Tag Archives: Science

In Support of Homeopathy Awareness Week

Hurrah, it’s Homeopathy Awareness Week (henceforth known as HAW, which in my neck of the woods is a friendly/aggressive* way of saying “excuse me, may I have your attention for a second?). I thought this was the perfect opportunity to break my blogging silence and raise some awareness of homeopathy.

 

History

The first thing to be aware of during HAW is the history of homeopathy. Its founder was a man named Samuel Hahnemann, whose name even suggests he is having a laugh. Hahnemann was a German physician who received his medical degree in 1779, but for fifteen years he struggled to make a living from medicine and was uncomfortable with the standard procedures of the time. Then one day he made a discovery which changed his life and made him a millionaire. While playing around with quinine (an anti-malarial drug), he noted that it actually produced mild symptoms of the disease it was designed to cure (i.e. in a healthy patient quinine causes fever, but not to the extent that malaria does). From this, Hahnemann deduced that illnesses could be cured by giving a patient medicine which, if given to a healthy person, would produce similar symptoms of that same illness but to a lesser degree. Basically, if you were feeling sick, Hahnemann would prescribe you medicine that would make you feel sick. OBVIOUSLY. Thus arises the saying “like cures like” (the term homoeopathy comes from the Greek words homois meaning similar and pathos meaning disease).

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

We shouldn’t be too hard on Hahnemann. After all, this was the late 18th century, conventional medicine wasn’t exactly the safe and evidence-based option it is today, and all Hahnemann wanted to do was develop therapies that were patient-focussed and less invasive than the routine medical practices of the day, like bloodletting. Additionally, Hahnemann mistakenly believed that the success of vaccines showed support for his “like cures like” theory (the use of the cowpox vaccination to prevent smallpox is an example). However the main feature of homeopathy that caused controversy in the medical community at the time was the dilution principle. Hahnemann believed that the active ingredient in the homeopathic medicine should be diluted as much as possible, so that it only produces the slightest symptoms. This somewhat complicated dilution process is explained below by LiveScience:

A typical homeopathic dilution is 30X, where the X represents 10. So, one part toxin (such as the aforementioned poison ivy) is mixed with 10 parts water or alcohol. The mix is shaken; one part of this mix is added to 10 parts of water or alcohol again; and the whole process is repeated 30 times.

The final dilution is one molecule of medicine in 10 to the 30th power (1030) of molecules of solution — or 1 in a million trillion trillion. At this dilution level you’d need to drink 8,000 gallons of water to get one molecule of the medicine — physically possible but implausible.

The fact that homeopathy cannot possibly work was unbeknown to Hahnemann, who developed the treatments before we understood the number of molecules present in any given amount of a substance.

 

Homeopathy Today

However, today we do know about dilution and molecules and we do understand that at the levels of dilution homeopathic medicine work with, it is physically impossible for the treatment to have a causal effect on an illness. So why are there still homeopathic practitioners today? Well, here we become aware of the phenomenon which explains it all. Homeopaths explain that homeopathy does work, because water memory. Yes, you heard, water memory. This is the idea that water has the ability to remember of shape of the medicine it once contained. Bear with me while I explain why this argument is far from water-tight (lolz).

  1. Water memory is not a thing as far as physics is concerned.
  2. According to this theory, ALL THE WATER has a memory. Therefore the water from your taps and your toilet has the potential to be a magical homeopathic potion too.

 

BUT the evidence says it works?!

During HAW, you should be aware of the fact that you can make statistics say anything. You really can. And supporters of homeopathy will insist that the evidence for the treatment’s effectiveness is supported by evidence. This is not true. In all scientific research, you will find an inverse correlation between the quality of the study and the spread of results. The studies that are cited as being strongly in favour of homeopathy are often low-quality studies (owing from many things to their methodology, the number of participants, lack of a control group, and experimenter/publisher/funding body bias). Additionally, homeopath supporters rely on case studies (THIS ONE PERSON SAID HOMEOPATHY WORKED FOR HER!!!) and the research is often carried out by biased homeopathic practitioners (OMG LOOK THIS STUDY I CARRIED OUT SAYS MY WORK IS REALLY GOOD!!)

The take-home message is this: When studied properly and scientifically, homeopathy does not work.

Taking homeopathic treatments may make people feel better, but that is not because of the homeopathic treatment, it is likely due to a fascinating phenomenon called the placebo effect. The placebo effect is related to the perceptions and expectations of the patient. If you’re unwell and are given a sugar pill which you believe to be medicine, you will report feeling better. Moreover, if you are given a saline injection which you believe to be medicine, you will feel even better, and more quickly. If you believe that homeopathy will help you, then it will. But this is a good thing. So what’s the harm?

 

So What’s the Harm?

It’s easy to see homeopathy as a harmless alternative medicine, but it is not. It’s unlikely that the treatments themselves will cause harm, since as we have discussed already, they are basically water. But there are indirect consequences, such as the case of the woman who died an unnecessary painful death from bowel cancer after following the advice of her homeopath husband. Alarmingly, there are organisations who are trying to convince people not to vaccinate their children but to put our entire population in danger of epidemics by promoting homeopathic alternatives. Heck, you can even get homeopathic first aid kits (for the bargain price of $79.99)

homeopathy first aid kit

As one article has noted, homeopathy don’t kill people – homeopaths do. People who make their money through homeopathy are convincing patients to ignore conventional, evidence-based, life-saving medicine in favour of water and sugar pills. And that is harmful.

 

HAW: Key Points

1. Be aware that homeopathy does not and cannot work.

2. Be aware that homeopathy is not harmless.

3. Be aware that promoting homeopathy as an alternative treatment to evidence-based medicine is dangerous.

 

I hope I have helped to raise awareness of homeopathy this week.

 

*In Glasgow, this is really not as oxymoronic as it seems.

 

Refs

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1676328/

http://www.livescience.com/31977-homeopathy.html

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-swiss-report-on-homeopat

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Why the mantis shrimp should make you feel inferior.

The mantis shrimp is one of the coolest, most kick-ass animals of the sea, but don’t just take my word for it. Ask for evidence, and ye shall receive. Okay, here goes.

Firstly, these creatures are masters of disguise and illusion, for the mantis shrimp is neither a mantis, nor a shrimp. They are crustaceans, more closely related to lobsters and crabs than to either of their namesakes.

Image

[PEACOCK MANTIS SHRIMP – NEITHER A PEACOCK, A MANTIS NOR A SHRIMP]

So inaccurate humanoid-given names aside, one factor that immediately gives away the super-cool status of these guys is that the ~400 species of mantis shrimp can be broadly divided into two categories: Spearers and Smashers. SPEARERS. AND. SMASHERS. This name refers to what job the claws on their front appendages do best – namely, whether they have a spike on the end to STAB and SPEAR and IMPALE soft-bodied pray to death, or whether they are equipped with a club, better designed to SMASH and BASH and BLUDGEON hard-bodied neighbours up before chomping down on them for lunch.

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A spearer mantis shrimp in action. Source

Smasher mantis shrimps are particularly incredible – these guys can pack a harder punch than any other living thing, up to 50mph, and bear in mind that’s punching through the resistance of water. The punch of a basher mantis shrimp is often compared to being as powerful as the acceleration of a .22 calibre bullet. Oh, did I mention that the mantis shrimp’s punch is so quick that it causes the surrounding water to boil? THE MANTIS SHRIMP CAN BOIL WATER JUST BY PUNCHING IT.

Mantis shrimps are not only freakishly strong, bludgeoning hulk-crustaceans, they also boast one of the most complex visual systems known to science. To put this into perspective, let’s compare them to us: humans have three colour-receptive cones (red, blue and yellow), which allow us to perceive the world in the rainbow that we do. The mantis shrimp does not have three colour-receptive cones; it has sixteen. It can see colours that we can’t even imagine, including the ultra-violet spectrum. And just to add to their bad-ass image, scientists believe that it is possible that this incredible colour vision evolved in some species primarily for sex! We are not sure of the precise mechanisms by which mantis shrimps use colour for sexual signals, but it is thought that because no other species can see the vast spectrum of colour that certain mantis shrimps utilize, it acts as a secret channel of messaging within the species and therefore cannot be exploited by outsiders and cannot attract the attention of nearby predators. This does help to explain why these creatures are so majestically colourful.

So there you have it. The mantis shrimp is cooler than you are, and is not to be messed with. These colourful boxers and impalers of the sea are spectacular, and I suggest reading the links below to learn more about them. Oh, you probably won’t find many in captivity, though. Aquariums are often reluctant to house them since they destroy any species they are homed with and they have the ability to punch through the glass. TO PUNCH THROUGH THE GLASS. OH MY GOD. Go take a long, hard look in the mirror, puny human. And don’t even attempt to punch your way through it.

You should definitely check out this comic strip by the fantastic Oatmeal - it's way better than this post
http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp

More info:
On Punching: 
http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2008/07/19/the-mantis-shrimp-has-the-worlds-fastest-punch/

On Vision: 
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080320120732.htm
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Happy Valentine’s day! Testicle size and mating systems

I really despise Valentine’s day because I do not appreciate society telling me when I should feel romantic and loved-up and when I should not. HOWEVER as a bit of fun, I thought I would write a post about love, romance and sex but most importantly SCIENCE!

And testes*.

Testicles are funny things, and almost all healthy male vertebrates boast two of them. In many mammals, including ourselves, they hang from the body in a scrotum because the valuable sperm they contain are mighty fussy, and mammalian body temperature tends to be just a little too hot for them. So natural selection kindly began dangling the sperm of males from two sacs between the rear legs, nice work evolution. But it turns out that we can tell a lot about a species’ mating system (i.e. how monogamous or promiscuous they are) just from looking at the size of the male testis. The diagram below is both hilarious and helpful:

Here you can see the gonad size of various primate species in relation to body size. The top row are the males – the big circle represents their body size, the arrow is the penis and the balls are, well, the balls. (No laughing at the gorilla and yes guys, your penis is quite large compared to our primate cousins). The bottom row shows the female sexual organs of the same species – I can’t help but giggle at the human female. MASSIVE BOOBIES!

So the size of the testes can tell us a lot of information about the mating system adopted by various species. We have to remember that although in our culture monogamy is often (rightly or wrongly) seen as the norm, this is far from the case in most other mammalian species. There are lots of different mating systems: monogamy (one male one female), polygyny (one male, several females), polyandry (one female, several males) and promiscuity (basically a free-for-all orgy where it is completely acceptable for anyone to have sex with anyone).

Males of species with promiscuous mating systems (such as chimpanzees) tend to have the largest testes, and this makes sense because of something called sperm competition. In a promiscuous mating system, lots of males are having sex with lots of females, and everyone wants a good shot at fathering the most offspring, because this means passing on your genetic material and is a big fat evolutionary WIN. So for this reason it is advantageous to have a lot of sperm, and big old testes to store the little guys in.

However, the males of species with polygynous mating systems (e.g. gorillas)  tend to have smaller testes, because a single male has almost guaranteed access to at least a couple of females. So there is no need to waste extra energy on producing lots and lots of sperm in giant testicles, because his chances of impregnating a female is pretty high and he has no competition to wane off.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Where do we fit in all of this? Well guys, I have to say, your testicles are classified as “moderate”. Bigger than a gorilla, but shy of a chimp. This actually fits well into the mating system hypothesis – although humans are often socially monogamous, they do participate in moderate levels of non-monogamy (SHOCK HORROR KLAXON)!!

So there you have it. The bigger the balls, the more promiscuous the sexy-times. But smaller testicles aren’t for losers – it just means they don’t have to try so hard! Quality over quantity perhaps? Maybe that just means more time and energy can be spend on post-coital cuddles or, you know, child-rearing.

So whether you have testes or ovaries, and regardless of their size, I wish you all a very happy and sexy V-day.

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A bonobo with large testicles chillin’ out.  Source

*I will leave it up to you to guess what type of mating system this squirrel may participate in.

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