Category Archives: Controversial Issues

NASA’s Asteroid Initiative hits rocky ground

For those of you still recovering from watching THAT asteroid-induced tidal wave take out a father and daughter as they calmly contemplated their imminent deaths (see the movie “Deep Impact” for details), the idea of grabbing asteroids in space might make you sigh with relief.

In April this year, NASA announced a budget proposal for the “Asteroid Initiative”, which would use robotic technology to capture small asteroids that are hurtling towards Earth. After capture, the asteroid would be placed in a stable orbit around the Moon. Astronauts could then visit the rock to take samples or use it as a sunny stopover on future journeys to Mars.

The proposed launch date for the capture craft is 2017-ish.

But in the last few weeks, debate around the Initiative has hotted up. NASA announced a Grand Challenge to find out more about asteroid threats to our planet and now the space agency is being told to take a chill pill. Scientists are disgruntled because they weren’t consulted. They think the mission should be more clearly defined or it could end in disaster. On top of this, of course, there’s always the issue of cost.

If capturing an asteroid sounds like sci-fi to you, here’s a shortened version of how it would work…sorry about the music…I couldn’t resist.

Music credit: Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra by Kevin MacLeod

NASA’s full animation can be viewed hereOriginal NASA animation was developed at NASA LaRC & JSC.

Great science reads: Does “brain porn” fail the test?

“Brain porn” is a term given to the simplistic (and reductionist) thinking that leads to attempts to use neuroscience (especially brain-scanning technologies) to explain the way the human brain works. This recent suite of articles discusses neuroscience, neuroscientists and the complexity involved in describing the human brain.

1. Let’s kick things off with a swift kick to the idea that neuroscience can explain nearly everything, including voting for the Republicans (Quart’s example in this first article) and even playing poker (as Blum mentions in article 5 below).

Neuroscience: under attack by Alissa Quart at The New York Times

2. This piece runs through some of the issues around drawing too many conclusions from brain imaging. I will paste a quotation from this article below because it is relevant to article number three in this selection:

“Scientists are also still struggling to construct theories about how arrays of individual neurons relate complex behaviors, even in principle. Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.”

Neuroscience fiction by Gary Marcus at The New Yorker

3. This article picks up on the theme of a neuroscience equivalent for Newton.

Does Neuroscience need a Newton? by Scicurious at Scientific American blogs

4. If you want a great run-down of some neuroscience history along with the Newton-like nominees for neuroscience, read this piece.

Nominees for the Newton of neuroscience by Zen Faulkes at NeuroDojo

5. As you can tell from the title of this piece, we finish with a journalistic angle to the “brain porn” debate.

Winter of discontent: Is the hot affair between neuroscience and science journalism cooling down? by Deborah Blum at Knight Science Journalism at MIT

Is evolution making us dumber and dumber?

MoJo Musings

My mother and I once had an argument. Actually, we had many arguments but the one I’m talking about involved a hypothetical situation. I argued that if you took a whole lot of people from 2000 years ago and plonked them in our time, they would be able to pick up all the technology we use and have the same intelligence as we do. Even though she couldn’t use the video recorder, she argued that they wouldn’t be able to cope and would have lower intelligence.

I always thought our discussion was pretty obscure but I have just read that, in the absence of my mother, others have carried on the argument.

Professor Gerald Crabtree from Stanford University opens the first of two papers in Trends in Genetics with the following words.

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The ozone hole: an environmental success story?

MoJo Musings

NASA has just reported that the ozone hole over Antarctica is the smallest it’s been in 20 years.

On September 22 2012, the ozone hole reached its maximum seasonal size for the year of 21.2 million square kilometres, which is the same size as the USA, Canada and Mexico combined. This size is down from the maximum size of 29.9 million square kilometres reached in September 2006.

There isn’t much talk about the ozone hole these days but it was often in the news in the 1980s, just as “climate change” is in the news now.

Ozone in the atmosphere helps to protect the Earth from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. As we all know, increased exposure to UV causes skin cancer. In the 1980s when the ozone hole first appeared, the fear of an expanding hole in our protective shield was not good news for Australia, given our proximity to Antarctica.

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Sensationalised medical reporting: scientists are adding to the problem

MoJo Musings

Science and health reporting has copped a lot of flak over the years. The report of the “scientific breakthrough” has become frustrating and annoying (and perhaps an ethical issue), especially to people who are sick and desperate for a cure.

Certainly, if you believed everything you read in the newspaper in the 1990s, breast cancer should have been cured in 1998 and the sequencing of the human genome should have “transformed medicine”.

There are three main players in this particular media game:

  • Scientists
  • PR departments of research institutions
  • Journalists

A study just published by Yavchitz and colleagues in PLOS Medicine looked at the interactions of all three players. The results suggest that scientists should look carefully at their own writing of scientific papers, as this can have a role in disseminating “spin”. I think this finding would surprise many scientists.

The study examined a cohort of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that are considered the “gold standard” for testing the effectiveness of therapies. The authors examined “spin” in the conclusions of the scientific abstracts (the summary of the study) of the original published paper and in the corresponding press release and news story.

The authors defined spin as “specific reporting (intentional or unintentional) that emphasises the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment”.

To me, the results were startling.

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Opt-in or opt-out? Would you want samples from your body stored in a biobank?

MoJo Musings

Let’s say you had a tumour surgically removed from your bowel. Would you agree to have residual tissue stored in a biobank for use in future research? What if you and your partner produced embryos for In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF)? Would you want those embryos used for other purposes?

Biobanks are a growth industry. Estimates put the number of stored specimens worldwide from 1 to 2 billion and growing. Samples can include blood, saliva, a variety of tissues or extracted DNA.

In a nutshell, these “banks” of human samples can be used for a number of purposes, but the growth areas are in human tissue banking, stem cell banking, the IVF market and clinical trials.

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