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Science Roundup: Jan. 23, 2006

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For Sheezy, There is Really ‘No Link’ Between Cellphones and Brain Tumors

UK researchers interviewed 966 people from across Britain diagnosed with brain tumours, as well as 1716 apparently healthy controls between December 2000 and February 2004.

The epidemiological survey found no evidence that using a cellphone increased the risk of developing a tumour or that prolonged usage increased risk either.

The study did find an association between the location of a tumour and side of the head that patients said they most often used to make calls. But when the team considered handedness – which correlates to the side of the head to which cellphones are most commonly held – there was no link.

In light of the overall study results the researchers believe the association was an anomaly – they suggest these patients most probably misremembered their cellphone usage, in an effort to explain the tumour.

OK, I would like to emphasize that we (scientists) are really serious now. There is really NO link. I know that a lot of you were saying “Oh my God! There are a lot of tumors out there. And a lot of cellphones! Surely there is some relationship.”

The answer is no. Time for you to all let it go…

In January 2005 the UK’s National Radiological Protection Board produced a report that also found no evidence to suggest cellphone use is harmful. But the NRPB recommended a “precautionary approach” and said cellphones should not be given to children under the age of 8, because they might be more susceptible than adults to any ill effects of cellphone radiation.

If I might briefly go on a rant about the “precautionary principle” as well. It is likely that whatever ill effects one can attribute to Cheerios consumption will have greater effects on children. This does not mean that there ARE ill effects to Cheerios consumption. There are enough precautions that one has to take to keep children safe from real threats; must we add fictitious threats to that list?

Algorithm Detects Canadian Spin, Shocked World Threatens Invasion

Spin, in this case, is defined as “text or speech where the apparent meaning is not the true belief of the person saying or writing it”, says the algorithm’s developer, David Skillicorn at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

He and his team analysed the usage patterns of 88 deception-linked words within the text of recent campaign speeches from the political leaders. They then determined the frequency of these patterns in each speech, and averaged that number over all of that candidate’s speeches. Martin received a ranking of 124, while Harper and Layton scored 73 and 88, respectively.


The computer algorithm is based on a psychological model constructed by James Pennebaker at the University of Texas, Austin, US. While studying the lying and truth-telling of hundreds of test subjects, he uncovered patterns linked to deception, such as the decreased use of personal pronouns – such as I, we, me, us – and exception words, such as “however” and “unless”.

First, it doesn’t surprise me at all that there is spin in Canadian politics. Those guys have a history of deception, as opposed to the United States where lying is limited to criminals and the mentally insane.

Second, deception is defined by the underuse of personal pronouns and the use of exception words like “however” and “unless”. Does it seem to anyone else as though BS sounds surprisingly similar to technical writing?

Hunter-Gatherers Grasp Geometry at High School Level, High School Students Do Not

Several research teams have probed the inherent mathematical sense of hunter-gatherer groups, documenting, for example, that in the absence of words for numbers, number sense grows hazy after 3 or 4 (Science, 20 August 2004, p. 1093, and 15 October 2004, p. 499). A team led by cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris has now delved into the less-studied area of geometric knowledge. The researchers tested children and adults in an Amazonian group called the Mundurukú to see if Euclidean geometry dwells in the minds of a people who have little or no schooling, and no artifacts, such as rulers or maps, that employ geometric or metric concepts.

Anthropologist Pierre Pica of Paris VIII University tested 14 Mundurukú children aged 6 and up and 30 adults, getting them to point to shapes displayed on his solar-powered laptop. They were shown sets of six figures and asked to point to the one in each set that diverged from a geometric figure such as a triangle or a basic concept such as parallelism or symmetry. The subjects overall got about two-thirds of the answers correct.(Emphasis mine.)

Oddly about two thirds right is probably about how much an American high school student gets correct on the geometry portion of the SATs, proving yet again that high school geometry is a Sisyphean waste of time. That, or we should be teaching geometry with spears…

Anti-Malaria ‘Wristwatch’, Next Up: Time-telling Quinine Tablets

An inventor says he has developed a device with the form of a wristwatch that can detect a malaria infection before symptoms of the illness arise.

According to Gervan Lubbe, from South Africa, his device pricks the wearer’s skin every 6 hours and uses an electronic component to check for a ‘signature vibration’ of the malaria parasite. He says that several medical journals plan to publish his papers on this new detection method, but declined to mention any names.

Some experts fear that such a device might facilitate the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV if swapped inappropriately or stolen.

Interestingly enough the malaria watch can also tell time.

On a side note, why on earth would someone need to check whether they have malaria every 6 hours? If you are doing something where the hour to hour acquisition of malaria is an issue, you are going to require more than just a wristwatch.

Department of Obvious Polling

Blacks are more likely than whites to commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday, an AP-Ipsos poll found.

Wow. Thanks for that shocker. Next AP-Ipsos will be investigating whether more Jews celebrate Hanukkah.

And the Galaxy Said, Let There Be Leaks

Right after the Big Bang–roughly 13.7 billion years ago–the universe was so hot that particles of matter were completely ionized, or positively charged. The extreme ionization meant dense structures such as stars and galaxies couldn’t form easily. As the universe expanded, it cooled and deionized, thanks to bits of atomic nuclei and electrons coming together to make neutral, light-weight atoms such as hydrogen and helium. Stars began to form, yet they hardly twinkled because the deionized nature of the universe made it difficult for light to travel. Then, between 12.5 billion and 13 billion years ago, the universe became ionized again, and stars really began to shine.

Many astronomers credit the very first stars with driving the reionization. These stars were not locked within galaxies, so they could thus spew their energetic radiation freely throughout the universe. But when astronomer Nils Bergvall of Uppsala Astronomical Observatory in Sweden and colleagues examined a near-Earth galaxy that resembles those that existed in the universe’s first billion years, they found another potential driver.

The new source is the birth of stars inside a galaxy. Observations using NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) satellite indicated that between 4 and 10% of the ionizing radiation produced by a burst of star formation within the galaxy was able to escape its confines. Previous studies have looked at ‘echoes’ of this leak, says Bergvall, but it’s never been measured directly. This finding raises the possibility that lots of tiny galaxies may have together leaked out enough radiation to play a significant role in reionizing the universe, the team reported 12 January here at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

So this is how the universe was created, right. All these galaxies, Lordy, they had a lot to drink one night, but you know how it goes. You are partying and carrying on, and you don’t want to go to the bathroom. You hold it as long as you can. But eventually…well you have no choice.

So you go outside and find yourself a nice patch of snow, and you say to yourself in a Lordly tone: “Let there be my name in this snowdrift.” And you see that the leak was good…

That was how it went…only for galaxies.[ADBLOCKHERE]

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  • JR

    Finally, more Science Roundup. My favorite column!