Monday, October 31, 2011

Beware the Freshman 15?

I have this theory that the Freshman 15 applies to every time you enter college. My theory is all about cumulative weight gain as it relates to college attendance and employment, and so far I've only tested it on myself. I'm wondering if my experiment (I'm gonna call it that since it sounds better than the excuses I made to skip going to the gym), and my n=1, are correct.

A new study published in Social Science Quarterly describes the weight change observed by new college students. In case you haven't heard of the publicized, and horrifying, phenomenon that is the Freshman 15 then know that it describes the notion that students tend to gain a substantial amount of weight, about 15 pounds, during their first year at college. Considering the lack of parental supervision, all the free food (particularly ice cream and pizza...oh, and beer, don't forget all the beer) that abounds on college campuses, how poor college students are, the increased stress levels, the lack of sleep coupled with odd eating/snacking hours, andthe  overall decrease in physical activity I can see where that notion stems from. The authors of this paper start by looking at things from a public health perspective, if the Freshman 15 is actually real then efforts should be made to encourage healthy lifestyle habits and prevent obesity in this age group. If it is a media myth then all this encouragement will prove ineffective, cause unnecessary worry, and worsen body image which could actually lead to weight gain. But we'll get back to that later. First, is there actually literature on this topic? Actually, yes. Previous studies, 20 of them to be exact, have looked at weight change among college freshman. Early analyses, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, focused on women and many found that they gain weight. And you can thank Seventeen Magazine for coining the term "Freshman 15" in 1989. About half of the more recent studies include men, but those studies still include more women than men. Seeing a trend here yet? You add up all of the studies and you will see that freshman do in fact gain weight, although not nearly 15 pounds. Usually they average around four.

Those previous studies had a couple of major flaws. I've pointed out the mostly women thing, but they also were largely conducted on small campuses and included nonrandom samples. This new study attempts to solve those problems by using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) which allows them a large, nationally representative, random sample of college freshmen, and they can compare freshman to similarly aged noncollege students. They tracked mean and median weight changes, ran multivariate regressions that adjust for each individual's weight gain according to specific factors (age, gender, etc), ran simulations to estimate the difference in weight gain between college and noncollege students, and then conducted a longitudinal analysis to track weight change during and after college.

After all of that the authors conclude that the Freshman 15 is a media myth. Freshman do indeed gain weight but on average only about 3 pounds. Additionally, college students were found to only gain half a pound more than noncollege students. The authors suggest that this media myth is perpetuated by the use of the catchy "the Freshman 15" phrase, and that it contributes to the misperception of being overweight, especially for women. Thanks for that 1980's studies and media jerks. They also suggest that the transition to college is not a critical point in terms of weight gain, that weight gain doesn't happen all in the freshman year but gradually over a longer period of time. That being said and returning to the public health perspective from above, they recommend that media and campus reports frame articles and information with a healthy living theme, including fitness tips and debunking myths. They also point out that college is a good place to teach young adults about proper nutrition, healthy cooking, and fitness. Now for the "we'll get back to that later" part, I'm not sure how this healthy lifestyle encouragement fits in with the statement that such information will prove ineffective, cause unnecessary worry, and worsen body image which could actually lead to weight gain, as they stated earlier in their paper. They don't really expand on whether it is the use of the term "Freshman 15" or whether using it in conjunction with healthy lifestyle encouragement or if just the healthy lifestyle encouragement itself is the worrying part for people. My waistline and I would be very interested to know. In general, I say living healthier is healthier for someone. But, hey, what do I know?

So I suppose my theory doesn't really have all that much scientific evidence. Ah, well, tis the nature of science.

Here's the paper:
Zagorsky, Jay L. and Patricia K. Smith (2011) The Freshman 15: A critical time for obesity intervention or media myth? Social Science Quarterly: 92(5), 1389-1407. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00823.x)

The Axes of Evil

Happy Halloween! Beware of sinister graphs...

(via Incidental Comics)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Space Junk? Meet Lasers

"Back in the 60's, I had a weather changing machine that was, in essence, a sophisticated heat beam which we called a 'laser.' Using these 'lasers,' we punch a hole in the protective layer around the Earth, which we scientists call the 'Ozone Layer.' Slowly but surely, ultraviolet rays would pour in, increasing the risk of skin cancer. That is unless the world pays us a hefty ransom."

Perhaps I should have titled this post the Alan Parsons Project?

Anyway, I was looking for a specific article I had seen written up in Wired Science and my cursor would not allow me to scroll further than an article about frying space junk with lasers. Smart cursor.

As with everywhere else we've been we leave stuff behind. Space is no exception. Over the past 35 years we have created several hundred thousand pieces of space debris larger than 1cm in the 400-2000km altitude low Earth orbit (LEO) band, their density reaching a peak in the 800-1,000km altitude range. Small, untracked debris is hazardous to space vehicles, and although larger debris are less numerous and trackable they are also dangerous. Not to mention that what goes up may eventually come down. Recent events with a falling satellite have illustrated that. As someone who lives on the down area I may have cause to be concerned. But what do do about it?

A new paper published Oct. 17 on arxiv suggests a solution. First, categorize the debris into threat categories. The authors present an equation that calculates the interval between collisions because while the debris growth rate is reduced by removing large objects that, when hit, produce small objects and the small objects are a greater threat numerically.

Next, create a method to get rid of said debris. Up to now many methods have been proposed to rid LEO of space junk including grappling the objects, attaching deorbiting kits, deploying nets to capture objects, attaching an electrodynamic tether and deploying clouds of frozen mist, gas or blocks of aerogel in the debris path to slow it. The problems with these techniques are the expense (costing about 27 million dollars per large object!), the accuracy, and the difficulty.  So what do you do? Lasers!

Laser-based methods can be divided into three categories: (1) low laser intensity which doesn't destroy but instead divert the debris, (2) higher laser intensity which heats to ablation with continuous (CW) lasers, and (3) pulsed laser orbital debris removal (LODR) which uses a mirror to focus a repetitively pulsed, high intensity laser on an object. The first method is less efficient, its effects are comparable to the uncertain effects of space weather and sunlight, and it does not address the debris growth problem. The second method involves slow heating of tumbling debris which gives an ablation jet whose momentum contribution cancels itself out, and the heating causes a messy melt ejection that adds to the debris problem. Therefore the authors recommend the third method.

If you read the entire 37 page paper then you will see that the authors make a good case for the pulsed laser space junk removal system. Overall, it costs the least per object, can deal with both small and large objects, can handle tumbling objects, can prevent collisions, and the target access is at the speed of light, redundant and agile. Not to mention that it will require international cooperation to build and operate, and the authors make the point that this cooperation will "avoid concerns that it is a weapon system." So I guess it has that forcing everyone to play nice factor going for it.

Summary: Lasers disintegrating space junk = Really cool.

Here's the paper:
Phipps, Claude R. (2011) Removing orbital debris with lasers. (arxiv:1110.3835)

And here is the Wired Science Story:
Space Junk Crisis: Time to Bring in the Lasers

Also check out:
Space Junk Problem Reaches 'Tipping Point' from Discovery News

"Mini Me, stop humping the 'laser'. Honest to God! Why don't you and the giant 'laser' get a fricken room for God's sakes"

Sorry, couldn't help it; I just had to throw in one last Dr. Evil quote.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


For natural Ph.D. enhancement.

Following Birds Following Ants

What is mental time travel? Sounds a little like something from Star Trek or Dr. Who. Actually its pretty simple, its really just a type of memory. It can be broken down in to 2 elements: the ability to remember past events (episodic memory) and the ability to anticipate and plan for future ones (future thinking). One of the reasons it sounds so simple is that, as humans, it is something that we can do. There is some evidence that a number of animals such as corvids, chickadees, rats, and great apes can remember past events in terms of what happened when and where, and there is some evidence that corvids and primates engage in future planning. However, the issue is whether animals engage in mental time travel.

A new ideas paper in Behavioral Ecology reviews mental time travel by looking at bivouac-checking, a specialized behavior of birds that interact with army ants. Army ants (Eciton burchellii) have regular alternating periods of high (nomadic) and low (statary) raiding activity. The statary period often lasts for several days, but when the ants enter the nomadic phase they raid the forest many days in a row. Several species of birds will follow the ants back to their temporary nest (called a bivouac) to inspect its location and assess this activity. This checking occurs in the evening and then the birds return the next morning to check the bivouac before feeding at the ants' raid. Now this raid is the important part. The army ants swarm across the forest floor and flush out leaf-litter dwelling arthropods. This flushing allows the birds to forage the fleeing arthropods. So you can see why it would be beneficial that the birds know when these raids will happen by checking up on the ants, and it is even more benefical to keep track of multiple bivouacs. And this is where the mental time travel comes in to play.

Bivouac-checking behavior may require episodic-like memory. The birds must remember the location of the bivouac so that they can return to it the next morning while also remembering which nests are in the nomadic phase. They must also get there before the ants start their raid. Element 2 of mental time travel is future thinking. That's a tough one. I mean, how do you test whether a bird is making plans for the future? The birds do exhibit some behavior that may indicate future thinking. They check bivouac when they are sated. A bird with a full tummy doesn't immediately benefit by checking a bivouac. There is, however, a delayed benefit when the bird returns the next morning to find the ants raiding again. This dissociation of current state and future need suggests anticipation of future events.

Being an ideas paper this isn't an actual study. The authors are really just suggesting a good model system for the study of mental time travel by describing the merits of the system and providing some interesting questions for a future study.

Read the paper here:
Logan, Corina J., Sean O'Donnell, and Nicola S. Clayton (2011) A case of mental time travel in ant-following birds? Behavioral Ecology: 22(6), 1156-1165. (DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arr104)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Skill Sets

I'm not sure why I find this so funny, maybe it is the simplicity of it's truth.Whatever. Still laughing.

(via FB I am in science)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What is Your Ph.D. About?

Dance Your Ph.D. is a contest for people in the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, and social science) to create videos in which they explain their research thesis through dance. The rules are that a video must be on the Ph.D. student's own thesis and that the Ph.D. student must be a part of the video. The grand prize winner receives $1000, is recognized by Science, and achieves "immortal geek fame on the Internet." The best Ph.D. dance also gets a free trip and hotel stay in Brussels so they can be crowned the winner at the TEDx conference on November 22, 2011. A $500 prize goes to each of the best videos in each remaining science categories.

As of today the four winners have been announced!

Joel Miller,  a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia in Perth, has won the grand prize for his video about using lasers to create titanium alloys strong and flexible enough for long-lasting hip replacements.

Cedric Tan of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom won the Biology prize for his video depicting the mating dance of the fruit fly, capturing the way that male flies stalk and sniff the female flies.

FoSheng Hsu, a chemist at Cornell University,  won the Chemistry prize for his project about the entire sequence of steps required for x-ray crystallography. His video starts with the depiction of a bacterium spitting out raw protein and ends with a dance interpretation of the three-dimensional structure of a protein.

Emma Ware, a behavioral biologist at Queen's University in Canada, won the Social Sciences prize for her video about the courtship dances of male pigeons and their attention to the females.

Didn't get to enter your video this year? No worries! The contest will be going again next year so start thinking of great ways to Dance Your Ph.D.

Find out more and enter your video here:
The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest Website

Science article "'Dance Your Ph.D.' Winner Announced"

To see all the videos from the 16 finalists check out the Science article "Dancing to Epigenetics and Endocytosis"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Fishy Question

I love seafood as much as the next person...well, ok, probably more. It is a healthy and delicious food source, but there is a limit to the fish in the sea. We tend to think of ocean fish and shellfish as just food on our plates, but they are wildlife. Wildlife that we hunt on a very large scale.

Humans have been fishing the oceans for thousands of years, but within the last half century technology has developed such that we are able to fish farther, deeper, and more efficiently. As such, more than 70 percent of the world's commercial marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, or have collapsed. Add to that illegal fishing, habitat damage, and bycatch and you have a serious worldwide problem. Over the past few decades aquaculture, or fish farming, has become an increasingly popular solution to the increasing pressures on marine resources. In fact, today, half of our seafood comes from farms. However, the ecological impact of farming depends on the species raised, the farm location, and how the animals are raised. What does that mean? Well, some species are easier to raise than others, some farms are closed-systems where wastes are controlled, some farms have higher escape rates which threaten native species with diseases, and some farms feed a vegetable- or soy-based diet while others feed with wild caught fish.

Alright, well, that's pretty bleak right? So what can you, the single lowly consumer, do about it? Actually, that is pretty simple. Ask questions and watch what you eat. First, there are a few ocean-friendly steps that you can take:

1. Purchase seafood from a green (or if unavailable, yellow list) or look for the Marine Stewardship Council blue eco-label in stores and restaurants. (see below about where to get and how to read seafood guides)

2. When you buy seafood, ask where it comes from and if it is farmed or wild-caught. Most reputable markets will label their fish. However, some stores and restaurants only give generic names and catch locations for their fish. Ask anyway and tell them why you care, it may prompt them to look into it. An alternative is to buy seafood through online retailers, such as, who feature sustainable species and deliver right to your home.

3. Spread the word. The more people practicing safe seafood the better.

Seafood guides are a free and easy way to help you choose the right seafood. In general, the lists are broken up into three colors:
  •  Green (Best) - abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.
  • Yellow (Good/OK) - an alternative to green but there are mixed records on how they are managed, the health of their habitat, or how they are caught or farmed.
  •  Red (Avoid/Worst) - have one or more serious environmental problems such as overfishing, poor management, high bycatch, extensive habitat damage, or come from farms that allow widespread pollution, spread disease, use chemicals, or have a high escape rate.
No matter the country you live in you should be able to find a list that works for you. There are small pocket guides, larger lists, and even easy-to-use online searches. I've listed some great websites below where you can find more information about sustainable seafood and lists to help you choose wisely.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
This is the best website I have found for information, guides, searches, and links.

Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector
This is a great website that includes a lot of information about each of the species on each of the three lists. They also include great, free, downloadable guides.
Blue Ocean Institute's Seafood Page
This website includes a great FAQ page as well as a seafood and sushi guide.

Natural Resources Defense Council's Sustainable Seafood Guide
This guide delves more into the topic of contaminated seafood but includes a shopping guide, recipes, and health alert information.

Marine Stewardship Council
Find out what MSC products are available in your country. Find out about what it takes to get a product certified and even track a fishery.

Marine Conservation Society - FISHONLINE website
This is for you U.K. folks. You can search for a fish, get fish ratings and lists, get information on fishery/production areas and methods, and download seafood guides.

Australian Marine Conservation Society
This one is for the Aussies. They include all the information you could want about your oceans. There are downloadable seafood guides and also an iPhone app!

WWF Sustainable Seafood Consumer Guides
Not in the U.S., the U.K, or Australia? Not a problem. Check out the World Wildlife Fund's list of worldwide seafood guides. The is a link to your country's web page with link to download a seafood guide PDF. While you are there (no matter your country of origin) check out their information on fisheries and sustainable seafood.

End of the Line
This is the world's first major documentary about the effects of overfishing. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is now out on DVD. Go to their website to watch the trailer, find or organize a screening, order a DVD, and/or find links for guides.

(image from

Monday, October 17, 2011

The 2011 Ig Nobel Awards

"The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

Since 1991, the annual awards event is held at Harvard University and the winners travel to the ceremony, at their own expense, from several continents, to receive a prize from "group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates, assisted by a large number of assorted Ig personnel, all before a perpetually standing-room only audience." It is a highlight of the scientific community. I know that I always get a big kick out of them. In fact, back in May, I reviewed the paper that won the physiology prize (see Catching the Yawn).

The 21st First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, held on September 29, 2011, introduced ten new Ig Nobel Prize winners.

Wilkinson, Anna, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mand, and Ludwig Huber (2011) No evidence of contagious yawning in the red footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria. Current Zoology: 57(4), 477-484. (LINK)

Imai, Makoto, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm. US patent application 2010/0308995 A1. Filing date: Feb 5, 2009.

Presented jointly to:
Tuk, Mirjam, Debra Trampe, and Luk Warlop (2011) Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains. Psychological Science: 22(5), 627-633. (DOI: 10.1177/0956797611404901)
Lewis, Matthew, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman, Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (2011) The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults. Neurology and Urodynamics: 30(1), 183-187. (DOI: 10.1002/nau.20963)

Translation: "People make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate."

Teigen, Karl Halvor (2008) Is a Sigh 'Just a Sigh'? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology: 49 (1), 49–57. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2007.00599.x)

Translation: "Trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh."

Perry, John (1996) How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done. Chronicle of Higher Education. (LINK)
Later republished elsewhere under the title "Structured Procrastination."

Translation: "To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important."

Gwynne, Darryl T. and David C.F. Rentz (1983) Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females (Coleoptera). Journal of the Australian Entomological Society: 22(1), 79-80. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1440-6055.1983.tb01846.x)
(and, by the same authors, because two papers on this topic is way better than just one)
Gwynne, Darryl T. and David C.F. Rentz (1984) Beetles on the Bottle. Antenna: Proceedings (A) of the Royal Entomological Society London: 8(3), 116-117.

Translation: "A certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle."

Perrin, Philippe, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne, Bruno Ragaru and Herman Kingma (2000) Dizziness in Discus Throwers is Related to Motion Sickness Generated While Spinning. Acta Oto-laryngologica: 120(3), 390–5. (DOI: 10.1080/000164800750000621)

Translation: "Why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't."

This one is held jointly by...
Dorothy Martin (U.S.) who predicted the world would end in 1954
Pat Robertson (U.S.) who predicted the world would end in 1982
Elizabeth Clare Prophet (U.S.) who predicted the world would end in 1990
Lee Jang Rim (Korea) who predicted the world would end in 1992
Credonia Mwerinde (Uganda) who predicted the world would end in 1999
Harold Camping of the (U.S.) who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011

Translation: "The world [should] be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations." Apparently the U.S. in particular.

Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, LITHUANIA, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

Translation: I think the VIDEO really speaks for itself.

Senders, John W., et al., (1967) The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving. Highway Research Record: 195, 15-33. (LINK)

Translation: "A series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him." Oh yeah and there's a great VIDEO for this one too!

If you have an hour and 45 minutes free and want to watch or listen to the ceremony...

I also highly recommend the Improbable Research Organization's website. They publish the Annals of Improbable Research magazine and are the administers of the Ig Nobel Prizes. All the info and links that you've read today have come from there and you can see the winners from past years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Faster Than a Speeding Photon

I've been avoiding posting about this story because I'm not sure I'm totally on board with the results. But to say it has caught the news media and Internet on fire would be an understatement. So I've decided to go for it: Let's review the paper about neutrinos going faster than the speed of light.

Physics, especially particle physics, can get really complicated really fast. So, I think, to understand the significance of this finding you have to know some basics about fundamental particles. For that I suggest you go back and read my So Quarky post from back in 2010. Neutrinos are one of these fundamental particles belonging to the class of particles called leptons. They have no charge which means they are not affected by the electromagnetic force; they are only affected by the weak subatomic force. They are able to pass through large amounts of matter without being affected. Since it has mass, although extremely tiny, it is affected by gravity but that is the weakest of the forces. Neutrinos come from several sources. Most of them are left over from the big bang and make up part of the cosmic microwave background while others are produced in stars, beta decay, etc. We can also generate them in physics laboratories by colliding high energy particles into fixed or moving targets.

The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second (186,282 miles per hour). According to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, the speed of light (c) in a vacuum as a physical constant, a maximum speed at which all energy, matter, and information in the universe can travel. The speed of light is the speed of light no matter the motion of the source or the inertial frame of reference of the observer. It is the ultimate limit, the fastest a particle can move. So what happens when an experiment records a particle going faster than the speed of light?

The Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) lies 1,400 meters underground in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory (LNGS) in Italy. It was designed to "perform the first detection of neutrino oscillations in direct appearance mode in the νμ→ντ channel, the signature being the identification of the τ− lepton created by its charged current (CC) interaction." Um, ok. In addition to this main goal, OPERA is also suited accurately determine neutrino velocity though the measurement of the time of flight and distance from the source. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), 730km away, fires a beam of neutrinos through the earth to OPERA, a 2.43-millisecond trip for a photon. A total of 16111 events were collected over three years. They found that, on average, the neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than expected if they were traveling at the speed of light.


Now take a couple of logical steps past that. If neutrinos go faster than the speed of light (even a little bit) then are we getting into the realm of tachyons and time travel? Possibly.

But wait...don't throw Einstein's theories out the window and don't start building that time machine just yet.

The big question now is whether these scientists have actually discovered particles going faster than the speed of light or if there is some type of error in their experiment that is making the velocity look artificially short. After all, this is an extremely sensitive measurement. We're talking unreacting particles that are lighter than an electron and time measured in nanoseconds. Right now there are all sorts of responses being talked about an published on this topic.

The consequences of these results would be huge, and one of the things I like about this experiment is the way in which it was presented. They didn't just announce "We've broken the speed of light!" The authors put the information out there -- here are our results -- asking scientists to independently confirm or deny these results and/or offer up explanations as to why these results were obtained.

What do you think?

Here is the prepublished paper:
Adam, T. et al. (2011) Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam. High Energy Physics - Experiment ( arXiv:1109.4897v1)

I also recommend reading through a few of these articles as they offer some great views from other physicists:
Science Magazine: Neutrinos Travel Faster Than Light, According to One Experiment
Nature News: Particles Break Light-Speed Limit
The Guardian: Faster Than Light Particles Found, Claim Scientists
Scientific American: Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts
The New York Times: Tiny Neutrinos May Have Broken Cosmic Light Speed
Wired Science: Can Neutrinos Move Faster Than Light?
New Scientist: Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? New Answers Flood In

(image from

Monday, October 3, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

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