Highlights from the AAAS: Food allergies, superheroes, electric cars and Opie


Now we're getting into the thick, juicy part. I spent Friday in a flurry of tweeting and note-taking, bopping from one two-hour symposium to another. I was really pleased with myself for managing to pack in five different sessions—until I realized that I'd totally missed meeting Ron Howard, King of the Gingers, at a presentation on science and Hollywood. Whoops. Thanks to my science journalism colleagues, though, I am able to tell you this: Nobody ever worked out the physics behind turning a jukebox on just by hitting it.

Those disappointments aside, the day was chock full of fascinating facts. After the jump, I'll tell you about the science of superheroes, the best way to make electric cars profitable to own and why the advice many new parents get about preventing food allergies is probably wrong.

Hopeful Monsters

This session featured writers from "Heroes", the scientific advisor to "Watchmen" and a scientist studying the real-world evolution of the—relatively super—traits that turned single-celled organisms into animals, and people.

It's that last speaker, Nichole King, Ph.D., from the University of California, Berkeley, who brought up a really interesting point about the intersection between evolution and sci-fi. Evolution, as you know, is driven by random mutations in DNA, and most of those mutations have no visible impact at all. DNA changes, but nothing important happens to the overall organism.

Other changes in DNA lead to negative impacts—for instance, the mutations that lead to cancer. Finally, and luckily, some mutations are beneficial. But, King reminded me, they're very seldom only beneficial. The same innovative mutations that make an organism stronger are usually also associated with at least one biological trade-off. You may gain, but you also lose. And whether the mutation gets counted as "successful" depends a lot on how the benefits and detriments balance out.

Think about what that could mean for, say, the X-men? Should Warren Worthington III be dealing with the osteoporosis that must surely go along with his light, flight-ready bone structure?

The Real Benefit of Hooking Your Electric Car Up to the Grid

Vehicle-to-Grid is a relatively new concept. It can refer to a lot of different ideas but, generally, we're talking about enabling electric vehicles and utility companies to establish a close, personal relationship, built on two-way communication. Its theoretical potential was first studied in 1997. In 2008, researchers first hooked up an all-electric vehicle to the real, not just simulated, grid.

I'd certainly heard of the idea before today, but mostly with the idea that doing this would enable consumers to sell electricity stored in the battery back to their utility companies. Easy peasy. You know, if you overlook the fact that buying electricity from and selling electricity to the same company, for the same price, isn't going to help anybody turn a payback on their initial investment in the car.

No, the real place where vehicle-to-grid power has considerable financial potential is frequency regulation, according to researchers from the University of Delaware, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other institutions. If you're one of the companies that runs America's electrical grid system, you have to pay a lot of attention to keeping the flow of power humming along at a steady, reliable rate. In fact, you're legally obligated to have a certain amount of generator backup dedicated to ramping power production up and down, smoothing out the fluctuations in frequency.

But coal and other traditional power plants are slow moving beasties, trying to respond to what is, essentially, a zap-quick problem. Fleets of electric vehicles, plugged in and able to communicate with the electrical grid control systems, have the potential to be a better (and way more green) alternative. And, because utilities need that backup capacity—whether or not they're using it at any given moment—the price they'd pay a consumer to make an electric car part of that backup is much higher than the rate they'd pay just to buy excess power from the car's battery. Kind of the difference between a monthly membership fee at the gym, and a one-off charge to use the sauna for an hour.

So just how profitable is that. The calculations vary—and the impact is larger for fleets than individual cars—but a 2007 study done by Jasna Tomic, Ph.D., from the alternative transportation institute CALSTART, makes it appealing. Using utility rate numbers from 2003, a 250-vehicle fleet would have grossed more than $1 million in a year, and netted close to $700K.

A new perspective on childhood allergies

For years, parents have been told to put off introducing their babies to certain foods—things like milk, soy and peanuts—that tend to cause allergic reactions. The idea behind the advice was that, if you gave a baby's immune system a chance to mature before tossing a food trial at it, it might not be so likely to overreact.

But that theory is turning out to be wrong, according to a panel of European and American public health experts from organizations like the FDA and the British National Health Service Trust. There's no evidence that delaying the introduction of potentially allergenic foods does anything to reduce a child's likelihood of developing an allergy, they said. And, in fact, there's some evidence that delaying the foods may actually increase the risk of allergic reaction.

Why? Researchers can only speculate right now, but it might have to do with the fact that you can never completely eliminate environmental exposure to certain foods. Even if you stringently avoid peanuts, you might still come into contact with very, very minute amounts of the allergy-causing nut proteins. As it turns out, it's these small, rare, random exposures that are more likely to set the stage for developing a sensitivity to a particular food, rather than regular consumption.

Once they're ready to eat solids, your baby or toddler is better off being adventurous with new foods.

More to come tomorrow! Plus, over the next few weeks, I'll also be doing a few more in-depth stories, based on AAAS lectures and symposia.


  1. Sure, you can make a jukebox turn on just by hitting it. But it has to be modified a bit.

    I would not be surprised to find out that there are Fonzie impersonators with rigged jukeboxes who do this at corporate parties just for yucks.

  2. If I could meet Ron Howard, the hell I’d want to talk about the Fonz. I’d wanna know how the “Arrested Development” movie was coming along.

    The whole business of delaying exposure to certain foods never made sense to me, not that intuitive things are always right. But it kind of goes along with the realization that keeping kids in a sterile environment does no good for their immune systems. You gotta eat your peck of dirt, you know. The presence of chemical cleaners and food additives is problematic. Their ubiquitousness kind of mucks up the data. But by and large, being freaky and controlling with kids is unpleasant. Seems to be a bigger and bigger part of our culture though.

  3. You mention V2G not doing any good for the car owner, but you are mistaken. First, the vehicle owner buy electricity at a low rate during the night, when it is cheapest to buy (less use = lower price, that’s why they want you to use big appliances after 7pm; creates lower demand during peak hours)

    Then, during the day, if you have charge, you sell it to the utility company that regulates your state of charge, making sure that you have a fully charged vehicle when you need it. On top of storage for smoothing out peak loads, you have this incentive for the utility company to decrease their primary generation. They must provide a minimum, and if they can store more energy, generators can be run at more efficient times/speeds/etc.

  4. The reason parents delay giving children things they could be allergic to, the kind of thing that could make your throat swell and constrict your airway, is because the younger/smaller you are when that happens the LESS time you have to get to the emergency room before you are dead. By the time you are five you will probably live the 8minutes it takes for the ambulance to get to you. A 2yr old doesn’t have that long.

  5. don’t get the whole car battery thing.
    suppose you only need to charge your car at off-peak hours, in the cheap.
    presumably, you do it so you can drive your car by day?
    how exactly are you gonna have enough charge left to sell back?
    suppose you don’t really drive that often – you still need to have a high enough charge to take the car out when you need to, no? if you sell it all back during peak hours, your battery is dead till night.

    what’s the point? if helping manage the grid is really so economical, why not just buy a bigass battery pack and and plug it in? that way you can get the maximum benefit without all that annoying need-to-drive-car stuff.

    1. First off: Why is the photo in black an white? AFAIK, Happy Days was always in color.

      And @Anon #6: No one is suggesting you let the grid completely deplete the battery of an all-electric car. That’s dumb, as you clearly understand.

      Rather, say you drive a LEAF. It has a good-but-modest 100 mile range. Suppose your regular commute is 30 miles. That means on most days, more than half of your battery’s capacity goes unused. So suppose you could say to your utility and car: “At night, charge enough to make sure I have 50% charge or more by morning. Beyond that, feel free to pay me to help you manage the grid. When I plug in at work (if I have that option), make sure I still have at least 25% charge by 5 pm.” Then you get everything you need out of the car, and the grid pays you for unused, spare capacity.

      If batteries were cheap, the utilities would do just what you suggest, buying big battery packs of their own. But batteries are costly. The vehicle-to-grid concept makes sense because most people will buy electric cars with a maximum range (re: battery capacity) they find acceptable for the longest trips they expect to take; on most days they will not be using all of that charge. So rather than let the spare capacity go to waste, they lease it out to utilities who can profit from it with no money down.

  6. Nice recap, Maggie. Now that I know more about Boing Boing, I feel that I should check in more often.

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