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Not-exactly-near-death experiences

In 1990, researchers investigated the stories of 58 people who had had a near-death experience during surgery. Turns out, 30 of those people were never actually near-death, at all. They just thought they were. Maggie

Big news from Mars coming soon, maybe

The Curiosity rover comes complete with a mini chemistry lab. It's designed to analyze the composition of Martian soils and Martian air. And, right now, that particular piece of equipment is at the center of a giddy storm of activity. Curiosity has turned up something important — big enough for Curiosity's principal investigator to tell NPR, "This data is gonna be one for the history books."

What is it? NASA's not telling just yet. Right now, researchers are in the process of verifying said exciting data, in order to make sure they aren't deceiving themselves into thinking they've spotted something that isn't really there. That's pretty good policy, given the recent flap around over-hyped studies about Earth-like planets and arsenic-based life.

On the other hand, if you're trying to avoid overhyping something, might I suggest that "We have groundbreaking, world-changing data that we can't tell you about yet," is maybe not the best way to do it.

Stay tuned.

Pictured: A 360-degree view of Mars, taken by Curiosity on October 5th, from the location where it first started collecting samples of rocks and dirt. NASA/JPL

Following a chain of unexplained deaths in Thailand

Over the past few years, multiple people have died in Thailand from what appears to be exposure to some kind of poison. Most of these people have been tourists. And most of them have been young women. The deaths have happened in clusters. Five or so on the island vacation hotspot of Kho Phi Phi. Another group of six at Chiang Mai's Downtown Inn.

Lots of possible explanations have been suggested — ranging from serial killers, to hallucinogenic beach drinks, to overuse of banned insecticides in hotel rooms. But, so far, none of the specific poisons proposed as the culprit totally makes sense in relation to the deaths. And, to make things worse, it seems like Thai authorities are doing their best to make it difficult to actually investigate what has happened in individual cases, and figure out whether the cases are linked or not. At this point, it's hard to even know whether all the people who have died exhibited the same symptoms.

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has done a lot of reporting on poisons and true crime has been following this story and just published another piece on the still-unfolding mess.

Your daughter died.

Your daughter died thousands of miles from home. In a hotel where no one came to help. In a hospital where she struggled to keep breathing and just couldn’t. In a room where her heart – and somehow you still don’t really believe this – just stuttered to a stop. In a country, where authorities have failed for months, years even, to tell you how or why your daughter died.

Your daughter, you’ve come to realize, died in a pattern that links too many other young women, a chain of suspected poisonings over the last few years. Jill St. Onge, 27, of Seattle, Washington, and Julie Bergheim, 22, of Drammen, Norway, who both died in May 2009 on the southern island of Koh Phi Phi. Sherifa Khalid, 24, of Kuwait, who died 12 hours she spent a day on the same island in July of the same year.

Read the rest of the story at Deborah Blum's blog, Elemental

Check out two previous stories that she's written on the same subject.

The funniest story you'll ever hear about rabies and undiagnosed illness

Rabies isn't funny. But, somehow, Heather Swain makes her story about her brush with rabies absolutely hilarious.

Now Swain didn't have rabies, but she did have a lot of the symptoms that go along with it. In this Story Collider piece, she talks about her experience being "that patient with a mystery disease" and what it's like when nobody actually figures out what's making you sick.

The weird, black, spidery things of Mars

See those weird, black, spidery things dotting the dunes in this colorized photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010? Yeah. Nobody knows what the hell those things are.

What we do know about them just underlines how incredibly unfamiliar Mars really is to us. First spotted by humans in 1998, these splotches pop up every Martian spring, and disappear in winter. Usually, they appear in the same places as the previous year, and they tend to congregate on the sunny sides of sand dunes — all but shunning flat ground. There's nothing on Earth that looks like this that we can compare them to. It's a for real-real mystery, writes Robert Krulwich at NPR. But there are theories:

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it's transformed my idea of what it's like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I've thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain.

"If you were there," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, "you'd be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice. All around you, roaring jets of carbon dioxide gas are throwing sand and dust a couple hundred feet into the air." The ground below would be rumbling. You'd feel it in your spaceboots.

Read the rest of Robert Krulwich's post — and check out some spectacular photos of the things — at NPR

Mystery panties incinerated

Two weeks ago, Brazilian legislators rushing into congress left an unusual item in their wake: a pair of women's underwear. No-one has claimed them since, and they were subsequently incinerated. "We have a suspicion as to who the owner is," congressman and professional clown Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva told Reuters' Brian Winter, "but we're not going to turn him in." Rob

What the heck is this thing?


[Video Link]

Marine biologists think they can identify this strange, blobby creature that floated up out of the ocean depths and was captured on an oil drill video. That, alone, is not terribly surprising. Marine biologists know a lot of weird ocean creatures.

But would you believe they identified it by its gonads?

Read the rest of the story at Robert Krulwich's NPR blog.

Mark blogged about this critter previously, here on Boing Boing.

Why we still don't totally understand how diseases spread

 

When I was little, I read a Reader's Digest book of great disasters, which included a segment on the Black Death. One of the things the book tried to do was explain, on a child's level, why it wasn't easy to figure out that rats and fleas were the source of the plague. You couldn't just look for patterns, because there seemed to be no pattern. Half a household might drop dead while the other half only got a little sick, or remained entirely healthy. Plague doctors who handled the sick every day lived another 20 years. The real spread of disease wasn't like the movies, where one person coughing means everyone in close proximity is doomed.

One reason for the emergence of strange non-patterns like this is something called "super spreaders"—basically, some people spread disease more effectively than others. The infamous Typhoid Mary is the poster child for super spreaders, but the effect has been well-documented in a range of infectious diseases and it goes beyond the simple story of one woman who infected thousands. In fact, what makes the super spreader phenomenon so fascinating is that it isn't an anomaly at all. Super spreaders are the primary way some diseases spread. The Contagions blog—which is all about the history of infectious disease—has a great post up about this.

Eventually new models arose like the “20/80″ rule that says that 20% of cases are responsible for 80% of the transmission and formed a core ‘high risk’ group. This model works well for some diseases but not all.

For pathogens that do rely on super-spreaders, the majority of cases will not transmit the infection to anyone. This can lead to a sense of false security because it seems poorly communicated. As Galvani and May assert, “heterogeneously infectious emerging disease will be less likely to generate an epidemic, but if sustained, the resulting epidemic is more likely to be explosive”. Super-spreaders tend to beget more super-spreaders, although most of the cases they generate will still not transmit the infection to anyone. For example, a super-spreader begets 30 cases, 3 (10%) of which become new super spreaders. The rest may transmit to 0-1 people.

Super-spreading has been documented for HIV, SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome), measles, malaria, smallpox and monkeypox, pneumonic plague, tuberculosis, Staphylococcus aureus, typhoid fever, and a variety bacterial sexually transmitted diseases.

And that brings us back to medical mysteries because, the Contagion blog explains, we don't know exactly why some people are super spreaders and others aren't—or why some people are more vulnerable to infection than others. So far, what we have to go on is a list of well-established correlations.

Read about what makes a super-spreader at the Contagions blog.

Image: Thomas Bartholini's illustration of beak doctor from 1661. Via Wikipedia.

How long does food poisoning last?

I recently had what I am pretty sure was foodborne illness. It arrived in the middle of a friend's birthday party, a sudden onslaught of misery that lasted for the next 8 hours, reminding me, horribly, of a similar scene in The Mask of the Red Death. It was followed by two days of pretty much constant sleep. I don't recommend it.

But if a growing body of research is right, that 48-hours of grossness might not be the end of your body's interaction with a foodborne bug. In fact, some people seem to have otherwise unexplained symptoms persisting for years after they thought they'd recovered from food poisoning. This is best documented in people whose food poisoning experience was much worse than mine—folks who ended up in the hospital or the doctor's office and were, thus, accurately diagnosed, so we know they had a foodborne illness and not, say, a stomach flu. But it's an interesting hypothesis.

Maryn McKenna, my favorite Scary Disease Girl, has a story about this at Scientific American, plus some extra information at her Wired blog, where she explains why this phenomenon is so difficult to study.

I start the story with the tale of a Florida teen named Dana Dziadul, who 11 years ago was hospitalized with Salmonella and now at 14 has what is called “reactive” arthritis. Her mother Colette struggled for years to figure out why this was happening to her daughter, but didn’t put the pieces together until she was asked to complete a survey of foodborne illness survivors, and spotted a list of possible after-effects — sequelae, technically — that the surveyors were curious about. That caused her to go back into Dana’s medical chart, where she realized that her daughter’s joint problems actually began while she was hospitalized as a 3-year-old.

The challenge of proving this connection is that our system for investigating foodborne illness is not set up for tracking victims long afterward. That’s first because state health departments, which bear the burden of identifying outbreaks, are most concerned with finding people at the time, not keeping track of them; and second, because many outbreaks are spread across multiple states, with only a few victims in each state — so that maintaining contact with former victims would require a shared effort that no one is set up, or funded, to do. (That’s not even to mention the complication of people moving from one jurisdiction to another. Myself, for instance, I’ve moved five times in the past 10 years.)

Read the full story at Scientific American.

Read Maryn's summary of the research, and extra info, at her Wired blog.

Image: X.L.D. Agar 1 - detail, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from nathanreading's photostream

How to: Survive rabies without really trying

This is an awkward sort of "How To" post because nobody really knows the answer. Here's the rather bleak reality: Rabies is not, typically, something you live through. If you think you've been exposed, you can get a life-saving vaccine. But, if you miss that window, and symptoms start to appear, your chances of survival are pretty much nil.

There are exceptions. We've talked before here about the Milwaukee Protocol, a medical intervention that some doctors think has allowed a handful of people to escape death. But the Milwaukee Protocol is not a simple thing. It involves hospitalization, as doctors put the affected person into a coma. Basically, they reboot the system. And it might not be as effective as we think it is. Five people have gotten the Milwaukee Protocol and survived. Thirty-two others received the treatment and still died. There's a lot of effort that goes into the Milwaukee Protocol, and it might be wasted effort.

Then there's this: In 2009, a teenage runaway walked into a Texas hospital, exhibiting symptoms of rabies—a diagnosis that was later confirmed. She didn't get vaccinated before symptoms started. She never got the Milwaukee Protocol. Instead, she recovered on her own and left the hospital hale and healthy three weeks later.

That's not supposed to happen in humans.

The Austin American-Statesman has a fascinating story about this case. At the heart is a big mystery. The young woman cut off contact with hospital researchers shortly after she was discharged from the hospital. She was homeless—in fact, she'd probably contracted rabies from a bat while camping in a cave. There's a very good chance that we may never know why she survived when so many others don't.

Veterinarians know that not all animals die after exposure — usually from a bite — to the rabies virus, which is carried in saliva and other bodily fluids. Much depends on how much of the virus is transmitted, the severity and location of the bite, and the immune system of the bitten animal.

"Abortive rabies is not unusual in research animals — it happens spontaneously all the time," Rupprecht said.

Rupprecht said the blood of certain human populations — maybe 1 percent of raccoon hunters, for example — also tests positive for rabies antibodies, indicating they have been exposed to the virus without becoming acutely ill. In the Amazon, where indigenous tribes are at daily risk of rabies from vampire bats, "it could be in the 10 percent or more range," he said.

The rabies vaccine, injected in a series of five doses, prevents onset of the disease if given soon enough after exposure. About 35,000 people receive the expensive shots — the series costs about $1,600 — in the U.S. each year. Seldom do more than a handful of people die from rabies in a year. But once rabies symptoms appear, the vaccine is no help.

"We don't have poster children. In our field, 99.9 percent of our cases are in the ground," Rupprecht said.

Read the rest of the article at the Austin American-Statesman

Image: White-Shouldered Bat, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from wilsonb's photostream

Via GrrlScientist

A fascinating conclusion to an environmental mystery

This is the town of Kivalina, Alaska. Last fall, when the ocean water that almost surrounds the town started turning a gooey orange, people (understandably) got a bit freaked out.

After ruling out the scarier options—i.e.,chemical pollution and toxic algae—scientists eventually pinned the orange tide on the presence of a plant fungus. And they turned up some good news: The fungus wasn't dangerous to people or ocean life.

Now, months later, researchers have identified what, exactly, the fungus is and where it was coming from. There's a fascinating detective story here, because, as Jennifer Frazer points out on Scientific American's Artful Amoeba blog, it's rather surprising that there was a fungal epidemic big enough to turn a whole port orange and nobody noticed it on the plants.

[But] Perhaps someone did.

Last October, David Wartinbee, a professor of aquatic biology at Kenai Peninsula College in Alaska’s south-central Kenai Peninsula, emailed me to say he’d seen something strange, and wondered if it might be the same thing that hit Kivalina. Though his neck of the woods is over 600 miles southeast from Kivalina as the snow goose flies, it’s not inconceivable they could be one in the same in a place so far north.

In early September, Wartinbee traveled 70 miles west to a place called the Twin Lakes by float plane (reputedly the SUV of Alaska). He saw an orange film on the water, and the spruce needles on nearby trees were clearly poxed with something.

You can read the rest of this story (and see Wartinbee's photos!) at The Artful Amoeba.

Image: ArticLandscape, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from uscgpress's photostream

Higgs boson update: Expect an answer by December

“If it exists, it has to be there. And if it’s not there, it will be known to be science fiction by December." — Vivek Sharma, a physics professor at UC San Diego, talking about the as-yet elusive Higgs boson particle. The search for the Higgs boson has recently been narrowed down. Basically, we've gone from looking for a needle in a haystack, to looking for a needle inside a small, hay-stuffed pillow.

FBI has lead on D.B. Cooper

The FBI is hot on the trail of D.B. Cooper, the mysterious heister who leapt from his looted airplane into myth. Nearly four decades since his disappearance, a "credible lead" has come in. From CNN:
It's been nearly four decades since a man calling himself Dan Cooper jumped out the back of Northwest Orient Flight 305, somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Nevada, carrying a parachute and some $200,000 in pilfered money. It's not known where Cooper landed, or if he even survived the jump. But the case lives on in infamy, what the FBI calls "one of the great unsolved mysteries" in the agency's history.