29 May 2007

Astro News Time

Astronomy article on the frontpage of CNN? Check!
Multiple astronomy articles on the frontpage of CNN? Check!
It must be that AAS Meeting time of the year. Check!

Interesting that they're both Geoff Marcy, poster child for exoplanets. I wonder if there isn't anyone else there or something - the Summer meetings are usually less well-populated than the Winter meetings. Interesting that Marcy's in the middle of an observing run during the conference, a coincidence made possible by the meeting being in Hawaii this year. And my stupid school gives me $300 a year for professional development funds. *grumble*

Oh foo, next year's meetings are in boring places, so even if I get that NASA grant (yeah, it's still pending *grumble*) it won't be that exciting. Too bad, 2009's are both in California.

25 May 2007

Pseudoephedrine letter

I don't often advocate for political causes (other than education and science), but here's one. I sent copies of the below letter to my congresspeople, and I urge you to do so as well. Please also feel free to forward this link or email it to friends, family, and coworkers who might also want to send a letter.

Honorable ******,

I am writing to you today about the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 (CEMA), an amendment to the PATRIOT Act that makes the purchase of the most effective over the counter (OTC) decongestant, pseudoephedrine, in moderate quantities an act of terrorism. The act first came into effect on September 30th, 2006, and as such we are currently in the first allergy season under the act, and its impact upon allergy sufferers is only now coming to light. The strict limitations on the amount of pseudoephedrine that may be purchased at a time represents an undue burden upon allergy sufferers nationwide. Considering that the National Institute of Health has authored studies showing that 54.3% of the US population suffers from allergies, chances good are that you yourself are negatively impacted by CEMA, as well as your family members and more than half of your constituents.

Pseudoephedrine is the best OTC decongestant out there, is the main ingredient in Sudafed, and is an important additional ingredient in many antihistamines such as Claritin and Alavert. Because pseudoephedrine can be processed to create methamphetamine, Congress decided in 2005 to pass CEMA as an amendment to the PATRIOT Act and now classifies the purchase of too much pseudoephedrine as a terrorist act. The problem is that the limits set on the drug are too restrictive: a daily 24-hour dose is 240mg, the law allows the purchase of 3.5g per day (equivalent to 14 days' dosage) or 9g in a 30-day period (equivalent to 37 days' dosage), or 7g in a 30-day period (29 days' dosage) should you purchase online.

These restrictively low numbers mean that allergy sufferers (such as myself) must carefully plan trips to pharmacies to obtain sufficient amounts to sustain us through each month. As the limits apply to ALL drugstores and pharmacies combined, we cannot hop from one pharmacy to another. It necessitates extra trips to the pharmacy for me - a matter of time, convenience, and gasoline consumption. It means that I cannot stock up when they are on sale and thus have to spend more money than I would otherwise. It means that should I forget to buy some pseudoephedrine when I can, I will do without, and like many drugs its effectiveness decreases when it has not been taken for a number of consecutive days.

Allergy sufferers' needs can be addressed by modifying the law to allow higher limits of pseudoephedrine purchase within each day and 30-day period, without significantly impacting its effectiveness in fighting methamphetamine. I would recommend increasing the daily limit to 7.2g/day (30 days' dosage) and monthly limit to 22g/30-days (90 days' dosage). The single case that has been prosecuted to date, of William Fousse, involved the purchase of 29g within a 30-day period, and as such modifying the law as I recommend would still allow the prosecution of the individual in question, and would represent a significant improvement for allergy sufferers.

Thank you for your time, and I hope that you will consider authoring or supporting an amendment to CEMA that would allow higher limits on the purchase of pseudoephedrine, relieving an undue burden on the 54.3% of your constituents that suffer from allergies.

To find your federal legislators, you can use the following webpages.

Via the American Astronomical Society - type in your zip+4 or address. Use this one to get the mailing addresses of your congresspeople; use the one in DC b/c Congress is currently in session so that's where they are right now.

Via the National Education Association - insert your zip code where it says xxxxx below. This one lets you send automatic emails to your congresspeople. You still need to input your info though so they can include that in the email, and you may have to do a captcha to prove you're a human. This one can also help you find your state legislators should your state have more restrictive laws than CEMA that you wish to protest as well.

23 May 2007

DNA Testing and Identical Twins

It never occurred to me before, but one of the limitations of DNA testing is that it cannot distinguish between identical twins. In the linked article a woman may have had sex with two men who were identical twin brothers on the same night, conceived a child, and is now suing just one of the brothers for child support. As DNA cannot distinguish which of the two is the father, the judge reverted to the traditional eyewitness testimony and felt that the mother was the most reliable witness and therefore took her word that the interviewed brother is the father while he is claiming otherwise.

Similarly, if identical twin brothers were accused of raping someone, or a murderer with an identical twin had left some hair at a crime scene, in neither case could the culprit be positively identified by DNA testing. It's a shame, b/c we do know that eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable.

20 May 2007

Male Breast Cancer

In many aspects of medicine, men are treated as the "gold standard," and women as a variation upon that, and often one we don't understand very well. While this is improving in many respects, I was intrigued to find there's one aspect where women are the gold standard and men are the rare variation, and that is (as the title says), breast cancer. This lack of knowledge about how to treat men is primarily due to the lower incidence of breast cancer in men. Sadly, they have a lower survival rate than women, so more research is definitely needed.

16 May 2007

Planet of "hot solid water"

The BS-factor on this article is really danged high. First off, the actual sources - here's the pre-print abstract for the reference paper by Gillon, Pont, et al. (A&A May 2007), the paper has been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics, but has not yet been published; and an earlier paper by Etangs (A&A January 2007) has already been published and if you're on a college/university campus you can click on "Full Refereed Journal Article" near the top to read the whole thing (I'm currently home and so cannot read it). I have to admit that I cannot read the full articles as of yet, but based upon what I have read I don't see a convincing argument.

Gillon, Pont, et al., and earlier Etangs studied this planet GJ 436b (its star was the 436th object in the GJ catalog, whatever that catalog was, and as the second object in that system it's labelled b) and determined its mass from how much its star wobbled (via the Doppler effect). Etangs predicted an evaporation rate based upon the star's luminosity and determined that the planet would have to have a density of at least 3g/cm3 - if the density were too low, the whole thing would just blow away from the stellar wind. Gillon et al. determined its radius from how much it dimmed its parent star when crossing in front of it (called transiting or eclipsing). Knowing its mass and its radius gives a density whose value is not explicitly stated in what I can see from home, but I'm guessing is in the range of 1-3g/cm3.

Now, I admit that density is a KEY thing when determining the composition of a planet. Gas giants (Jovian planets) have densities around 1g/cm3. Icy dwarf planets and moons (Plutinos, Kuiper Belt Objects, comets) are more like 3g/cm3. Rocky planets (terrestrials) top out the chart at 5g/cm3. However, the first problem in this situation is that icy bodies usually are NOT pure water ice (H2O) - they're a bunch of dry ice (CO2), methane ice (CH4), and probably even some ammonia ice (NH3). But they're not just water ice, so knowing a body's density does NOT fully specify its composition, just the phase and general class of composition.

Second, there's multiple ways to get the same density. Instead of being a body that's uniformly icy material, it could be high density gas or liquid in the middle, for example Jupiter is believed to have a core of liquid hydrogen. This is less likely than icy material, but it's still a possibility, and I'm not sure if there's enough information to rule this possibility out. Related (objection 2a) is that just because a material is dense doesn't mean it's in a solid state, so even if it were water, it could still be super-dense liquid water.

Which in fact is much more likely than dense ice, since water reaches its peak density at 4ÂșC - if you cool it any more than that, even to freezing, it becomes less dense. So to reach a high density you CANNOT have what we normally think of as water ice. If perhaps it is solid, it will be some wierd other state of solid water that we should label something other than ice, but I'm more inclined to think that it's a wierd other state of supercooled or superpressurized liquid water - or more likely not water! I think they need a chemist here.

And lastly, calling it ice is deceiving b/c of the temperature claim - if it's hot, it's not going to be ice. In fact, if it's hot I'd expect the water to evaporate!

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." I have yet to see it in this case. There is one case which I am more inclined to believe - Barman has detected water vapor in the spectrum of HD 209458b, though it has yet to be confirmed by another researcher. Spectral analysis is the way to determine the chemical make-up of any material. Until I see this evidence, anything else is just circumstantial.

14 May 2007

"The Mercury 13" Receive Honorary Doctorates

The Mercury 13 were a group of women during the Mercury space program era. These women had many hours of commercial and non-combatant flight, successfully passed all the physical tests of endurance and strength (in fact, more women passed than men), successfully passed all the hurdles their employers attempted to place before them, and a number even passed psychological, and better than the men on average. None of them ever made it into space, despite arguing in front of Congress that they should be allowed to go to space (with even John Glenn arguing against them). (Ackmann and Sherr wrote a good book about them if you want to learn more.)

And now all 13 were awarded honorary doctorates from U Wisconsin, Oshkosh. And more here.

09 May 2007

Melamine pet food follow-up

The guy in charge of the Chinese factory from whence the wheat gluten flour was sold to the US is claiming that he doesn't even know what melamine is. He's being held by Chinese authorities for 30 days, and after that will be either charged or released.

Yes, you read that right, it's wheat flour that was actually contaminated with melamine and cyuranic acid, and it was then mislabeled as wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate. It was this flour that made its way into the feed for hogs, poultry, and fish, and none of the news I've read addressed whether the flour could've made its way directly into the human food supply. Meaning that individuals can only avoid potentially contaminated products by eating home-grown or buying from trusted organic-type farms. I'm screwed.

The mechanism for death is that the melamine and cyuranic acid react in the kidneys, causing crystals, organ failure, and eventual death. Kidneys play an important role in homeostasis, including filtering out impurities in the blood, maintaining the proper acidity, blood pressure, and levels of electrolytes in the blood. Screwing with any one of those individually will kill you, all three...

Although the FDA has received 4,000 complaints of pet (cat and dog) deaths, only 17 have been confirmed.

LA Fires threaten Griffith Observatory

Dangit, they just finisher renovating that thing, and now a wildfire is raging through the park in which the observatory is located.

The park is in the Hollywood Hills, about 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It includes golf courses, tennis courts, the city's zoo and botanical gardens and the copper-domed Griffith Park Observatory.

The bright orange glow of the fire provided a striking backdrop for the white facade of the observatory into the evening hours.

*crosses fingers*

08 May 2007

"Pillow Angel" surgery was illegal

It's not often we hear follow-ups on headline news, so I figured I'd bring this one to y'all's attention: the surgery that removed "pillow angel" Ashley's uterus has been determined to have been against the law.

"Washington law specifically prohibits the sterilization of minors with developmental disabilities without zealous advocacy on their behalf and court approval," said Mark Stroh, WPAS [Washington Protection and Advocacy System, a private group vested with federal investigative authority for people with disabilities,] executive director, in a statement. The hospital has apologized and says they'll be more rigorous in the future, including ALL future treatments for Ashley herself. WPAS is not intending to prosecute.