Posts Tagged ‘blog’

Opening ceremony of the AAAS 2012 conference

// February 19th, 2012 // Comments Off on Opening ceremony of the AAAS 2012 conference // Science Communication

AAAS opening 2012

Scale: Earth globe = size of my hotel room

The Vancouver Conference Center sure is an imposing place. High ceilings and wall-length windows gazing to cloudy mountains and cold waters. Up above, strung in wooden beams, are three golden eggs.

It’s a fitting spot for the first annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, pronounced not aaaass, but triple ay ess) to occur outside of the US. A huge number of people are in attendance, filling the seats and lining the corridors.

Jet lag still nibbles at the ragged edges of my mind, not quite satiated by coffee though I’ve certainly drunk my limit. I’ve been here since Saturday, and been busy with work and museums and squirrels – SQUIRRELS! – and identifying coins and notes (the five and ten are, in size and colour, opposite to in Australia.)

The program is as multidisciplinary as it is multinational. From culture to computing, from food to forest fires.

After a welcome from Chief Jacob – who sang a song with his niece, accompanied by drums, and it was totally awesome – the AAAS president Nina Fedoroff spoke for around 40 minutes on her life.

Vancouver conference of AAAS 2012

Giant golden eggs outside the ballroom

She had her first child when she was 17, then went back to school and her partner left her. Single, working mother she made her way through uni, and had another child and a husband a few years later. Then she started working in labs – and back then it was HARD for women in science. Hell, I think it still is.

Guess my age is showing, but I find it strange to think that obvious, even blatant discrimination was happening just a few decades ago. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad in Aus? (Anyone?) Despite that, she did a hell of a good job studying plant genetics, became an expert in the field and was awarded a prize for science in the White House.

It’s nice to hear stories like that – real stories, you know? Bumpy, unexpected journeys that grip success by not only skill, but determination. I’m sure many other stories like hers are out there, and people could really benefit from hearing them.

After that, there was food and drinks in the foyer, but I dashed out to the reporters gala (a GALA, oh my), and missed the lighting of the Olympic torch.

Well, that was day one, and I’ll leave it there for now.

Nubia, irrigation and parasitic worms, a tale told by a Mummy

// June 8th, 2011 // Comments Off on Nubia, irrigation and parasitic worms, a tale told by a Mummy // Recent Research

A few months ago I wrote about Ancient Nubians and their antibiotic beer, delivering a dose of tetracycline in every brew.

Now bioarcheologist George Armelagos has co-authored a study showing that early irrigation channels changed how humans were affected by parasites.

I’ll describe the research at the end, but first – a story! Make yourself a cup of tea and come back to read it.

Nubia, 500AD

Cotton. Image by Martin LaBar

Since he’d taken his first wobbly steps on Nubian soil, Alara had been pulling his then insubstantial weight on the family farm. He’d pull up weeds with grubby fingers under the watchful eye of his older cousins by day. Lunch was often a paltry loaf of flat bread to share between the lot of them, supplemented with whatever local edible plant was in season, eaten hastily and followed by a brief break in which he built dirt pyramids with other children.

Now 30, Alara remembered his childhood as carefree and unplanned. His memories swam together like waves billowed out from boats on the Nile. Only small moments stood out with any clarity. A snarling dog snapping at his leg. The taste of bread warmed by the sun, seasoned with hunger. Buzzing with disbelief at the stories told by his cousins of things adult and forbidden.

A life in the sun had baked him hard and capable, and he still worked on the same farm he had as a toddler. His extended family shared the plot of land, shared the work, shared the harvest, shared the income. Shared the good years and the bad. He was a cotton farmer through and through, born and raised to the plough.

A friendly slap on the should shook Alara out of his reverie. “Wake up, brother, you are asleep on your feet! It’s time for lunch and then I need to walk to the river and check the channels. The water is not flowing as it should. Will you go with me?”

“Lunch already, Arty? I didn’t notice the sun was so high. Of course I’ll come with you.”

The midday meal of onion and lentils served with flat bread for eating with was waiting hot on the table. They ate quickly and had a weak cup of tea before walking to the Nile.

They could hear the river well before they could see it. The sound of saqiya irrigation was like music that infiltrated the whole valley, though they were so used to it they barely heard it. As they approached their saqiya, they called out a greeting to Nala who was driving the cow.

“Nala! We have brought food for you.”

“Thank you uncle,” she called back. “I’ll come down to eat.”

Al-Jazari's Water-raising-device ca 1205AD

The saqiya was the heart of the farm, pumping the water of life from the river to the fields where it was needed. Made of wood, it consisted of cogs and a large open-spoked wheel. The cow, encouraged by young Nala, moved a wooden arm around, turning the wheels and cogs to move a pulley.

That pulley was studded with jars which dipped down into the water and lifted up to the farm’s main channel. Each jar then deposited its precious load which ran to the farm and branched out into smaller channels, delivering water for the cotton.

Alara inspected the cow and saqiya while Nala ate lunch. Despite a slightly thirsty cow, everything seemed to be working fine. The problem must lie in one of the channels.

Walking along the main channel, he stopped now and then to check the water level. Sometimes silt and aquatic plants collected at the bottom, blocking the flow of water. When he and Arty came to the first branch in the channel, they separated to cover more ground. Following his channel through several other branches, Alara found one that was a problem.

The side of the channel must have collapsed recently. Mud clogged the small stream, causing water to dam up behind it and overflow. Alara reached in and started to pull up clumps of the stuff. The water became turbulent and muddy, and he noticed more than a few of the fresh-water snails that liked to live in the slowly flowing channels. As he cleared it, the water began to run clean again and move into the farm. He spent the rest of the afternoon checking other channels, clearing several that were silting badly.

Though he didn’t know it, those snails were responsible for the troubling, itchy spots many adults had on their arms and feet. Well, it wasn’t the snails exactly, it was the tiny worms inside them.

Several species of trematode of the genus Schistosoma could infect humans. These tiny parasitic worms hatched in water and quickly found snails to infect, burrowing into their large feet. They moved through the life stages of miracidia and sporocyst inside that host, emerging as free swimming cercariae which needed a mammal host to continue to the next stages.

In contact with humans, or for some species other animals, they penetrated the skin and lost their tails, moving through the circulation as schistosomulae. In the liver they would mature into adults, pair, and migrate so the eggs they produced would be shed in stool. Those eggs would make their way to water to repeat the cycle.

Two weeks later, Alara woke in the night with a pain in his stomach which sent him running to the toilet area. By morning he was exhausted and feverish. Though the disease didn’t kill him, researchers would later find evidence of the parasitic worms in his mumified remains.

The research

Schistosomiasis, the chronic disease caused by these worms, is thought “the most important water-based disease from a global public-health perspective” in modern populations. It infects an estimated 200 million people per year. It has a low mortality rate, but causes development problems in children and damages internal organs.

Modern irrigation systems, particularly slow moving ones, boost the disease by providing habitats to the snails. But what about ancient populations?

To find out, Armelagos, Hibbs, Secor and Van Gerven studied dessicated remains (aka mummies) from two Nubian populations. Wadi Halfa (N = 46) lived in 500AD when the Nile was lower, and used saqiya irrigation on their crops. Kulubnarti (N = 191) lived 300 years later, during a time when Nile flooding was good and irrigation was less critical. They hypothesised the Wadi Halfa population would have more Schistosoma mansoni, and it would be more prevalent in children and men due to differential water contact.

One out of three ain’t bad. Indeed, Wadi Halfa people had more of the parastic worms: 26% to Kulubnarti’s 9%. However peak prevalence of infection did not occur at a younger age in the Wadi Halfa, and there was no sex difference.

ResearchBlogging.orgHibbs AC, Secor WE, Van Gerven D, & Armelagos G (2011). Irrigation and infection: The immunoepidemiology of schistosomiasis in ancient Nubia. American journal of physical anthropology, 145 (2), 290-8 PMID: 21469072

Note: I tried to be accurate about life in Nubia, 500AD, but please correct me in the comments

(Also, I want to be a bioarcheologist! Should I apply for one of these Graduate Programs at Emory University?

Ferrofluid patterns and dancing art, fun with magnets

// April 29th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Just for Fun, Science Art

Behold ferrofluid, nanoparticles of iron coated in a surfactant and suspended in a solution of oil or water.

The surfactant can be citric acid or soy lecithin, among other things, and is used to stop them sticking together

It’s like magnetic dust.

Put a magnet under some ferrofluid and the particles align themselves in patterns to show the field.

The magnetic attraction is so strong, the ferrofluid will stick to a magnet and then you’ll never get all the iron particles off it. They’re stuck for good.

To prevent that happening, people usually play with ferrofluid inside a sealed container.

And play it is, this stuff is fun.

Usually.

A friend of mine put a magnet above some ferrofluid with the lid off, and was abruptly COVERED in black gunk which stuck to him despite three showers. He wasn’t too happy, I think it smelled pretty bad. Hardcore.

Like most hardcore stuff, it’s been turned into kickass art. This video pretty well blew my mind.

Sachiko Kodama and Yasushi Miyajima created the piece, two ferrofluid sculptures which move synthetically to music. The two towers are iron cores of electromagnets sitting in a pool of ferrofluid. Etched with a helix pattern, the ferrofluid can move up the tower if the magnetic field is strong enough, stretching out in spikes as it goes.

The strength of the electromagnet is linked to metadata in the music controlling the voltage and AC pattern. To correct for the time delay, the electromagnet controls starts early so the maximum size of spikes coincides with beats of the music.

The result is a choreographed pattern that dances and winds like a living thing.

You can buy ferrofluid from Emovendo.

Hat tip to @DrSkySkull, who bought some ferrofluid as a classroom demo and supplied the picture at the top of the article.

A Schooner of Science turns two

// April 22nd, 2011 // 2 Comments » // Just for Fun

Today marks the second anniversary of A Schooner of Science. ‘Tis a time to reflect, to appreciate, to eat cake.

pirate cake

Thanks to all who read this, ’tis great to have you on board.

Introducing Open Lab 2010

// March 22nd, 2011 // Comments Off on Introducing Open Lab 2010 // Science Communication

Open Lab 2010Containing the best of science writing on the web, Open Lab 2010 has been published and printed. Inside are 50 blog posts, 6 poems and a cartoon – including my very own blog post How Aqua Regia Saved Nobel Prizes from the Nazis. The book was edited by the thoughtful animal, Jason Goldman.

You can buy it as a file download or as a real, old-fashioned paperback. A known aphrodisiac, having this book on your bedside table WILL increase your attractiveness and intelligence. The cool nerdy goodness spirals out of it and is soaked up through your pores by osmosis. It’s guaranteed to be delightful for reading, displaying, or simply cuddling.

I’m beyond excited to be included in the anthology. Although I’m published online, in magazines, in newspapers, in zines, this is my first time with a real book. Strike me down with a feather, I feel like a proper writer!

May Open Lab 2010 be the first of many books with my words inside.

Buy a copy of this highly intellectually arousing book here.






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