Long night in the lab

Tonight, I’m gearing up for one of those long nights in the lab of growin’ it, resolvin’ it and probin’ it. I am, of course, talking about my protein of study which may well help in the treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis, inflammation and asthma and whose study may initiate the development of a drug to replace Vioxx and Celebrex.

So, that’s my life right now, outside of harping for Harper, masticating the Martinites and laughing at Layton: I’m growing protein and lovin’ it. Hopefully, I’ll get some sleep tonight before my lab meeting presentation tomorrow.

I thought I’d try my hand at a science related post and share, with you, its lighter side.

Ever since Google Scholar was released in beta earlier this month, I’ve been poking around and testing it out to see what I could find. The website searches through peer-reviewed scientific journals and other literature and reveals the body of knowledge concerning any topic of scientific interest. Between work-related searches, I’ve tried out a few interesting queries and submit them here for your review and amusement.

Some researchers have too much time on their hands and some funding agencies must have bags of money laying around if the Journal of Perception’s 1983 research article titled “On the plausibility of Superman’s x-ray vision” by JB Pittenger is any indication. Pittenger submitted the following abstract to the journal for its review and eventual publication:

Requirements that a vision system must meet to make Superman’s x-ray vision possible are stated, and two solutions are proposed. In one, emitted x-rays carry the information to Superman’s eyes; in the other, emitted rays make objects transparent to a second type of ray. Further subjects lending themselves to this type of research are superhearing , the biomechanics of leaping tall buildings, or being faster than a bullet.

I imagine that the idea for this article was conceived while studying the effects of alcohol or THC. Hey maaaaan, I wonder how Superman’s X-ray vision works. It would be killer to have superpowers, maaaaaan. That would be awesome.

Superman seems to be a popular topic of research as is also evident in this year’s study by Leif Nelson and Michael Norton published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They present the following abstract:

The present research uses priming techniques to modify commitment to and engagement in future helping behavior. Relative to a control condition, people primed with the exemplar Superman saw themselves as less likely (Studies 1a and 1b), and participants primed with the category superhero saw themselves as more likely (Study 1a), to help in hypothetical situations. Study 2 extended these effects to real-world planned helping behavior, by demonstrating that these primes impacted commitment to future volunteerism. Finally, Study 3 showed that these changes in initial commitment impacted volunteering behavior up to three months after initial exposure. These results demonstrate that fleeting situational primes can impact not only spontaneous behavior, but also future behavior.

So, if people are prompted with the thought of Superman, they are less likely to help others in the future. But, if people are prompted with the thought of superheroes in general, they are more likely to help. David Pescovitz from Boing Boing notes that psychologists propose “that the average person quickly realizes that there’s no way they can compare to the Man of Steel”. Silly.

Superman is also a the name of a gene found in the flowering plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. Other genes and proteins have been named after other fictional characters and popular culture. Sonic the hedgehog, Hamlet and of course the INDY gene/protein (after the famous line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail: I’m not dead yet!) are just a few examples.

Science can be amusing, rewarding or downright embarrassing. How would you like to work in the laboratory which submitted “Flatulence–causes, relation to diet and remedies” for publication? I may have typed flatulence into Google Scholar on some kind of juvenile whim, yet there are those that dedicate their careers to it. I would guess that these researchers are either a hit or a big miss at parties, depending on the type of gathering of course.

After a late night party you may have returned home and watched some late-night TV (infomercials) before crashing for the night. You may have seen that infomercial for those ‘magical’ ionic bracelets that relieve muscle and joint pain. Turns out that the therapeutic powers of the bracelets may be attributed to the placebo affect.
Nimal and Schwartz detail their findings in a research article named “Are ionized wrist bracelets better than placebo for musculoskeletal pain?”. Turns out that the answer is no. The researchers also state “while the bracelet did not work better than placebo, many patients may experience less pain if they purchase and use it.” Ah, the power of positive thinking.

Google, of course, is based upon an algorithm and isn’t heavily filtered or edited by actual people. Google News presents the news of the day entirely without an editor by presenting news stories as top stories through a Pagerank system (Yes, there are scientific papers published about the pagerank algorithm). Google Scholar contains a very amusing citation that Jens Thilo Teubner includes in his paper on “Optimization of High Efficiency Thermoelectrics based on Tl5Te3“. This paper outlines the efforts made by Teubner to optimize the thermoelectric properties of thallium/tellurium compounds. On the 18th page of this research article, the Fermi-Dirac distribution function is provided to describe the “the charge carrier distribution in a material” in the “unperturbed equilibrium state with no electric field or temperature gradient”. The author cites none other than Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics (an internet classic) as an example and therefore Google contains the citation from B Spears.

We now conclude our tour of Google’s new search program that is sure to excite, or at lease amuse, the scientific community. Time to get back to work!