Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Ponder the Mystery of Physics... And Physicists

As a species, physicists baffle me. To my meager understanding, Physics - the study of matter, energy and the relationship between them - is the most fundamental of the natural sciences. Physics elucidates the properties of matter at level of the most basic structural units, and therefore, must necessarily underlie our understanding of the other branches of the natural sciences, namely, chemistry and biology. Therefore, I have always assumed - perhaps naïvely - the physicists' understanding of the natural world is firmly rooted in empiricism, in critical analysis of observed data - in other words, in the conscientious application of the Scientific Method.

Friday, October 19, 2012

C'est La Vie - At Fourteen: My Tribute to Malala Yousafzai

What was I doing at 14? Nothing of consequence. I was at secondary school, studying in Class VIII (possibly equivalent to the 8th grade or pre-high school or some such, in the US). I had changed schools, enrolling in a residential school away from my home city. So at 14, I was struggling to adjust to a new environment, new school and new faces, whinging a bit, eventually settling down to a humdrum life of mandatory study time, mandatory play time, and mandatory chore time, and - oh, yes! - trying to deal with raging hormones, inevitably doing something so stupid that I can look at those incidents only with sheer embarrassment and a shake of the head.

And by that same age of 14, in a different corner of the world, this amazing and courageous young woman, Malala Yousafzai, had already expressed the pain of her people through her words, written under the nom de plume of Gulmakai and published by BBC Urdu in 2009 (excerpts here); spoken out for children of her generation, articulating the need for education in her part of the world (see video below); and for all her efforts, she - all of 15 now - has been shot in the head - shot in the head! - by gun-wielding ignorant, religion-soaked, pathologically-misogynistic bastards collectively known as the Taliban. I know! Life of a teenager, right?

By virtue of valiant and skilful efforts of doctors and surgeons across two continents, military neurosurgeons in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and trauma specialists at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, UK - no thanks to any effing god anywhere - she is going to be fine. Guardian reports today, she retains her higher neural functions, and will possibly make a complete recovery. She can't talk yet because of a tracheotomy tube, but is able to stand with help and write. She has expressed a desire to share with people her details and her gratitude for their support.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Political dirty-trick: disenfranchisement of legitimate voters of opposing party

In one of the Lean Forward series of public service messages, Christopher Hayes (political commentator and host of 'Up with Chris Hayes' on MSNBC) says earnestly, "The attempt to disenfranchise voters is a desecration of everything our country stands for. Can you participate in your political system? That is the defining feature of the country since its inception. It's the defining feature of the moments that we now view with the greatest pride. And there is something... profane about stopping people from exercising that right."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Politics of Science Policy: A Critical and Embarrassing Lacuna

For those who may not be aware, ScienceDebate dot org, founded by Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman, is a US not-for-profit agency that engages elected officials, including presidential candidates, to talk about science and technology policy. Otto and Chapman are both screenwriters and authors, and Chapman has the added street-cred of being a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin!). One of the major achievements of ScienceDebate in recent times has been to get President Obama and the Presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, to present their answers to 14 top science policy-related questions, chosen from thousands of questions submitted by scientists, engineers and concerned citizens. The variety of topics covered in these questions ranged from innovation, research and economy, education, climate change, energy, biosecurity, public health, to conservation of natural resources, thereby underscoring the importance of science in all walks of life and the critical need to incorporate it in national policy-making. I invite you all, dear readers, to take a look at the answers by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. I, personally, thought that Mr. Obama had a better understanding of the situation and what needs to be done, whereas Mr. Romney was perhaps more interested in treating the answers as his stump speeches, big on rhetoric, short on solid policy, with a soupçon of climate change denial. But don't take my word for it; as always, YMMV.

Unfortunately, the first presidential debate (October 3) and the vice presidential debate (October 11) ignored science and science-policy questions almost entirely, and the second presidential debate yesterday (October 16) paid lip-service to science policy in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and some rudimentary discussions of energy and innovation.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Papaya And the Flushing of Wee Toxins, Forsooth!!

As many of you, gentle readers, no doubt know, many rank idiocies emanating from the world of pseudoscience irritate me to no end. But very few of them come close to the R-A-G-E (Hulk SMASH!) that ebulliates in me when I hear 'toxin', that standard catchphrase from all manners of peddlers of pseudoscience.

Acinetobacter therapeutics: Inhibitor of LPS synthesis

Much to like in a new study published in the journal mBio today. This study (mBio, 2012, 3[5]:e00312-12) by Lin et al. [1] (led by Brad Spellberg of UCLA) discovered that, for the gram-negative pathogenic bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii, notorious for its association with nosocomial ('hospital-associated') infection the world over and highly resistant to antibiotics, shutting down the production of an extracellular antigen released by the bacteria can effectively silence its effects on the host body and enhance its clearance, to the benefit of the host.