and Professor Hancock are on hand setting up five different telescopes in addition to the dome (the large telescope on the roof). The first stars are beginning to make themselves readily apparent so we’ve got something to aim for.

EDIT: Turns out those telescopes were set up for an astronomy class. Whoops. Well, we helped set them up anyway!

I assure you the dome is FAR less creepy looking in person- ah, the joys of using a camera phone in the evening! Still, pretty fitting for October…?

7:26 PM –

Whether you’re a professor or a student, it’s still always useful to keep in mind that telescopes work best with the lens cap off. Further vital advice is to always focus the telescope, but to be gentle with it; cranking the focus knob one way or the other does much more harm than good, as typically the telescopes are roughly focused and just need a bit of fine tuning (keep this in mind, GER Astro students!). Also, how do you know if the star you’re focusing in on is the North Star a.k.a. Polaris? Answer: it doesn’t move too terribly much.

8:13 PM –

Apologies for radio (internet?) silence, but I’ve been in the dome! It’s a fascinating mix of computer-reliant tracking (I’ll explain that in a minute) and manual fine-tuning to get the best possible focus. I was in there for approximately 45 minutes, and in those five minutes we utilized the computer tracking software to observe two star clusters and a double-double star system, as well as an initial bright star that the telescope had been tracking for half an hour constantly keeping it in the center of the scope.

8:38 PM –

Note to self for future liveblogging endeavors: ALWAYS remember your charger. Now that I have power again, I can continue, with one quick aside. As I was walking back to my dorm I was struck by just how noticeable the difference in star visibility was between the roof and the walkways. Now we definitely have non-negligible light pollution- Williamsburg may not feel like a city, but it still has the light pollution of one -but it really is apparent how just getting above it a bit can help. On the ground, I was lucky to spot five or so stars; on the roof? Whole different story. No Milky Way spottings, let’s not get carried away here, but definitely far more than a handful or so.

Anyway, returning to the recap! One of the really impressive things regarding the telescope in the dome is that since it’s hooked up to a computer it can be set to track on one star and stay tracked all evening. As I was saying regarding the North Star, it can be determined because it doesn’t travel in the sky; it’s the North Star and it’s a pretty fixed point. Other stars, however, do move across the sky- if you get one perfectly centered in your telescope’s sight and come back a half hour later it won’t be there anymore. The program used by the telescope in the dome is pretty fantastic as once it’s calibrated (which Professor Vold did by cataloging as many stars as he could identify which provided the program with a star map basis) and locked on to a star it will track. To ensure that it’s visible, “slaving” the dome to the telescope is necessary. This means that the dome’s opening is locked on to the direction the telescope is pointing and follows it.

Upcoming Posts!

This week an article will be posted Thursday rather than Tuesday, as there will be no article next week. More importantly, it will be a particularly special post: a liveblog! William and Mary’s Astronomy Club (currently an offshoot of the Society of Physics Students) will be hosting their first Stargazing Night this Thursday, and this blog will be updating a post throughout the night with pictures and live accounts of what’s going on at the event. If you can’t make it out, you can still experience it in part right here!

Also in the works is an interview with artist Jim Sanborn, a fascinating artist who utilizes scientific (specifically physics) themes in his artwork, covering topics from the Manhattan Project’s trinity test, radioactivity, cryptography and implied geometries. His techniques are just as intriguing and remarkably scientific, causing his work to demonstrate how science and art are nowhere near as separated as one might think.

Another idea being toyed with is looking into the benefits of lab studies utilizing animals. Recently there’s been some questioning into whether or not animal experiments actually provide any information of what will actually happen in humans. As so many clinical trials are first carried out utilizing lab rats, this is a pretty significant claim to make! To look into this, I’ll talk with some of the labs on campus in the biology and psychology department to see how they utilize lab animals and what information they glean from them, as well as what their thoughts on these claims themselves are. (My money’s on the good old standby of ‘every case is different, and one failure does not invalidate other successes’, but hey, biology and psychology definitely aren’t my area of expertise!)

Apples to Oranges: Why Reading the Study is Different from Listening to the Media

The intent of science is to further understanding of the world around us. While much of it takes place at a level above what the average person would be able to immediately understand (think the BEC from last week), certain things are seen as relevant immediately. Medical breakthroughs, technological innovations-  obviously practical things that touch everyday life in an obvious way are of distinct interest to the layperson, as the change the breakthrough can have on their life is immediately seen.

What, then, occurs when a scientific study presents something the public (or a subsection thereof) doesn’t want to hear? For approximately 8,000 people, the answer is start up a petition or two demanding the retraction of it.

On September 4th a group of scientists at Stanford University published a metastudy that looked at the nutritional content of organic foods versus those grown as treated with standard pesticides; the study did not seek to place one type of food over the other, nor did it seek to negate the positive aspects of organic food or blot out the negative ones of pesticide-treated food. It merely analyzed their comparative nutritional content and concluded that there was no significant difference in this regard.

This was not received well.

 These petitions call into question the validity of the study, claiming that one of the authors has a bias due to a precedent of working in favor of tobacco companies and implying they suspect confirmation bias at play in the study itself. In essence, this is not a negative thing; it is always a sound idea to critically approach scientific studies to examine for errors that the authors themselves may not catch, and this critical nature is indicative of a scientifically literate public: they seek the facts and the evidence, not some glossed-over version. However, the petitioners fall victim to the same practices they suspect in the authors of the study: their own confirmation bias makes them incapable of accepting a challenge to their firmly-held beliefs, and the knee-jerk reaction presented by the petitions (which went live after the study was published and run through the media) demonstrates that the creators of the petitions did not thoroughly examine the study they are attempting to challenge itself but are reacting to a version of it carefully worded to garner attention.

In reality, the study confirms many of the principles of organic food that the petitioners value, specifically the undeniable fact that organic food is exposed to fewer chemicals than the alternative. It does not, however, comment on this in a positive or negative light: it is merely stated as fact. This absence of praise has been interpreted by the petitioners as a dismissal of significance, when really the absence is due to the fact that that simply was irrelevant to the question the study sought to answer. While the study itself is not free to read, all of this essential information- the intent of the study, its findings, and its distinct lack of condemnation or praise of either type of food –can be found in the free to access abstract.

The intent was significant, as a 2010 Nielsen study found 76% of consumers who purchased organic foods did so because they believed the food to be healthier. As organic food is on average 25% more expensive than conventionally grown food, knowing definitively whether or not it actually is healthier is significant, particularly in difficult economic times. Now, for people who purchase organic out of different motivations, such as environmental concerns, a desire to support local businesses, or out of concern regarding chemical contaminants, this study makes no difference: it does not contradict their views in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it supports them, as it does indeed find organic food less exposed to chemicals, and explicitly states in the publicly-available abstract “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

No contact information could be found for either petition starter; I could not find a way to begin a discourse with them, thus I could not better glean their intent. However, from the comments and the statement of intent, it becomes clear that the petitioners find that their way of life, or the way of life most beneficial to them in their experience, seems threatened by the study; there is a high degree of distrust of ‘big business’ and of the government itself. They denounce the study as potentially encouraging families to risk their health by consuming “GMOs [genetically modified organisms], mercury and aspartame” and, ironically, warn that letting the study stand posed a risk to the legitimacy of science itself… all while they can’t even get their own facts straight, for they interpret the study as declaring “organic food is the same as conventional”, which it in no way does.

Their beliefs come across as significantly less scientific based on this; rather than opposing the study on well-founded doubts regarding its scientific validity, it becomes apparent that the average signatory on the petition does so because they don’t like what the result is telling them and assume that for that reason it is a lie backed by some malicious agenda. They are reacting to the media coverage of the study, not the findings of the study itself. They are looking for ways to undermine the work from the outside rather than analyzing the study for the science it has done and looking for a flaw in those practices.

This presents an alarming reality that citizens find it is their right to reject facts based on a personal bias, and rather than choosing to personally ignore the facts they feel it is their duty to enforce their believes upon others. It is fantastic when citizens exercise scientific literacy by critically approaching information as it is presented to them, examining it for validity, but when the grounds for rejection boil down to a personal bias, things become much more of a concern. Personal disagreement is no justification to reject facts, or at the very least to reject the right of the public to be exposed to them by calling for their retraction.