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Skeptical Reporter for March 15th, 2013

The majority of homeschooled children in America belong to evangelical Christian families, but some parents are dismayed by the textbooks they can use to teach their children. For many evangelical families, the rationale for homeschooling has nothing to do with a belief in Young Earth Creationism or a rejection of evolutionary theory. Now, evangelical families who embrace modern science are becoming more vocal about it -- and are facing the inevitable criticism that comes with that choice. At least one publisher, Christian Schools International in Grand Rapids, Michigan has noted the demand and produced textbooks that promote Christian values and modern science. "Most science textbooks that attempt to present the content from a Christian perspective also attempt to discredit the theory of evolution," says Ken Bergwerff, a science curriculum specialist at Christian Schools International. "Some do it discreetly; others are quite blatant. The CSI science curriculum clearly presents science from a Christian perspective, but does not attempt to discredit the theory of evolution. The content presents God as the author of all of creation, no matter how he did it or when he did it."

Following six years of preparations, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) school in the Canadian province of British Columbia has applied to local educational authorities to become the first institute in the country to offer a TCM curriculum at university-degree level. PCU College of Holistic Medicine in Burnaby wants to launch a five-year degree program in TCM this September. Currently, the college offers three-year diploma programs in both acupuncture and Chinese medicine. With some 1,400 TCM practitioners and 400 students currently registered in the western Canadian province, PCU College Dean Dr. John Yang exaplined in a recent interview that he hopes this move will offer a greater public acceptance of the practice. He also supports the idea that TCM shouldn't be taken in tandem with western medicines.

In Australia a new study has revealed that sickness being attributed to wind turbines is more likely to have been caused by people getting alarmed at the health warnings circulated by activists. Complaints of illness were far more prevalent in communities targeted by anti-windfarm groups, said the report's author, Simon Chapman, professor of public health at Sydney University. His report concludes that illnesses being blamed on windfarms are more than likely caused by the psychological effect of suggestions that the turbines make people ill, rather than by the turbines themselves. "If windfarms were intrinsically unhealthy or dangerous in some way, we would expect to see complaints applying to all of them, but in fact there is a large number where there have been no complaints at all," Chapman said. The report, which is the first study of the history of complaints about windfarms in Australia, found that 63% had never been subject to noise or health complaints. In the state of Western Australia, where there are 13 windfarms, there have been no complaints. The study shows that the majority of complaints (68%) have come from residents near five windfarms that have been heavily targeted by opponent groups. The report says more than 80% of complaints about health and noise began after 2009 when the groups "began to add health concerns to their wider opposition".

In Malawi, a traditional healer has been sentenced to eight years imprisoned with hard labour for wounding two 10-month-old babies when he was cleansing them from witchcraft. Frank Josamu was arrested on February 21st for wounding the children in a witchcraft cleansing ritual which ended in the babies sustaining second degree burns that covered 18 percent of their total body surface. Police Prosecutor, Inspector Lloyd Kachotsa told the court that the accused deserved the harsh sentence due to the permanent scars inflicted on the unsuspecting children and for not adhering  to messages promoted by advocacy groups regarding the issue of witchcraft. However, Josamu who pleaded guilty to the offence told the court to be lenient with him claiming he did not choose to cleanse people, but was forced to because they insisted and explained that he looks after orphans and his children who will suffer if he is imprisoned.

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

Rapid treatment after HIV infection may be enough to "functionally cure" about a 10th of those diagnosed early, say researchers in France. They have been analysing 14 people who stopped therapy, but have since shown no signs of the virus resurging. However, most people infected with HIV do not find out until the virus has fully infiltrated the body. The group of patients, known as the Visconti cohort, all started treatment within 10 weeks of being infected. The patients were caught early as they turned up in hospital with other conditions and HIV was found in their blood. They stuck to a course of antiretroviral drugs for three years, on average, but then stopped. The drugs keep the virus only in check, they cannot eradicate it from its hiding places inside the immune system. Normally, when the drugs stop, the virus bounces back. This has not happened in the Visconti patients. Some have been able to control HIV levels for a decade. This suggests that by hitting the virus hard when it first infects the body, it might be possible to live for years without needing treatment - a functional cure. The hope is that by investigating how patients treated early, and a group of people who are genetically resistant to HIV, can combat the virus - it will give scientists clues for developing cures for everyone else.

Dentists may one day be able to replace missing teeth with ones newly grown from gum cells, say UK researchers. The team from King's College London took cells from adult human gum tissue and combined them with another type of cell from mice to grow a tooth. They say using a readily available source of cells pushes the technology a step nearer to being available to patients. But it is still likely to be many years before dentists can use the method. In the latest study they took human epithelial cells from the gums of human patients, grew more of them in the lab and mixed them with mesenchyme cells from mice. The mesenchyme cells were cultured to be "inducing" - they instruct the epithelial cells to start growing into a tooth. Transplanting the cell combination into mice, researchers were able to grow hybrid human/mouse teeth that had viable roots. The next step will be to get an easily accessible source of human mesenchyme cells and grow enough of them for it to be a useful technique in the clinic.

Researchers have conducted a remote reconnaissance of a distant planetary system with a new telescope imaging system that sifts through the blinding light of stars. Using a suite of high-tech instrumentation and software called Project 1640, the scientists collected the first chemical fingerprints, or spectra, of this system's four red exoplanets, which orbit the HR 8799 star, 128 light years away from Earth. "An image is worth a thousand words, but a spectrum is worth a million," said lead author Ben R. Oppenheimer, associate curator and chair of the Astrophysics Department at the AmericanMuseum of Natural History. The planets surrounding the star of this study, HR 8799, have been imaged in the past. But except for a partial measurement of the outermost planet in the system, the star's bright light overwhelmed previous attempts to study the planets with spectroscopy, a technique that splits the light from an object into its component colors. Because every chemical, such as carbon dioxide, methane, or water, has a unique light signature in the spectrum, this technique is able to reveal the chemical composition of a planet's atmosphere. With this system, the researchers are the first to determine the spectra of all four planets surrounding HR 8799.

A complete ban on the sale of cosmetics developed through animal testing has taken effect in the EU. The ban applies to all new cosmetics and their ingredients sold in the EU, regardless of where in the world testing on animals was carried out. The 27 EU countries have had a ban on such tests in place since 2009. But the EU Commission is now asking the EU's trading partners to do the same. The anti-vivisection group BUAV and the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE) said they had spent more than 20 years campaigning on the issue and had enlisted celebrities including Sir Paul McCartney, Morrissey and Sienna Miller to their cause. They congratulated the EU Commission for putting the ban into effect. The EU Commission says it is working with industry to develop more alternatives to animal testing, and that it allocated 238 million euros in 2007-2011 for such research.

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

Students at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science in Cluj have presented the robots they have been working on for months. The robots were a success with the public present at the UBBots challenge and promise to help people in various tasks. Some of the most appreciated robots were “Bad dog Nicuşor” who will protect the owner’s home, Dronică, the robot that will do your dishes and the automated bartender.



Skeptical Reporter for March 8th, 2013

Continuing their raid on quacks and faith healers, health officials in India nabbed as many as 36 persons this week. The officials said a self-proclaimed doctor they cayght had more medicines than food items in his kitchen. The quack was identified as M K Singh who fled from the spot when he saw the team arriving. His neighbours told the health team that Singh retired as a sweeper from a central public sector undertaking. Chief medical offices Dr Yadav said, "These so-called doctors are playing with the health of the rural people. The quacks not only fleece them, they spoil their medical condition. In many cases, the quacks are to be blamed for the death of patients." He revealed that his teams had to face resistance at three different places. In Kakori, the superintendent of the community health centre heading the team was held hostage by the employees of Seher nursing home. Officials in the health team revealed that the quacks were well connected. In many places, the moment the health team cracked down, cell phones of the team leaders started ringing. "Politicians and their aides used all sorts of measures to deter us. Block pramukhs and government officials also pleaded for certain quacks," said a deputy chief medical officer who preferred to remain anonymous.

The tsunami that engulfed northeastern Japan two years ago has left some survivors believing they are seeing ghosts. But in a society like Japan’s, where people are wary of admitting to mental problems, many are turning to exorcists for help. Tales of spectral figures lined up at shops where now there is only rubble are what psychiatrists say is a reaction to fear after the March 11, 2011, disaster in which nearly 19,000 people were killed. "The places where people say they see ghosts are largely those areas completely swept away by the tsunami," said Keizo Hara, a psychiatrist in the city of Ishinomaki, one of the areas worst-hit by the waves. In some places destroyed by the tsunami, people have reported seeing ghostly apparitions queuing outside supermarkets which are now only rubble. Taxi drivers said they avoided the worst-hit districts for fear of picking up phantom passengers.

An analysis of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America has revealed how the centers manage to promise survival rates better than national averages after turning away patients. CTCA is not unique in turning away patients. A lot of doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers in the United States decline to treat people who can't pay, or have inadequate insurance, among other reasons. What sets CTCA apart is that rejecting certain patients and, even more, culling some of its patients from its survival data lets the company tout in ads and post on its website patient outcomes that look dramatically better than they would if the company treated all comers. CTCA reports on its website that the percentage of its patients who are alive after six months, a year, 18 months and longer regularly tops national figures. For instance, 60 percent of its non-small-cell lung cancer patients are alive at six months, CTCA says, compared to 38 percent nationally. And 64 percent of its prostate cancer patients are alive at three years, versus 38 percent nationally. Such claims are misleading, according to nine experts in cancer and medical statistics who were asked to review CTCA's survival numbers and its statistical methodology. The experts were unanimous that CTCA's patients are different from other patients, in a way that skews their survival data. It has relatively few elderly patients, even though cancer is a disease of the aged. It has almost none who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid - patients who tend to die sooner if they develop cancer and who are comparatively numerous in national statistics. Accepting only selected patients and calculating survival outcomes from only some of them "is a huge bias and gives an enormous advantage to CTCA," said biostatistician Donald Berry of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The company defends its practices. Spokeswoman Pamela Browner White said CTCA's survival data are in "no way misleading, nor do they deviate from best practices in statistical collection and analysis."

Travelers to Indonesia beware: smuggling drugs will still earn you jail time but, if an official draft of the country's new criminal code becomes law, witches and people practicing "black magic", even adulterers and those living together outside wedlock, may also be locked away. The new draft law is meant to modernize Indonesia's 1918 Criminal Code, which was last updated in 1958, but some of its proposals constitute a big step back to the Middle Ages. In a country where many people earnestly believe that they could be killed, injured or robbed by a sorcerer using black magic, that crime will, for the first time, become part of the criminal law. People guilty of using black magic to cause "someone's illness, death, mental or physical suffering", face up to five years in jail or a consistent sum in fines. Even claiming to have the power to cast dark spells would become a criminal offence, and if the magic was performed for financial gain, the penalty would increase by one-third. "White" magic would remain legal.

And now let’s look at some news in science

Doctors announced that a baby had been cured of an HIV infection for the first time, a startling development that could change how infected newborns are treated and sharply reduce the number of children living with the virus that causes AIDS. The baby, born in rural Mississippi, was treated aggressively with antiretroviral drugs starting around 30 hours after birth, something that is not usually done. If further study shows this works in other babies, it will almost certainly be recommended globally. The United Nations estimates that 330,000 babies were newly infected in 2011, the most recent year for which there is data, and that more than three million children globally are living with HIV. If the report is confirmed, the child born in Mississippi would be only the second well-documented case of a cure in the world. That could give a lift to research aimed at a cure, something that only a few years ago was thought to be virtually impossible, though some experts said the findings in the baby would probably not be relevant to adults.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has been put into "safe mode" after a computer glitch caused by corrupted files. The robot, which is analyzing rock samples on the Red Planet, is now running from a back-up computer. NASA engineers are looking into possible causes for the files on the robot's flash memory being damaged. The fault means the rover's work has been put on temporary hold while the back-up computer is reconfigured so it can take full control. "We're still early on in the process," said project manager Richard Cook, in an interview. "We have probably several days, maybe a week, of activities to get everything back and reconfigured." The corrupted files may have been caused by stray cosmic rays.

Neuroscientists are pushing for a major project that would map the activity of the brain, potentially illuminating the causes of depression, schizophrenia and other major mental health disorders. The Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, as it is called, has been in the planning stages for some time. In the June 2012 issue of the journal Neuron, six scientists outlined broad proposals for developing non-invasive sensors and methods to experiment on single cells in neural networks. This February, President Barack Obama made a vague reference to the project in his State of the Union address, mentioning that it could "unlock the answers to Alzheimer's." This week, the project's visionaries outlined their final goals in the journal Science. They call for an extended effort, lasting several years, to develop tools for monitoring up to a million neurons at a time. The end goal is to understand how brain networks function.

The surface of the planet Mercury has been completely mapped for the first time in history, scientists say. The closest planet to the sun hasn't received as much scientific attention as some of its more flashy solar system neighbors, such as Mars, but NASA's Messenger spacecraft is helping to close the gap. The probe has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011, and its team announced that the spacecraft had finished mapping the planet's surface. "We can now say we have imaged every square meter of Mercury's surface from orbit," said Messenger principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "Admittedly, some regions are in permanent shadow, but we're actually peering into those shadows with our imaging systems." In addition to photographing the unseen parts of Mercury, the spacecraft substantially improved on the resolution of existing maps.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

An 18-year-old student from Botosani who invented a bionic hand has impressed NASA specialists and won first place in the TechSchool competition. He wants to use the prize money, 7.000 euros to develop an improved version of the prototype. „Robo Hand”, the project for a bionic hand developed by Constantin Voiniciuc has also won the student a trip to NASA. The invention can imitate hand gestures and can be used in extreme precision tasks.

Links :


Skeptical Reporter for March 1st, 2013

Universal Pictures has won a bidding battle for movie rights to Proof Of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into The Afterlife, the runaway bestselling non-fiction book about a man who glimpsed the afterlife during a near death health crisis. It was a six figures deal and three studios chased the book. Proof of Heaven has topped The New York Times bestseller list since it was published in late October by Simon & Schuster. It is a first person account by Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who taught at HarvardMedicalSchool and other universities, embracing science over faith. Despite being a Christian, he did not embrace religious theories of the afterlife. That was until he contracted a rare bacterial meningitis that penetrated his cerebro-spinal fluid and attacked his brain. He lay near death, comatose for seven days in 2008. He awoke with a clear recollection of what he described as a journey to heaven. Several studios went after a book for its huge appeal to a faith-based readership.

Scientists are skeptical about a device that claims it can 'remotely detects hepatitis C', called C-Fast. The developers say C-Fast – developed from bomb detection technology – will revolutionize diagnosis of other diseases, being able to “scan” the body for hepatitis. The prototype operates like a mechanical divining rod – though there are digital versions. It appears to swing towards people who suffer from hepatitis C, remaining motionless in the presence of those who don't. One of the developers claimed the movement of the rod was sparked by the presence of a specific electromagnetic frequency that emanates from a certain strain of hepatitis C.  The device's scientific basis has been strongly contested by physicists. A Nobel prize-winner has said that it "simply does not have sufficient scientific foundation".

In the United States, two bills in Arizona and Oklahoma that might have hindered the teaching of science have not passed the respective Senates. Arizona's Senate Bill 1213 died on February 22, when the deadline for Senate bills to be heard in their Senate committees passed. A typical instance of the "academic freedom" strategy for undermining the integrity of science education, the bill targeted "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning" as supposedly controversial.  Senate Bill 758, the so-called Oklahoma Science Education Act, which would have undermined the integrity of science education has also failed to pass. February 25, 2013, was the deadline for Senate bills to pass their committees, but the Senate Education Committee adjourned its February 25, 2013, meeting without considering it. If enacted, SB 758 would have required state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies" and permitted teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught."

In South Africa, a woman claiming to be a psychic, who has requested to address the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on the "mental state" of athlete Oscar Pistorius who is accused of murder, has approached the Constitutional Court. The woman, who identified herself as Annamarie said she was contacted in a dream by Pistorius's late mother Sheila, who told her to make sure Pistorius was sent for psychiatric evaluation. After being rebuffed by the magistrate, she approached the High Court with her request to halt the bail application, but this court also rejected her application. Pistorius is charged with murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The athlete has had bail set at 1 million Rand or more than 100.000 dollars. Annamarie claims to be the ex-wife of Dr Gerald Versfeld, who amputated Pistorius's legs when he was a child. She believed Pistorius had had a mental breakdown.

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

The way cancers make a chaotic mess of their genetic code in order to thrive has been explained by UK researchers. Cancer cells can differ hugely within a tumour which helps them develop ways to resist drugs and spread round the body. A study in the journal Nature showed cells that used up their raw materials became "stressed" and made mistakes copying their genetic code. Scientists said supplying the cancer with more fuel to grow may actually make it less dangerous. Scientists at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute and the University College London Cancer Institute have been trying to find out how cancers become so diverse in the first place. Their study showed the problem came from making copies of the cancer's genetic code. Cancers are driven to make copies of themselves, however, if cancerous cells run out of the building blocks of their DNA they develop "DNA replication stress". The study showed the stress led to errors and tumour diversity. It helped to prove that replication stress was the problem and now new tools could be developed to tackle it.

Two X-ray space observatories have teamed up to measure definitively, for the first time, the spin rate of a black hole with a mass 2 million times that of our sun. The supermassive black hole lies at the dust- and gas-filled heart of a galaxy called NGC 1365, and it is spinning almost as fast as Einstein's theory of gravity will allow. The findings, which appear in a new study in the journal Nature, resolve a long-standing debate about similar measurements in other black holes and will lead to a better understanding of how black holes and galaxies evolve. "This is hugely important to the field of black hole science," said Lou Kaluzienski, a NuSTAR program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The observations also are a powerful test of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which says gravity can bend space-time, the fabric that shapes our universe, and the light that travels through it.

A smartphone has been blasted into orbit from India by a team of researchers from the University of Surrey. They hope to use a purpose-built app to test the theory, immortalized in the film Alien, that "in space no-one can hear you scream". The phone will play out several of the screams submitted by people online. The test will monitor the durability of standard commercial components in space. It will also test two new innovative propulsion systems. The first - named Warp Drive uses the ejection of a water-alcohol mixture to provide thrust. The second technology is pulsed plasma thrusters. These use an electric current to heat and evaporate a material, producing a charged gas that can then be accelerated in one direction in a magnetic field to push the satellite in the other direction. The mission will see the so-called "smartphone-sat" - a world first - orbit the Earth for six months.

In an experiment that sounds straight out of a science fiction movie, a Duke neuroscientist has connected the brains of two rats in such a way that when one moves to press a lever, the other one does, too — most of the time. The neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis, known for successfully demonstrating brain-machine connections said this was the first time one animal’s brain had been linked to another.  Much of Dr. Nicolelis’s work is directed toward creating a full exoskeleton that a paralyzed person could operate with brain signals. Although this experiment is not directly related, he said, it helps refine the ability to read and translate brain signals, an important part of all prosthetic devices connected to the brain, and an area in which brain science is making great advances. He also speculated about the future possibility of a biological computer, in which numerous brains are connected, and views this as a small step in that direction.

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

The makers of Colon Help, a colon cleansing product, who had sued WordPress in order to silence a Romanian blogger who had pointed out that they were making unsubstantiated claims, have lost the trial. After initially demanding the blogger pay 100,000 Euros for damage to their reputation and not managing to convince him to take the articles down, Zenith Pharmaceuticals, who produce Colon Help, sued WordPress. They lost two separate actions in court, but still have the right to appeal the decision.


Skeptical Reporter for February 22nd, 2013


Registrations for this years Amaz!ng Meeting have begun. The Amaz!ng Meeting or TAM is the leading conference focused on scientific skepticism. People from all over the world come to TAM each year to share learning, laughs, and the skeptical perspective with their friends and a host of distinguished guest speakers, panelists, and workshop presenters. The theme of this year’s program is “Fighting the Fakers,” focusing on scientific skepticism. The Amaz!ng Meeting will take place in Las Vegas, US, from the 11th to the 14th of July, this year.

And now for some skeptical news.

Australian Skeptics are again organising a major test of water divining, repeating an exercise last undertaken 11 years ago at the Mighty Mitta Muster in northern Victoria. Organised by the Borderline Skeptics with input from Australian Skeptics Inc and the Victorian Skeptics, diviners putting themselves up for the test will, depending on their results, be in the running for the Skeptics $100,000 challenge. The Mighty Mitta Muster is an annual event, held on the Victorian Labour Day weekend, featuring the usual range of events at rural shows – woodchopping, tent pegging, stunt riding and egg throwing – but it hasn’t had a water divining test since the last time the Skeptics rolled up in 2002. At the 2002 event, 30 diviners put their skills to the test, but out of 20 bottles containing either water or sand (a 50/50 chance of being correct), the highest score was only 13, which is well within the realms of chance alone. The excuses used post-trial to explain away the failures were many and varied. A video report on the event by Richard Saunders can be seen on YouTube. The 2013 divining challenge will be held on March 10, and will again be conducted by placing water in plastic containers covered by paper bags.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK warned people not to buy or use potentially dangerous unlicensed Chinese medicines sold online after some products were found to contain excessive levels of mercury or lead. Health authorities in Hong Kong told the MHRA that various products are being recalled and they should not be used by people in the UK because of an increased toxic poisoning risk. The toxic effects of lead include abdominal pain, anaemia, changes in blood pressure, reproductive disorders such as miscarriage, weakness, concentration problems, weight loss, insomnia, dizziness, kidney and brain damage. The toxic effects of mercury include irritability, tremors, memory loss, insomnia, concentration problems, kidney and brain damage. There is no evidence that these products are available on the UK market but they could have been purchased over the internet or by people traveling to Hong Kong. MHRA Head of Herbal Policy, Richard Woodfield said: “We would advise any one who has taken these products to seek GP advice immediately. This highlights the dangers of buying unlicensed herbal medicines and the risk to people’s health. These medicines contain toxic impurities and the side effects can be serious”.

The James Randi Educational Foundation has announced it is publishing a book series on Science-Based Medicine. This is what the representatives of the foundation explained: “In cooperation with the Science-Based Medicine blog, which is an invaluable source of expert information on all manner of medical topics, JREF is publishing a number of books on the topic. Led by executive editor Dr. Steven Novella, who heads JREF’s Science-Based Medicine Project, the blog’s team of writers regularly shine the light of good science on spurious health claims, and these new books anthologize their best writing on issues ranging from vaccines and naturopathy to homeopathy and nutritional supplements. Their science-based and skeptical treatment of these issues are of interest to skeptics, non-skeptics, and educated medical consumers alike”. The titles are available on Kindle, iBooks, and Nook for the low introductory price of just $4.99 each for the next week. You can buy a whole library of books on science based medicine for the cost of dinner out.

And in the United States, in Palm BeachCounty deputies are hunting for a man who robbed a psychic center in Delray Beach. On February 5th, a suspect entered the PsychicCenter, located in the 3300 block of Federal Hwy, Delray Beach and committed an armed robbery. During the robbery the suspect forced three women and an autistic child to lie down on the floor. Anyone who can help identify the robber is asked to cooperate with local authorities. Although catching the robber should be no problem given the talents of the people working at the respective center.

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

Star Trek fans have something to rejoice in: "Vulcan" is the leading contender in a vote to name two of Pluto's recently discovered moons. In the TV series and films, it is also the name of Spock's home planet. Vulcan has taken more than 100,000 of some 325,000 votes cast in the online poll. A new 20 to 30 kilometres wide moon of Pluto currently known as P4, was discovered in 2011; another of similar size - P5 - was spotted last year.

Star Trek actor William Shatner, who portrayed the Enterprise's captain James Kirk, had previously called on the vote organisers to add Vulcan and Romulus to the list of names in contention. The organisers accepted Vulcan, but rejected Romulus. Both Romulus and Remus (the names of twin brothers in the Roman foundation myth) are already in use as names for the moons of the asteroid 87 Silvia. However, Mr Shatner appeared pleased that Vulcan made the list, tweeting: "I think we are over 100k votes for Vulcan on that's wonderful!". The poll is being run by the Seti Institute in California and Dr Mark Showalter, who led the scientific team behind the discovery of P4 and P5. The team have said they would take the results of the vote into account when they propose their choices to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). However, the IAU has the final say on the matter.

Some of the world's richest internet entrepreneurs, including Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, have awarded 11 disease researchers 3 million dollars each. Nine of the recipients of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are based at US institutions. The other two are from the Netherlands and Japan. Many of the winners work on cell genetics and how it relates to disease. In addition to Mr Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan and Ms Wojcicki, the prize is sponsored Ms Wojcicki's husband Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, and Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur. Mr Milner, along with the new foundation's chair, Arthur Levinson, a former chief executive at a biotech company and current chairman of Apple, chose the prize winners. Cornelia Bargmann, a winner from RockefellerUniversity, told the website Fast Company that she initially thought it was a practical joke or an internet scam. From 2014 on, the foundation will award $3m to five scientists each year. There is no age restriction on the prize and past winners can win again.

UK scientists exploring the ocean floor in the Caribbean have discovered an "astounding" set of hydrothermal vents, the deepest anywhere in the world. Deploying a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) in the Cayman Trough, they stumbled across a previously-unknown site nearly 5000 metres below the surface. Video pictures relayed back to the research ship show spindly chimneys up to 10 metres high. They are belching out dark water - "a stunning sight", one scientist said. In the immense pressure of the sea three miles down, the ROV, known as ISIS, was gently steered around the vents, taking pictures and gathering samples. Hydrothermal vents are among the strangest features of the deep ocean and their existence was not known until the 1970s. Since then they have been discovered at about 200 sites around the world including the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic. But it was only three years ago that vents were first detected in the Cayman Trough, a deep trench formed by the boundary between two tectonic plates. One set of vents, known as Beebe, was established as the deepest on record - until this discovery of a slightly deeper set nearby. Despite the hostile environment around the vents, they are home to a stunning array of species, such as this fireworm. The water being blasted from the newly-found vents was measured at 401C, making this set among the hottest on the planet.

A light mist of sugar could help the broccoli (and other veggies) go down, according to new research that tested ways to make vegetables more palatable for children. In preliminary studies, preschoolers who were served lightly sweetened vegetables (sprayed with a mist of sugar) at lunchtime ate more of the healthy foods compared to those who were served unsweetened vegetables. Although the researchers tested other ways to mask the vegetables' bitterness, including various salts, plain sugar worked the best. Adding such a small amount of sugar means the vegetables do not taste markedly sweet, said study researcher Valerie Duffy, a professor at the University of Connecticut's Department of Nutritional Sciences. Genetics make some people more sensitive to the bitter flavor found in vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. She stressed that the sweetened vegetables aren't meant to be served throughout a child's life. Rather, serving the sugar-enhanced veggies a few times should be enough to get children accustomed to eating them.  Once that happens, it's no longer necessary to spritz the veggies. Sweetened vegetables don't have many extra calories, either. The researchers added about a half a teaspoon of sugar, which has a mere 8 calories.

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

Romanian researcher Corina Sas from the University of Lancaster and Steve Whittaker from the University of California, Santa Cruz, might have found a way to help people after they have broken up with their partners. The two researchers studied the way people managed various memories of their exes and have proposed that social media networks should provide more options for people to store or delete painful memories.


Skeptical Reporter for February 1st, 2013

We begin this edition of the skeptical reporter with an announcement.

The editors at Doubtful News are working on a guideline on skepticism for the media. They are welcoming contributions and suggestions to make this document complete, easy to understand and use. This is what the announcement had to say: “the purpose is to provide a clear, easy to read guide about the “skeptical” viewpoint as subscribed to by many who might call themselves Skeptics or critical thinkers; to distinguish practical skepticism from the popular use of the phrase “I’m skeptical,” and from those who claim to be “skeptics” regarding some widely accepted conclusion (such as climate change)”. So if you have time, do not hesitate to bring your contribution to this initiative, here:

And now for some skeptical news

An attorney for a former student of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment is barred from asking the school’s leader, JZ Knight, about alleged practices such as encouraging students to drink a liquid containing lye that, according to the former student’s affidavit, is supposed to “accelerate our individual enlightenment.” Knight’s videotaped deposition will be part of a breach-of-contract lawsuit brought by the mystic teacher against a former student of her school, Virginia Coverdale. The suit seeks damages in response to Coverdale’s release of videos showing Knight making derogatory comments about Mexicans, Catholics and others last year. Reposting of the videos by a local conservative think tank, the Freedom Foundation, prompted Republicans to call for Democratic candidates to give back campaign contributions they had received from Knight. The suit also seeks a permanent injunction barring Coverdale from releasing any other unauthorized materials belonging to the school. The school alleges the materials are protected by a contract Coverdale signed upon enrollment. A restraining order barring any such release of protected materials is in place pending the outcome of the lawsuit. In court filings, attorneys for the Ramtha school accused Coverdale of attempting to authorize lines of questioning during Knight’s deposition with the intent to “embarrass and harass” Knight.

In 2009, when the Texas State Board of Education adopted new science curriculum standards, some noted that proponents of creationism had inserted language they would later try to exploit to pressure publishers into including their arguments against evolution in new textbooks. Barbara Cargill, the Republican state board chair from The Woodlands near Houston, has recently done so, suggesting materials for students should from now on include arguments on “all sides” of evolution. Speaking at a Senate Education Committee hearing in Austin about CSCOPE, a curriculum management tool developed by Education Service Centers around the state and used by many school districts, Cargill said she thinks CSCOPE doesn’t conform to the science standards because it doesn’t teach “all sides” about evolution: “Our intent, as far as theories with the [curriculum standards], was to teach all sides of scientific explanations… But when I went on [the website] last night, I couldn’t see anything that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution. Every link, every lesson, everything, you know, was taught as ‘this is how the origin of life happened, this is what the fossil record proves,’ and all that’s fine, but that’s only one side”.

In Great Britain, the Foundation for Integrated Medicine persuaded officials to neuter advice about homeopathy on the NHS Choices patient website. Draft guidance for the website NHS Choices warning that there is no evidence that homeopathy works was suppressed by officials following lobbying by a charity set up by the Prince of Wales. Homeopathy is "rubbish", said chief medical officer Sally Davies in January to the House of Commons science and technology committee. She added that she was "perpetually surprised" that homeopathy was available in some places on the NHS. But the government's NHS Choices website, which is intended to offer evidence-based information and advice to the public on treatments, does not reflect her view. A draft page that spelled out the scientific implausibility of homeopathic remedies was neutered by Department of Health officials. It is now uncritical, with just links to reports on the lack of evidence. Lobbying by opponents, and the response from DH officials who did not want to take on Prince Charles's now defunct Foundation for Integrated Medicine and other supporters of homeopathy, is revealed in correspondence from the department discussing the new guidance. There is no evidence that Prince Charles was involved personally in the lobbying.

In the United States, a petition to have acupuncture recognized as a profession and have it included in the Medicare system has gained 25.000 signatures. This means it will receive a formal response from the presidency. Acupuncturists welcomed the news and announced: “The new year has proven to be a promising one for acupuncturists nationwide. On the start of the Chinese New Year, the White House petition to recognize acupuncture as a profession and have it included in the Medicare system met the White House standard of having more than 25,000 signatures in order to mandate a formal response by the White House. As of press time, the petition had a total of 26,743 signatures. The petition was created on Jan. 11 and has gained fast momentum in the last few weeks with thousands of acupuncturists nationwide logging on to sign the petition. In an effort to make a case, the petition notes studies have shown that when an acupuncturist is directly involved in patient care for pain management and other issues, the patient recovers quicker with less medication required”.

And now let’s look at some news in science

Women who take folic acid supplements before becoming pregnant, as well as early in pregnancy, may reduce the risk of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder, according to a new study. Researchers followed 85,176 babies born between 2002 and 2008 for three to 10 years to determine whether their mother's use of folic acid supplements influenced the risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder. The researchers focused on women who had taken folic acid supplements for 4 weeks before they became pregnant until 8 weeks after the start of the pregnancy. The babies were part of the Autism Birth Cohort Study, a subset of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). Women who had taken folic acid supplements in early pregnancy had a 40 percent reduced risk of having a child with autistic disorder than did women who had not taken the supplement. No reduction in risk was shown for Asperger syndrome.

Scientists have demonstrated that the uncertainty principle, one of the most famous rules of quantum physics, operates in macroscopic objects visible to the naked eye. The principle, described by physicist Werner Heisenberg nearly a century ago, states that the mere act of measuring the position of a particle, such as an electron, necessarily disturbs its momentum. That means the more precisely you try to measure its location, the less you know about how fast it's moving, and vice versa. While in theory this principle operates on all objects, in practice its effects were thought to be measurable only in the tiny realm where the rules of quantum mechanics are important. In a new experiment, described in the journal Science, physicists have shown that the uncertainty principle effects can be detected in a tiny drum visible to the naked eye.

According to estimations, every car by a major brand will be connected to the internet by 2014. Using a hand-held mobile phone while driving a car has been illegal in the UK since 2003. But 10 years later, car manufacturers are hoping that the technology regularly found on smartphones could help motorists drive safely by sensing nearby vehicles. What this means is app-culture infiltrating the dashboard - from a parking space finder to a way to get coupons for local restaurants, or directions that can pop up on the windscreen. It all relies on the car being connected to the internet, allowing all this information to arrive without too much searching or button pushing and a lot more focus on voice commands. The connected car is already the third fastest growing technological device after phones and tablets, Intel believes. By 2020, $600 billion - or 20% of the value of new connected vehicles - will be able to be attributed to "connected life", according to Machina Research. Intel alone is investing $100 million in the next five years in companies that can quicken the adoption of connected cars. "By the end of 2014, for some of the bigger brands, every vehicle they sell will offer some sort of connectivity," says Jack Bergquist of information company IHS.

US researchers have effectively given laboratory rats a "sixth sense" using an implant in their brains. An experimental device allowed the rats to "touch" infrared light - which is normally invisible to them. The team at Duke University fitted the rats with an infrared detector wired up to microscopic electrodes that were implanted in the part of their brains that processes tactile information. The researchers say that, in theory at least, a human with a damaged visual cortex might be able to regain sight through a device implanted in another part of the brain. Lead author Miguel Nicolelis said this was the first time a brain-machine interface has augmented a sense in adult animals. His colleague Eric Thomson commented: "The philosophy of the field of brain-machine interfaces has until now been to attempt to restore a motor function lost to lesion or damage of the central nervous system. This is the first paper in which a neuroprosthetic device was used to augment function - literally enabling a normal animal to acquire a sixth sense".

And in local news from Romania we learn that

The Education Ministry is taking physical activity in students more seriously. Starting with next year, students in middle school will start attending four hours of physical education classes every week, as minister of Education Remus Pricopie has announced. The students will be gradually introduced to the more intense regime of activity and more teachers in the field will be hired in order to supplement the numbers. The minister has explained that the change was needed considering that students already spend a lot of time preparing for the class instead of actually doing sports.


Skeptical Reporter for February 8th, 2013

A self proclaimed faith-healer from Canada has been charged with sexual assault. Claude Provencher believes he has a God-given gift to heal people with a touch of his hands. But his clients have accused him of trying to do more than just heal them. On January 21st, Provencher was convicted of six counts of sexual assault and 22 counts of breach of recognizance and probation at the Superior Court in Haileybury. He will be sentenced May 27th. It's not the first time the self-described faith healer has been convicted of sexually abusing his clients. In late 2012, Provencher served more than a month in jail for two sexual assault charges that dated back to 2007. He inappropriately touched a female patient during a session in his Sudbury office. He was sentenced to six months in jail, but had already served more than four months for a breach of probation in 2011. Provencher was also given a 10-year weapons prohibition and had to register to the sexual offender registry for 20 years. His probation order prevented him from being alone with patients for any spiritual sessions. He has defended himself, stating that the 22 charges for breach of probation were due to an error of interpretation. Following his conviction in Sudbury, Provencher was forbidden to be alone with his patients for spiritual sessions, but he explained that the sessions were not spiritual in nature, but merely healing sessions. Provencher does not have any health-related certification.

In the United States, OhioUniversity students showed up in hordes to take a peek into their futures. Several psychics sat down in the Baker Ballroom for a Psychic Fair organized by the CampusInvolvementCenter, while winding lines of students waited to be seen. Everything from rune stone and fingerprint reading to palm reading and tarot cards was available. Many students seemed satisfied with their readings, and in some cases, even astounded by their accuracy. "I expected it to be like a tarot reading, but it was a more of an affirmation of, 'This is what your personality can be; take that and apply it to a goal in life'", said OU student Drew Sanders, who had just left the numerology table. Though a number of students were deterred by the wait time, many stayed until the cutoff time, strictly enforced by workers of the CampusInvolvementCenter. Cynthia McGinnis, who ran the biorhythm and horoscope station, noted that although the readings can appear to be accurate, the fair and many of the psychics' endeavors are simply for entertainment.

Nine female polio vaccinators have been killed in two shootings at health centres in northern Nigeria. In the first attack in Kano the polio vaccinators were shot dead by gunmen who drove up on a motor tricycle. Thirty minutes later gunmen targeted a clinic outside Kano city as the vaccinators prepared to start work. Some Nigerian Muslim leaders have previously opposed polio vaccinations, claiming they could cause infertility. Recently, a controversial Islamic cleric spoke out against the polio vaccination campaign, telling people that new cases of polio were caused by contaminated medicine. Such opposition is a major reason why Nigeria is one of just three countries where polio is still endemic. But this is believed to be the first time polio vaccinators have been attacked in the country. A health official confirmed that those killed in the second attack in Hotoro were female health workers. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there were 121 cases of polio in Nigeria last year, compared to 58 in Pakistan and 37 in Afghanistan. In the past month, polio workers have also been targeted in Pakistan.

Notorious Manhattan psychic, Sylvia Mitchell, aged 38, has been caught by the police after scamming a client. The woman is known for having run her con game in New York City, Connecticut and Florida, and was busted once again for swindling a woman out of more than $120,000, police sources said. From October 2007 to April 2009, Mitchell promised that she would rid Singapore-native Lee Choong of her “bad spirits” during fortune telling sessions at her Greenwich Village shop, Psychic Zena. But, instead of “cleansing” Choong, Mitchell actually wiped her out financially, stealing 128,000 dollars in return for her bogus advice, sources said. She also allegedly swiped Choong’s furniture, clothing and rent checks. Detectives tracked down Mitchell and hauled her into the 6th Precinct where she was charged with fortune telling and grand larceny. Mitchell is no stranger to the authorities. In 2011, she was accused of taking $27,000 from another person in Florida in a similar scheme.

And now let’s look at some news in science

An astronaut and a rock singer recorded an original song together and released it on February 8th as the first music duet performed simultaneously in space and on the ground. A rocket launch and the beauty of planet Earth are the subjects of the song, performed in space by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, while accompanied by Canadian singer Ed Robertson of the band Barenaked Ladies, and others on Earth. The song's lyrics, called "I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)", focuses on the experience of a person in space missing his loved ones on the Earth below: "If you could see our nation from the International Space Station, you'd know why I want to get back soon". Hadfield and Robertson began co-writing the song when Hadfield was still in training in Russia for his five-month mission on the International Space Station. Next month, Hadfield will be the first Canadian commander on the orbiting complex when the Expedition 35 mission begins.

The nearest habitable, Earth-sized planet could be just 13 light-years away, research suggests. An analysis of small, dim "red dwarf" stars - which make up a majority of stars in our galaxy - shows that 6% of them host such a planet. Study co-author David Charbonneau of HarvardUniversity said the findings had implications for the search for life elsewhere. "We now know the rate of occurrence of habitable planets around the most common stars in our galaxy. That rate implies that it will be significantly easier to search for life beyond the solar system than we previously thought", said the professor. The hunt for exoplanets has reached a pace that is difficult to keep up with. A catalogue run by US space agency NASA lists more than 800 "exoplanets", most of them spotted using the transit method. That is just the tip of the planetary iceberg, however. On the basis of results from other methods, it has been estimated that on average, there are 1.6 planets around every star in the night sky.

Scientists say they have invented spectacle lenses that cure red-green colour blindness, which affects some women and one in every 10 men. The Oxy-Iso lenses were designed by an American research institute to allow medics to spot bruising and veins that are difficult to see. Tests suggest they can also help to enhance reds and greens in the colour-blind. But they could not be worn by drivers, because they reduce the ability to perceive yellows and blues. Theoretical neurobiologist Mark Changizi, who developed the glasses with Oxy-Iso lenses, believes human colour vision "evolved above and beyond that found in other mammals... allowing us to sense colour-signals on the skin, including blushes, blanches, as well as sensing health. So the Oxy-Iso filter concentrates its enhancement exactly where red-green colour-blind folk are deficient”.

For the first time, scientists report, they have found bacteria living in the cold and dark deep under the Antarctic ice, a discovery that might advance knowledge of how life could survive on other planets or moons and that offers the first glimpse of a vast ecosystem of microscopic life in underground lakes in Antarctica. A network of hundreds of lakes lies between the continent’s land and the ice that covers it, and scientists had thought that it could harbor life. The discovery is the first confirmation. After drilling into LakeWhillans, the expedition scientists recovered water and sediment samples that showed clear signs of life. They saw cells under a microscope, and chemical tests showed that the cells were alive and metabolizing energy. The scientists have explained that every precaution had been taken to prevent contamination of the lake with bacteria from the surface or the overlying ice. The concentrations of life were higher in the lake than in the borehole, and there were signs of life in the lake bottom’s sediment, which would be sealed off from contamination. Much more study, including DNA analysis, is needed to determine what kinds of bacteria have been found and how they live, in a place where there is no sunlight.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

Cezar El-Nazli, a student at the NationalCollege in Iaşi, is one of the 20 winners in the Google Code-In 2012 competition, an event dedicated to those with a passion for programming and computer science. The competition is at its third edition and focuses on students aged 13 to 17. 334 students from 36 countries participated this year and each week they had to solve different problems with open source programs. The winners will get to visit the Google headquarters’ in Mountain View, California.


Skeptical Reporter for February 1st, 2013

Until a few days ago, the name Mark Lynas was little known outside the environmental community. An effective campaigner against genetically modified organisms, Lynas has also written several well-received books, including Six Degrees and The God Species. Recently, Lynas gave a speech at a conference on farming at OxfordUniversity, where he stated, in measured and scientific terms, that he had changed his mind. Lynas had been a leading voice against using GMOs in farming. He was also sounding the alarm over climate change, and had immersed himself in climate science. When he belatedly did the same with GMOs, he found that a careful reading of the scientific evidence revealed that his previous opposition was untenable. At Oxford Lynas said he was, in a word, sorry: “I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment”.

Actress Jenny McCarthy was dropped from the Bust a Move fundraiser organized by a Canadian cancer foundation. The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation reacted to a public backlash in signing the anti-vaccine campaigner to the Ottawa breast health fundraiser.

McCarthy was to headline a fitness class for the 2nd of March fundraiser at the Ottawa Athletic Club. The actress, author and former Playboy playmate is best known these days for her unconventional views on autism, specifically her anti-vaccination writings. Her son Evan Joseph was diagnosed with autism in 2005, but McCarthy says now her son is in “recovery” and is doing much better. McCarthy has claimed in interviews that her son was healed by experimental and unproven biomedical treatments, and she blamed the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine for giving her son autism. Yet despite her views, for which scientists have labeled her a menace to vaccination efforts, McCarthy was the choice of the cancer foundation for the fundraiser.

Gunmen riding on a motorcycle shot and killed a police officer protecting polio workers during a U.N.-backed vaccination campaign in northwestern Pakistan, the police said. The attack took place as dozens of polio workers — including several women — were going door to door to vaccinate children in Gullu Dheri village. None of the polio workers the police officer was protecting were hurt in the attack, he said. Some Islamic militants oppose the vaccination campaign, accuse health workers of acting as spies for the U.S. and claim the polio vaccine is intended to make Muslim children sterile. Pakistan is one of the few remaining places where polio is still rampant. In a separate incident in the northwest, a man wounded a polio worker with an axe. In December, gunmen killed nine polio workers in similar attacks across Pakistan, prompting authorities to suspend the vaccination campaign in the troubled areas.

Psychic and medium James Van Praagh, creator and executive producer of "Ghost Whisperer,” is suing his sister, who is now using the surname again after decades of marriage. Van Praagh claims his sister has started using her maiden named to cash in on his success, even though she took her husband’s surname, Gratton, four decades ago. James Van Praagh "is one of the most recognized spiritual mediums in the world", he argues in court papers filed last week in federal court on Long Island. The suit argues Gratton's use of the Van Praagh name will confuse and deceive the public. But Lynn Van Praagh-Gratton claims she’s a psychic in her own rights — a “bridge between worlds” who has the “gift of communicating on the other side with those who have passed”. It’s also unclear what value the Van Praagh name still has. James' reputation took a hit in 2008 when Barbara Walters debunked his claim she suffered from a blood disorder. Walters submitted to a blood test and announced on "The View" the result was normal.

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

When you were 15, chances are, revolutionizing medicine wasn't among your after-school activities. But for 15-year-old Jack Andraka, it's par for the course. The high school sophomore recently developed a revolutionary new test for early-stage pancreatic cancer. Jack Andraka created a simple dip-stick sensor to test for levels of mesothelin, which is a biomarker for early-stage pancreatic cancer that’s found in blood and urine. The method is similar to diabetic testing strips, utilizing just a pinprick of blood and costing all of three cents to make. What’s so revolutionary about Andraka's invention, aside from possibly being the most inexpensive medical test ever devised, is that current methods for pancreatic cancer detection are ineffective—for the most part, they're unable to uncover the presence of the disease until it’s in its final stages, long after it could respond to treatment. But this is about more than pancreatic cancer. Andraka explains his strips can be altered to detect biomarkers for other conditions as well. “What’s so cool about that is its applicability to other diseases… for example other forms of cancer, tuberculosis, HIV, environmental contaminants like E Coli, salmonella. All for three cents for a test that takes five minutes to run”, he said.

A controversial theory that the way we smell involves a quantum physics effect has received a boost, following experiments with human subjects. It challenges the notion that our sense of smell depends only on the shapes of molecules we sniff in the air. Instead, it suggests that the molecules' vibrations are responsible. A way to test it is with two molecules of the same shape, but with different vibrations. A report in PLOS ONE shows that humans can distinguish the two. Tantalizingly, the idea hints at quantum effects occurring in biological systems - an idea that is itself driving a new field of science. But the theory - first put forward by Luca Turin, now of the Fleming Biomedical Research Sciences Centre in Greece - remains contested and divisive. The idea that molecules' shapes are the only link to their smell is well entrenched, but Dr Turin said there were holes in the idea. He gave the example of molecules that include sulphur and hydrogen atoms bonded together - they may take a wide range of shapes, but all of them smell of rotten eggs. "If you look from the [traditional] standpoint... it's really hard to explain," Dr Turin explained.

Engineers dream of motors made out of single molecules that could jump-start the production of machines on the molecular level. However, simply modeling them after larger motors has been extremely difficult. Now, researchers from France and the University of Ohio have collaborated on a new approach and created the first compact molecular motor that can spin both clockwise and counterclockwise. “What must be done is to start from the bottom, to forget about the macroscopic scale,” said Christian Joachim, one of the lead authors of this project. The molecule is 1 nanometer high and 2 nanometers across, and is called a "piano-stool complex" because of its shape. It has a nonmoving three-legged base standing on a gold surface and a rotating top, or rotor, with a single atom of ruthenium connecting the two. This rotor contains five iron spokes, one of them shorter than the others to easily detect when it spins. The motor operates using a quantum mechanical process called inelastic electron tunneling, in which electrons that are shot at the molecule lose some of their energy in the transfer and the resulting vibrations turn the rotor. The researchers are now focusing on two goals: hooking the motor to a chain of nanometer-size gears and working to install it into a molecular nano-car in order to power and drive it.

People who meticulously check the calorie counts on nutrition labels and restaurant menus are in for some bad news: the tallies may be wrong, experts say. Recent studies show that the amount of pounding, slicing, mashing and perhaps even chewing that goes into preparing and eating food affects the number of calories people get. For some foods, a proportion of the calories in them remains "locked up" during digestion, and isn't used by the body. People also expend some of the energy from food just digesting it; and even the bacteria in people's guts steal a fraction of food's calories. None of these factors are accounted for in our current system for calculating calories, which dates back more than 100 years. Scientists have always known that calorie counts are just estimates. And over the years, some scientists have called for changes to the system. Now, researchers are again shining a spotlight on the issue, saying an overhaul of the calorie count system is needed so consumers have a better idea of exactly how many calories they get from the food they eat.

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

A lawyer from the Arges district has sued five priests accusing them of fraud, because the surmons he participated in to get rid of the demons he was haunted by had no effect. Madalin Ciculescu feels that he was a victim of fraud and decided to take action in court, also accusing the local archbishop for not properly supervising his priests. The lawyer was disappointed that he was unable to escape the demons that took over the electronics in his apartment. The priests declared that they are innocent in this unique malpractice case.


Skeptical Reporter for January 25th, 2013

In the Phillipines, cancer experts and the government warned the public against herbal supplements that are advertised as cures for cancer, saying these were “voodoo medicine.” The Philippine Society of Medical Oncology said these herbal supplements had no proven curative effects, while the Food and Drug Administration said it did not approve any herbal medicine or health supplement as a cure for cancer. “That’s what I call voodoo medicine. There is no viable alternative to mainstream cancer treatment”, explained Dr. Ellie May Villegas, PSMO vice president. Villegas said some of the supposed treatments that the public should be wary about included bio-resonance therapies, oxygen treatment, colonic cleansing, “megadosing” of Vitamin C, antineoplastons and immuno-augmentation treatment. She said herbal medicines might actually interfere with chemotherapy or medicines used in cancer treatment. “Some herbs cause problematic interactions with chemo, causing blood pressure swings and other complications,” Villegas added.

Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political conspiracy theory, according to results from a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind Poll. The nationwide survey of registered voters asked Americans to evaluate four different political conspiracy theories: 56 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans say that at least one is likely true. This includes 36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life, 25 percent who think that the government knew about 9/11 in advance, and 19 percent who think the 2012 Presidential election was stolen. Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to greater belief in political conspiracies. The most popular of these conspiracy theories is the belief that President Obama is hiding important information about his background, which would include what’s often referred to as “birtherism.” “Groups that feel more distanced from the political process are more likely to believe that sinister forces are at work,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and an analyst for the poll. “These figures tell us more about a lack of trust in the political process than acceptance of particular conspiracies”, he added.

A minister in the state of Karnataka, home to the Indian infotech industry, has announced that the state government will set up a committee “to find out ways to eliminate black magic.” It is considering whether to require astrologers to register with the state authorities, apparently to sort out the legitimate fortune-tellers from the frauds.

Last month, during its 4th International Astrological Conference, the Karnataka Astrologers Association adopted a resolution to ban “dishonest astrologers in public sphere.” It was responding to predictions based on the Mayan calendar that spread fears the world would end on December 21st. The association’s vice president reportedly railed against “fake astrologers” out to make money peddling “mindless prophecies” for damaging “the reputation of astrology, which is traditionally viewed as a science”.

In Italy, the L'Aquila judge who last October sentenced seven scientists and engineers to 6 years in prison each for advice they gave ahead of a deadly 2009 earthquake explained his reasons for the manslaughter convictions. He said that the seven, at the time members of an official government body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, had analyzed the risk of a major quake in a "superficial, approximate and generic" way and that they were willing participants in a "media operation" to reassure the public. The 950-page document judge Marco Billi has released, known as the "motivazione”, explains that the trial was not against science but against seven individuals who failed to carry out their duty as laid down by the law. The scientists were not convicted for failing to predict an earthquake, something Billi says was impossible to do, but for their complete failure to properly analyze, and to explain, the threat posed by the swarm. Billi ruled that this failure led to the deaths of 29 of the 309 people killed in the quake and to the injuries of four others.

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

House Resolution 41, introduced in the United States House of Representatives on January 22nd, would, if passed, express the House's support of designating February 12th as Darwin Day, and its recognition of "Charles Darwin as a worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge". Rush Holt, one of the few members of Congress with a Ph.D. in a scientific field, is the sole sponsor of the bill. After its introduction, the resolution was referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Holt, in a press release from the American Humanist Association, commented, "Only very rarely in human history has someone uncovered a fundamentally new way of thinking about the world – an insight so revolutionary that it has made possible further creative and explanatory thinking. Without Charles Darwin, our modern understandings of biology, ecology, genetics, and medicine would be utterly impossible, and our comprehension of the world around us would be vastly poorer. By recognizing Darwin Day, we can honor the importance of scientific thinking in our lives, and we can celebrate one of our greatest thinkers”.

Cambridge University scientists say they have seen four-stranded DNA at work in human cells for the first time. The famous "molecule of life", which carries our genetic code, is more familiar to us as a double helix. But researchers tell the journal Nature Chemistry that the "quadruple helix" is also present in our cells, and in ways that might possibly relate to cancer. They suggest that control of the structures could provide novel ways to fight the disease. "The existence of these structures may be loaded when the cell has a certain genotype or a certain dysfunctional state," said Professor Shankar Balasubramanian from Cambridge's department of chemistry. "We need to prove that; but if that is the case, targeting them with synthetic molecules could be an interesting way of selectively targeting those cells that have this dysfunction," he explained.

Controversial research into making bird flu easier to spread in people is to resume after a year-long pause. Some argue the research is essential for understanding how viruses spread and could be used to prevent deadly pandemics killing millions of people. Research was stopped amid fierce debate including concerns about modified viruses escaping the laboratory or being used for terrorism. The moratorium gave authorities time to fully assess the safety of the studies. Now, a letter signed by 40 virus researchers around the world, published in the journals Science and Nature, said the moratorium was being lifted. It said appropriate conditions had been set in most of the world and their studies were "essential for pandemic preparedness”. One of the leading proponents of the research Professor Ron Fouchier, from the Erasmus Medical Centre, explained it had been "frustrating" to shut down research for the year. "This research is urgent, while we are having this pause bird flu virus continues to evolve in nature and we need to continue this research. We cannot wait for another year or two years", he added.

Scientists have given another eloquent demonstration of how DNA could be used to archive digital data. A team from the UK managed to encode a scholarly paper, a photo, Shakespeare's sonnets and a portion of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech in artificially produced segments of the "life molecule". The information was then read back out with 100% accuracy. It is possible to store huge volumes of data in DNA for thousands of years, the researchers write in Nature magazine. They acknowledge that the costs involved in synthesizing the molecule in the lab make this type of information storage "breathtakingly expensive" at the moment, but argue that newer, faster technologies will soon make it much more affordable, especially for long-term archiving.

"One of the great properties of DNA is that you don't need any electricity to store it", explained team-member Dr Ewan Birney from the European Bioinformatics Institute at Hinxton, near Cambridge.

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

A Romanian is amongst the finalists for one of the greatest scientific competitions in The European Union. The stakes are very high: a grant of up to one billion euros for ten years, in a bid to maintain the European Union’s status as an innovator in science and tehnology. The competition for the grant started with 26 research proposals, but 20 of them have already been eliminated last year. Professor Adrian Ionescu, from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne from Switzerland is the head reasearcher for one of the projects still in competition. The two winning projects will be announced on January 28th, by the European Commision.


Skeptical Reporter for December 14th, 2012

Announcement:  The skeptical reporter will take a break, but will be back on the 25th of January next year. So don’t forget to tune in for your weekly dose of science and skepticism news.

And now for some skeptical news

The Psychic Friends Network is hard at work finding new ways to make people pay up for what they offer. The representatives of the company offering psychic services of all sorts just announced in a press release that they are developing a mobile app, being the first in the business to do so. This is what the press release had to say: “Psychic Friends Network, the company that single-handedly created the psychic entertainment market in the 1990s and generated over $1 billion in revenue, is developing a mobile smartphone/tablet application (mobile app), a first for the psychic service industry. "This is a major breakthrough not just for the Psychic Friends Network, but for the entire psychic service industry," said Marc Lasky, CEO of Psychic Friends Network”. Their app will be “freemium”, meaning it will be free to download but users will be charged for content used.

In Australia, a controversial anti-vaccination lobby group has been slapped with an order to change its misleading name or be shut down. The NSW Office of Fair Trading handed a letter of action the Australian Vaccination Network president Meryl Dorey, labeling the network's name as misleading and a detriment to the community. NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts explained that the information the Network provided was a public safety issue of "life and death". "This is not a victimless issue, it's about the ability to stop pain and suffering," he said. Minister Roberts likened the AVN's message to sanctioning speeding: "People do not have the freedom of choice when it comes to endangering others ... it's the equivalent of saying a bloke can speed down the road and endanger others". Minister Roberts has warned other states if the AVN tries to register elsewhere.

From India to Las Vegas, superstitious lovebirds and numbers geeks are reveling in a once-in-a-lifetime event: the date 12/12/12. Sure, it might be just another set of numbers for some. But unlike the past 11 years, this will be the last such triple date for almost a century, until January 1, 2101. Those tying the knot at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel have 40 different 12/12/12 wedding packages to choose from. Six of those options include an Elvis impersonator From midnight to midnight, more than 100 couples will walk or ride down the aisle at Viva Las Vegas. That's more than 10 times the number of couples who get hitched there on a typical Wednesday in December.

One of the world's top advertising awards went this year to a campaign in which a radio station broadcast ultrasound along with its programmes to repel mosquitoes. But does it work? Definitely not, say scientists. It was a beautifully simple idea. No more need for smelly lotions, chemical gases, smoke or rolled-up newspapers, listeners to Brazilian station Band FM were told - all you need to do to beat mosquitoes is to stick close to the radio. The station broadcast a high-frequency tone under its music in April this year. Inaudible to most adults, the tone was supposed to repel mosquitoes, allowing listeners to relax in the open air without fear of getting bitten. There's just one problem. Scientists say it's nonsense. Bart Knols, an entomologist who chairs the advisory board of the Dutch Malaria Foundation and edits the website Malaria World, claims that there is "no scientific evidence whatsoever" that ultrasound repels mosquitoes. A 2010 review article examined 10 field studies, in which ultrasonic repellent devices had been put to the test, and concluded that they "have no effect on preventing mosquito bites" and "should not be recommended or used".

And now let’s look at some news in science

University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor Nikolaus Correll and his computer science research team have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems. Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a Ping Pong ball, which they call "droplets." When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a "liquid that thinks." To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools. Similar to the fictional "nanomorphs" depicted in the "Terminator" films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said. He plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks. Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

Scientists with NASA's Cassini mission have spotted what appears to be a miniature, extraterrestrial likeness of Earth's Nile River: a river valley on Saturn's moon Titan that stretches more than 400 kilometers from its "headwaters" to a large sea. It is the first time images have revealed a river system this vast and in such high resolution anywhere other than Earth. Scientists deduce that the river, which is in Titan's north polar region, is filled with liquid hydrocarbons because it appears dark along its entire length in the high-resolution radar image, indicating a smooth surface. "Though there are some short, local meanders, the relative straightness of the river valley suggests it follows the trace of at least one fault, similar to other large rivers running into the southern margin of this same Titan sea," said Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University, Utah. Titan is the only other world we know of that has stable liquid on its surface. While Earth's hydrologic cycle relies on water, Titan's equivalent cycle involves hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane. In Titan's equatorial regions, images from Cassini's visible-light cameras in late 2010 revealed regions that darkened due to recent rainfall.

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have uncovered a previously unseen population of seven primitive galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago, when the universe was less than 3 percent of its present age. The deepest images to date from Hubble yield the first statistically robust sample of galaxies that tells how abundant they were close to the era when galaxies first formed. The results show a smooth decline in the number of galaxies with increasing look-back time to about 450 million years after the big bang. The observations support the idea that galaxies assembled continuously over time and also may have provided enough radiation to reheat, or reionize, the universe a few hundred million years after the big bang. These pioneering observations blaze a trail for future exploration of this epoch by NASA's next-generation spacecraft, the James Webb Space Telescope. Looking deeper into the universe also means peering farther back in time. The universe is now 13.7 billion years old. The newly discovered galaxies are seen as they looked 350 million to 600 million years after the big bang. Their light is just arriving at Earth now.

Having HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but it's still a lifelong illness that requires an expensive daily cocktail of drugs. And it means tolerating those drugs' side effects and running the risk of resistance. Researchers at The Rockefeller University may have found something better: they've shown that a therapeutic approach harnessing proteins from the human immune system can suppress the virus in mice. This kind of treatment doesn't need daily application and could one day be used in humans to treat the disease. Florian Klein and colleagues in Michel Nussenzweig's Laboratory of Molecular Immunology found that a combination of five different antibodies, proteins the immune system uses to fight infection, effectively suppressed HIV-1 replication. They kept the virus at bay for a 60 day period after termination of therapy thanks to their longer half-life, while current antiretroviral drugs require daily intake. These especially potent antibodies were only recently discovered, some of them by several of Klein's colleagues. Called broadly-neutralizing antibodies, they were identified and cloned from HIV-infected patients whose immune systems showed an unusually high ability to neutralize HIV.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

Romanian students won six silver medals in the International Junior Science Olympiad that was held in Tehran this year. All the members of the Romanian team managed to come back home with a distinction and they did better than last year’s group that participated in the academic event. Diana-Andreea Catană, Ruxandra Tesloianu, Dan Mircea Mirea, Adrian Mihai Radu, Tiberiu Alexandru Pană and Andrei Iliescu are the students who won this year. The Olympiad is an event where students must pass challenges both theoretical and practical in three subjects: chemistry, biology and physics.


Skeptical Reporter for December 7th, 2012

Announcement: The Chinese language version of Skeptoid has been launched. The producers hope that this move will help promote the appreciation of science and scientific skepticism to the world’s largest market. Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena is an award-winning weekly science podcast. According to their website, Skeptoid has been fighting the good fight against the overwhelming majority of noise in the media, since 2006, supporting useless alternative medicine systems, psychics preying upon the vulnerable, the erosion of science education in the classroom, xenophobia of advanced energy and food production methods, and generally anything that distracts attention and public funding from scientific advancement.

And now for some skeptical news

The winner of the Australian Skeptics' Bent Spoon Award, that is given every year to the most deserving promoters of pseudoscience, has been announced. This year, the standout winner of the Australian Skeptics' Bent Spoon Award for ''the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle'' went to Fran Sheffield from Homeopathy Plus. The New South Wales-based organization, which promotes natural remedies for a variety of ailments, was gonged for claims made for homeopathy and whooping cough treatment and vaccine. Last week, the Australian Academy of Science released a booklet aimed at dispelling the myths about the dangers of vaccination and at reversing the falling trend of childhood vaccinations in Australia. About one in 12 Australian babies is not fully immunized. Awarded at a dinner in Melbourne, the Bent Spoon Award came with a trophy made from a spoon that had been ''psychically bent'' and mounted on a plinth of wood ''from Noah's Ark''.  Also honored at the dinner, which caps the group's national convention, was the lobby group Friends of Science in Medicine, which won the 2012 Skeptic of the Year Award. The group was recognized for challenging those Australian universities running courses in areas the Australian Skeptics consider ''unproven and over-hyped'' medical treatments. This includes areas such as chiropractic, naturopathy, acupuncture and reflexology.

TED is a very popular web site that features premier speakers to talk about their “ideas worth spreading” and also a well known event designed to open minds and help with information sharing. Even though TED events themselves feature quality speeches, the affiliated TEDx events don’t always meet the standards. The organizers of TED have been forced to write a letter to those in charge of affiliated events explaining what “good science” is, after several promoters of dubious topics have managed to take the stage in Spain and other countries. This is what the letter had to say: “It is your job, before any speaker is booked, to check them out, and to reject bad science, pseudoscience and health hoaxes. Vetting your speakers is hard work, and can lead to uncomfortable moments. But as TEDx organizers, your audience’s trust is your top priority, over and above any other personal or business relationship that may have brought this speaker to your attention. It is not your audience’s job to figure out if a speaker is offering legitimate science or not. It is your job. The consequence of bad science and health hoaxes are not trivial”. You can read the entire letter, that includes sections on what are the marks of good and bad science and what should raise some red flags, by clicking the first link below this episode.

The day after a federal judge cast doubt on a new state law banning sexual-orientation therapy for minors, a second judge issued a ruling upholding it. According to Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the California attorney general, the ban on sexual-orientation therapy will take effect January 1st as scheduled for everyone except two therapists and an aspiring therapist who sued to keep the ban from taking effect. In the ruling, in a case brought by opponents asserting that the law violates free-speech, religious and parental rights, U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller said the Legislature and governor had enough grounds to enact such a law, given that multiple mental health groups, including the American Psychological Association, have discredited the therapy. State Senator Ted Lieu, author of the law, said he expects the first case to be decided in favor of it. "On behalf of the untold number of children who can expect to be spared the psychological abuse imposed by reparative therapy, I’m thrilled that today’s ruling by Judge Mueller will continue to protect our children from serious harm”, Lieu said in a statement.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has a resolution discouraging homeopathy for animals on its agenda for the January 5th regular winter session of the House of Delegates. The Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association submitted a resolution for HOD consideration that would discourage the use of homeopathy as ineffective. The resolution is as follows: Homeopathy Has Been Identified as an Ineffective Practice and Its Use Is Discouraged. The American Veterinary Medical Association affirms that safety and efficacy of veterinary therapies should be determined by scientific investigation. When sound and widely accepted scientific evidence demonstrates a given practice as ineffective or that it poses risks greater than its possible benefits, such ineffective or unsafe philosophies and therapies should be discarded.

The annual cost to industry of illegal copies of branded products is estimated at a staggering 650 billion U.S. dollars worldwide, and German machine tool manufacturers are becoming an increasingly popular target for pirating operations, but they are finding new ways of fighting back. Around one third of all companies have seen their business eroded by cheap imitations of their products, especially manufacturers of textile machines, compressors and plastics processing equipment. "Most companies have absolutely no idea just how easily their products can be copied," says Bartol Filipovic, head of the Product Protection department at the Fraunhofer Research Institution AISEC in Garching. The AISEC advises companies on how best to protect their products and IT services from unlawful attacks on their proprietary rights. One option is to install cryptographic devices that encrypt the data stored within the machine. These devices generate the corresponding decryption key based on the duration of electrical signals on the microchip. The signals emitted by other chips, even those from the same production batch, will be of a slightly different duration, rendering the key unusable. Companies that have implemented AISEC recommendations enjoy at least five to ten years relief from attacks by product counterfeiters. This time lead is crucial for companies to protect their expensive investments.

Drones could soon be helping protect rhinos, tigers and elephants in Africa and Asia, thanks to cash from Google. Controlled via a tablet computer, the small autonomous aircraft will photograph poachers and track animals via smart radio tags. The World Wildlife Fund used the 5 million dollars grant received from Google to fund software that could map where poachers strike. And it was developing a mobile DNA sampling kit to match body parts with animals. The WWF said poaching and trafficking of body parts was having a devastating effect on the wild populations of some species, setting back decades long conservation efforts. The past 12 months have seen a significant rise in attacks on some animals, such as rhinos. In five years the number of rhinos killed in South Africa has risen from 13 to 588, according to statistics from Traffic, which monitors the trade in endangered animal parts. Google gave the WWF the cash as part of its Global Impact Award programme. The first round of these awards handed out 23 million dollars to seven separate organizations.

Scientists say they have pinpointed genetic changes that allow some Ethiopians to live and work more than a mile and a half above sea level without getting altitude sickness. The specific genes differ from those reported previously for high-altitude Tibetans, even though both groups cope with low-oxygen in similar physiological ways, the researchers report. If confirmed, the results may help scientists understand why some people are more vulnerable to low blood oxygen levels caused by factors other than altitude -- such as asthma, sleep apnea, heart problems or anemia -- and point to new ways to treat them, the researchers say. Research over the last four decades has revealed that people born and raised in mountainous regions cope with altitude in different ways. Native highlanders in Tibet and some in Ethiopia, for example, are able to maintain relatively low blood hemoglobin concentrations at high altitude compared to their counterparts in the Andes, a trait that makes them less susceptible to chronic mountain sickness.

A baby star's mass has been measured for the first time. The star, called L1527 IRS, is only one-fifth the mass of the sun, and is expected to keep growing as the swirling disk of matter surrounding it falls into its surface. Astronomers estimated the star formed around the same time that Neanderthals evolved on Earth: just 300,000 years ago. In fact, if L1527 had grown in mass just a bit more quickly in its earlier years, it could be as young as 150,000 years old. Either way, the star is among the youngest discovered in the universe, said lead researcher John Tobin. "There's five times more material surrounding it that could be incorporated in [the star]," said Tobin, a Hubble fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia. "There is still a lot of room to grow, so to say." L1527 lies in the constellation Taurus, about 450 light-years from Earth. Its close distance makes it easier to resolve fine features in the disk. "There is a rotationally supported disk around this protostar," said Tobin, adding it's a "key element" in building planets. But it's far too early in L1527's evolution to talk about protoplanets, he added. In the scale of stellar evolution, the star is at Stage 0. By comparison, Earth's sun is a middle-aged matron, at 4.6 billion years of age.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

A Romanian thinks he can predict the correct date for the Apocalypse and it’s not this year. According to calculations by the Romanian, Gheorghe Gherasim, a former accountant, the Apocalypse will occur 100 years from now, on the 21st of December 2112. Based on numerology and a “revelation” regarding the apocalypse, the man is convinced that he has the correct answer to the date when the annihilation of the planet will occur.

The TED letter on good and bad science.