“The unsolved mysteries of the rainforest are formless and seductive. They are like unnamed islands hidden in the blank spaces of old maps, like dark shapes glimpsed descending the far wall of a reef into an abyss. They draw us forward and stir strange apprehensions. The unknown and prodigious are drugs to the scientific imagination, stirring insatiable hunger with a single taste. In our heart, we hope we will never discover everything. We pray that there will always be a world like this one at whose edge I sat in darkness. The rainforest and its richness is one of the last repositories on Earth of that timeless dream.”—E.O. Wilson
Interested in writing about neat sciencey stuff?
I know it seems like this only just happened, but if you’d like your writing to be featured on sciencesoup in April, I’m now accepting guest articles again! I’ll be going to the land of FREEDOM for three weeks, staying in Texas and D.C., and although I’ll have internet access, I’d rather have a queue set up so I’m not worried about keeping you guys in the science-know.
- Deal informatively with a topic relevant to the STEM fields (but you have a free choice of topic within those parameters, as long as I haven’t previously written about it)
- Follow my current blog format—that is, short one paragraph articles of under 300 words
- Be your own original writing, and be factually correct
- Be written clearly, concisely, and in an interesting manner
- Include a relevant image (or images) with a source link
Instead of emailing your submission(s) to me like last time, I’ve opened my submissions inbox so you can submit articles directly to this blog. Of course, if published, you’ll be fully credited, so please include your URL in your submission. There’s a limit of two submissions per person, and the deadline will be the 31st of March.
I’ll be choosing the articles I think are interesting and well-written, so I look forward to seeing your best work. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to message me or email me—even if I don’t reply promptly, I guarantee I’ll reply nicely!
Submit here—good luck!
Roger Highfield on science writing
What’s the biggest potential pitfall when writing about science?
Ensuring that it is interesting, clear and simple enough to grip a general reader yet accurate enough to satisfy a Nobel prizewinner.
Read more tips and the interview at the guardian.
Mary Roach, Gulp, pg. 280-282:
“By far the oddest reverse delivery on record is the holy-water enema. The first reference I came upon, a passing mention in an art journal, suggested that the holy-water clyster was a routine weapon in the exorcist’s arsenal. This made a certain amount of sense: Why sprinkle the possessed with holy water when you can pump it right up inside them? Seeking to verify the practice, I e-mailed the public relations office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the stateside headquarters of the Catholic Church. Naturally this went unheeded. Returning to the art journal, I consulted the article’s references, ordered a copy of the cited paper, and hired a translator, as it had been published in an Italian medical journal.
The holy-water enema, by this account, was an isolated case, involving Jeanne des Anges, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Loundun, France, in the early 1660s. Des Anges claimed that the parish priest, a raffish, high-ranking charmer named Urbain Grandier, was appearing to her in her dreams, caressing her and attempting to seduce her. He seemed to be having some measure of success, as the contemplative quiet of the convent was being shattered by the mother superior’s nightly shrieks of sexual frenzy. An exorcism was promptly ordered.
Why would one administer the blessed liquid rectally instead of simply having the possessed drink a glass of it? One explanation is that the original Roman Catholic rite for the Blessing of the Holy Water included adding salt to the water. Regardless of the origins of the practice, this had the effect of rendering it undrinkable.
Here’s the other reason: “After many days in which the priest tried to dispel the devil, he learned from the possessed mother superior that the devil had barricaded himself inside…” Here my translator stopped. She leaned closer to the photocopied pages and traced the words with her finger. “…il posteriore della superiora. Inside her butt!”
Sensing that the situation had progressed beyond his expertise or comfort level, the exorcist called for outside help in the form of a pharmacist, “Signor Adam,” and his traveling syringe. (Enemas in those days were the purview of pharmacists and comprised a sizable percentage of their income.) Mr. Adam “filled up the syringe with holy water and gave the miracle clyster to the mother superior, with his usual skill.” Two minutes later the devil had vamoosed.
Books about the Loundun fracas, including a 1634 translation of an account by “an eyewitness,” include no mention of Mr. Adam or rectal exorcism, but they do serve to flesh out the story. Grandier was convicted of sorcery and burned at the stake, and most sources agree he’d been framed by des Anges, acting in cahoots with a rival priest. The “possessions” continued for several years after the execution, spreading to sixteen other nuns and turning the convent into a local tourist attraction, and understandably so: “They…made use of expressions so indecent as to shame the most debauched of men, while their acts, both in exposing themselves and inviting lewd behavior…would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothels in the country.”
In the words of my translator Rafaella, responding to the material I had engaged her to read, “I am sorry, but nuns should be allowed to have sex.” Or at least an occasional holy-water enema.”
I don’t even know what to fucking do with this book anymore, you guys.
How a little known virus can cause asthma in kids.
If I were a virus, I think I’d like to be Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
What is that, you ask? Exactly my point.
Our lungs are the only organ in our body that is exposed to the filth of our environment. Because of this, our lungs have to fight off bacteria, viruses and pollutants, and yet try to function normally to help us breathe.
Asked to name a respiratory virus, our mind immediately jumps to influenza, the big daddy of viruses that affect our lung. Yet, there is a virus that infects more infants throughout the world (in developed and developing countries), that nearly all of us have been infected by at least once by the age of 1 year, that we have no vaccine or treatment for, that our body is unable to develop long lasting immunity to, and that kills more elderly individuals than influenza. That virus is RSV, and yet, is but a blimp in our collective consciousness.
I will admit, I am partial to this virus. I work with it for my PhD. My aim is to study how infections with RSV early on can cause asthma.
Oh right. I forgot to tell you. If you are hospitalised with RSV infection as a kid, you have a higher likelihood of getting asthma as you get older. Influenza on the other hand? Can’t cause asthma.
See why I said I’d like to be RSV if I were a virus? Infectious, and yet staying under the radar.
There are a number of ways by which we think early life infection can cause asthma, and I might go into those in a later blog post. But one of the coolest suggestive mechanisms, was published by Nandini Krishnamoorthy, at the University of Pittsburgh and her colleagues in Nature Medicine in September, 2012.
They started with the knowledge that in mice, any allergen, if given with TGFbeta (an important cytokine) to a baby mouse through its mother’s milk, then the baby mice develop tolerance to the allergen: by this, I mean that these baby mice will not have an asthmatic reaction to the same allergen as they get older. However, baby mice that received milk without the allergen would develop asthma if they saw the allergen later in life. This process is mediated by a subset of lymphocytes called T regulatory cells (Treg), which are important for tolerance and preventing autoimmune diseases.
Given this, Krishnamoorthy et al exposed new mouse moms to an allergen called OVA derived from eggs, so that these allergens are passed onto their pups through breast milk. These pups, when they were older, did have any asthmatic symptoms when exposed to OVA. However, the same pups, when infected with RSV virus and then exposed to OVA, developed severe asthmatic symptoms. Somehow, virus infection of these mice was breaking tolerance to the allergen, and causing disease.
How does the virus do this? Turns out, infection with the virus changes the nature of the cells in the lymph nodes of these tolerised pups, so that the Treg cells present are now Th2 expressing-Treg cells, rather than normal Treg cells. Th2 type immune responses have been shown to be crucial in mouse and humans for the development of asthma, and RSV’s ability to push Tregs down the Th2 path causes these cells to break their normal roles, and push towards asthma in mice.
What does RSV get out of this push towards an asthmatic-Th2 immune response? Both mouse and human babies (and probably babies of other species) have an immune response that starts off as Th2 biased. The reason this happens is because the alternative, a Th1 inflammatory response, while great for fighting off viruses as adults, also causes damage to normal cells and this would be bad for a still developing young baby. RSV has learnt to exploit this chink in our immune armour, and predominantly infects young children when their immune systems are still developing and are Th2 biased. This way, the virus can infect and replicate, before the Th1 immune response of our bodies evolve and stop the virus in its tracks. Additionally, there is some evidence that RSV actively induces a Th2 response, in order to carry along its merry way. Therefore, the virus doesn’t try to actively cause asthma— rather, it is the nature of our immune system, along with the viruses’s innate desire to live and replicate, that drives our immune system to develop asthma.
Not all kids who are infected however, get asthma. Why this happens, is a whole other mystery. Welcome to science.
Krishnamoorthy et al. Early infection with respiratory syncytial virus impairs regulatory T cell function and increases susceptibility to allergic asthma. Nat Med. 2012 Oct;18(10):1525-30. doi: 10.1038/nm.2896. Epub 2012 Sep 9.
“I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria — thermophilic or acidophilic bacteria, for example — do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine. I could not have predicted, on that hot, bright day in Guinea, that I would end up writing for science teachers. But I listened to a woman talk about science communication and something perked up inside me. That way, it’s a little warmer that way. And I took a step.”—
Stephanie Chasteen is a physicist, writer, and educator. She’s talking about scientists finding their way to “alternative” careers away from the bench, but I think this is a great metaphor for just about everyone.