Skeptical reporter @ 2013-04-19

Skeptical Reporter for April 19th, 2013

Almost 80,000 Australian children are not immunized against deadly diseases, and the highest number live in Sydney's west. Experts say the "baby Einstein" demographic - parents who take an intensive interest in their children's education and health, eat organic food and use alternative medicines - is responsible. Sydney's west has an immunization rate of 90 per cent for five-year-olds but last financial year was home to 3.600 children who were not fully immunized. In wealthy Manly, Mosman and eastern Sydney, however, fewer than 85 per cent of children are immunized in some age groups. The figures are contained in a National Health Performance Authority report. The World Health Organization says immunization rates for measles must be above 93 per cent to prevent its spread. Immunization expert Julie Leask says parents who perform extensive research and are often suspicious of medicine are more likely to object to vaccination. "I think what these figures say is... you can't rely on herd immunity in your region," the University of Sydney academic said.

Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture announced that it will be extending the deadline for applications for this year's two intensive nine-day seminars on science, society and intelligent design for college and graduate students. The official deadline fell on April 15th, but applications will still be accepted through Monday, April 22nd. The Center’s seminars are free, but it still has not managed to attract a sufficient number of students. The first study track, the Seminar on Intelligent Design in the Natural Sciences, will prepare students to make research contributions advancing the growing science of intelligent design, according to the description. The second study track, the C.S. Lewis Fellows Program on Science and Society, will explore the growing impact of science on politics, economics, social policy, bioethics, theology, and the arts.

In the United States, the Tampa Bay Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the nith time for a series of editorials last year by Tim Nickens and Daniel Ruth after the Pinellas County Commission moved to stop putting fluoride in the drinking water, affecting the dental health of 700,000 people in the county. As Nickens and Ruth wrote in the last of the 10 editorials submitted for the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing, "It took nearly 14 months, an election and the clarion voice of PinellasCounty voters to persuade county commissioners to correct a serious error in judgment". And the newly reconstituted commission quickly moved to vote to restore fluoride to the water system. Here is what the Pulitzer nominating letter said: “In October 2011, the Pinellas County Commission turned back the clock. The commission, pressured by antifluoride zealots and tea party conservatives, abruptly voted to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water. The commissioners ignored established science and the public health, and in January 2012 the Pinellas water system suddenly became one of the nation’s largest without fluoridated water. More than 700,000 residents no longer benefited from what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls one of the nation’s greatest health care advances. The Tampa Bay Times editorial board went on mission to correct this travesty. With original reporting and persuasive arguments, Tim Nickens and Dan Ruth educated readers and delivered a clarion call for action on behalf of those who need fluoridated water the most: the poor families and the children of Pinellas County”.

In Great Britain, the GP and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston is calling on homeopathy's governing bodies to make it clear to parents that their alternative remedies will not protect children from measles outbreaks. Large numbers of children have not had the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, largely because of the scare that followed the publication of research by Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet medical journal in 1998 that postulated a link between the jab and autism. The research was later discredited and Wakefield was struck off by the General Medical Council for fraud. "Some parents have an unshakeable belief that homeopathy boosts their child's immune system. They would rather put their faith in 'natural' methods, as they see it," the MP explained. That belief can spread in communities and outside school gates, and those who accept the NHS advice to give their child the MMR vaccine start to feel pressured. Wollaston called on the governing bodies of homeopathy to tell parents that homeopathic "vaccines" and remedies would not protect against measles. The British Homeopathic Association and Faculty of Homeopathy said they would do so. "There is no evidence to suggest homeopathic vaccinations can protect against contagious diseases. We recommend people seek out the conventional treatments," a spokesman said.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

Archaeologists have found a tomb in eastern China that may be the grave of the notorious Emperor Yang of Sui, according to news reports. With inscriptions revealing the surprising identity of the deceased, the burial chamber measures about 20 square meters. It was uncovered in Yangzhou, a city about 280 kilometers southeast of Shanghai. Shu Jiaping, who leads Yangzhou's institute of archaeology, explained that researchers are "still not sure whether it was the emperor's final resting place, as historical records said his tomb had been relocated several times." Emperor Yang, also known as Yang Guang, is remembered as a fearsome and decadent tyrant. During his rule from 606 until his death at the hands of rebels in 618, he forced millions of laborers to take part in ambitious construction projects, such as building royal palaces, completing of the Grand Canal and reconstructing of the Great Wall. Emperor Yang also launched costly military campaigns, including a failed conquest of Goguryeo, an ancient kingdom of Korea, which eventually led to the collapse of the Sui Dynasty.

The United States remains an intellectual center for scientific thought, but is on the brink of falling behind in attracting the brightest minds, physicists believe. Speaking at the April meeting of the American Physical Society, researchers warned that the United States should commit to funding big science (and big science infrastructure) to remain competitive. "We still have a very vigorous intellectual environment, but we cannot continue to be complacent," said Pushpa Bhat, a scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. Fermilab has 10 particle accelerators on-site, but one of the most powerful, the Tevatron, was shut down for budgetary reasons in 2011. Science funding is a major concern for U.S. researchers, both in the long term and the short term. Federal research grants have become increasingly competitive over the decades, and the sequester, a series of budget cuts signed into law at the beginning of March, has not helped. The sequester involves an effective 9 percent cut to non-defense spending, including research funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation. NASA is coping with additional cuts.

Imaging specimens with electron microscopy imposes conditions that are typically deadly for living things, such as a high vacuum. But the electrons used to create the images might actually have a protective effect. Researchers have found that the beam of a scanning electron microscope can turn a thin coating that occurs naturally on the larvae of some insects into a sort of miniature spacesuit that can keep the animals alive in a vacuum for up to an hour. The discovery builds on previous findings that some organisms, including beetle larvae and ticks, can survive short stints in the extremely low-pressure environment of scanning electron microscopes and some of them, even in outer space. The researchers made their discovery while testing how long various animals could survive in a high vacuum while being imaged inside a scanning electron microscope. Most organisms begin to lose water rapidly in these conditions, leading to death by dehydration and physical distortion, but the larvae of the fruit-fly Drosophila survived for 60 minutes and went on to develop normally after being returned to normal pressure.

The skies are currently being flooded with the brightest display of gamma rays - the Universe's highest-energy light - ever seen by astronomers. The culprit is a staggering flare-up of Markarian 421, a "blazar" that hosts a supermassive black hole. By sheer coincidence, a programme to study it had just begun, so dozens of the world's telescopes - from visible to radio to gamma-ray - were watching. And it came just in time for a meeting of many of the world's astrophysicists. The name of Markarian 421 is cropping up in many talks at the American Physical Society meeting. "It's really quite exciting because we can exchange ideas about it while we're here at the meeting in the same place," said Greg Madejski of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. Blazars are a special case of "active galaxies" - those whose supermassive black holes spray out great quantities of light across the whole electromagnetic spectrum as they feed on surrounding matter. Active galaxies emit jets of light - up to trillions of times more energetic than the light we see - and a blazar is one with a jet pointing toward the Earth. What remains a mystery is how gamma rays are created at such extraordinary energies.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

A TV ad promoting a pot named Dry Cooker has been blocked from airing by the National Audiovisual Council of Romania. The Council decided that the material promoting the pot was not correctly informing the public and contained grammar errors. The Romanian authority on the audiovisual considered that the ad needed to change statements such as: “Since I've been using Dry Cooker I feel I have more energy”, or “Dry Cooker is not just a pot, it is the health of my children”.

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