The Rock Clock

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Scope Correspondent

In Siberian summers, MIT graduate student Seth Burgess tells me, the mosquitoes swarm thick enough to choke you. When he conducted fieldwork over several summers in the vast Russian wilderness, their buzzing filled his tent at night and their bodies littered his meals. After the arduous journey by car, bus, plane, and even helicopter to remote Siberia, he spent weeks floating down various rivers battling the insects and searching for rocks. Not just any rocks, though. Burgess is part of a large team answering questions about the greatest extinction event in earth’s history.

Around 250 million years ago, an enormous volcanic event occurred in present-day Siberia. Over a million-year span, lava flows (now called the Siberian Traps) covered an area as large as western Europe. Scientists have long believed there is a connection between the Traps and the Permian extinction of roughly the same time frame, when over 90 percent of life on earth vanished. Without a very precise timeline of the events, however, it has been difficult to identify whether the volcanic eruptions were the primary cause of extinction, or merely one among several. That’s where Seth Burgess’ work comes in. Full Article »

Dr. Riley’s Crossing

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The patient came to Boston City Hospital in fall 1929 after two weeks of difficulty urinating, when he noticed “a watery foul-smelling pus coming from an opening just above the pubis.” The patient was a 52-year-old African-American man, likely poor in money and education, who arrived in the urologist’s office pale and weak, reeking of urine and rotting flesh. The doctor, the same age as his patient, was a urologist and Harvard professor, graduate of Oberlin College ’03 and Harvard Medical School ’07. Dr. Augustus Riley lived at a posh address in Boston, 857 Beacon Street, and went golfing on weekends with other physicians. Dr. Riley would publish an account of this surgery in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A surgical photo shows the scrotum of this African-American male. Dr. Riley’s paper doesn’t mention the race of his patient, but you can tell from the dark pigmentation of his hand, holding up the hospital gown to expose his “gangrenous peritoneum.” In the black-and-white photograph, now in the archives at Harvard’s Countway Medical Library, the patient’s abdomen is punctured with holes, his penis attached to the catheter that saved his life. The nasty-looking gashes to the right of the patient’s belly-button are the surgical treatment for urinary extravasacation: incisions of the abdominal wall to drain urine that has leaked out of the vasa, or tubes, poisoning the abdomen. The resulting gangrene, without the aid of modern antibiotics, almost certainly killed him, according to present-day surgeon Dr. Norman McGowin. But such cases nevertheless required documentation and attempts at treatment.

Dr. Riley published this article at the height of his career as a surgeon and professor in Boston. But his life at Harvard was only possible because the doctor hid a secret. On the day this photo was taken in 1929, the patient was not the only black man in the room.

Gus Riley’s mother, Sallie McCreary, was born a slave.

Full Article »

Breaking the Cheetah Curse

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Scope Correspondent

A pair of cheetah cubs, a brother and sister named Justin and Carmelita, has charmed Smithsonian National Zoo visitors in Washington D.C. since their public debut in July 2012. The eleven-month old cats have shed their baby fuzz for sleek orange fur patterned with black spots. Yet despite their adult stature, the cats still act like rambunctious youngsters, chasing each other around their pen and playfully wrestling.

This is all good for now – but in a year’s time these young cats will be taken off exhibit, just like their parents before them, and started down parallel paths to confront their destiny as genetically robust cheetahs, sired to save their species from extinction.

The world has undergone a massive cheetah drain over the last century largely due to loss of natural habitats and conflicts with humans. Wild cheetah populations have plunged 90 percent, from around 100,000 cheetahs in the early 1900s to roughly 10,000 today. The situation is further complicated by low genetic variability among the species. Saving the cheetahs from extinctions means not only increasing numbers, but also ensuring the new population is genetically healthy. Full Article »

Robo-Tongues Taste for Better Wine

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Scope Correspondent

Sommeliers beware; a robot “tongue” is being trained to taste wine.

The electronic tongue—a machine that “tastes”—has been used to study the qualities of wine, water, beer, and even urine, but a team at Washington State University is working on further developing the machine’s wine-tasting skills in a large-scale red wine analysis project. The researchers arecurrently analyzing sixty-one different commercial merlots, local Washington vintages of varying price levels, to understand the characteristics that shape a good wine.

Although wine has been sniffed, swirled, and sipped for centuries, the chemicals and compounds that make up wine’s complex features remain unidentified. Using built-in chemical sensors, the e-tongue can perceive taste qualities in a fashion similar to the human tongue, yet with no boundaries of time, palatability, or toxicity—and with the added ability to detect specific molecules. Full Article »

Preemies in Private Rooms May Require Extra Care

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Scope Correspondent

Babies born prematurely enter the world before they are fully prepared for it.  Research has shown that the noisy, chaotic environment of the typical open-ward neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), in which the infants are cared for, can cause adverse effects.

But a recent study shows that actions taken to amend these effects—namely, private rooms—could actually be worse for such premature babies. Full Article »

Long road to FDA approval of weight loss drug Contrave

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Scope Correspondent

Diet and exercise continue to make little headway against the obesity epidemic, which according to the CDC now affects over one-third of American adults. The recent FDA approval of Contrave adds another weapon in the fight against America’s growing waistline.

Patients taking Contrave, a combination of the two existing anti-depression and anti-addiction drugs bupropion and naltrexone, lost 6.1% of their total body weight in one clinical trial. Patients receiving placebo lost only 1.4%. These outcomes place Contrave squarely in line with Qsymia and Belviq, the two weight loss drugs that the FDA approved in 2012. Full Article »

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

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Scope Correspondent

New research illuminates why getting scared is good for your soul¬—revealing why BASE jumpers may be less crazy than you think.

A recent study found that extreme sports athletes, defined as those who partake in “activities where the most likely outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident is death,” were not fearless, but utilized fear to stimulate positive outcomes and personal growth.

The study examined fifteen subjects, ten men and five women, who were involved in an extreme sport, such as big-wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, extreme mountaineering, solo rope-free climbing or BASE jumping—launching from buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), or earth (cliffs), parachute equipped. The study debunked the bravado persona associated with extreme sports athletes, noting that participants are not fearless at all. “If you want the truth, if you want a true slogan for these kinds of sports it is ‘Oh please don’t let me die!’” said one BASE jumper from the Queensland University of Technology study. Full Article »

The View From Mulberry, Indiana

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In 1913, astronomer Vesto Slipher—who, despite his exotic-sounding name, was from Mulberry, Indiana—was studying the light of spiraling nebulae (what were later discovered to be galaxies). He knew that, as celestial objects move away from us, their light gets stretched out, causing it to shift to a different section of the color spectrum– toward the red end. In this phenomenon, called redshift, the appearance of the light depends on the observer and the observed: a celestial object’s light appears redshifted to us, on Earth, because it is moving away from us.

But what wasn’t known—and what astronomers later found out—was that it was not only the movement of galaxies away from us that causes redshift. The universe’s effect on light waves as they thread their way through the cosmos is important as well. The path those galaxies’ light takes to reach us—perhaps as we’re standing in a quiet field in Indiana, the only interruption of light a few lamps from a small town—cannot avoid the pull of our expanding universe.

To picture light waves, think of water shooting out of a garden hose. The water that first comes out of the hose, depending on the force of the stream, lands several feet away from the hose’s mouth. For the moment, ignore the idea of gravity, so your line of water never hits the ground; it just persists as a continuous stream of hydrogen-oxygen molecules.

Full Article »

The Radium Worked Fine Until His Bum Lit Up Like A Glow Worm

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Scope Correspondent
On March 30, 1932, the wealthy chairman of a Pittsburgh steel company, Eben Byers, was pronounced dead. The passing of this high-profile socialite and alleged “ladies man,” sent federal agencies and medical authorities into a bit of a panic. Radioactive materials, it turned out, were not things one should eat for lunch.

Byers had bought into the latest in “homeopathic” trends, radium-infused products. Radium is actually present in small quantities in almost all plants, animals, rock, soil and even water. But it was its presence in natural hot springs, considered by many to have curative properties, that kick-started the element into celebrity. In an effort to cure a golf injury, Byers adopted the religious habit of downing several bottles a day of the popular and delicious Radithor. Radiothor was an early form of smart water, but instead of your day’s worth of vitamins, the elixir delivered “certified radioactive water.” “New Substance, Declared to be Cheap and Efficacious in Many Diseases, Shown to Doctors,” read a 1909 New York Times headline on the product.

Radium was cool and everybody was doing it. French women were putting it on their faces in creams. Watches and military instruments used it for its glow-in-the-dark effect. A European company was plunking it in their bread, and another was using it to spruce up their chocolate. Radium toothpaste graced supermarket shelves promising to “load cells with new life.” Even James John “Jimmy” Walker, New York’s incumbent mayor, was home-brewing his own radium water. Full Article »

Overriding Instinct

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Scope Correspondent
Jurassic Park: The Ride was introduced to Universal Studios Hollywood as an adrenaline-junkie innovator. Based on the popular film, passengers were paraded through the forest-themed scenes in a large, yellow water raft, modeled on the film’s ill-fated Jeeps. Twisting past spitting dinosaurs through dark tunnels bedecked as an office, the raft narrowly avoids collisions while voiceovers alert of an immediate evacuation of Jurassic Park. An attacking Tyrannosaurus Rex swoops in to attack the raft as a terrified voice yells, “It’s in the building!” The only escape is a plunge, free-fall, down 84 feet.

In 1997, the ride’s ideal patron took the form of my ten- and twelve-year-old Californian cousins and, by extension, their foolish Minnesotan ally. A nine-year-old sucker, my sole ambitions were Advanced Math class and snowpants without shoulder straps. I was a sitting duck. Full Article »

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