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We're back and we can make your PCR work* [Feb. 2nd, 2006|01:25 pm]
Thanks to New Scientist's feedback page, we can now bring you the solution to your PCR woes.


"Then Barney Gardom may have stumbled across the service you need at http://athanor.firedrake.org. It offers "home and office cleansing" as part of its "curse removal and protection" services. We assume they'll do laboratories too."

As believers in the idea that PCR only works if you use the 'special' water, cross your fingers while setting up the reaction and make sacrifices to the gods of PCR, that it's all down to the Curse of the Thermal Cycler sounds an intriguing possibility.

* okay, we lied...
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Pedants' Corner - How much does a white dwarf weigh? [Dec. 14th, 2005|04:22 pm]
Hubble weighs closest white dwarf says the BBC. Only it didn't. As the first sentence of the article says, it was used to measure the mass.

As weight measures the force of attraction between two objects due to gravity then, especially when talking about space (where the acceleration due to gravity varies), it is not interchangeable.

Update: perhaps unsurprisingly, they've now corrected it.
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Alt text silliness [Dec. 12th, 2005|02:09 pm]
The BBC's article "Scientists face research job cuts" features the usual generic scientist in lab coat holding a pipette. Just in case you didn't realise they use the same kind of picture for many science stories, the alt text confirms it is a photo of a "Laboratory technician - generic" (mouse hover in IE, else look at the source/turn off the images).

It looks like the generic technician gets around a bit. When not losing their job at Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, they have been busy working on parasitic worms in Edinburgh and getting funding for tropical disease research in Dundee.

Still, nothing beats this power cut story for BBC photo silliness.
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It's so easy... [Nov. 21st, 2005|12:25 pm]
New study is boost to homeopathy, reports the BBC. We don't know if/when it was published, so we only have the BBC to go on.

"More than 6,500 patients took part in the study with problems ranging from eczema to menopause and arthritis".

Ooooh, lots of people, must be good...

"Professor Matthias Egger, of the University of Berne, who worked on The Lancet study said the study was weakened by the lack of a comparison group."

No controls? Okay then...someone needs to relearn their year 7 science lessons.

The BBC's token commitment to balance:

"The results contradict a study published earlier this year in The Lancet, which concluded that using homeopathy was no better than taking dummy drugs."

Does comparing one study (with er...no controls) to a review of 110 different papers and implying they are of equal value counts as balanced reporting?

We could be wrong, it could be a well designed bit of research. If someone can point us in the direction of the journal it is published in and it turns out that this is the case, we will phagocytose our hats.*

* we don't have hats, so we'll need you to provide those too
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Panic on the streets... [Oct. 18th, 2005|04:35 pm]
Time for us to resurrect the sarcasm of the week feature.*

As part of the mass hysteria over bird flu (an advantage to being an amoeba at last!), we bring you this from The Register:

"Gartner has released an essential guide to avian influenza, aka bird flu, aka Black Death II, [...]"

The Register notes:

"Gartner rightly warns that bird flu could be even worse than SARS, which in 2003 killed a chilling 774 of 8,096 people infected worldwide, in the process generating 1.2bn column inches of press hysteria and rating an impressive 7.2 (out of ten) on the international "Imminent Pandemic Apocalypse" scale."

No need to panic everyone, your employer should be setting in place a plan to ensure that in the event that you get it, you can carry on working from your (death) bed. Pointers include:

"Establish or expand policies and tools that enable employees to work from home with broadband access, appropriate security and network access to applications."

Helpfully The Register has come up with a few tips of its own:

"Assign someone in your business to stand on the roof and shoot anything with wings."
"Lock infected employees in their homes with broadband access and then paint a red cross on the door."

Right. Sarcasm over. Let the hysteria continue...

* not actually weekly or a feature
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What the...? [Oct. 3rd, 2005|04:55 pm]
Wheeeee, we've found a new science website to waste time on read. It has an interview with Ben Goldacre on it (yes, that's how we found the site in the first place).

He says his favourite scientist is Darwin and also mentions understanding clinical trials.

"[question]You told a recent Spiked survey that you wished people understood the British epidemiologist Austin Bradford Hill's 'criteria for causation'. (Editor's note: Hill pioneered the randomized clinical trial and co-discovered the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.) Does this sort of thing get taught in school?

[answer]It doesn't get taught to kids and it should be. John Durant's work from the early 90s and other major quantitative analyses of the portrayal of science in the media have shown that science, in the media, in terms of the kinds of stories covered, is health. Things like the Bradford hill criteria – how to assess the validity and reliability and usefulness of evidence – are exactly what you'd need to be taught to parse the information on offer when you grow up, especially as it's given out so misleadingly and incompetently by the media."

We don't quote out of context*, so yes that was a bit long. We don't care. Never mind teaching evolution and scientific method in schools. We know of people with biology degrees that were never taught this stuff. Huh? We wonder if it is a good idea to create intelligently design scientists that know little about either of these things...

*er...except when we do.
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Trust No-one [Sep. 25th, 2005|01:02 pm]
We noticed that the Office for National Statistics has published a report on "Public Confidence in Official statistics" (pdf, 66kb). We were going to write that it says only 37% of people questioned believe the figures are generally accurate and that only 17% of people believe the figures are produced without political interference.

However, as they are the organisation that provide official statistics, only 37% of us believed a word of it.
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What's this got to do with science? [Sep. 22nd, 2005|10:26 am]
...nothing, but we thought it was silly.

Snickers Marathon bars. Presumably they're not left overs from the 1980s.
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Shampoo is evil [Sep. 20th, 2005|01:01 pm]
Today's daft label analysis in the G2 features shampoo. For those unfamiliar with the Label Watch section, it basically looks at the ingredients list on the back of various everyday items and goes "oooh that sounds like a nasty chemical name, it must be bad for you".

First on the list is sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium dodecyl sulphate/SDS as it is known everywhere else except ingredient lists).

"SLS is a cheap foaming agent used in shampoos and other toiletries, including toothpaste."

Unsurprising, considering it is a detergent and detergents are useful things to have in a product that is supposed to clean something.

"There have been persistent claims that it is carcinogenic, particularly after it was the subject of an unattributed email alert in the late 1990s."

Hahahahahaha. Yes and people from Nigeria really do want to give us 10 MILLION DOLLARS, clicking the unsubscribe link in spam will result in us getting fewer junk emails and attachments from random people really will contain pictures of naked amoebas.

"But SLS has repeatedly been passed as safe by a number of health agencies around the world. The WHO considers it an "unlikely carcinogen". "

Aaaaah, but it might be. They didn't deny it so it must be true, right?

"The US Environmental Protection Agency says it's been shown that SLS produces skin and eye irritation in concentrations above 5%. (Labelling laws do not require the concentration to be specified.)""

We bet you didn't know that. So (cue sinister music), does shampoo have more than 5% SDS in it? Does it cause eye and skin irritation? This calls for a scientific test, so we made one up. Here's the protocol.

1. Put shampoo on hand (DO NOT DILUTE).
2. Use hand to put shampoo in eye.
3. Note how irritating it is on a scale of 1 to 10.
4. Let us know how your favourite brand of shampoo scored.*
5. It is probably a good idea to rinse the shampoo out of your eye at some point.

* We claim no responsibility for any pointing and laughing that might result from admitting you intentionally put shampoo in your eye.
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Oh dear [Sep. 15th, 2005|11:42 am]
As the debate over whether "humanities graduate" is an insult or not continues at www.badscience.net, Nature features a letter on the genetics of Harry Potter.


"[A previous letter recommends] the use of analogies as tools for introducing young people to scientific concepts. Taking their example from J. K. Rowling's stories about the young wizard Harry Potter, they suggest that wizarding is a monogenic trait, with the wizard allele (W) recessive to the muggle allele (M). We believe the assumption that wizarding has a genetic basis to be deterministic and unsupported by available evidence.

Following Craig and colleagues' analogy, Hermione, as a muggle-born witch, must have WM parents. However, as Rowling fans could point out, Hermione's parents were muggle dentists who lack any family history of wizarding. It's true, of course, that chance may not have thrown up a witch or wizard for many generations, or that any who did have magical powers may have kept them secret to avoid a witch hunt."

Er...how very important. It's one thing to look at the science behind science fiction, quite another to look at the science behind magic in a children's fantasy book. Even if it is the greatest piece of literature ever written.

Just in case we're not being hypocritical enough already, we do note that JK Rowling never tries to explain the genetics behind the inheritance of magical ability in her book. We also noticed that the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter books have different levels of magical ability, suggesting that if it is genetic, the trait is polygenetic (like height) rather than controlled by one gene.

Perhaps we should write to Nature to tell them this rather than putting it in a blog nobody reads? We're not sure if they would print a letter from some drunk single-celled organisms though. Sob.
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