Monday, 1 June 2015

Scientists Want To Put A Blimp In Venus's Atmosphere

Scientists Want To Put A Blimp In Venus's Atmosphere | IFLScience

Well, not quite. Next year NASA will be hosting the New Frontiers competition to design the best unmanned mission to do with comet surface sample return, a Saturn probe, a sample return from Aitken Basin on the moon, a Venus lander (because they always work so well...), or a Trojan asteroid tour and rendezvous probe (think Rosetta).



Personally, I'm pretty sceptical of the Venusian blimp. I think corrosive gases might end up eating away at an awful lot of it. What do you think?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Sufjan Stevens - All the Trees of the Field will clap their Hands


I love this song, okay? It always reminds me of chapel in school as the light streamed through the stained glass windows and I concentrated on that instead of the sermons. Most of all it reminds me of trundling along across the Pennines on a train.

The Great Anti-Anti-GMO Rant

Ah, GMOs, those things what sound scary and probably cause cancer. Also Monsanto. Down with Frankenfoods!

Okay, I'll just say this now: I'm sick and tired of unscientific - indeed antiscientific - scaremongering about genetically modified organisms. I am sick of people calling genetically modified foods "frankenfoods" and implying they cause cancer. I am sick of the idea that all non-GM food is "natural".

Why I'm actually sick of all these things goes beyond mere pedantry, as I'll explain later. But first, some lovely disparate sections...

Monsanto
I'll let you in on something not-so-secret here: I hate Monsanto and their business practices, particularly with respect to patents (trying to patent DNA is really, really scary and has serious ethical consequences). However, Monsanto and genetic modification are separate, just as medical science and Big Pharma are separate.

Oh, wait. There are actually people who don't separate medical science and Big Pharma, and whose peddling of fear gets children killed.

Fuck everything.

If you are one of those people, I probably won't convince you without these issues affecting you personally. So let me just say that a research field and the way companies use that research may be connected, but they are different things, and that your inability or unwillingness to recognise that means that people die of preventable conditions. In other words: your pigheadedness is killing people. I hope you have a problem with that.

Natural foods
A lot of people who are against genetically modifying food consider it unnatural.

If you believe this, I hate to break it to you, but...neither is most of the food we eat. In terms of human lifespans, this is not something new. We have domesticated plants and animals for thousands of years. Our crops have been selectively bred so that they rely on humans for reproduction and dissemination. Our domesticated animals have been selectively bred to have more juvenile traits (so they are more docile) and to be more fertile. Without human intervention, several plant and animal species would not exist as we know them today (if at all).

No, selective breeding is not the same as directly manipulating an organism's genome. But either way, you're trying to change some organism's DNA for your own purposes. This is hardly natural. Domestication is not natural. Stop pushing the idea that unnatural food is bad when most of the food on your plate has been selectively and unnaturally bred (hello, seedless watermelons) over thousands of years, unless you want to completely forsake all GM and domesticated food. (I don't recommend doing this. It's hard. There's a reason people started domesticating organisms.)

Genetic modification is everywhere
A lot of the anti-GM brigade rail against "frankenfoods", seemingly without knowing that we have franken-everything. Somehow, the world hasn't been taken over by glowing E. coli yet.

Yes, you heard that right - glowing E. coli. You can genetically modify bacteria to make them glow in the dark (theoretically, you can modify the DNA of any creature to make it glow in the dark; in practice, you need approval from an ethics committee). Biology undergraduates are taught to do this all over the world.

And those glow-in-the-dark creatures I mentioned before? Yeah, scientists are using them to study deadly conditions like HIV/AIDS (well, technically the glow-in-the-dark cats are being used to study FIV, which is the feline equivalent).

This is without going into how A. thaliana is regularly used as a model organism in genetic engineering experiment, along with fruit flies. Somehow we still haven't been taken over by muta-plants, giant flies and glow-in the-dark megafauna. (I don't know why I made them megafauna. Megafauna are really, really cool.)

Finally, genetic engineering has been used to mass-produce medications, from insulin to human growth hormone to vaccines and much more. Without genetic engineering, medication would be more expensive than it already is and far more scarce, drastically reducing people's quality of life and increasing the number of deaths from preventable conditions.

"You're a corporate shill!"
Oh, this old cliché...this comes out whenever you're arguing with one of those anti-science tinfoil-hatted goons. There's no possibility of you actually having studied the science or anything, oh no. You must be in the pay of Monsanto or Big Pharma or whatever the evil company of the week is.

Honestly, I'd love for someone to pay me to write shit on the internet. I'm a broke student and I could use that money for actual food and rent, or for saving up to juggle the utility bills in my new place, or for buying new shoes since the soles on the pairs I've had for 3 years are coming off, or for donating to a worthy cause, or...well, you get the picture. As it is, I do this for free in my spare time. Monsanto, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and the rest probably don't even know I exist. If they did, I've been critical of them in the past. I think they can find better shills than me.

Why do I do this?
And finally we get to the bit I said I was going to do: beyond academic nitpicking, why do I care? Don't I have a life? As a student, I'm supposed to be studying in the hope that those thousands of pounds weren't a waste of money, or else living it up and getting so pissed on nights out that I end up in a different country. Blogging about GMOs is...well...neither.

Okay, here's the thing. I'd rather not be doing this. I'd rather live in a world where everyone has access to a good scientific education.

Unfortunately, we don't live in that world. Given that I've got the knowledge and the access, I consider it my responsibility to talk about science and spread access to that information so that I can create that world. And I want to create that world because ignorance and misinformation kill.

Genetic modification is everywhere, from the first-year biology labs to researching conditions that we still have difficulty treating and everywhere in between. Genetic engineering helps improve people's qualities of life, thanks to being able to mass-produce medications, and could help us feed the world (along with not wasting so much food along every bit of the supply line - that would really help). Trying to stop it all now would set back research several decades. Supplies of medicines and vaccines would run low and be a hell of a lot less reliable - and after the measles outbreaks recently I don't think anyone really wants a repeat. Oh, and that whole feeding-the-world thing might get a bit more difficult.

And this doesn't just irritate me from an academic point of view, it makes me angry. It makes me angry that some affluent suburban types obsessed with a romantic and utterly unrealistic ideal of what is "natural" think that because they have a problem with things they've never so much as thought of researching beyond looking at clickbait or (god forbid) NaturalNews, they can try and turn the clock back by decades.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that setting back research and fucking with production of food, medicine and vaccines will kill millions of people? Because, you know, that's what happens when it's suddenly more difficult to source crops to feed people, or medicines to treat people's illnesses, or vaccines to give them immunity from some of those illnesses, and when developing new treatments gets that much slower.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty uncomfortable with the idea that millions of people have to die just because someone doesn't like the idea of "strange genes" in their food and doesn't know that most of the stuff they eat is unnatural anyway. In fact, it makes me burn with rage.

And that's why I talk about things like this. Because every time someone debunks NaturalNews nonsense or points out that GMOs are perfectly safe, that threat gets pushed back. Sometimes we even get people to change their minds based on the evidence, which is pretty awesome. Don't get me wrong, the woo brigade aren't the only threat to good science, but they're a powerful threat and easier to deal with than the big corporations trying to twist science for profit.