Apollo 13 & the consequences of Carbon Dioxide: Lessons on avoiding disaster

What’s the connection between a failed moon mission and global Carbon Dioxide levels? I was rewatching Apollo 13 recently, you know the movie with Tom Hanks stating the biggest understatement in history: “Houston we have a problem”. If you haven’t seen it or can’t remember, it’s a fantastic true story about human ingenuity. The year is 1970, it’s NASA’s seventh manned space mission and the 3rd to the moon. Another routine trip. Little did anyone anticipate what was about to unfold. Two days into the mission and more than halfway to the moon, one of the oxygen tanks exploded. (Incidentally, …

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Eating a high protein diet is not as bad as smoking

In the latest bout of bad science reporting publications such as the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, CNN and a bunch of others have published articles claiming that a new study shows that eating a high protein diet is as bad as smoking. “People who eat diets rich in animal protein carry similar cancer risk to those who smoke 20 cigarettes each day,” The Daily Telegraph As usual, one has to look at the study itself (published in the journal Cell Metabolism) to gather what has actually been discovered. “A diet rich in meat, eggs, milk and cheese could be as …

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Can too much water kill you? And should you drink 8 glasses a day?

All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy. – Attributed to Paracelsus (1493-1541) Let’s start with cliché. Water is life. Well, it’s not actually life itself (it is, after all, just a molecule), but  it is fundamental to carbon-based life forms such as us, bacteria and everything else that we consider to be living. So important that we first look for liquid water on other planets to determine the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. However, as our long dead friend explained above, anything can be bad for you taken …

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Paralysed and unaware of it – Brain lesions and anosognosia

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Dunning-Kruger effect which affects people who are so incompetent that they don’t realise that they are incompetent. Dr David Dunning, after whom the effect is named, described the Dunning-Kruger effect as the “anosognosia of everyday life”. Which, as far as scientific analogies go, is a pretty good way of putting it. Unless you don’t know what anosognosia is. But don’t worry, I’m just about to tell you.

Why is yawning contagious?

There is no doubt that yawning is contagious. I mean, imagine someone with their mouth wide open, squinting eyes, taking a long breath in, then a short one out. Are you yawning yet? Almost anything that reminds us of yawning, like reading about it, seeing a video of it, will cause us to yawn. Just thinking about yawning can be enough. It’s actually quite hard to write about yawning because you start yawning all the time. During the research and writing of this post I yawned 34 times. I counted. Ok, make that 35 times.

How do humans breathe in space?

Humans can only live comfortably in a small variety of places. We can’t live underwater. Or higher than a certain altitude, where there is too little oxygen. We can only live in a very small slice of the atmosphere, from sea level up to 3-4000 m. If you think about it, the human habitable zone is really tiny, especially when compared to how big the universe is. Yet, we can fly on planes at much higher altitudes, survive underwater for months at a time in a submarine and at any moment there are one or more scientists aboard the International …

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Why you shouldn’t eat a polar bear

Polar bears are cute, especially if they’re still cubs. Knut, a polar bear born in captivity in a zoo in Berlin, was a media sensation. However, they are quite dangerous. Polar bears are big (adults can weigh up to 700 kg), fast (can sprint up to 40 km/h), aggressive, very protective of their young and can kill you with one lazy swipe of their furry paw. Polar explorers are very aware of the dangers of polar bear and bringing a rifle on an expedition is mandatory. So why should you not eat a polar bear? Well, actually, I’m exaggerating, you …

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Are expensive cosmetics worth it?

For some reason, maybe because I’ve been researching this article for a while, google thinks that I want to buy anti-ageing creams. Wherever I surf, I see ads trying to sell me all sorts of wonder cosmetics designed to reduce my wrinkles. Retinol this, vitamin C that. I even found a cream that costs 700 dollars for 50 ml (or $14000 a litre!). But do these creams even work? Are they really worth the money? Are there any valid scientific studies on their effectiveness? (Spoiler: nope).

How fast do you think? – The Two Systems that define us

“A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” If your answer was $0.10, then don’t worry, you join many thousands of people who have made the same mistake. More than half the students asked at some of the worlds top graduate universities answered this wrongly and as much as 80% at less selective universities.

Vaccines and Autism: Scientific Mis-Reporting in the Media

Repeat after me: Vaccines. Do. Not. Cause. Autism. It all started in the late nineties, when a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published a paper in the Lancet linking the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) to autism. In fact, the study did not make this claim at all, the link was announced at a press conference by Wakefield himself. If you know anything about how science works (with peer-reviews publications), you would know that a press conference is NOT the way to announce results, unless of course you want media attention (see the wikipedia article on ‘science by press conference‘). The media, …

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