Women's Health Ignored Again

Via Brad DeLong:

Big Brass Blog : FDA Official Quits Over Plan B Pill Delay

"I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff here, has been overruled."-- Susan Wood, director of FDA's Office of Women's Health, in her resignation letter

...Susan Wood, head of FDA's Office of Women's Health, announced her resignation in an e-mail to colleagues at the agency....

"The recent decision announced by the Commissioner about emergency contraception, which continues to limit women's access to a product that would reduce unintended pregnancies and reduce abortions, is contrary to my core commitment to improving and advancing women's health."

The FDA last Friday postponed indefinitely its decision on whether to allow the morning-after pill, called Plan B, to be sold without a prescription. The agency said it was safe for adults to use without a doctor's guidance but was unable to decide how to keep it out of the hands of young teenagers without a prescription -- a decision contrary to the advice of its own scientific advisers.


Hurricane Relief

To help the victims of Katrina, you can donate here:

American Red Cross


Gas Petition

I just received an email to sign a petition to the White House to lower gas prices. If you want to lower gas prices, petitioning President Bush is a monumental waste of time. Write your representatives to put pressure on the automobile industry to raise fuel mileage (which they resist), or convince your friends and family to quit buying cars that are useless and/or completely impractical (like Hummers in the city). Or, hey, here's a thought: buy a hybrid. Whining about gas prices without the willingness to make the changes at home is ridiculous.


I Just Like The Picture

I love pictures of these shark swarms around schools of fish. So feral and predatory.


Another Theory In Crisis

Apparently Germ Theory isn't up to snuff. Via Pharyngula:

Pooflingers Anonymous has found a truly bizarre and apparently entirely serious document, A Faulty Medical Model: The Germ Theory. In it, we learn that Pasteur was a plagiarist, a thief, a poor scientist, and a fraud. Microbes mutate from microbe to bacterium to fungus to virus to cause disease (microbiologists are going to be very surprised to learn this). They transform as the pH decreases—so the more acidic you are, the more microbes will convert into deadly viruses. We can cure all this just by consuming lots of calcium and colloidal silver, with a few other important tips, like avoiding margarine ("…eat all the butter you want. It's healthy!"). It's wonderfully insane.

I guess we'll have to start giving this equal time in the classroom too. One commentor summed up nicely how you deal with this kind of person:

See, this isn't even the sort of crazy that you can argue with. It's just the sort of crazy that makes you smile, not make eye contact, and back away slowly.

Boy, we really need more scientific literacy in this country.


Presidenting Is Hard Work

Via Brad DeLong:

George Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. George W. Bush is first...

Rising Hegemon: An Overachiever at Underachieving: Today is the day that George Bush sets the record for vacation days for an American President, 336. Breaking the record in 4 years and 7 months...

...in vacations. Nearly twice the pace of the previous first, Ronald Reagan.


Ah, To See the Cheetah Roam

A few years ago I wrote a letter to the Pinedale Roundup (of Wyoming) and the local Game & Fish suggesting that as a way to make the drive from Pinedale to Laramie more interesting, they should introduce cheetahs to the mesas. The drive is 4 hours long, dry, dusty, rocky, and flat; in otherwords, it's pretty boring. Watching cheetahs zip around after the antelope would really spice things up. I was of course trying to be humorous. However, it turns out it may not be a bad idea.

A group of scientists have written a commentary in the journal Nature proposing this very idea, only on a grander scale. The authors' point out that North America used to be populated with a number of large mammals during the Pleistocene, roughly 13,000 years ago. Most were hunted to extinction. This includes the American cheetah, camels, and horses. In Africa, a number of species are also threatened with extinction in the coming century. As a way to increase their chances for survival, the authors propose placing them in the Great Plains region of the US. Not only camels, feral horses (from the Gobi), and the African cheetah, but also African/Asian elephants and the Bolson tortoise. The Great Plains are analogous to the ecosystems these species inhabit in Africa/Asia, and they could perform the same ecosystem functions here.

The authors recognize the considerable challenges facing such a proposal, most of them political and social. Ranchers won't be thrilled with this idea, nor are those ecologists who worry that relocation will fail and/or damage native species as has happened elsewhere (think of Australia or Hawaii). There is also the concern of disease transmission. They point out, however, the economic, ecological, social, and conservation benefits that could arise from taking such action. They say,

These issues must be addressed by sound research, prescient management plans and unbiased public discourse on a case-by-case and locality-by-locality basis. Well-designed, hypothesis-driven experiments will be needed to assess the impacts of potential introductions before releases take place.


The obstacles are substantial and the risks are not trivial, but we can no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness preservation. Instead, we want to reinvigorate wild places, as widely and rapidly as is prudently possible.

So, this isn't a half-assed suggestion. They've given it serious thought and recognize the challenges ahead, and there will be many. Personally, I like the idea. If our society can move in a direction that tries to live with the biosphere, rather than completely dominate it (which hasn't worked out very well so far) all of us will be better off. I look forward to the debate about this and seeing where it goes.

Donlan, J. et al. 2005. North American Re-wilding. Nature 436: 913-914.

Ethanol As A Gas Substitute?

Via Pharygula:

Ethanol issues complex, but smarter fuel is a no-brainer

Three hundred million years ago, the sun shown down on swampy forests of giant ferns. Just like plants today, those ferns captured a portion of the incoming solar energy to form sugars, starches and other molecules. When the ferns died, some of that solar energy was preserved via burial. Today we dig up those dead tree ferns and call them "coal." Oil comes from a similar source. As an alternative to ancient sources of solar energy, we can grow plants like corn, soybeans, grass or trees and use the solar energy they capture as food or fuel. Essentially we use modern plants as solar panels—the plants capture energy just like a solar cell (though the energy captured by plants is stored in chemical form).

Does a field of corn make an efficient solar panel? Unfortunately, no. When the sun shines down on a field of corn in western Minnesota, at best 2 percent of the solar energy is captured and stored as plant material. When the sun shines on a commercial solar panel, 15 percent of the energy is captured. In addition, solar panels work all year long, not just during the growing season. To get the captured 2 percent out of a corn plant, you need to consume the whole plant—roots, stalks, cobs and kernels. If, like me (and my local ethanol plant) you prefer to consume just the kernels, you leave most of the energy in the field. The automobile fuel made from corn doesn't even utilize all of the energy in the kernels—only sugars and starches contribute to the ethanol end-product.

Can we grow enough corn to run our automobiles? Is corn ethanol the way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Some studies suggest that there is a modest net energy surplus in corn ethanol (i.e., the energy in a gallon of ethanol is greater than the energy used to grow the corn and make the ethanol). Other studies (including the only two peer-reviewed studies on the topic) conclude that the net energy balance in ethanol is negative—we would be better off just burning the coal and oil, rather than processing the coal and oil through a cornfield.

Regardless of the current energy balance, corn ethanol production is getting more efficient. At some point (if we aren't already there), it may make energetic sense to turn corn into ethanol. But will corn ethanol then do much to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? No. We don't have enough land to grow the quantities of corn required.

In class, I ask the following homework question: how much land would it take to grow enough corn to fuel all the automobiles in the United States? The answer varies depending on underlying assumptions, but a rough ballpark figure is 20 times the area of Minnesota planted as corn. No lakes. No forests. No sprawling suburbs. Just corn.

My student's discover what the federal government already knows. In 1997 the General Accounting Office reported that "ethanol's potential for substituting for petroleum is so small that it is unlikely to significantly affect overall energy security." The recently passed federal energy bill calls for 8 billion gallons of ethanol production by 2012. Eight billion may sound like a lot, but Americans used over 134 billion gallons of gasoline last year, and gasoline demand is rising.

Why do we make ethanol from the sugar and starch in corn kernels? For one, having already induced farmers to grow a surplus of corn (via agricultural subsidies) the government pays to create a market for the excess corn. We taxpayers are charged twice: first to grow the corn, and then to convert it to ethanol (via additional subsidies). Then we taxpayers are mandated to buy the stuff. A law recently passed in Minnesota will require that gasoline sold in our state contain 20 percent ethanol.

Another reason why we make ethanol from the sugar and starch in corn kernels is because that is all current technology will allow. Although much of the energy in plants is stored as cellulose, no current production facility can use the cellulose to make ethanol. When (and if) commercially viable production of ethanol from cellulose becomes possible, the energetics of ethanol production may change dramatically. At that point, it will also stop making sense to use corn. Other plants (like switch grass) are far more desirable than corn as a source for cellulose-based ethanol.

When the age of cellulose-based ethanol arrives, and we stop growing corn and start growing grass, will the age of energy independence have arrived? Not unless we curb our growing demand for gasoline. Fields of grass, like cornfields, make lousy solar collectors. If we are to replace a significant amount of imported gas with cellulose ethanol, we need to start driving much more efficient cars.

A few weeks back, Minnesota's U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton visited our town to promote ethanol as a solution to our dependence on foreign oil. He was driving a Ford Explorer. I do not mean to denigrate those who drive SUVs and trucks out of necessity, but nothing about being a U.S. Senator requires an SUV.

Assuming that Senator Dayton's E85 Ford Explorer is a 2004, two wheel drive model, the EPA predicts 12 miles to the gallon in city driving and 16 on the highway. If we are going to truly get the most out of our ethanol, we need to change our attitude. Drive a truck when you need a truck, but drive a small car when a small car will do. We ask a lot from the plants that collect solar energy on our behalf. They feed us. If we want them to help feed our cars as well, we need to meet them half way.


Reading the Rocks

I just finished a great book titled Reading the Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud, a geologist at Lawrence University. The book provides an introduction into geology and all of the earthly processes that interact to allow life on the planet. In particular, interactions between the earth's interior, the mantle, crust, ocean circulations, atmosphere, and physical characteristics on land (mountains, basins, deltas etc....). She does an excellent job explaining a series of complex subjects and not overwhelming the reader with the reams of geological jargon. What geological terms she does use are handily printed in bold with a corresponding glossary in the back. All told, I highly reccomend the book to anyone who would like to understand the earth's history and how has influenced life today (and in the future).

One passage in particular stuck out to me. In a chapter where she describes what the rocks tell us about animal life and how it evolved in conjuction with changing environments related to physical processes, she ends with an insight into what makes humans unique, and a warning about ignoring our past. She says,

Human consciousness is arguably the first truly novel innovation to arise since Cambrian time, in the sense that the technologies our consciousness has spawned have freed us from the limits of our own body architecture. Perhaps even more important, consciousness has allowed us to transcend our single moment in geologic time and glimpse the great tapestry of Earth's history. But we are only beginning to understand the richness of Earth's history and the imprint it has left deep in our genes. For all of its potency, consciousness can become a pathological condition if it gives us delusions that we have somehow been exempted from the rules that have always governed the biosphere. The belief that we can engineer what evolution has done in 4 billion years- and expect the results to be predictable and controllable- is a sign of our youth and ignorance. Naive tinkering with such ancient systems is foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. (pg. 172)

Bjornerud raises an important point. Humans have existed for a blip on the geological radar. To ignore our planet's past, in particular the vast climate changes that were caused by a variety of factors, and to continue to act without a long term plan is incredibly irresponsible. Understanding earth's history reveals a great deal as to how we should behave now if we want to be a species that demonstrates any type of longevity. Thinking about these issues brings to mind an old Iriqouis saying,

In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.

Our decisions are typically based on scales of less than a decade. I think we should start heeding the wisdom of the Iriqouis. Reading this book might help gain some perspective.


The Diving Dog

I've been vacationing the last couple of weeks at my in-laws in northern Michigan. They live on Mullet Lake which is an amazing place to be when the weather is hot and you enjoy swimming. What I especially like is how the first couple of hundred feet of lake from the shore is only 2-3 feet deep. Perfect for wading, swimming, water sports etc.... I have a black lab named Augie who also loves the water. She can swim for hours, bouncing around and getting a lot of exercise. In the last week she has started to exhibit a behavior that I have never encountered in a dog before: she dives. Augie will feel along the lake bed with her back paws for large stones. When she finds a likely candidate she flips over and dives to search the bed with her mouth. All you can see is her tail occasionally break the surface. She's been down there for stretches as long as 15 seconds. It's absolutely hilarious and somewhat bizarre. If anyone has a story of a dog they know diving, please pass it on. I'd like to know if this is an isolated occurence or common behavior.



Republican Government - Your Thoughts?

I thought this was a pretty good quote from the Oregonian:

Other than telling us how to live, think, marry, pray, vote, invest, educate our children and, now, die, I think the Republicans have done a fine job of getting government out of our personal lives.

Bush on ID

President Bush has come out on record as saying he supports the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. Never mind that he is completely unqualified to really comment on the subject, but it also contradicts the statements of his own science advisor, John Marburger. What is the point of having a science advisor if you are going to ignore him? It also reverses previous statements his administration has made in the past regarding ID and public school curricula. Now, if they want to teach ID in a comparative religion course, fine, but it has no business in a science classroom. ID has not met any of the criteria to establish itself as a scientific idea. When is that going to sink in? Starting next year I'm going to be including evolution in my science curriculum, and I wonder if I'll get any grief out of it from parents or suggestions that I should include ID.

UPDATE: Science journalist Carl Zimmer has a good question for President Bush.

Mr. President, I would ask, how do you reconcile your statement that Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution with the fact that your administration, like both Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has supported research in evolution by our country's leading scientists, while failing to support a single study that is explicitly based on Intelligent Design? The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and even the Department of Energy have all decided that evolution is a cornerstone to advances in our understanding of diseases, the environment, and even biotechnology. They have found no such value in Intelligent Design. Are they wrong? Can you tell us why?