Salami – good when it’s meat, less so when it’s science

Today is a celebration of that greatest of cured meats – it’s Salami Day.

Salami is a cured, fermented and air-dried sausage-style meat, usually made from pork and/or beef, but also sometimes from a range of other meats including venison and turkey (and even, apparently, shark and swordfish in Japan). The meat is minced together with a range of spices, garlic, minced fat, herbs and wine or vinegar, and left to ferment for a day or so before being stuffed into a (usually edible) casing and hung out to cure. The casing is sometimes treated with an edible mold culture which adds flavour and helps protect the salami from spoilage.

It first became popular with South European peasants, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t require refrigeration, and can last at room temperature for a month or longer. (It is this feature that also makes it one of my personal favourite foods to take on multi-day hikes – few things beat a couple of slices of salami on some cracker-bread over lunch, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.)

A traditional aged, peppered Hungarian salami – finger-licking good.
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Of course, in science, salami has a very different connotation. The phrase ‘salami science’ refers to a scientific publishing tactic where the same body of research is published in more than one journal, or, more commonly, the results from a single research project is sliced up into multiple smaller research results (spread over time, for example) and published separately. This second option is also referred to as ‘salami slicing’ because you are effectively slicing your single research salami into a whole bunch of smaller slices, spread across different publications.

This is an unfortunate practice because it can skew research data, and it makes it more difficult to get the ‘big picture’ with regards to a specific body of research. It is, however, the result of the way the value or worth of a scientist is measured in the scientific community – the more you publish, the better you are rated, and the more funding you can attract. This ‘publish or perish’ phenomenon is well-known in science, where the size of an individual or group’s scientific output is overemphasized, rewarding quantity over quality.

Nature magazine has gone so far as to say that salami science “threatens the sustainability of scientific publishing as we know it”. Fighting this practice means more time and effort have to be spent by journals and publications to ensure that the same results have not been published elsewhere, thus increasing the workload on already stretched staff and peer reviewers.

Of course quantity is not the only criterion used to judge or measure a scientist’s research output – references and citations also play an important role. However, formulae for quantifying research output is often oversimplified and skewed towards quantity. To again quote Nature magazine, “The challenge then is not only to establish more sophisticated means to assess the worth of a researcher’s scientific contribution, but for bodies making such assessments to make it plain that it is scientific rigour and not merely numerical output that will lead to success”.

It definitely seems slicing your salami thin is better when you’re talking meat than when you’re talking science. In fact, referring to the meaty version, it’s probably a very good idea to slice it thin – when it comes to processed meat (including salami), moderation is definitely a good thing. In a report in the Guardian, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has warned that excessive intake of processed meat can increase your risk of developing cancer.

According to the WCRF, “If everyone ate no more than 70g of processed meat – the equivalent of three rashers of bacon – a week, about 3,700 fewer people a year in Britain would be diagnosed with bowel cancer”.

So, in celebration of Salami Day, get yourself a good quality salami (paying a bit more really is worth it when it comes to enjoying a good salami) and enjoy a taste of meat-heaven.

Just don’t overdo it.

And don’t cheat with your research. 🙂

Celebrating sound science communication with Scientific American

Today we celebrate a veritable institution in the international popular science communication landscape – the magazine Scientific American today celebrates its incredible 167th birthday, making it the oldest continuously published monthly in the US.

Scientific American – a staple on the news stands and magazine racks of good bookshops around the world.
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The first issue of the magazine, then a four page weekly newspaper, appeared on this day back in 1845.  It was published by Rufus Porter, a very interesting character who, besides being a magazine publisher, was also a painter, inventor, schoolmaster and editor. In line with Porter’s personal interests, the magazine reported on happenings in the US Patent Office, as well as having popular articles on inventions of the time.

Porter’s interest in the magazine didn’t last long – after 10 months he sold it to Alfred Beach and Orson Munn I (for a whopping $800).  It remained under ownership of Munn & Company, who, in the century between 1846 and 1948, grew it from its humble beginnings to a large and influencial periodical. In the late 40’s it was put up for sale again, and this time the magazine was sold to three partners, Gerard Piel, Dennis Flanagan, and Donald Miller Jr. They reportedly planned on starting their own new science magazine, but finding that Scientific American was for sale, they opted to rather buy that and work their ideas into the existing title. They made significant changes to the magazine, updating and broadening its appeal. Ownership remained stable from 1948 to 1986, when it was sold to the German Holtzbrinck group, who has owned it since. The current Editor in Chief is Mariette DiChristina – an experienced science journalist and the first woman in the magazine’s history to hold the position.

What has kept the magazine alive and relevant for so many years, is the fact that it has consistently focused on an educated, but not necessarily scientific public, clearly explaining the scientific concepts it reported on and maintaining strong editorial quality control. It has also, since its inception, focused on clear, explanatory visual illustrations to accompany its articles. In its long lifetime, the magazine has published contributions from many famous scientists, including more than 140 Nobel laureates. Albert Einstein contributed an article called “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation” in 1950.

In 1996, the Scientific American website was launched. A mobile site, as well as the Scientific American Blog Network, followed in 2011. For the past 10 years since 2002, the magazine has been hosting its own annual awards, the Scientific American 50, recognising important science and technology contributions of the previous year, across a wide range of categories from agriculture to defence to medicine.

Here’s looking forward to many more years of quality science communication, and a big double-century celebration in 2045!

Create some chemistry on International Kissing Day

Pucker up, its Kissing Day, a day to celebrate all aspects of the age-old art of kissing.

Of course kissing is not just an art, so given that this blog has a bit of a science leaning, lets discuss the science of kissing, or philematology (my new word for the day!).

Philematology tells us that kissing not only activates and stimulates large parts of the brain, it also releases chemicals that reduce stress. Furthermore, the human lips apparently have the thinnest layer of skin on the body, and are more densely populated with sensory neurons than any other bodily region.

Kissing is good for you – it’s a scientific fact, ask any philematologist!
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In a study on the chemical impact of kissing, Neuroscience Professor Wendy Hill from Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, studied 15 romantically involved couples before and after kissing and holding hands for 15 minutes. Their levels of oxytocin (a feel-good, ‘social bonding hormone’) and cortisol (a ‘stress hormone’) were measured before and after the kissing session. It was found that cortisol levels decreased in all subjects, while oxytocin levels increased in the men and decreased in the women. The oxytocin reduction in the women was quite a surprising result, but may have had to do with the fact that the experiment was conducted in an “unromantic” student health center, which may have had more of an inhibiting effect on the women than the men (who, lets face it, are normally not too fussed by their surroundings!).

In another project, this time by anthropologist Helen Fisher from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a number of brain imaging studies were conducted to see how the brain reacts to kissing. Fisher believes kissing activates different chemicals that stimulate different regions of the brain, and more specifically different “primary brain systems”, involved in the human mating and reproduction process. The first of these systems is sex drive, primarily testosterone driven, which drives people to find a mate, or even multiple mates. The second, romantic love, motivates people to gravitate towards a particular mate, and the third, attachment, helps couples stay together so they can rear children. Kissing is considered to have beneficial effects on all these systems.

Fisher furthermore says that kissing is, at a basic level, about exchange of saliva. Men tend to be sloppier kissers, because this lets them transfer more testosterone to stimulate their partners’ sex drive. She also speculates that men might be able to assess a woman’s fertility by subconsciously analysing the levels of estrogen and other hormones in her saliva (but that sounds a bit like science fiction to me).

According to neuroendocrinologist Sarah Woodley, another important chemical that may be present in saliva is androstadienone, a mood-enhancing steroid that also plays a role in helping you focus. “It may not be a sex attractant, but it plays a role in enhancing responsiveness to other stimuli. It makes them feel better”, she explained.

So what to do with all this philematological knowledge? Well, the best advice on Kissing Day is probably to just put it all out of your mind and enjoy what the day has to offer. Just do it – you don’t want all this science to spoil the fun!

(Source: Chemical attraction: The science of kissing.)

Seeing double – it’s Dolly the Sheep’s birthday!

Today we celebrate the birthday of Dolly the Sheep (July 5, 1996 – February 14, 2003), the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell.

Dolly was cloned at the Roslin Institute in Midlothian, Scotland. The technique used to clone her is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. It involves a cell being placed in a de-nucleated ovum, and when the two cells merge, it develops into an embryo. Originally code-named “6LL3”, Dolly was cloned from a mammary cell, which became the basis for her name. In the words of cloning scientist Ian Wilmut, “Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s”.

Cloning is the process of creating an identical copy of an original organism.
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Dolly was born to three mothers – the ovum and the DNA were harvested from two different sheep, and a third carried the cloned embryo to term. Her birth placed the international spotlight firmly on cloning research, causing great controversy that still rages on today. Many scientific, governmental, religious and humanitarian organisations oppose cloning, with arguments ranging from the medical risks involved, to the protection of the sanctity of life, to the protection of the identity of the individual.

Dolly died young, at the age of 6, after developing a progressive lung disease typically prevalent in older sheep. After her death it was also revealed that she had developed premature arthritis. With many sheep living to twice her age, Dolly’s death re-ignited the debate over the health and life-expectancy of cloned animals. One of the arguments in the debate is that animals cloned from adult cells have shorter telomeres (the pieces of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes) than other animals of the same age. Since telomeres naturally shorten as cells divide, they are, to some extent, a measure of age. It has been argued that, since Dolly was cloned from a six year old sheep, she was effectively born with a genetic age of six.

Since Dolly, many other large mammals have been cloned, including horses and cattle. Cloning can become a viable means of preserving endangered species, and potentially even reviving extinct species. In 2009, scientists in Spain succeeded in cloning a Pyrenean ibex, a wild mountain goat that had been officially extinct since 2000. While the animal died shortly after birth, it was considered the first successful cloning of an extinct species, showing a possible way forward in protecting endangered and recently extinct animals (using frozen tissue).

(I cannot help but wonder whether protecting our biodiversity and pursuing more sustainable ways of interacting with our planet, may not be a more proactive solution to the problem of more and more species being driven to extinction. But that’s another argument altogether.)

Cloning, in particular human cloning, has become a favourite topic in science fiction novels and movies, from the work of Aldous Huxley to the Star Wars series. This remains a highly sensitive topic, that is sure to continue being a point of public controversy for many years to come.

Celebrating the invention of foam rubber

Today in 1929, British scientist EA Murphy, who worked at the Dunlop Latex Development Laboratories in Birmingham, must have been a little bored, or mischievous, because he decided to whip up some latex rubber with a kitchen mixer.  As is often the case with such seemingly arbitrary actions, he ended up inventing a product that, up to this day, has a huge impact in all our lives – foam rubber. It is said that Murphy’s colleagues were initially unimpressed, but this soon changed when they caught on to the amazing cushioning and shape retaining properties of this new invention, and it wasn’t long before foam rubber was used in motorcycle and car seats, mattresses and much more.

In its natural form, latex is a milky white liquid tapped from the trunks of rubber trees. This pure latex gets whipped up with water to create a thick froth. The froth is sometimes exaggerated using CO2 gas. Once frothy, the mixture is heated to the point of vulcanization (about 240°F) which results in the formation of long molecular chains with strong crosslinked bonds, giving the resultant foam rubber its ability to recover its shape after compression.

Close-up view of frothy foam rubber.
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While the shape retention characteristics of foam rubber make it a very versatile substance, it does have some limitations. When it gets exposed to very high temperatures it will melt, and if its frozen it can shatter.

Now researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, have come up with a new carbon-based nanotube rubber that has even better shape memory than foam rubber, and that can withstand extreme temperatures without any negative effects.

The unique features of this new super-rubber make it ideally suited for use in extreme conditions like spacecraft and car shock absorbers. Incorporating it into clothing also means that you can have a truly non-wrinkle shirt. Perhaps most exciting is the electricity conducting abilities of the carbon nanotubes, which means that, if its used in shoes or shock absorbers, the material could theoretically harvest and store the electricity generated.

While high costs mean the large-scale application of these super-rubbers are still some way off, one can just imagine it becoming as pervasive as foam rubber over the next decades.

Scoring an extra second on Leap Second Adjustment Day

Have you ever felt that time is slipping away from you? Well, then you’ll be happy to know that today is Leap Second Adjustment Day, a day when time will be held back for a second, with an extra second being inserted into the atomic time scale at midnight, June 30 UTC (Co-ordinated Universal Time). This time corresponds to noon, July 1 in New Zealand. To mark this moment, Radio New Zealand listeners will hear an extra time ‘pip’ before the midday news bulletin.

Today time will be held back for a second, to compensate for the slowing rotation of the earth.
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The rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down, effectively resulting in our days becoming fractionally longer. Hence the adjustment is required to prevent the atomic clocks from moving ahead of solar time. Leap second adjustment was introduced for the first time in 1972. It does not happen every year, with the decision being made by the International Earth Rotation Service, based on data collected from observatories around the world. Leap second adjustment has been done 24 times over the past 40 years.

In earlier times, time was measured by the position of the sun and stars in relation to the earth, so the slight slowing of the rotation of the earth was automatically accommodated for. However, since time measurement has changed to atomic time, which uses the pulsations of the atoms of the chemical element caesium, time measurement has become, weirdly enough, too accurate. Time can now be measured down to 10 billionths of a second, and only one atomic second is lost every 300 million years, so to keep time in sync with the slightly irregular movements of our solar system, its necessary to make an adjustment every now and then.

When the leap second is added, the atomic clocks will not go from 11:59:59 directly to 12:00:00, but rather to 11:59:60, and then 12:00:00. As a result, the day on which the leap second is inserted has 86,401 seconds, instead of the usual 86,400.

Hmmm, wonder what I’m going to do with all this extra time!?

Hitting the high notes on the Birthday of the Saxophone

On this day 166 years ago, the saxophone, darling instrument in much of jazz and blues music, was patented by its Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax. The saxophone combines the single reed and mouthpiece used in a clarinet, with the wider bore of the oboe. Despite usually being made from brass, it is classified as a woodwind instrument, because the sound of a saxophone is created by an oscillating reed rather than the vibration of the player’s lips against a brass mouthpiece.

The combination of features from the woodwind and brass families make it quite unique – while it has the volume capacity of a brass instrument, it possesses the timbre and dexterity of a woodwind. The shape of the saxophone also results in a complex wave packet compared to other woodwind instruments.

Science shows its about the musician, not the instrument.
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It seems the saxophone not only fascinates music lovers, but scientists as well. A group of acoustics researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, set about trying to determine exactly how jazz masters like John Coltrane achieve the piercing high notes they are famous for. More specifically, they studied how the shape of the saxophonist’s vocal tract influences the notes he can achieve.

There has long been debate about the role that the acoustics of the vocal tract has on the notes saxophonists and other reed instrumentalists can play. The assumption under investigation in the research was that professional saxophonists achieve “impossible” notes by shaping their vocal tracts in different ways to amplify the high-pitched notes. Of course the challenge lay in the methodology – how do you directly measure the acoustics of a vocal tract in mid-note without interfering with the player’s sound?

What acoustician Jer Ming Chen and his colleagues did, was to modify the mouthpiece of a saxophone by adding a device that emits different tones into the vocal tract of the player, and then records the intensities of the tones bouncing back into the mouthpiece. From this information, they could calculate acoustic resonances in the vocal tract.

The reseach showed that, when playing “normal” notes, the acoustics of the vocal tract seemed to have only modest effects on how notes sounded, but the moment professional players broke into the altissimo, a clear result emerged – the resonance in the vocal track aligned with the note being played, thus serving to amplify and strengthen the note.

What is interesting is that many expert players were unaware of the ways in which they “tuned” their vocal tracts while playing. They knew they “did something” to their throats, but weren’t able to explain exactly how it happened. It does, however, seem to be a skill that can be learnt, and not something certain players are simply born with.

However they do it, it seems blowing that sax not only gives your lungs a workout, it exercises your mind as well.

(Source: Scientific American)

International Sushi Day – time for some Sushi Science

It’s International Sushi Day – ready for a bit of sushi science?

Here’s an interesting story…

Sushi – arty food that packs a scientific punch!
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A research group from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, did a study on bacteria, and specifically their ability to produce enzymes to break down carbohydrates in their food. One of these enzymes, called porphyranase, specifically breaks down polysaccharide, a carbohydrate in the cell walls of Porphyra, an algae present in nori sheets, used to wrap sushi. Polysaccharide occurs very rarely in other marine plants.

By chance, they discovered that the enzyme porphyranase also occurs in the gut of a Japanese person. This was so unexpected that they pursued the discovery, by testing a group of Japanese people against a control group of Americans. It turned out that none of the Americans tested positive for the specific enzyme, while it occured in almost half of the Japanese test subjects.

Given that porphyranase is normally produced by the bacteria feeding on nori sheets, which is a main ingredient in the sushi-rich diet of the Japanese, they made the deduction that this “porphyranase producing ability” was genetically passed on from the bacteria in the food, to the bacteria in the intestines of the people.

The bacteria present in the intestines of the Japanese thus seem to have developed the ability to produce an enzyme that can digest seaweed, while the seaweed passes straight through the intestines of their American counterparts.

Source:  Nature, April 8, 2010

While this study is not conclusive, it is an interesting example of how the food we eat may affect us in very complex ways. Guess there’s truth in the saying “We are what we eat”!

Stretch your brain on World Juggling Day!

Its World Juggling Day! A day to marvel at the skill of all the jugglers out there, be it the ones who can magically keep multiple balls in the air, or those who are able to maintain a balance between different tasks and responsibilities – the master-multitaskers among us.

Juggling, at least in the traditional sense of the word, is all about objects in motion – as such, they are an intricate, entertaining demonstration of the laws of physics in action. Because of this fact, a number of jugglers have developed scientific juggling routines, where they teach and demonstrate fundamental laws of physics and mathematics through the art of juggling. I can’t help wishing I had a juggling maths teacher at school!

Learning to juggle not only makes you cool – it can make you smarter as well.
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Did you know that juggling can actually stretch your brain? Neuroscientists from the University of Oxford did an experiment to study the effect of juggling on the brain. They took a group of non-juggler adults and measured a cross section of their brains with an fMRI scanner. Half of the group was then enrolled in a juggling course where they had to practice juggling for at least 30 minutes a day, and at the end of a six week training period the brains of the juggling group and the non-juggling control group were again scanned.

The results showed noticeable changes in the white matter of the brains of the juggling group, that is, the fibres that connect the different areas of the brain and that carry messages (electrical signals) between nerve cells.

What is important about this research is not so much that juggling is good for you, but that the adult brain still remains mobile and adaptable beyond childhood. The study shows that, instead of starting to degenerate in adulthood, its possible for the brain to continue to adapt and condition itself to operate more efficiently when faced with a new challenge. Juggling was chosen for the experiment because it’s a particularly difficult motor skill to master – precise body movements, tracking of fast-moving objects and peripheral vision – as such requiring extra effort from the brain.

Study leader, Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg, noted: “Knowing that pathways in the brain can be enhanced may be significant in the long run in coming up with new treatments for neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, where these pathways become degraded.”

(Source: ABC Science)

I wonder if the juggling required to balance work, family, friends and other responsibilities has the same mental benefits?

It’s (genetically modified?) Corn on the Cob day

Today is Corn on the Cob Day, a day to celebrate delicious, hearty, nutritious corn, served on the cob, as it should be.

Actually, when you think about it, corn is pretty cool… Not only is it a basic source of nutrition for millions of people the world over, it is also a key ingredient in a dizzying range of products, from antibiotics, adhesives and hand soap through to fireworks, dyes and cosmetics.

Given the widespread use of corn, it is not surprising that it has been one of the crops that have received most attention as far as the research and application of genetic modification is concerned.

Who can say no to deliciously fresh, steaming corn on the cob, served with a lump of butter? Imagine corn genetically modified for increased visual impact – perhaps not as far-fetched as it looks… And I’m sure it will win the kids over!
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I am no expert, and will not even attempt to express an opinion on the desirability or not of GM foods – it is a subject of widespread debate and many convincing arguments have been published for and against genetic modification.

In a sense, GM is an extension of selective breeding, a practice that is as old as farming.  In her article “Genetically Modified Corn – Environmental Benefits and Risks“, Virginia Gewin states:

“Plant breeding was once restricted to sexually compatible plants, and generations of offspring were selectively bred to create unique varieties. In fact, corn, along with rice and wheat—today’s global crop staples—would not exist without such techniques. With the goal of ever-widening the pool of genetic diversity, conventional plant breeding has gotten more technologically savvy in recent years. For example, realizing that natural mutants often introduce valuable traits, scientists turned to chemicals and irradiation to speed the creation of mutants. From test-tube plants derived from sexually incompatible crosses to the use of molecular genetic markers to identify interesting hereditary traits, the divide between engineering and genetics was narrowing long before kingdom boundaries were crossed.

But when geneticists began to explore microorganisms for traits of interest—such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes that produce a protein lethal to some crop pests—they triggered an uproar over ethical, scientific, and environmental concerns that continues today.”

For or against, GM remains a fascinating subject, and considering the possibilities is quite mind-blowing. Genetic modification have been used to make crops more resistant to insects and other pests, more tolerant to pesticides, and higher in vitamin content.

Interestingly, increased beta carotene, vitamin C and folate in a white corn variety (M37W) from South Africa has resulted in corn with unusually bright orange kernels. Similarly, increasing the levels of beta carotene in rice have created golden rice. New colours and fragrances have also been introduced into flowers through genetic modification.

Imagine the possibilities in the creation of foods with increased visual appeal to the consumer – through changes in colour, taste, fragrance or size. Its scary, but I predict we may still see some very weird things in the supermarket aisles of the future!

Suffice to say, life as we know it would be very different without corn, in its natural or modified form.