Is the ‘mad scientist’ disappearing?

Yesterday I read an obituary of a former staff member of the Chemistry department where I did my undergraduate degree. He was a non-teaching staff member, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most undergradutes and even postgraduates didn’t even know who he was. Reading the obituary saddened me, as I learned of the things he had done and the obstacles he’d faced, I felt bad that I knew nothing about him.

On the one hand he was a pioneering scientist, cultivating a love for chemistry and experimentation (often on himself!) through his teens and receiving his doctorate in middle age. And on the other, the obituary outlined debilitating mental illness and depression, time spent in an institution, and the fact that he never felt able to present a paper or poster at a conference.

The department obviously valued his core scientific contributions enough to overlook other professional shortfalls he may have had. But it made me wonder, such a person would probably not survive in academia today. In an era where everyone must be accountable, prove their worth and live up to certain expectations in terms of publishing and teaching – would any department hire/retain a person who felt unable to fulfill these criteria?

I’m sure most modern scientists cringe at the lab-coated, wild-haired ‘mad scientist’ stereotype and would insist that no one is actually like that. And maybe no one is, but I can’t help but think that this man would’ve fallen through the cracks of modern science if he’d happened to be born 50 years later.

Richard Dawkins – Greatest Show on Earth preview

When I opened my iGoogle page this morning I saw that PZ Myers of Pharyngula had posted a link to an excerpt from Richard Dawkins soon-to-be-released book The Greatest Show on Earth.

I devoured the little morsel rather quickly and can’t wait for the arrival of the full book in September. PZ says that the book isn’t available until September 22nd in the States, but the Angus and Robertson page says it’s available here in Australia on September 1st… Not too sure about how correct that information is.

*runs off to pre-order*

National Science Week – Lawrence Krauss

The final Science Week event I attended this year was a lecture titled ‘Life, the universe and nothing’, given by American physicist Lawrence Krauss. It was held in the beautiful Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street.

Krauss is an engaging and enigmatic speaker with a healthy dose of likable self-deprecation. He spoke effortlessly on the topic of cosmology for over an hour, making use of examples his audience could relate to and analogies that were easy to visualise. As the event was also part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, I suspect that some of the material went straight over the heads of some audience members. Though having said that, Krauss has the rare and exceptional talent of presenting scientific material in such an accessible way that any attendee who was not so scientifically inclined before the lecture, would have not only learned something, but probably felt compelled to delve a little into some of the topics broached in the lecture.

The crux of the lecture was the lovely paradox that we are only able to observe the universe we live in, because the universe is in such a condition that enables us (the observers) to exist! I feel this is summed up perfectly by Krauss himself in a quote from one of his New Scientist columns, debunking the (usually religious) position that somehow finding out what things are made of and how things work makes them LESS amazing.

“It is a far grander kind of imagination that is needed to fathom the real universe.”

In coming to his conclusion Krauss touched on Newton, Einstein, string theory, Hubble, Star Trek, the Large Hadron Collider and made several allusions to his atheism.

I’d like to heartily thank National Science Week, the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, the Finkel Foundation, Science in Public and anyone else who was involved in bringing Lawrence Krauss to Australia.

National Science Week – Scinema

Scinema is a film festival that runs during National Science Week.

CSIRO Minerals in Clayton showed one of the Scinema films today called ‘Big Bang in Tunguska’, directed by German Christoph Schuch. As you can guess from the title, the documentary is about the explosion that occurred in a remote part of Siberia in 1908, and I was lucky enough to be invited along to the viewing (with popcorn!).

It was an easy to watch documentary, but it didn’t offer much in the way of education or new information for the audience. Though the historical footage (if it was in fact authentic – sometimes I wasn’t sure) was a highlight.

As a chemist, I was disappointed that the film did not even touch on the chemical or isotopic analyses that have been conducted on samples from the site, much of which I believe supports the comet/asteroid/meteor theory.

I found the ‘gas volcano theory’ proponent, Wolfgang Kundt neither believable nor authoritative. And don’t think it is a good sign that the best person willing to talk on camera about that particular theory, was someone who had switched from their core research discipline of Astrophysics to Tunguska research.

There were also films showing at the Melbourne Museum, on the same day the collection tours ran, but I was clearly too excited about the collection tours to realise that Scinema was on too.

You can also check out the winner of the student section, Kristian Lang, on Channel 9’s Today Show, here. Congratulations Kristian!

National Science Week – Melbourne Museum Collection Tour

National Science Week kicked off on Friday night with a free event called Hypothesis at the BMW Edge Theatre in Federation Square
I arrived with a friend (and fellow science nerd) and overall had a reasonably enjoyable night. It was a pity the Australian Skeptics were crammed into the small space they were, because they appeared to have a very popular stand. I’d have loved to spend some more time there myself, but it was too crowded!

But I digress, on Saturday I arrived at the Melbourne Museum for the once-yearly collection tours. I was a little huffy to see that the entry price had increased from $6 to $8 since I last visited in April last year, though apparently they are in the midst of a revamp so I guess the extra cash is going towards that.

The museum actually had 4 separate collection tours running, covering (from memory):

  • Geology & Paleontology
  • Entomology & Marine Life
  • Birds and Mammals; and
  • DNA laboratory

If time permitted I’d have done them all, but I only had time for one so I chose Geology and Paleontology. The tour covered minerals, and invertebrate and vertebrate fossils, all of which are housed underneath the Royal Exhibition Building, across the plaza from the museum entrance.

The 3 museum employees from each section were prepared, passionate and articulate in talking about their work and I found their explanations pitched at the perfect level for me – that is, at people with a degree in a scientific discipline and with a healthy interest in science in general/popular science. They were happy to answer any questions, engage in conversation about pieces of the collection and were also interested in us – what bought us to do the collection tour? Wide eyes and open mouths were the order of the day, as we were shown through an array of cabinets housing samples from the mundane (multiple drawers full of marsupial teeth) to the spectacular (uranium crystals, a fossilised icthyosaur snout)

I realise that the museum employees have their own work to do, research to conduct and papers to publish but I’d be thrilled to see the museum conduct these behind the scenes tours more than once a year and for longer than an hour.

I feel that the general public really would enjoy more collection tours and the museum would also benefit from the extra interest generated. If I had not already known about Science Week, and actively sought information on what events were happening I wouldn’t have even known the collection tours were on. The way they were conducted on Saturday, larger crowds could have posed a problem so maybe that’s why they don’t advertise it more heavily. I don’t know if I’ll get around to it but I’d really like to write a letter to the head curator, reiterating these points.

To conclude National Science Week, this Sunday my other half and I are off to see American physicist Lawrence Krauss which I am really super duper looking forward to!

Sychrotron Cake

My other half has beamtime on the Australian Synchrotron starting today. I usually bake a cake for the experimental team, to keep them going through the long nights. I whipped up a chocolate mud cake, complete with ganache, and at the last minute decided I’d throw on a few sprinkles too. Here is the result:

Synchrotron Cake:
Synchrotron Cake
Actual Synchrotron logo:

And what a stunning rendition it is!

The Melbourne Solar System

Along the Port Phillip Bay coastline from St Kilda to Port Melbourne exists a 1 to 1 billion scale model of the solar system. I’m yet to meet either a native Melburnian or a tourist who is aware of this installation.
On Sunday my other half and I started from the Westport Reserve carpark in Port Melbourne, and walked from Pluto, taking in all of the planets until we reached the sun in St Kilda… and back again.

I took some pictures (poorly, on my phone) to share:

Saturn, Earth and the Sun

It’s a convenient scale on which to visualise the actual size of the universe. When we learn about the solar system in primary school, pictures are spread over a page or maybe two which results in the distances between the planets being grossly under-represented. Walking along the planet trail lets you appreciate the grand scale of the solar system, and how tiny we are in comparison.

If you’re interested in following the planet trail, you can find more information here.

Richard Dawkins to visit Melbourne in March 2010

Through the Young Australian Skeptics, I have learned that Melbourne will be hosting an Atheist convention in March 2010.

Amongst the speakers already confirmed are Richard Dawkins and Phillip Adams.

You can find out more here and register your interest to attend.

Unconventional information

One of my favourite bloggers, Dr Isis of On Becoming a Laboratory and Domestic Goddess recently posted a photograph from an artist called Kevin Van Aelst. You can find his page here.

According to his site, Kevin

aim[s] to examine the distance between the ‘big picture’ and the ‘little things’ in life—the banalities of our daily lives, and the sublime notions of identity and existance. While the depictions of information–such as an EKG, fingerprint, map or anatomical model–are unconventional, the truth and accuracy to the illustrations are just as valid as more traditional depictions. This work is about creating order where we expect to find randomness, and also hints that the minutiae all around us is capable of communicating much larger ideas.

Two of my favourites are below. I love the juxtaposition of how they are both instantly recognisable as important scientific icons but they are made out of something we consider fun and frivolous – gummis.

Simon Singh cracks chiropractors

I know I am a bit behind the eight ball in posting this, but along with the rest of the blogosphere I want to show my support for Simon Singh.  Simon Singh is a science writer who is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association over this article, published in The Guardian.

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.