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Weird Science 02-19-09

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com http://robalini.blogspot.com
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 19, 2009
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      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist


      13 Facts About Friday the 13th
      12 February 2009

      If you fear Friday the 13th, then batten down the hatches. This
      week's unlucky day is the first of three this year.

      The next Friday the 13th comes in March, followed by Nov. 13. Such a
      triple whammy comes around only every 11 years, said Thomas Fernsler,
      a math specialist at the University of Delaware who has studied the
      number 13 for more than 20 years.

      By the numbers

      Here are 13 more facts about the infamous day, courtesy of Fernsler
      and some of our own research:

      1. The British Navy built a ship named Friday the 13th. On its maiden
      voyage, the vessel left dock on a Friday the 13th, and was never
      heard from again.

      2. The ill-fated Apollo 13 launched at 13:13 CST on Apr. 11, 1970.
      The sum of the date's digits (4-11-70) is 13 (as in 4+1+1+7+0 = 13).
      And the explosion that crippled the spacecraft occurred on April 13
      (not a Friday). The crew did make it back to Earth safely, however.

      3. Many hospitals have no room 13, while some tall buildings skip the
      13th floor.

      4. Fear of Friday the 13th - one of the most popular myths in
      science - is called paraskavedekatriaphobia as well as
      friggatriskaidekaphobia. Triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number 13.

      5. Quarterback Dan Marino wore No. 13 throughout his career with the
      Miami Dolphins. Despite being a superb quarterback (some call him one
      of the best ever), he got to the Super Bowl just once, in 1985, and
      was trounced 38-16 by the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana (who
      wore No. 16 and won all four Super Bowls he played in).

      6. Butch Cassidy, notorious American train and bank robber, was born
      on Friday, April 13, 1866.

      7. Fidel Castro was born on Friday, Aug. 13, 1926.

      8. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not travel on the 13th day
      of any month and would never host 13 guests at a meal. Napoleon and
      Herbert Hoover were also triskaidekaphobic, with an abnormal fear of
      the number 13.

      9. Superstitious diners in Paris can hire a quatorzieme, or
      professional 14th guest.

      10. Mark Twain once was the 13th guest at a dinner party. A friend
      warned him not to go. "It was bad luck," Twain later told the
      friend. "They only had food for 12."

      11. Woodrow Wilson considered 13 his lucky number, though his
      experience didn't support such faith. He arrived in Normandy, France
      on Friday, Dec. 13, 1918, for peace talks, only to return with a
      treaty he couldn't get Congress to sign. (The ship's crew wanted to
      dock the next day due to superstitions, Fernsler said.) He toured the
      United States to rally support for the treaty, and while traveling,
      suffered a near-fatal stroke.

      12. The number 13 suffers from its position after 12, according to
      numerologists who consider the latter to be a complete number - 12
      months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12
      labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles of Jesus, 12
      days of Christmas and 12 eggs in a dozen.

      13. The seals on the back of a dollar bill include 13 steps on the
      pyramid, 13 stars above the eagle's head, 13 war arrows in the
      eagle's claw and 13 leaves on the olive branch. So far there's been
      no evidence tying these long-ago design decisions to the present
      economic situation.

      Origins of Friday the 13th

      Where's all this superstition come from? Nobody knows for sure. But
      it may date back to Biblical times (the 13th guest at the Last Supper
      betrayed Jesus). By the Middle Ages, both Friday and 13 were
      considered bearers of bad fortune.

      Meanwhile the belief that numbers are connected to life and physical
      things - called numerology - has a long history.

      "You can trace it all the way from the followers of Pythagoras, whose
      maxim to describe the universe was 'all is number,'" says Mario
      Livio, an astrophysicist and author of "The Equation That Couldn't Be
      Solved" (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Thinkers who studied under the
      famous Greek mathematician combined numbers in different ways to
      explain everything around them, Livio said.

      In modern times, numerology has become a type of para-science, much
      like the meaningless predictions of astrology, scientists say.

      "People are subconsciously drawn towards specific numbers because
      they know that they need the experiences, attributes or lessons,
      associated with them, that are contained within their potential,"
      says professional numerologist Sonia Ducie. "Numerology can 'make
      sense' of an individual's life (health, career, relationships,
      situations and issues) by recognizing which number cycle they are in,
      and by giving them clarity."

      Mathematicians dismiss numerology as having no scientific merit,

      "I don't endorse this at all," Livio said, when asked to comment on
      the popularity of commercial numerology for a story prior to the date
      06/06/06. Seemingly coincidental connections between numbers will
      always appear if you look hard enough, he said.



      Autism ruling fails to convince many vaccine-link believers
      Story Highlights
      Families dealing with autism have mixed response to Thursday's ruling
      Scientific community says no credible research supports autism-
      vaccine link
      Advocacy groups question credibility of the vaccine court
      By Madison Park

      A special court's Thursday ruling that no proven link exists between
      autism and certain early childhood vaccines seems to have done little
      to change the sometimes-passionate opinion fueling the debate.

      Amanda Guyton, a mother of a 6-year-old boy with autism,
      was "incredibly happy" with the decision and said it reaffirmed her
      belief that her son's autism has nothing to do with vaccines.

      "We're ready for them to get on real research like educational
      strategies and help for kids," she said. "An awful lot of money and
      effort and time were spent on vaccines when three or four studies
      said no, there isn't a link."

      Meanwhile, John Best, the father of a 12-year-old boy with autism,
      said: "The whole thing stinks."

      Guyton and Best were not involved in the cases, but were following
      the news because of their interest in autism.

      Three families -- the Cedillos, the Hazlehursts and the Snyders --
      had sought damage awards from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program
      for their children who have autism, a disorder that the parents
      contend was triggered by the vaccine against measles, mumps and
      rubella combined with vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury-based

      The panel of "special masters" ruled that these petitioners had not
      presented sufficient evidence to prove that the childhood vaccines
      caused autism in their children.

      A vocal segment of autism parents has contended that childhood
      vaccinations recommended by the government cause the disorder. Health
      agencies and the scientific community have disputed that notion. In
      defending its conclusion that no link exists, the Institute of
      Medicine cited five large studies that have failed to prove any
      connection between autism and thimerosal and 14 large studies finding
      no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

      "As the scientific community has been saying for a long time, there
      is no good, credible, reproducible research that supports the
      hypothesis that MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine causes
      autism," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, an autism expert at Rainbow Babies
      and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

      Wiznitzer testified in two of these three lawsuits brought against
      the government's National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

      "What the decision tells us is that these vaccinations are safe," he
      said. "The medical evidence tells us there is no association between
      vaccines and autism. This is one more piece that helps confirm that

      The defendant, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
      released a statement Thursday: "Hopefully, the determination by the
      Special Masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause

      Meanwhile, some autism advocacy groups such as SafeMinds also
      criticized the HHS saying the "deck is stacked against families when
      they enter 'vaccine court.'"

      National Autism Association president Wendy Fournier agreed.

      "If you have a vaccine injury, you're forced to sue Health and Human
      Services instead of suing the manufacturers. It's the government that
      oversees these court cases," said Fournier, who is the mother of a 9-
      year-old girl with autism. "The conflict of interest is so huge in so
      many levels by having the government responsible for not only
      promoting vaccine program, but also responsible for overseeing the

      Fournier said her daughter was a happy, healthy toddler who developed
      autism after receiving shots. She said she's heard countless similar
      stories from other parents.

      The special court denied Mike and Theresa Cedillo's claim that
      vaccines caused autism in their daughter, Michelle, 14, who can't
      walk without help and receives nourishment from a feeding tube.

      "We're obviously really disappointed," Theresa Cedillo said.

      Tom Powers is an attorney for a litigation steering committee
      representing thousands of families that fall into three categories:
      those that claim that MMR vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines
      can combine to cause autism; those who claim thimerosal-containing
      vaccines alone can cause autism; and those who claim that MMR
      vaccines, without any link to thimerosal, can cause autism.

      "We're disappointed in the outcome of the court's decision," he
      said. "However, these decisions are the first step in a long process.
      The whole process was designed to raise every possible issue in these
      cases -- hear all the evidence in these cases, knowing that
      ultimately appeals courts will be making the final decisions."

      This week's ruling brought a different outcome from the Hannah Poling
      case. In November 2007, the Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation
      concluded that the Georgia girl's illness that had predisposed her to
      symptoms of autism was "significantly aggravated" by the vaccinations
      she received as a toddler and that her family should therefore be

      But Thursday, Special Master George L. Hastings Jr. wrote in his
      ruling in the Cedillos case, "The evidence advanced by the
      petitioners has fallen far short of demonstrating such a link"
      between autism and vaccinations.

      Wiznitzer said the ruling sent a message.

      "Instead of spending resources investigating ideas that are
      hypothetical and have no proven value, we need to invest our time and
      resources into projects that will better determine the reasons for
      autism and the interventions that are best needed," he said.

      CNN's Miriam Falco and David Martin contributed to this report.



      February 13, 2009
      Cure for the Common Cold? Not Yet, but Possible

      Curing the common cold, one of medicine's most elusive goals, may now
      be in the realm of the possible.

      Researchers said Thursday that they had decoded the genomes of the 99
      strains of common cold virus and developed a catalog of its

      "We are now quite certain that we see the Achilles' heel, and that a
      very effective treatment for the common cold is at hand," said
      Stephen B. Liggett, an asthma expert at the University of Maryland
      and co-author of the finding.

      Besides alleviating the achy, sniffly misery familiar to everyone, a
      true cold-fighting drug could be a godsend for the 20 million people
      who suffer from asthma and the millions of others with chronic
      obstructive pulmonary disease. The common cold virus, a rhinovirus,
      is thought to set off half of all asthma attacks.

      Even so, it might be difficult to kindle the interest of
      pharmaceutical companies. While the new findings are "an interesting
      piece of science," said Dr. Glenn Tillotson, an expert on antiviral
      drugs at Viropharma in Exton, Pa., he noted that the typical cost of
      developing a new drug was now $700 million, "with interminable fights
      with financiers and regulators."

      Because colds are mostly a minor nuisance, drug developers say,
      people would not be likely to pay for expensive drugs. And it would
      be hard to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a drug
      with any serious downside for so mild a disease.

      Carl Seiden, president of Seiden Pharmaceutical Strategies and a
      longtime industry analyst and consultant, said industry might be
      loath to wade in because Relenza and Tamiflu — two drugs that
      ameliorated flu but did not cure it — were huge commercial

      The industry has also learned in recent years that turning a genetic
      discovery into a marketable drug is far harder than once thought.

      Still, if the discovery could lead to an effective drug to treat the
      common cold, "that's a big deal," Mr. Seiden said.

      Industry hurdles aside, perhaps the biggest reason the common cold
      has long defied treatment is that the rhinovirus has so many strains
      and presents a moving target for any drug or vaccine.

      This scientific link in this chain of problems may now have been
      broken by a research team headed by Dr. Liggett and Dr. Ann C.
      Palmenberg, a cold virologist at the University of Wisconsin.

      The researchers, who conducted the genetic decoding with the aid of
      Dr. Claire Fraser-Liggett at the University of Maryland, published
      their insights into the rhinovirus on Thursday in the online edition
      of Science.

      Dr. Fernando Martinez, an asthma expert at the University of Arizona,
      said the new rhinovirus family tree should make it possible for the
      first time to identify which particular branch of the tree held the
      viruses most provocative to asthma patients.

      If antiviral agents could be developed against this group of viruses,
      Dr. Martinez said, "it would be an extraordinary advance."

      Another asthma expert, Dr. E. Kathryn Miller at the Vanderbilt
      Children's Hospital in Nashville, said the new finding was "a
      groundbreaking study of major significance."

      People at high risk from rhinoviruses, like children with asthma or
      adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, would benefit
      greatly from new drugs, Dr. Miller said, and should therefore be
      populations of interest to the drug industry.

      Dr. Liggett said the new data might even provide an opportunity to
      consider new vaccine approaches.

      Dr. Palmenberg is less optimistic. "There's not going to be a vaccine
      for the common cold," she said, given that vaccines do not protect
      the linings of the nose where the virus attacks.

      The rhinovirus has a genome of about 7,000 chemical units, which
      encode the information to make the 10 proteins that do everything the
      virus needs to infect cells and make more viruses.

      By comparing the 99 genomes with one another, the researchers were
      able to arrange them in a family tree based on similarities in their

      That family tree shows that some regions of the rhinovirus genome are
      changing all the time but that others never change.

      The fact that the unchanging regions are so conserved over the course
      of evolutionary time means that they perform vital roles and that the
      virus cannot let them change without perishing. They are therefore
      ideal targets for drugs because, in principle, any of the 99 strains
      would succumb to the same drug.

      Dr. Liggett said he believed that one such target lies at the very
      beginning of the rhinovirus genome, where its genetic material is
      folded into a clover-leaf shape. The sequence of units in the clover
      leaf is designed to be read quickly by the infected cell's protein-
      making machinery. All strains of rhinovirus have much the same
      sequence of units at this region and all could be vulnerable to the
      same drug.

      The data will also help analyze a new family of rhinoviruses that is
      causing concern. Instead of attacking the cells lining the nose,
      these attack those lining the deep lungs, causing viral pneumonia.

      This family of virus cannot at present be grown for study in the
      laboratory, Dr. Palmenberg said, but can now be researched
      genetically through the common elements they share with other

      Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute, where the rhinovirus
      genomes were decoded, say another important feature of the viruses
      lies in a highly variable region at one of the genomes.

      The equivalent region in polio virus determines pathogenicity, and
      the same may be true with rhinoviruses.

      There are at present no effective treatments for the common cold.
      Frequent hand-washing is the best preventive, Dr. Miller said. Once a
      cold has started, she recommended washing out the nasal passages,
      warm drinks and rest.

      Gardiner Harris contributed reporting from Washington.



      dark comets 'could pose deadly threat to earth'
      Unseen "dark" comets could pose a deadly threat to earth, astronomers
      have warned.
      By Kate Devlin
      12 Feb 2009

      'Dark' comets happen when the water on their surface has evaporated,
      causing them to reflect less light

      The comets, of which there could be thousands, are not currently
      monitored by observatories and space agencies.

      Most comets and asteroids are monitored in case they start to travel
      towards earth.

      But Bill Napier, from Cardiff University, said that many could be
      going by unnoticed.

      "There is a case to be made that dark, dormant comets are a
      significant but largely unseen hazard," he said

      Scientists estimate that there should be around 3,000 comets in the
      solar system, but only 25 have so far been identified.

      "Dark" comets happen when the water on their surface has evaporated,
      causing them to reflect less light.

      Astronomers have previously spotted comets heading towards earth just
      days before they passed.

      In 1983 a comet called IRAS-Araki-Alcock passed at a distance of just
      5 million kilometres, the closest of any comet for 200 years, but it
      was noticed just a fortnight beforehand.

      Tests on another comet, called Comet Borrelly, in 2001 revealed it to
      have large dark patches across much of its surface.

      Steve Larson of the University of Arizona's Catalina Sky Survey in
      Tucson, which monitors comets, said the idea of an unknown number
      of "dark" comets circling earth had "merit".

      But Clark Chapman from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder,
      Colorado, said that such comets "would absorb sunlight very well" and
      so could be detected by the heat they emit, reports New Scientist



      February 10, 2009
      Alien Census: Can We Estimate How Much Life Is Out There?
      New study looks to tabulate the extent of intelligent
      extraterrestrial life
      By John Matson

      One day in 1950, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi posed a question to
      a few colleagues he was lunching with at Los Alamos National
      Laboratory that would become known as the Fermi Paradox: If the Milky
      Way is indeed teeming with alien civilizations, as many theories
      suggest, where are they? Shouldn't we see evidence of their
      existence? Nearly 60 years later, the question remains just as
      vexing. After all, decades of searching for extraterrestrial radio
      signals or evidence of alien civilizations have come up empty.

      Nevertheless, search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)
      programs soldier on. And the hunt for any alien life, even in
      microbial form, is ramping up quickly with instruments probing Mars
      and other likely nearby candidates in greater detail and with the
      regular detection of new planets outside our solar system. In the
      absence of hard evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life, some
      researchers have set out to estimate just how much might be out
      there. The hope is that they can justify the continuation of SETI
      searches or even refine them and thus up the odds of finding ET,
      perhaps someday rendering the Fermi Paradox moot.

      In a recent paper published online by the International Journal of
      Astrobiology, graduate student Duncan Forgan of the Royal
      Observatory, Edinburgh, in Scotland set up a numerical model of the
      universe under different scenarios of biogenesis. His model relies on
      current observational knowledge of stars and planetary systems, as
      well as some assumptions about the viability of life and its ability
      to evolve into an advanced, intelligent form. If life can only arise
      under a narrow set of initial conditions, Forgan estimates there
      should be 361 advanced, stable civilizations in the Milky Way. If
      life can spread from one planet to another through biological
      molecules embedded in asteroids, though, the number jumps to nearly
      38,000. (Even given a densely populated galaxy, Forgan notes, there
      is no guarantee of immediate mutual contact.)

      Forgan's model makes use of the Monte Carlo method, by which the
      starting variables in a system are randomized over repeated
      simulations to allow for uncertainties in their values. By averaging
      the results from 100 such simulations, Forgan's analysis yields an
      estimate that accounts for variations in inputs.

      But some in the field argue that estimates of the extent of
      extraterrestrial intelligence cannot carry any degree of accuracy,
      given the gaps in our knowledge. Such numerical estimates are "still
      subject to all the other uncertainties and all the other
      imponderables" regarding the origins of life, says planetary
      scientist Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College at the University of
      London. "We have to admit that we're hugely ignorant of many of the
      pieces of information that we would need to know before we could
      realistically estimate the prevalence of intelligent life elsewhere
      in the galaxy."

      Mark Burchell, a professor of space sciences at the University of
      Kent in England, says that astronomically speaking, our knowledge
      base is fairly refined. "But the biological and social aspects of the
      equation remain speculative," he said in an e-mail. "As Forgan points
      out, we are limited to single-event observations (life on Earth) to
      make sweeping general predictions (life elsewhere)."

      Forgan acknowledges that the analysis suffers from some
      uncertainties, stemming in part from a small and somewhat biased data
      set on planets outside the solar system. Some 300 planetary systems
      have been found since 1995, when the first planet orbiting a normal
      star other than the sun was discovered. But the detection methods
      employed in this effort tend to find planets that are quite large and
      hot. The European COROT satellite and NASA's forthcoming Kepler
      spacecraft, however, should be able to locate more Earth-like worlds
      in the coming years with dedicated, sensitive monitoring of dips in
      stellar brightness that occur when a planet passes in front of a
      star. Forgan says that "Earth-mass, rocky planets are still the best
      bet for habitability," so such discoveries would significantly affect
      his conclusions.

      He also notes that the numbers, subject as they are to uncertainties,
      should not be considered the sole outcome of his paper. Simply
      refining models of where and when life should arise, he says, might
      improve SETI searches. "Searching for life in the galaxy is the
      ultimate needle in the haystack," Forgan says, and any guidance as to
      where and when to search for that needle should be useful.

      But Crawford thinks such analyses won't affect the status quo. "We've
      got no option but to keep looking; there's nothing else we can do,"
      he says. "All the SETI searches can do is what they've been doing for
      the last 40 years and keep listening."
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