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Skeptical reporter @ 2013-02-22

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.


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