Skeptical reporter @ 2013-06-28

Skeptical Reporter for June 28th, 2013

In Scotland, the British Homeopathic Association intends to fight the NHS decision to no longer support homeopathy from public funds. The Association claims the unproven alternative medicine had been the victim of a “hate campaign”. The organization believes the removal of clinics, used by around 500 people a year in the region, constitutes a “major service change” and is therefore a decision for the Scottish Government, rather than NHS Lothian. Other groups have expressed delight that the service had been cut, calling the decision a victory for “evidence over superstition”. The decision to end funding had been largely based on a public consultation which found that almost three-quarters of Lothian residents did not think homeopathy should be free on the health service.

In the United States, local New York City doctors are seeing a spike in requests for intravenous vitamin treatments. It is the new health fad that has taken over the preferences and pockets of Americans in the Big Apple who wish to keep up their energy, combat colds, stay youthful or simply look better. Though they are not FDA-approved as treatments, IVs are being administered at the offices of even prominent physicians. In many cases, patients first begin with a blood workup, to determine what nutrients they need. Then, they sit with a drip from 30 minutes to an hour, at a cost ranging from $130 to $1,000 per session. “It’s basic biochemistry; when the body has its building blocks, it works better,’’ says Morrison, who recommends weekly drips during particularly stressful periods for a span of four to six weeks. According to Morrison, IVs first started to become popular with athletes about five years ago, when Major League Baseball players were rumored to use them, because the treatments allowed them to enhance their performance legally. Though doctors in a large range of specialties are now offering the IVs, critics say they are nothing more than snake-oil salesmen. “There is no evidence-based medicine to support the use of vitamin drips; they are just moneymakers”, says Elizabeth Kavaler, a urologist and assistant clinical professor at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

In his big speech on climate change, President Obama mocked Republicans who deny the existence of man-made global warming by derisively referring to them as members of “the Flat Earth Society”. As it turns out, there is a real Flat Earth Society and its president thinks that anthropogenic climate change is real. In an email to Salon, president Daniel Shenton said that while he “can’t speak for the Society as a whole regarding climate change,” he personally thinks the evidence suggests fossil fuel usage is contributing to global warming. “I accept that climate change is a process which has been ongoing since the beginning of detectable history, but there seems to be a definite correlation between the recent increase in world-wide temperatures and man’s entry into the industrial age. If it’s a coincidence, it’s quite a remarkable one,” he said. As for Obama’s dig at his group, which indeed thinks the world is flat, Shenton said he’s not surprised and doesn't take it personally.

And Australians are making progress in their fight against anti-vaccination groups. The Senate recently voted in favor of a proposition that the controversial anti-immunisation Australian Vaccination Network should “immediately disband”. Greens health spokesperson Senator Richard Di Natale won the support of all major parties for the motion and says it is important the Parliament take the lead in expressing its disdain for the group's activities. “I think it is important that we take them on, that the community recognizes them as a group that is actively harming kids”, he declared. The motion approved by the Senate calls on the AVN to “immediately disband and cease their harmful and unscientific scare campaign against vaccines”.

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

Physicists have resurrected a particle that may have existed in the first hot moments after the Big Bang. Called Zc(3900), it is the first confirmed particle made of four quarks, the building blocks of much of the Universe’s matter. Until now, observed particles made of quarks have contained only three quarks (such as protons and neutrons) or two quarks (such as the pions and kaons found in cosmic rays). Although there are no laws in physics that would imply the existence of particles with more quarks is impossible, none had been observed so far. Finding the quartet expands the ways in which quarks can be snapped together to make exotic forms of matter. “The particle came as a surprise,” said Zhiqing Liu, a particle physicist at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing and a member of the Belle collaboration, one of two teams claiming the discovery. Housed at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) in Tsukuba, Japan, the Belle detector monitors collisions between intense beams of electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. These crashes have one-thousandth the energy of those at the world’s most powerful accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, but they are still energetic enough to mimic conditions in the early Universe.

On the 26th of June, NASA plans to launch the 181-million dollars Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), that will take a closer look at our Sun’s choromosphere. The instrument’s “eyes”, working in the ultraviolet spectrum and designed to follow the flow of matter and energy in the chromosphere, will help astronomers to work out how the photosphere and corona are linked — including how temperatures soar from some 6.000 °C at the solar surface to more than 1 million degrees in the corona. The chromosphere is “a missing piece of the puzzle”, says Bart de Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in California. IRIS will take images every five seconds, will obtain spectra every one to two seconds and will be able to discern objects as small as 240 kilometers across. “It’s just staggering the dynamics you can see when you have that kind of resolution”, says Scott McIntosh, an IRIS co-investigator. That resolution will help researchers to map out small, finger-like jets of plasma that were discovered in 2007.

Like werewolves and vampires, bacteria have a weakness: silver. The precious metal has been used to fight infection for thousands of years and now a team led by James Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University in Massachusetts, has described, for the first time, how silver can disrupt bacteria. The team have also shown that the ancient treatment could help to deal with the thoroughly modern scourge of antibiotic resistance. “Resistance is growing, while the number of new antibiotics in development is dropping. We wanted to find a way to make what we have work better,” says Collins. Collins and his team found that silver — in the form of dissolved ions — attacks bacterial cells in two main ways: it makes the cell membrane more permeable, and it interferes with the cell’s metabolism, leading to the overproduction of reactive, and often toxic, oxygen compounds. Both mechanisms could potentially be harnessed to make today’s antibiotics more effective against resistant bacteria.

As if making food from light were not impressive enough, it may be time to add another advanced skill to the botanical repertoire: the ability to perform — at least at the molecular level — arithmetic division. Computer-generated models recently published illustrate how plants might use molecular mathematics to regulate the rate at which they devour starch reserves to provide energy throughout the night, when energy from the Sun is off the menu. If so, the authors say, it would be the first example of arithmetic division in biology. But it may not be the only one: many animals go through periods of fasting — during hibernation or migrations, for example — and must carefully ration internal energy stores in order to survive. Understanding how arithmetic division could occur at the molecular level might also be useful for the young field of synthetic biology, in which genetic engineers seek standardized methods of modifying molecular pathways to create new biological devices. Researchers once thought that plants break down starch at a fixed rate during the night. But then they observed that the diminutive weed Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant favoured for laboratory work, could recalculate that rate on the fly when subjected to an unusually early or late night. To Alison Smith and Martin Howard of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, and their colleagues, this suggested that a more sophisticated molecular calculation was at work. The team hypothesized the existence of two molecules: one, S, that tells the plant how much starch remains, and another, T, that informs it about the time left until dawn. The researchers built mathematical models to show that, in principle, the interactions of such molecules could indeed drive the rate of starch breakdown such that the plant would not “go hungry”.

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

A student from the “Radu Greceanu” NationalCollege in Slatina won the second prize in an international science contest organized by NASA, for the development of an international space station. Adrian Vulpe Grigoraşi, an 11th grade student, also won the international “InfoMatrix” contest, bringing home the gold medal, for a project on the development of a robotized hand that imitates the motions of a human hand and could be controlled directly through brain waves.

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