Some like it cold

In a study of 6,455 semen samples (yup), scientists at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found that human sperm were most atheletic — and were found in the highest concentrations — in winter. There was a marked decrease in sperm motility and numbers in spring, summer, and fall. It's an interesting and logical addendum to the fact that sperm counts and motility decrease in men who subject their testicles to warm conditions; in hot tubs, say, or a pair of overly tight underpants.

Why "cancer clusters" are so hard to confirm

This excerpt from the new book, Toms River by Dan Fagin, has me instantly intrigued. The book is about one of the rare places where scientists were able to prove that not only was there a cluster of cancer cases, but that those cases could be linked to a cause. The excerpt explains why this is such a rare thing. Turns out, just because it looks like a town has more cancers than it should, doesn't mean that's always what's going on.

Lake Vostok bacteria: It's something new. No, it's not. Yes, it is, maybe.

Let's just play this safe and assume that, until more samples have been collected and detailed DNA analysis has been done, the real answer to the question, "Is bacteria found in Antarctica's Lake Vostok actually new to science or just contamination from the drilling?" is "We don't really know." This is a great example of why making scientific pronouncements from the field, before you've had time to do the really in-depth analysis that goes into writing a peer-reviewed research paper, can be problematic. Right now, you've got different camps of researchers making totally contradictory claims. Who is right is, so far, anybody's guess.

Sucking up to shrimp

Say you're a marine biologist and you want to study the little bitty creatures of the sea — shrimps and worms and things like that. How do you go about capturing them?

Why, with an underwater vacuum, of course.

At the PNAS First Look blog, David Harris writes that this "SCUBA-tank powered vacuum, called an “airlift,” inhales shrimp, sand fleas, marine worms, and 'things that would swim away if they had the chance.'"

Science and gun violence: why is the research so weak? [Part 2]

Part 2 of Science and gun violence: why is the research so weak?

The town of Macapá is in the north of Brazil, on the coast, where the Amazon River flows into the Atlantic.

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Wikipedia and libraries: a match made in heaven

John Mark Ockerbloom's "From Wikipedia to our libraries" is a fabulous proposal for creating research synergies between libraries and Wikipedia, by adding templates to Wikipedia articles that direct readers to unique, offline-only (or onsite-only) library resources at their favorite local libraries. Ockerbloom's approach acknowledges and respects the fact that patrons start their searches online, and seeks only to improve the outcomes of their research -- not to convince them not to start with the Internet.

So how do we get people from Wikipedia articles to the related offerings of our local libraries? Essentially we need three things: First, we need ways to embed links in Wikipedia to the libraries that readers use. (We can’t reasonably add individual links from an article to each library out there, because there are too many of them– there has to be a way that each Wikipedia reader can get to their own favored libraries via the same links.) Second, we need ways to derive appropriate library concepts and local searches from the subjects of Wikipedia articles, so the links go somewhere useful. Finally, we need good summaries of the resources a reader’s library makes available on those concepts, so the links end up showing something useful. With all of these in place, it should be possible for researchers to get from a Wikipedia article on a topic straight to a guide to their local library’s offerings on that topic in a single click.

I’ve developed some tools to enable these one-click Wikipedia -> library transitions. For the first thing we need, I’ve created a set of Wikipedia templates for adding library links. The documentation for the Library resources box template, for instance, describes how to use it to create a sidebar box with links to resources about (or by) the topic of a Wikipedia article in a reader’s library, or in another library a reader might want to consult. (There’s also an option for direct links to my Online Books Page, if there are relevant books online; it may be easier in some cases for readers to access those than to access their local library’s books.)

From Wikipedia to our libraries (via Making Light)

(Image: library card, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from raqkat's photostream)

How will the Sequester affect science

Basic science — the kind of research done for curiosity's sake, in order to better understand how parts of our world work — is the foundation of applied science — research that's aimed at developing a product, or tool, or achieving a goal. In the United States, the federal government is, by far, the number one funding source for basic research. So what happens to that investment in our future when things like the Sequester come along? Obviously, funding goes down. But the details are what's important here. Tom Levenson explains the short-term and long-term impacts.

A brief history of space monkeys and spies

In the late 1950s, American scientists very publicly readied a crew of monkeys for a series of trips into Earth orbit and back. As far as the researchers knew, Project Discoverer was an actual, honest-to-Ike peaceful scientific program. Naturally, they were wrong about that. In reality, their work was part of an elaborate cover-up masking a spy satellite program. At The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson reports on some fascinating space history.

Take a survey to help scientists improve indoor air quality

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are studying how the seemingly innocuous things we do in our homes and offices can have big impacts on our health. One of those things is cooking, because the way we cook can affect the air we breathe. Scientists are trying to figure out how to make houses safer, but to do that, they need to understand how people use houses — what we cook in them and how we cook it. You can help by taking this quick, anonymous survey.

Lead and violent crime — why a good hypothesis isn't proof

We know that lead exposure can be dangerous. We know that it can cause brain damage. But what levels are dangerous. How does that damage express itself? And how do you separate the effects of lead poisoning from a whole host of other potentially dangerous, damaging factors? Last week, Mother Jones had a well-done article about research that is drawing connections between leaded gasoline and the crime wave of the mid 20th century. That's a hypothesis. It's a hypothesis with a lot of correlational evidence. But it's not proof. I recommend reading public health researcher Scott Firestone's excellent article that delves into the details of the studies from the Mother Jones story. It's a great look at the lines between public health as a science and public health as activism and it helps shine some light on why seemingly airtight cases aren't always immediately acted upon.

Science, confidential

We've talked here before about the crazy things you can find when you read the "Methods" section of a scientific research paper. (Ostensibly, that's the boring part.)

If you want a quick laugh this morning — or if you want to get a peek at how the sausages are made — check out the Twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods, where scientists are talking about the backstory behind seemingly dry statements like "A population of male rats was chosen for this study".

A toast to physics

You will be pleased to note that multiple physicists are at work on the problem of why a piece of falling toast tends to land with the butter side down.

It's time to start asking serious questions about the safety of lube

The stuff you use to make sex a little more smooth might have some serious drawbacks. Nothing has been proven yet — most of the data comes from disembodied cell cultures and animal testing, which doesn't necessarily give you an accurate picture of what's happening in humans — but several studies over the last few years have drawn connections between lubricant use and increased rates of STD transmission. (It also looks like some lubricants might kill off natural vaginal flora — the good bacteria that live "up there" and make the difference between a healthy vagina and, say, a raging yeast infection.)

Some of these studies have provided evidence suggesting that the ingredients in lubricants damage the cells lining the vagina and rectum — which would explain why those lubricants might facilitate STD transmission.

At Chemical and Engineering News, Lauren Wolf has a really well-researched, well-written story that will give you the low-down on this research without hype and without fear-mongering. Her story is easy to understand and explains what we know, what we don't know, and why this matters (besides the obvious, lubricants have been proposed as a possible means of applying topical anti-microbial STD preventatives).

Right now, the Food & Drug Administration doesn’t typically require testing of personal lubricants in humans. The agency classifies them as medical devices, so the sex aids have to be tested on animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Rectal use of lubricants is viewed by the agency as an “off-label” application—use at your own risk.

Questions about lubricant safety arose nearly a decade ago when micro­bicide developers were testing whether the detergent nonoxynol-9 could block HIV transmission. Manufacturers had been incorporating the compound into spermicidal lubricants for years because of its ability to punch holes in the cell membranes of sperm. In 2002, however, a Phase II/III clinical trial of a nonoxynol-9 vaginal gel failed to protect women from HIV infection. Not only that, but the detergent actually increased the risk of HIV infection in the sex workers tested—women living in countries such as South Africa and Thailand who used the product three or four times per day.

Lab work eventually revealed the reason for the paradoxical increase: Nonoxynol-9 is so good at punching holes in cell membranes that it not only bores into sperm but also into the cells lining the vagina and rectum. The mucosal lining of the vagina is a good barrier to infection all by itself, says Richard A. Cone, a biophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. But if that barrier gets compromised, all bets are off, he explains. After nonoxynol-9—still used on some condoms today—went from promising microbicide candidate to malevolent cell killer, scientists like Cone began to question the safety of other supposedly innocuous spermicide and personal lubricant ingredients.

Read the full story

Via David Kroll

Image: Beer Lube?, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 28096801@N05's photostream

Gun lobby has opposed research on effects of gun ownership/gun laws

Photo: Shutterstock

Last week, after giving myself an initial overview of the scientific research on how gun ownership and gun laws affect violent crime, I told you that it seems like there's not a solid consensus on this issue. At least not in the United States. Different studies, of different laws, in different places seem to produce a wide variety of results.

On the one hand, this is kind of to be expected with social science. People are hard to pin down. Harder, often, than the Higgs Boson particle. And you can't just do a clean, controlled laboratory study of these issues. Instead, you're left trying to compare specific places, laws, and enforcement techniques that may not be easily comparable, in an attempt to draw a broad conclusion. That's hard.

But, it seems, the National Rifle Association has gone out of its way to make this work even more difficult than it would otherwise be. Since the early 1990s, NRA-backed politicians have attacked firearms research they believe is biased against guns. Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon.com wrote a piece on this back in July, after an earlier mass shooting. He describes how a vaguely worded clause has lead researchers to avoid doing firearms studies at all, for fear of losing their funding.

The Centers for Disease Control funds research into the causes of death in the United States, including firearms — or at least it used to. In 1996, after various studies funded by the agency found that guns can be dangerous, the gun lobby mobilized to punish the agency. First, Republicans tried to eliminate entirely the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the bureau responsible for the research. When that failed, Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, successfully pushed through an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget (the amount it had spent on gun research in the previous year) and outlawed research on gun control with a provision that reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Dickey’s clause, which remains in effect today, has had a chilling effect on all scientific research into gun safety, as gun rights advocates view “advocacy” as any research that notices that guns are dangerous. Stephen Teret, who co-directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Salon: “They sent a message and the message was heard loud and clear. People [at the CDC], then and now, know that if they start going down that road, their budget is going to be vulnerable. And the way public agencies work, they know how this works and they’re not going to stick their necks out.”

In January, the New York Times reported that the CDC goes so far as to “ask researchers it finances to give it a heads-up anytime they are publishing studies that have anything to do with firearms. The agency, in turn, relays this information to the NRA as a courtesy.”

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Via Dave Ng

Image: IMG_0362, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from neontommy's photostream

What science says about gun control and violent crime

Does gun control mean fewer guns on the street and less violence? Does encouraging gun ownership mean better protected people and less violence?

I don't think it's too early to be asking questions like this. When you're faced with a tragedy like what happened today at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it's reasonable to start asking questions about violence prevention. It's part of the bargaining stage of grief — wondering if there's something we could have done that would have prevented all those needless deaths. And let's get one thing straight: Everybody wants to prevent what happened today.

So what can be done about it? And what does the science say?

I've been trying to get a handle on that for the last hour or so and here are three things it seems we can definitively say:

• It would be completely accurate for someone to tell you that studies in places like Australia and Austria found that implementing more stringent gun control laws reduced deaths from gun-related suicides and violent crime.

• It would also be accurate to say that a study of the effects of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in the United States showed no big reductions in gun-related deaths, except for suicides among people older than 55.

• And it's also true that a 2003 study of conceal-carry laws in Florida found that they seemed to make no difference one way or the other — neither increasing nor reducing rates of violent crime.

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