Weird Science 02-19-09
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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
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
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
Families dealing with autism have mixed response to Thursday's ruling
Scientific community says no credible research supports autism-
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
By NICHOLAS WADE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."