Category Archives: Science

Bite mark forensics bite the dust in Texas

Way back when, monsters like Ted Bundy were taken off the streets in part because of a relatively new scientific field called bite-mark forensics. The idea was that the arrangement of teeth in a suspect’s mouth would leave a signature bite mark. If that bite mark could be traced back to a suspect, then this was proof that the bite had to have come from his or her mouth.

The only downside to that concept was that it never had a single shred of scientific proof that it worked. Nothing at all.

The problem with bite mark analysis is that, while it is true that a mouth full of teeth will leave a distinct pattern on something flat and immobile, most things in this world are not quite so perfectly constructed for bite mark analysis. in the particularly ghoulish case of tooth marks in flesh, the flesh tends to bend and warp and flesh does. This renders what little reliability bite-mark forensics has moot.

So, this is another one of those cases where forensic science is getting gut-punched while case after case is overturned on the basis of evidence once presented to us as infallible.

Bite mark forensics is the study of how bite marks can be used to identify the dental “signature” of an individual. Such evidence has been used to convict Ted Bundy, among others.

Source: Texas bans the use of bite mark forensics in court cases – DragonFlyEye.Net

Is freshness really guaranteed, now?

Does the origin of your meat concern you? Since the outbreaks of 2003, the Country of Origin law has required meat packers to reveal where any meat you buy comes from. Now Congress has repealed the law, making determining the source of your red meat even harder to figure this out.

Congress has tried to prevent repealing the act, in part because of the World Trade Organization’s objections. The World Trade Organization had recently authorized Canada and Mexico to begin more than $1 billion in economic retaliation against the United States. Thankfully U.S exporters can now relax now that the law has been lifted and there will be no need for such a drastic retaliation.

In the United States, there’s really no need to worry about disease since there has only been 4 confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States since 1996. What about other countries that our meat might be coming from though?

The United Kingdom coming in first with 177 confirmed cases and France with 27 confirmed cases might not be as healthy as one would have previously thought. Technology advances in 2008 that allow us to test live cows for the disease instead of having to wait post-mortem will also help. This should prevent the spread of mad cow disease between cattle and limit the chances of it getting spread to humans.

For many, buying locally and supporting American industries are important values. Although only 8-20 percent of the total United States meat supplies comes from foreign sources, with the repeal of this law its going to be extremely difficult to know exactly which meat is foreign and which was born, raised or slaughtered here.

For other people, ensuring the freshness of the food they eat is important. Not because it could be coming from a different country but many meat manufacturers alter the meat to make it last longer than it typically would. For example, while many might look to color to determine how fresh a package of ground beef might be, this can be false due to the treatment that the meat undergoes.

Many manufacturers inject meat with carbon monoxide in order to give it a fresh pink color. This works because the carbon monoxide binds with a pigment in the meat so that it brings out the vibrant red colors. Unfortunately this false advertising can cause the meat to look edible and fresh but in reality it could be days, weeks or even years old and still have that same bright color to it.

So while your meat might be safe from disease, the idea of how fresh your meat is could be the main cause for consumers’ concern. It’s now up to the consumer to make sure that freshness is guaranteed and in order to do that you should ask the butcher at your grocery store but if that’s not enough for you, then buy from a local butcher who personally deals with the meat. With changes to your food happening daily, it becomes increasingly important to know not only the capabilities of the companies but what you could be feeding your family.

What is Planet 9? Our “new planet,” explained.

Social media was all aglow with the news yesterday that there may be a new planet in our Solar System, much further out than anyone expected. The new potential planet has been dubbed, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Planet 9.” But what exactly is this new “planet?” How have we missed it for so long? How could we know it exists now? What is Planet 9?

Here’s a little primer on the new discovery and the history of planet exploration. It’s just for the sake of granting a bit of clarity to what is sure to be generally awful reporting in mainstream circles.

What is Planet 9?

Well, for one thing, it’s not definitively a planet just yet. For now, Planet 9 is a bunch of clues that all seem – to the eyes of the researchers following it – to point in the direction of a previously-unknown planet. Scientists are extrapolating a possible conclusion from odd data they have collected. Which is definitely not the same thing as coming to a firm conclusion.

What data? And what’s so weird about it?

The study published yesterday concerns itself with objects in the Kuiper Belt, another asteroid belt like the one between Mars and Jupiter, positioned outside of the orbit of Pluto. Actually Pluto, recently demoted from planet to planetesimal, stands at the inner doorway to the Kuiper Belt.

What is Planet 9? An example of an elliptical orbit
An illustration of orbital eccentricity. Note that normal orbits are oblong, deviating from the perfect circle.

On the opposite edge of the Kuiper Belt, scientists have observed an irregularity about the way the asteroids move. You would expect that objects orbiting another object would move in oblong circular patterns like our Earth does. Such an orbit is called “elliptical” and the deviation an orbit has from a perfect circle is known as “orbital eccentricity.”

But the Kuiper Belt objects scientists are observing don’t quite behave that way. Thier orbits are much more eccentric at what’s known as the perihelion, which is where the object is closest to the sun. Many theories have been posited to explain this eccentricity, but so far a working model has not been agreed upon by scientists studying the phenomenon.

This study by two boffins of the American Astrological Society posits that the eccentricity could be accounted for by the gravity of another planet, interfering with the orbits of the asteroids and space debris.

So, we can’t see it. Have we ever discovered a planet this way?

What is Planet 9? Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier
Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier \

Yes! The planet Neptune was predicted by a man by the name of Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier after astronomers puzzled at the odd eccentricities of Uranus’ orbit. Noticing that Uranus did not quite move in the path predicted by Sir Isaac Newton – whose theory of gravity we still use today to calculate the movement of heavenly bodies – Leverrier reversed the math and determined that an object of exactly the mass of Neptune would exist just beyond Uranus. And he predicted the position of Neptune within one arc degree, which is very close, indeed.

On the other hand, the very same Leverrier also predicted the planet Vulcan would exist just inside the orbit of Mercury, because again astronomers found eccentricities they could not account for. Don’t bother looking up Vulcan in a Solar System atlas, because it doesn’t exist. It turned out that, close as Mercury is to the Sun, Newtonian physics actually do break down. It would take decades and an entirely new field of physics – Einstein’s Relativity – to explain that particular mystery.

It seems doubtful that an entirely new way of calculating gravity would be required to solve the mystery of the Kuiper Belt and the putative “Planet 9.” But strange things happen in space.

How could there be a new planet? After all our astronomical exploration?

Space is big. That may seem silly to say, but it’s a really, really hard thing to quantify for those who don’t deal with it every day.

Solar system planets, relative distance. Planet 9 would be double this.

The proposed planet is about nine times the size of Earth. For perspective, Jupiter is 12 times the size of Earth and Neptune is about five times larger than Earth. This proposed planet, if it exists, would be at least 50 astronomical units (AU) away from Earth. That’s 50 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. We didn’t know about Neptune until Leverrier, and this object is almost twice the distance from us.

Could we have missed an object that small and that far away? Absolutely. Even the Kuiper Belt itself was only just discovered in the 90’s, so there’s a lot left to understand.

How could there be another planet, way out there?

Our Solar System presents itself as a remarkably orderly affair: rocky inner worlds formed of rock and metal, followed by gas giants floating loftily in the outer solar system. But elsewhere in the galaxy, we have discovered some damned-strange stuff: “Hot Jupiters” orbiting closer to their parent stars than Mercury or planets that slingshot in wildly eccentric orbits. Most of these bizarre planets, it is thought, have had their orbits interrupted in some way, which either flings gas giants into the center of a system or else hurls a rocky world in a crazy orbit.

Even within the Solar System, there are oddities. Scientists believe Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos are actually gravitational “abductees,” having been snatched into Mars’ orbit when they passed too close to it. Uranus rolls on it’s axis like a barrel, instead of a top as most planets do; scientists believe that this is because Uranus was collided with and had its orbit altered. Our own moon Luna is made of the same stuff as Earth because it is the result of a massive collision between Earth and some other protoplanet in Earth’s ancient history.

So while Planet 9 is by no means the only answer to the question of the Kuiper Belt’s odd orbital mystery, it is far from being an impossibility. But until we get a telescope trained in that direction – exactly in that direction – we won’t know for sure. Even then, there won’t be a lot of light from the far-distant sun, so spotting it will be tricky.

Whether Planet 9 turns out to be a new planet, a crazy loophole in Newtonian physics or some other unexpected wonder, our understanding of gravitational physics and our Solar System will be greatly enhanced. We will know something about our universe that no previous human generation has ever known. But as wonderful as that sounds,.. I think we’re all hoping for a new planet. Right?

Our tepid Yuletide, by the numbers.

It’s easy, whenever there’s a seemingly radically different year or month’s worth of weather to start talking Climate Change. The truth is: climate and weather are very different things.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson had an interesting illustration of this in his Nova series. The whole episode is below for you to enjoy. But climate is like a man walking a dog, which is weather. The dog can bound from one side of it’s master to the other, sniffing back and forth, or higher and lower for the purposes of our discussion. But the master defines the range in which the dog can move.

Similarly, we can experience great shifts of temperature, year over year, without them affecting the overall climate. Even more importantly from the perspective of planet-wide climate: one region’s weather does not a climate make.

Still, this past December was extraordinary. It’s one thing to have a “Brown Christmas,” of which every Rochesterian is acquainted. It is quite another to experience 70 degree temps for Christmas!

So, here’s a quick summary of the muddy Christmas of 2015, so you can really tell your grandkids. Someday..

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DNA in Doubt: our increasingly-complicated relationship with the stuff of life

It used to be so uncomplicated. DNA is the stuff that makes you who you are. It’s what makes you look the way you do, makes you susceptible or resistant to certain types of illnesses, even sets your biological clock. DNA is the stuff of life.

Except when it’s not. As science probes the depths of the genomes of all forms of life on Earth, we are confronted with an increasingly-convoluted relationship between DNA and it’s expression – nature and nurture, in other words – that in turn makes our previous use of DNA increasingly dubious.

Sammy Malone: DNA forensic expert
Y’know, Sammy Malone: crime fighter.

It isn’t all bad news: our more sophisticated understanding of genetic information means we’re getting close to finding cures for disease, genetically-tailored health care and amazing discoveries in the worlds of biology and anthropology. But our colloquial understanding the nature of DNA has not caught up to the scientific understanding. The result of this gap can often be abusive at best and flat out destructive at it’s worst.

Nowhere is that fact more certain than in the world of forensics. As DFE discussed last year, local law enforcement has seen the same forceful push-back on DNA evidence presented in criminal cases that has swept the nation in the last few years. The assumption most of the public has in the infallibility of DNA to finger guilty parties is entirely wrong. And whether intentionally or not, many cases have been tried and many people convicted on evidence that is nowhere near near as declarative as prosecutors would have you believe.

A new grant to Syracuse University is aimed at finding a solution to a fundamental problem in forensic DNA evidence-gathering: mixed DNA samples. Regardless of what type of tissue law enforcement is sampling from – blood, semen, hair, skin – it’s still just a pile goo at a crime scene. That pile of goo is a bit of a hothouse flower: organic chemicals don’t last long outside the body. And biological evidence can easily get mixed up with other that of individuals not even involved in the crime. Taken together, you can see that this is a bit of a dumpster dive.

So clearly, the biggest challenge in DNA forensics is getting a clean, uncontaminated and complete sample of DNA. How challenging? Basically, the odds of meeting all three criteria are just a few degrees north of ever french kissing a unicorn. Pretty low.

The SU plan is to light up cells with dyes and black light in a way that lets them tell whether the two cells contain the same DNA. The next step would be to extract them by DNA signatures: all of Specimen X, followed by Specimen Y and so on. That’s where SU’s brain power is supposed to hopefully kick in.

And even as the scientific community grapples with the problem of commingling DNA and incomplete samples, a novel and highly-dubious use of DNA evidence is being tested in law enforcement, winkingly called “Familial DNA.” This concept means that, even if you’ve never been DNA tested for any reason, your DNA may get linked to a crime, simply because there is DNA in a database from a cousin or other relative.

What? That’s right. If a DNA sample taken at a crime scene is similar enough to a relation of yours, police may use this fact to posit that the DNA must be yours. In a Six Degrees of Separation type of scheme, you are implicated to be involved in the crime simply because you have similar DNA to what was found on scene.

This deeply-troubling practice runs directly afoul of the Birthday Paradox, a statistical quirk that radically and unexpectedly reduces the odds that a match will be found in a group, rather than individually. For a much more elegant explaination than I might summon forth, read Southern Fried Science. This statistical fact makes DNA databases generally misleading in the first place, but once you expand the search to include people who aren’t even in the database, the potential results are genuinely disturbing.

In the world of anthropology (the science, not the store), our deepening understanding of mitochondrial DNA is completely redefining our understanding of human migration. Perhaps not for the better, depending on your favourite theory.

At issue is the long-held belief that those who would become Native Americans traveled across the Land Bridge and very quickly populated the whole of the Pacific shore. This fairly linear theory of American anthropology has brought multiple theories and timelines into clash for decades. Are the Clovis points really the most ancient relics? No. But are the Clovis people still the oldest people in the Americas? Well, maybe…

What the newest mitochondrial DNA evidence, taken from the bones of a mother and child discovered near the Bering Sea, suggest that perhaps part of the problem with identifying the path of Native Americans is that there simply isn’t just one path.

Instead, the mitochondrial evidence points to a highly-diverse group of Asian immigrants coming across the famed land bridge. Rather than a single set of tribes or related individuals crossing the great divide, it may have been hundreds. This new evidence suggests that the reason archeological evidence of human inhabitation seems so scattered is because human habitation was in fact very scattered.

If there is a lesson in the week’s DNA news stories, it is that science is a double edged sword for those that would hold onto it’s truths too tightly. However reliable a scientific fact has seemed in the past, there is always new research that casts doubt upon it.

The weight of our obesity could sink the Freddy-Sue bridge

On Monday morning of this week, Excelus sent out a press release detailing the new numbers revealed in a report on obesity in New York. The numbers are unflattering to say the least. They show that just over 34% of Finger Lakes residents are overweight, and that a whopping 26.4% of us are actually obese. We’re not the worst offenders in this category – that distinction is saved for the Utica/Rome/North Country region, the tubby little fuckers.

But this report got me thinking about the problem of obesity as an ecological problem. Because fat is stored energy. And ultimately, it is energy that drives life forward.

Energy is doused upon the Earth by the sun in the form of sunlight. Only a tiny fraction of that energy – less than 1% – actually gets photosynthesized by plants into biologically-useful energy. Of the fractions of that energy that are trapped, for a short time it gets used by life for life’s own devices. Eventually, all energy escapes the Earth in the form of heat energy. But obesity represents a kind of energy blockage – it’s not being used, it’s not escaping the Earth. It’s just sitting there in lumps of flesh here, while elsewhere in the world, there is not enough to go around.

Just how much extra weight is trapped in the Finger Lakes region, then? Let’s break down the numbers, a bit.

The Pudgetown Beacon

Within the region marked as the Finger Lakes region, we have six counties: Monroe, Wayne, Livingston, Ontario, Yates and Seneca. All tolled, we have a population of around 1 million people and change. If 26.4% of us are obese, that means about 280k people are obese.

Now, obesity is a question of Body Mass Index, which is a comparison of your height and weight. Whether or not you are “big boned,” or particularly muscular, above a certain threshold, the only explanation for your enormous weight is your enormous ass. It’s just that simple.

With that in mind, the highest weight that is considered “normal,” healthy weight is 144lbs for a woman, 174 for a man. This is based on average heights for each sex. The lowest weight that the NIH considers “obese” would be 175 for women, 209 for men. In other words, the difference between the highest healthy weight and the lowest obese weight is about 31lbs for women and 34 pounds for men.

Put all that together, and you realize that the minimum amount of extra fat present in the Finger Lakes region is about 9.25 million pounds, or 4610 tons. That’s not the total weight of all Finger Lakes residents. It’s just the extra fat, and only a minimum measurement. You can bet the real number is much higher.

For comparison’s sake, the Freddie-Sue Bridge was constructed of about 5,200 tons of steel. At minimum, our pudgy asses (because I absolutely do qualify as obese by the NIH standard) could sink the Freddie-Sue into the Genesee.

Of sex, food and worms: good science, badly reported

It is true: there is a newly-discovered set of neurons found in a type of worm that, when activated, causes the male of the species to forego food in search of sex. That this set of neurons was just discovered actually does matter to the lives of humans. Or at least, it could. But not because it confirms the cliche of men starving for sex:

Researchers may have figured out why men can prioritize sex over food. Well, some men.

It’s a matter of two “mystery” neurons, suggest researchers at University College London.

They found that these extra neurons — which are unique to males — allow them to remember and seek sex even at the expense of food and are also behind some sex-based differences in learning.

So, what happened?

C. elegans is a species of worm about which we know a surprising amount. In biology research, there are some species of plants and animals that, for one reason or another, get more attention than others. Elodia and Drosophila (fruit flies) are very common study species.

C. elegans is popular because it is a simple organism that happens to share a lot of common traits with more advanced forms of life like humans. By studying C. elegans, we can often make intelligent extrapolations about how things work in other species.

In particular, C. elegans has the distinction of being the only species of life for which we have a complete neuronal map. Every neuron, every synapse (connections between neurons), every feature of the neural network of the C. elegans has been long-since mapped and analyzed… at least, so we thought.

Two researchers at the University College of London, wife and husband team Dr. Arantza Barrios and Dr. Richard Poole, research the sexual dimorphism of C. elegans. Sexual dimorphism means that different sexes have different traits (think boobs. I know I do).

In the past, the dimorphism of C. elegans has always been studied in a different portion of the worm, where differences are more obvious: the tail. These researchers discovered one set of sexually-dimorphous neurons in the head of the animals, which they named the Mystery Neurons of the Male (MNM).

What they do turns out not to be much of a mystery at all: they learn to recognize the opposite sex as a priority stimulus. Don’t we all? When the opposite sex is near – which turn out to be hermophrodites, in the C. elegens’ case – the worm with active MNM will ignore other homeostatic functions – like eating – in favour of pursuing sexual reproduction.

So. There you have it: males of the C. elegens species will forego eating in favour of sex. Or at least, they will favour sexual reproduction over other things. Not quite the whiz-bang you were hoping for? Of course not, because non-science – and even some science – news sources want to focus on sex, sex, sex. Yet the reality of what the boffins in London discovered is way more important and honestly cooler.

Why it matters

Worms getting it on don’t seem terribly relevant to humans. And indeed, they are not. What really matters is, again, the fact that simple organisms like the C. elegens can give us clues to our own biology. In this case, science has been looking for the keys to understanding sexual dimorphism in human cognition. We know that some decision making in humans is consistently different from one sex to the other. While much of the scientific community has been certain that such a difference also existed in the brain’s wiring, science has thus far not been able to pin that difference down.

That a simple creature so far removed from us in the evolutionary tree should have such a simple device for continuing the species may indicate that a similar development across species. Or, it may not. It’s just way too early to tell.

The other, perhaps even more significant, discovery that this new development represents is the appearance of glial cells in such a simple organism. Here in Rochester, we know all about glial cells, because that’s what our neuroscientists specialize in.

Glial cells are, effectively, stem cells for the brain. They are part of the glimphatic system, and their job is to grow more neuronal  cells when old ones wear out or are damaged. Remember Nancy Reagan in the 80’s? Insisting that you could not grow brain cells back, so don’t do drugs? Well, the old bat was wrong. Do drugs: your glial cells will make more neurons, no sweat.

It’s is significant that glia create entirely new neuronal cells at different age stages, at least in the case of C. elegans. Rather than simply creating the same type of cell over and over again, it seems like glia (individual glial cells) can alter their behavior throughout the lifetime of an individual. It means glia are a lot more flexible than we knew, which may point the way towards therapies for neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

So, maybe not the sexy news you were hoping for. If you’d been planning on filling out your 6pm news cast or your morning radio talk show? Sorry. But understanding the fundaments of human cognition and finding cures for wasting brain disease seems kind of important. But these messages got lost, because pee-pees and hoo-hahs. Maybe, if the media industry at large could stop giggling and take this more seriously, we could appreciate this amazing discovery for what it is.

But for now, dear reader, it’s just you and us.

Charles Tan: did the prosecution just phone this one in?

On September 29th, the closing arguments in the Charles Tan murder trial took the whole process from strange to bizarre. After the Tan defense team decided – for the first time in the trial – to directly finger Charles’ mom as the culprit, the prosecution just seems to have gone off the rails. Rare as it is to see gunplay in a Rochester courthouse, it’s even less likely to see a prosecutor waving one around in people’s faces.

Honestly: it really seems from outside the courtroom that the prosecutor just didn’t see this sudden defensive play coming.

If he didn’t see it coming, certainly most of the rest of us did not. In fact, looking back, it’s sort of strange just how quickly the narrative of Charlie Tan, Amazing Young Victim, developed after the initial reports. Almost as soon as we heard Charles Tan’s name, the narrative already seemed set in stone. He is a victim of domestic violence – no one disputes that even now – and an otherwise upstanding citizen and student. Charlie, we heard from almost every quarter, was nowhere near this evil.

And I think most of us, lulled into this bedtime story of Charlie the Innocent, expected the trial to be quick and easy. Whether you thought he was going in the tank or not, everyone seems to have been assuming that this was going to be straight forward. It turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Did the prosecution get lulled as well? It feels like they were. Not solely because of the drama of yesterday’s closing statements.

More so, it seems like a high-profile case like this wouldn’t even make it into court without much more evidence. We have all been treated to the gory details of the crime scene – a body sitting dead for at least a few days, a dog having eaten the carcass. But gory details don’t prove who did it, and on this level, the law seems to have stopped well short of doing due diligence.

Because the question of whether Jean or Charles Tan committed the crime really feels like it should have been the first thing they checked out. Yes, there was a confession. No, neither Charles nor Jean seem to have been willing to cooperate with any other leads. But if this had been some brother on Child St, you can bet the cops would have grilled him within an inch of his life if they’d thought he wasn’t being straight.

Are rich people from Pittsford simply too beyond the pale to grill? Did everybody just assume Charles was telling the truth? If he was, why was there a days-old body when cops arrived? How is a days-old dead body not cause for some intense examination, regardless of what anyone says on the scene?

Maybe no one is all that interested in justice for the victim in this case. I can hardly blame anyone for feeling that way. But a crime was committed. Even if I can appreciate the well-founded contempt for Jim Tan and can hope for the best for a victim of domestic violence, our society, not Jim Tan, deserves a conviction in this case. And we don’t even know whom to convict.

More on Charles Tan

Spin Class: A Cautionary Tale

Statistics say that spin class burns between 500-700 calories per class. Statistics say that spin class is designed to bring about your ultimate cardio workout, and that spin class is designed for people on all levels, beginners to advanced. Though they say it, doesn’t make it true.

I’m 25, I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs of any sort. I am active and I have always held a healthy weight. In high school I was involved in sports and various other active hobbies, however lately I have found myself bored with the usual workouts.

A friend of mine at work suggested spin class as an idea, saying that it was becoming extremely popular and was extremely effective.

I figured it couldn’t hurt, and it should keep me on track because now I had a class to physically go to with people that were counting on me to be there.

My first class was quite interesting, there was no introduction at all, it was get on the bike and go! Luckily I had my friend to help point out that I was new to the class I didn’t so much as know how to properly adjust my bike. While adjusting my bike the instructor confidently states that I am clearly an athlete. Having not so much as run a mile since high school, this instructor was clearly not the best judge of character.

During the spin class, you were told when to increase the resistance, and when to peddle faster or slower. If it is noticed by the instructor that you have not increased your resistance, it would be yelled from across the room for you to do so. Peer pressure to encourage you to do something you might not be able to do.

Exercise, yes. But this?

After what seemed to be the longest 60 minutes of my life, I shakily got off my bike almost falling and wobbled over to my belongings. As I was heading out the door I was asked to sign a waiver for the class: probably something that should have been done before participating.

Nothing in the waiver mentioned anything about harmful effects that this class could cause, only things about if you have previous medical conditions that you would be participating at your own risk. Did I have any previous medical conditions? Of course not! So I signed the waiver and went on my way.

I needed help climbing the stairs from my friend to reach the parking lot, as my legs literally felt like jello and were completely uncontrollable.

The next day I woke up in an extraordinary amount of pain, but I thought, “No pain, no gain right?” Everyone is always sore after a workout. But I could literally not even walk, sit, or move my legs at all without being brought to tears.

After two days of this extreme pain which seemed to only get worse by the day I decided to go to my doctors for pain killers so that at the very least I could work.

The doctor took me right in and after I explained the situation asked for a urine sample, a step I thought was irrelevant but okay!

It was relevant. My urine was black! Without even testing it first my doctor immediately sent me to the emergency room.

After three IV’s, antibiotics, and six days spent in the hospital I was diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases a damaging protein into the blood. The most common causes of “rhabdo” is use of alcohol or illegal drugs, or extreme muscle strain. Since we’ve already covered the fact that I don’t drink or do drugs, my doctors pointed at spin class as the culprit.

Recovering from a healthy lifestyle…

My six day nightmare consisted of more fluids than any bladder should ever be allowed to handle, three IV’s,antibiotics, two kidney specialists, and my doctors telling me that they have not seen numbers this high in the history of the hospital.

Luckily, my kidneys were not damaged due to this condition. Both kidney specialists, my doctor as well as consulting doctors from another hospital were flabbergasted that my kidneys weren’t damaged due to the amount of toxic proteins in my blood. Thus this landed me the gimmick of hospital anomaly.

My CK protein levels, the dreaded toxic protein, peaked at 400,000. Let me give you another statistic, CK protein levels range from 30-135 for women, 55-170 for men, and 68-580 for newborns.

At 400,000 they wanted to send me to the ICU. Luckily this didn’t happen due to the fact that my organs were all working fine.

Fast forward, six days later I was released from the hospital and my CK protein level was at 22,000. I had the order to see a neuromuscular specialist, and have blood taken once a week for the foreseeable future.

Spin Class Rhabdomyolysis? Only Your Lawyer Knows for Sure:

I got home, slept for a day and emailed my spin class instructor, harboring no ill will but instead just wondering if I could have a refund for the class as my doctors obviously said I could no longer continue.

I received a letter from the owner of the spin class that noticeably did contain a check with a full refund. The letter itself was a snarky rebuttal, saying that their attorney did not believe that rhabdomyolysis could be caused by spin class. That in fact, they both had never even heard of such a thing.

I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that an attorney was an M.D.! My mistake. I found this letter appalling as I never mentioned sueing or anything like that, I just wanted my money back. I did however mention the fact that as my doctor pointed out this condition is becoming more common and can even happen to professional athletes, so maybe it could be mentioned in the waiver that needs to be signed your first day of class.

Almost a month later, my levels have returned to normal however I still need to see a neuromuscular specialist to determine if there is any muscle damage.

I am writing this to warn you about the dangers affiliated with spin class. It is not for everyone and at least for the class I took, beginners and advanced riders are not given different lessons. Rhabdomyolysis is real, it is painful and it can even in rare cases lead to death if not treated by a hospital stay.

Exercise is good, staying active is good but I am here to tell you that pain is NOT gain! Pain is pain.

Midol as a hangover cure? Save your money.

While listening to a popular local radio show this morning, it came up in discussion that Midol was a hangover cure to end all hangover cures. Midol, the over-the-counter medicine for women’s menstrual cramps, has suddenly become an Internet phenomenon as the wonder-cure for hangovers. But does it actually work? You could argue “a little of Column A and a little of Column B,” but really, the whole Midol hangover thing is just crap.

Let me explain.

What’s in a Midol Pill?

Ya gotta start at the beginning. Before we can know whether or not Midol is an effective anything, we first need to understand what it’s made of. This is pretty straight forward. Midol is a combination of acetaminophen, caffeine and something called pyrilamine maleate.

Acetaminophen is commonly known as Tylenol – ed note: thanks for the correct, Tom from the comments! – . It’s uses are pretty straight forward as well. As is it’s history as a hangover “cure.” So, we won’t bother going into too much detail on this one.

Caffeine is the active ingredient in the miracle drug I like to call coffee. It’s affects are very well known – and cherished – as well. No point in getting too deep on that one.

Pyrilamine maleate is a bit of cypher, in that a quick search of the Internet reveals only articles about Midol when you search for this particular mystery ingredient. Midol seems to be it’s one use, but it is an antihistamine, a diuretic and arguably another form of pain suppressant.

In short, Midol is basically two aspirin and a cup of coffee. If that sounds more or less exactly the same as your normal ritual the morning after a bender, that’s because it is. No mystery cure, no miracles. The Midol hangover thing is just Internet bullshit.

The Midol Hangover Cure: From Bad to Worse

Man in the throws of the Midol hangover cure.
Wait, dude. It’s about to get a lot worse.

If the application of Midol isn’t a cure, that’s not to say it won’t have an affect. No, indeed. Because both caffeine and pyrilamine maleate will dehydrate your system. Caffeine is also what is known as a vasodilator, meaning it constricts blood vessels. Very little is understood about the complex phenomena associated with the dreaded “hangover.” But unquestionably, hangovers are always associated with dehydration.

It is the dehydration that causes things like nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, dizziness, confusion and heart palpitations. So, if you’re looking for a cure for a hangover that might actually make all of those things way worse, I say “go for it.”

Otherwise, an actual cup of coffee and a few aspirin work just as well and won’t lead to new or worsening symptoms. You can sip your coffee nice and slow, rather than be at the mercy of a large dose of caffeine in pill form. Since dehydration is such a key component to a hangover, you’ll probably want to get a good drink of water before you go to sleep, too. That is: if you’re not too drunk to make it to a sink or operate a cup safely.

Ultimately, I think this “Midol hangover cure” is just another symptom of a kind of sideways Internet sexism / male insecurity: a medicine normally associated with the most womanly of womanly functions – verboten for male consumption as a clear violation of Dude Rules – becomes the everyday cure for the most masculine thing most frat boys can think of: rampant alcoholism and binge drinking.

Onondaga County EEE infection: so… what the hell is EEE, anyway?

Channel 10 reports this AM that a rare case of the EEE virus has been reported in Onondaga County and the patient is in critical condition… but then never really goes on to explain what EEE is, exactly. Not even so much as to explain what the acronym means. Sigh.

According to the CDC, eastern equine encephalitis virus – acronymically EEE or EEEV – is an arbovirus, or a virus most commonly borne by arthopods like the mosquito. Other, non-related viruses include malaria, West Nile and some types of swine flu. Triple-E as it is occasionally known, is believed to be carried over long distances by birds, but the equal opportunity parasite mosquito is the vector for transferring the virus from birds to humans. Humans cannot give other people the virus.

The troubling word in the Triple-E acronym is “encephalitis,” which means the swelling of the brain. But really, most people who get Triple-E never show signs of symptoms. Again from the CDC:

Most persons infected with EEEV have no apparent illness. Severe cases of EEE (involving encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain) begin with the sudden onset of headache, high fever, chills, and vomiting. The illness may then progress into disorientation, seizures, or coma. EEE is one of the most severe mosquito-transmitted diseases in the United States with approximately 33% mortality and significant brain damage in most survivors.

So, that 33% mortality rate is worth getting chills over. But really, the disease is actually quite rare, even in developing nations. Here in the United States, there are a scant 8 cases a year, on average.

If you really must take precautions against the Triple-E, your best bet is to follow the same basic rules you’ve always followed to avoid mosquito bites. Namely, wear long sleeves when in doubt and apply a good mosquito protection before going outside.

Too Much Time on Our Hands: 5 reasons we may wait forever to discover aliens

The popular story we tell ourselves whenever the subject of alien life comes up is that the universe is nearly infinite, so how could there not be more life in it than just us? Surely, we think, that life exists on Earth proves that it can exist at all, and it’s just a case of finding that right combination of factors that give rise to another form of life.

There’s nothing really wrong with this theory, in a bubble. Our galaxy alone has an approximate 100 billion stars. The universe is estimated to have about 100 billion galaxies. That’s as close to infinite as humans have the capacity to behold, so given the sheer repetition of star making, planet making and life making, we cannot be the only case of life evolving into intelligence.

But time plays a crucial role in deciding these things, and whether or not we ever actually encounter intelligent life at all. Yet we almost never factor time into our popular mythology. Here are five good reasons to suspect that we may never find life in the universe, at all. Sorry.

5. Time, Itself.

Most of us are only thinking in three dimensions when we talk about life in the universe. But time is the critical forth dimension. Yes, the universe is really big. But the universe is also extremely old, and according to our best understanding, due to stay cohesive for billions more years. With this in mind, we’re confronted with the possibility that even if life can exist elsewhere in the universe, it may already have been and gone by now. Or that life may still be “coming soon” to a planet near us. For the moment, it’s out of our reach. Speaking of which…

4. Extinction

Life has only existed on our own Earth for about 3.5 billion years. And in that time, 99.9% of the species that have ever lived here have gone extinct. No more stromatolites, eurypterids, diplodocus. No more sabre tooth tigers. Our time is coming, as well. Will we have extinguished ourselves before we get a chance to find what we’re looking for? Maybe.

How long does it take an intelligent species to become extinct? Here, again, we simply don’t know the answer. If we allow that our species will exist for another 100 million years – a very generous assumption – that is merely a blink of an eye to our vast universe. Which lends itself to another question..

3. Limits on Evolutionary Intelligence

One constant refrain in exobiology is that we may encounter species of vasty more evolved intellect. This is a humble thought, as indeed centuries of space exploration have taught us that our world is rarely the extreme. We are neither the biggest nor the smallest planet in the Solar System. Our Solar System is but one of a sea of star systems. The smallest-known galaxy contains only a few thousand stars, while the IC 1101 mega-galaxy could fit thousands of Milky Way galaxies within it’s expanse without burping.

It makes sense to leave open the possibility that we might not be the smartest, either. But just how smart does life get? We now know a limit must exist for intelligence just as surely as it does for everything else. What are the brackets for most and least-intelligent forms of life? One more answer we do not have.

The idea that we might find life that is vastly more evolved than us may actually be hubristic, from the perspective of intelligent life. How do we know we’re not depressingly close to our own maximum? Or that of intelligent life, itself? What if we really are the very tippy-top of what intelligence can achieve in this universe? We’ve not yet discovered extraterrestrial life. Perhaps all forms of intelligence are doomed to live in isolation?

2. Planetary Orbit Degradation

The vaunted “Goldilocks Zone.” It is the distance a planet must orbit from it’s parent star in order for liquid water to exist. To the best of our knowledge, life requires liquid water, therefore planets that exist within this zone are the ones most likely to harbor life. We’ve even discovered a few candidates.

However, orbits are not fixed things. An orbit is simply the delicate balance of an object falling towards a gravitational field, missing, and sling-shotting around it. Those delicate balances, like all things in the universe, degrade over time.

What this means is that planets can either drift away from or closer to their parent stars. The Earth is getting ever so slightly closer to the Sun every year. Don’t worry: the Earth will not be in any danger for billions of years, by which time, the Sun will have become a white dwarf and we’ll all be cinders in the solar wind anyway. Buck up, explorers!

But it is entirely possible to have a planet that exists within the Goldilocks Zone long enough to get life started, but either drift away from or get pulled into it’s parent star’s gravity well and right out of the Zone altogether. Whatever are the limits on intelligence in the universe may be, this hypothetical form of life will never see them.

1. So many star systems, so very little time.

If this list proves nothing else, it certainly makes clear that time may not be on our side, in this search for extraterrestrial life. And while the fantasy of a near-infinite universe may give hope to those of us hungry to learn about extraterrestrial life, it’s not very comforting to the men and women tasked to find it. Because an infinite number of options means that even if the chances of finding extraterrestrial life are pretty good, the odds are still enormous.

In other words, it’s a bit like hurling someone’s keys into Lake Ontario and then telling them, “well, they gotta be in there, somewhere.” I Want to Believe, indeed.

Truthfully, exploring galaxies other than our own is not practical. We can barely observe stars and planets in our own galaxy with any specificity. We’re only just now able to view Pluto, a planet in our own galaxy. We are able to observe distant star systems and their planets based on tricks of physics and statistics, but we have no idea what they look like, much less what they’re composed of. Much less what may live on them.

Dude. Why ya gotta harsh my buzz?

None of the challenges to finding extraterrestrial life are unknown to science, obviously. They’re not new revelations or road blocks. But colloquially, at least, we don’t discuss them. This is because we all – and especially media outlets – enjoy a bias in favour of speculative science.

Because we all want to believe the next big thing is out there. And it is. But finding that next thing is a non-trivial exercise that’s a lot less sexy. In order for Science to advance, you need the theorist to push our ideas forward. But you also need the practical scientist to spend his or her days grinding away at experiments to prove that the theorist’s ideas match with reality’s sometimes stark truths. And personally, I find that struggle fascinating.