Category Archives: TOK

The Alkaline Diet

After reading Nicholas’ post on the claim made by the company that produced water ionizers, I was reminded of a similar claim made by advocates of the ‘Alkaline Diet’. I decided to investigate whether these claims were accurate, or like the ones made by the water-ionizer company, scientifically wrong.

The Alkaline Diet is based on the theory that eating specific foods can affect maintenance of the body’s ideal pH balance, and improve health. (Collins & Chang, n.d) A website promoting holistic treatments gave the following reasoning for the diet:

The pH of the blood must always fall between 7.35 and 7.45  (slightly alkaline) to ensure an appropriate concentration of oxygen in the blood. A pH lower than 7.35 (Acidosis) may portray the beginnings of a disease / aging, while a pH higher than 7.45 (Alkalosis) would result in seizure, and a possible coma.

In order to keep the blood within this pH range, the website then explains, 75% of alkaline forming foods must be consumed; however, the American diet consists of 80% of acid forming foods.

The body creates a buffering system in order to counteract this abundance of acidic food in the diet; this buffering system runs on electrolytes, which are important for the metabolic functioning of body systems. Adequate electrolyte supply will pose no problem on the buffer system, however a shortage of these electrolytes will make it difficult for the body to maintain homeostasis (a state of equilibrium). A shortage of electrolytes usually occurs as a cause of excessive consumption of acid forming foods. (Frequency Rising, n.d)

At first, this claim made sense to me. After all, medical websites confirm that the blood’s pH must fall within a certain range. (Collins & Chang, n.d) Furthermore, there is evidence that shows that the concentration of Oxygen in the blood is affected by the blood’s pH, and as I have previously learnt in Biology class, it is true that the pH of blood must remain within a certain range to ensure health.  (RSC, n.d) Another medical website mentioned diseases such as Acidosis and Alkalosis, the former caused by a blood pH lower than what it should be, and another caused by a blood pH higher than it should be. (Dugdale & Zieve, n.d) Was the claim made by the holistic website accurate? Upon further examination and reflection, it was clear to me what the problem was: the holistic website was trying to convince people on the basis of a logical fallacy!* Our body deals with acidic food with a buffer system that does not work properly when you consume excessive acidic foods?

What?

That makes no sense.

I soon realized that it was very easy to see the reason they would make this claim, as directly under the article, I saw this.

Water Ionizer Advertisement

This reminded me of Nicholas’ post, and confirmed my doubts: it was all just a marketing technique.

I decided to look at the biochemistry myself to determine the validity of the diet.

I found the concentration of Oxygen in the blood is controlled by a separate mechanism: oxygen flows around the body in blood by hemoglobin, a complex molecule with a central ion. (AUS-e-TUTE, n.d) The oxygenation of blood is an equilibrium reaction:

Hb4(aq) + 4O2(aq) <–> Hb4O8(aq)

A number of equilibrium reactions involving hemoglobin are responsible for the buffering of the blood: the net reaction being –

HbH+(aq) + O2(aq) <–> HbO2(aq) + H+(aq)

Metabolic reactions in the body release many acidic compounds, which lowers the blood’s pH by increasing the concentration of H+ ions present in the blood. This in turn, forces the equilibrium position to the left, resulting in acidosis. This decrease in oxygen supply causes fatigue and headaches. Acidosis is also the same condition you experience temporarily when you exercise without warming up, or when you engage in strenuous exercise when the available supply of oxygen cannot meet the demand for energy to complete the oxidation of glucose to carbon dioxide. (AUS-e-TUTE, n.d)

Thus, Acidosis really has nothing to do with what you eat.

Additionally, although electrolytes are important for the body, the only ion that affects the pH of the blood is the Phosphate Ion (PO42-), which is part of the Phosphate Buffer System. (Electrolytes, n.d) However, the primary buffer system for balance of the blood pH’s remains the Hydrogen Carbonate Buffer System.

Hydrogen Carbonate is produced in the body with water and CO2 (the end product of cellular metabolism) with the following reaction:

H2O + CO2 <–> H2CO3(aq)

The Hydrogen Carbonate is then involved in another (can be classified as a Bronsted-Lewry) reaction, which produces bicarbonate and the Hydronium ion:

H2CO3 + H2O <–> H3O+ + HCO3

If there is excess acid in the body (H3O+), the equilibrium shifts left.

H2CO3 + H2O <–  H3O+ + HCO3

Thus, the excess acid is neutralized by the base (HCO3)

The reverse takes place if there is excess base (OH) in the body: this reacts with the carbonic acid (H2CO3) and the equilibrium shifts right.

H2CO3 + OH <–  H2O + HCO3

This system thus operates under Le Chaletier’s principle, which states that “if a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, or total pressure, the equilibrium will shift in order to minimize that change ”. This reaction is the main mechanism used by our body to maintain homeostasis.

The Phosphate Buffer System plays a role in plasma and erythrocytes (components of blood)- (Tamarkin, n.d)

H2PO4- + H2O <–> H3O+ + HPO42-

Any excess acid reacts with monohydrogen phosphate to form dihydrogen phosphate –

H2PO4- + H2O <– H3O+ + HPO42-

Similarly, excess base is neutralized by dihydrogen phosphate –

H2PO4- + H2O –> H3O+ + HPO42-

So if this is all true, and the claim that eating alkaline foods can affect blood’s pH is not correct, then why do people continue to follow the Alkaline diet: and how can we explain their success stories?

The Alkaline Diet is “a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of water, avoiding processed foods, coffee, and alcohol, which are all recommendations for a generally healthy diet anyway,” says Marjorie Nolan, who is an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. (Collins & Chang, n.d) This is evident by an Alkaline Diet cheat sheet, which recommends eating cold-pressed olive oil instead of butter, frozen fruit instead of canned fruit, sparkling water instead of soda, honey instead of sugar, and so on. (Wilkinson, n.d) According to Nolan, any diet consisting of this meal plan is bound to prove successful, because it is “basically healthy”. She confirms however, that the body “regulates our pH between 7.35 and 7.45 no matter how we eat.” (Collins & Chang, n.d)

Alkaline Diet for Dummies: Cheat Sheet

Alkaline Diet for Dummies: Cheat Sheet

Alkaline Diet for Dummies: Cheat Sheet

So, what are the implications of this finding?


First, the negative implications: because the Alkaline diets promotes less consumption of dairy products and animal fats, followers of the diet if not careful, may develop calcium and protein deficiencies, according to John Asplin, an MD and kidney specialist. (Collins & Chang, n.d) A vegetarian myself, I was quick to disagree with this statement in my mind, however, he acknowledged that “vegetarians can be completely healthy in their diets, as long as they make sure to get adequate supplies of essential components to a diet.” Asplin also asserted that this could be seen as benefit also, because “many Americans over-consume protein”. (Collins & Chang, n.d) Another implication of this finding is that followers of the Alkaline Diet may not have a scientifically correct view of the functioning of their body, and this could lead to potential problems in the future. Followers of the diet may also waste money on expensive products (such as the water ionizer advertised on the holistic website) that do not affect our body in the way that the manufacturers claim.

What are the benefits? Because excess animal protein results in a higher risk of developing kidney stones, “eating a diet rich in vegetables, as with the alkaline diet” can lower this risk, according to Asplin. (Collins & Chang, n.d) It has also been suggested by research that an alkaline diet may slow bone loss and muscle waste, increase the growth hormone, and reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases (these are correlations however, and cannot be stated as a cause-effect relationship). (Schwalfenberg, 2011)

A negative correlation between the alkaline diet and incidence of cancer has also been shown, however the same results were obtained when the vegetarian diet was measured against cancer rates: additionally, as the study was correlational, there were many confounding variables that may have affected the results such exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking, genetics, etc. (Collins & Chang, n.d)

Nolan speaks of this finding, stating that “clinical studies have proved without a doubt that people who eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and hydrate properly do have lower rates of cancer and other diseases”, but that “it probably has nothing to do with blood pH”. (Collins & Chang, n.d)

The journey I took while examining this diet taught me to properly examine the agenda of the source making a claim before choosing to accept it: because the holistic website was advertising the water ionizer, they made claims that were scientifically inaccurate to make the product seem more appealing to customers. Web MD on the other hand, a medical website dedicated to providing people with factual information on clinical practices, provides evidence and information that supports the knowledge we have of the biochemistry of our body.

Thus, William Mundel, the vice chair of the department of General Internal Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, advises against diets that “want you to buy only their product” (i.e.: the water ionizer), “focus on a narrow spectrum of foods” (i.e.: eliminate all animal fats), and “claim that science has kept something secret, or that someone has discovered something that nobody else knows about”. These are the types of diets that tend to be scientifically wrong. (Collins & Chang, n.d)

* The logical fallacy used is Circular Reasoning / Begging the Question.

References

Chemical Buffer Systems- Acid-Base Balance. (n.d.). Boundless. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from https://www.boundless.com/physiology/fluids-and-acid-base-balance/acid-base-balance/chemical-buffer-systems/

Chemistry Tutorial : Oxygen Transport in Blood. (n.d.). AUS-e-TUTE For Astute Science Students. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.ausetute.com.au/blood.html

Chemistry for Biologists: Transport of Oxygen in the Blood. (n.d.). Royal Society of Chemistry | Advancing the Chemical Sciences. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.rsc.org/Education/Teachers/Resources/cfb/transport.htm

Collins, S., & Chang, L. (n.d.). Alkaline Diet: Pros, Cons, and Do They Really Affect Acid Levels in the Body?. WebMD. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/alkaline-diets-what-to-know

Dugdale, D., & Zieve, D. (n.d.). Alkalosis – Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment of Alkalosis – NY Times Health Information . Health News – The New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/alkalosis/overview.html

Life Balances: Electrolytes. (n.d.). John Kitkoski’s Life Balances Program: Home Page. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.lifebalancesprogram.com/Library/Electrolytes.html

Schwalfenberg, G. (2011, October 12). The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health?. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/

Tamarkin, D. (n.d.). Buffers. STCC Faculty Webpages. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://faculty.stcc.edu/AandP/AP/AP2pages/Units21to23/ph/buffers.htm

Wilkinson, J. (n.d.). Acid Alkaline Diet For Dummies – Cheat Sheet. For Dummies . Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/acid-alkaline-diet-for-dummies-cheat-sheet.html

pH balance. (n.d.). Frequency Rising – Alternative Medicine and Holistic Health Products. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.frequencyrising.com/pH.htm

The Wonder of Fireworks

Fireworks. Everyone has seen them and/or used them. More recently, during Chinese New Year break, I watched as people bought fireworks by the box-loads and set them off with the excitement of 6-year old boy playing with an action figure he got for his birthday. As the constant sound of fireworks continued for days, even on the last night before school as I was trying to sleep (and as I write this post), I wondered how do fireworks work and why do we get so excited by watching them?

The mechanism of aerial fireworks is much like that of a rocket. In its simplest form, it is made up of two stages. The first is the propulsion section that is filled with gunpowder with a small hole in the bottom, which when combusts, releases the products carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas out of the hole to send the firework high into the air (this is sometimes replaced with compressed air, for safety reasons). The second stage contains the bits that you see as clouds of color. A fuse leads into the section that ignites the black powder, exploding the container (which is what you hear), sending the “stars” containing the salts in all directions giving off the colors as they do so. This is where the chemistry comes in. The colors are produced when atoms in the metal salts absorb the energy of the explosion, exciting the electrons. The electrons move to a higher-energy state and as they return to a lower-energy state that is more stable, they emit the light that we see (as demonstrated by the Bohr model). The amount of energy released depends on the compound used, and this in turn determines the color of light emitted. The colors range from red at the least amount of energy emitted to purple at the other end of what is the visible light spectrum.

firework1

So, now that we know how they work, why the fascination? If we were to use logic and reason as a way of knowing in this situation, we would find that it is quite pointless wasting both time and money to light explosives just to see the pretty colors that they create. After all, it is just a bunch of heated salt flying through the air after the explosion of a rocket. However, it is the creative side in us that causes this wonder of fireworks. It is a combination of sense perception and emotion that lead us to watch these shows of explosive art. Yves Pépin, a fireworks artist, puts it this way: “I think one reason people continue to be fascinated with fireworks is that they remain incomprehensible, even though people know how they work. They are a chain of chemical reactions that begins with a spark on the ground and ends in flashes of light several hundred meters in the air. But there is something sufficiently nature-defying so that it remains magical.” Thus, we appreciate fireworks much in the same way as we do art. It is the irrationally in us, that makes us spend millions on satisfying something that logic and reason just cannot explain.

Fireworks_thumb_xPsE5g

Finally, what does this means for us IB Chem students? It means that the concepts that we are learning in class are not just to memorize and re-iterate for a good grade, but are actually used in real life in a very relatable way. As these fireworks displays continue for the next few days, until the people setting them off run out of money or the stores run out of fireworks (whichever comes first), we can look at these fireworks with the thought that we know the science behind them. Furthermore, this is an example of us asking why we do certain things and linking the science behind it. It is part of the quest to continually ask What? and Why?

Works Cited:

http://chemistry.about.com/od/howthingswork/a/fireworks.htm

http://chemistry.about.com/od/fireworkspyrotechnics/a/fireworkcolors.htm

http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/chemweek/fireworks/fireworks.htm

http://www.time.com/time/europe/specials/ff/trip4/pepin.html

Are Laws Better Left Unbroken?

(adapted from my post in the ToK Blog)

As I sat in math class today, Mr. Thiessen made a comment on the famous cartoon character “Bugs Bunny.” He was amused by these shows because they “broke almost every law of physics.” For example, when two characters fall off a plane, they actually accelerate at differing rates over differing time periods, allowing them to take turns to whack each other over the head.

Characters of Looney Toons
Characters of Looney Toons

For a rational thinker, the claim may be hard to comprehend. Mr. Thiessen, in addition to being our math teacher, is a highly-educated physicist. With his academic background, he should be an avid supporter of the laws of physics, and it is, one would believe, clearly out of character that he should love something for breaking those laws.

In fact, the laws of natural sciences are often upheld to authority beyond reproach. In my experience, when one hears a claim or argument that is backed by scientific research or a widely accepted theory, the claim is usually qualified as reliable. Scientific discovery provide the backbone to our urban lives, from everyday utilities such as the lamp or the microwave, to experimental cloning and the Large Hadron Collider.

The Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider

However, Mr. Thiessen’s sentiment is not difficult to understand. Absurd cartoons like “Looney Toons” or “Tom and Jerry” are loved by viewers because of their eccentricity. By breaking these laws of natural sciences (talking animals, anyone?), it had elevated the plot beyond real life, and was appealing to emotion, to the innate desire for adventure inside, I’m sure, the many of us.

Furthermore, the breaking of physics laws provides spectacle, an essential element of drama. This appeal to sense perception through visual and sound elements will invariably raise the audience’s interest.

Tom and Jerry
Tom and Jerry

Of course, laws are important to us. Legal restrictions set forth by the government maintain order in society, so that we don’t have murderers and rapists running free on our streets. The laws of grammar are the backbone to most languages (at least, those that I am aware of), and allow the writing to be structured and comprehensible. Laws of ethics, our moral standards, decide much of our paradigms, and define what we believe we should or should not do.

These laws define an ideal society, at least to those who envisioned these rules. Yet, to me, and I’m sure also to Bugs Bunny, perfection is boring. And sometimes, laws can in fact be broken.

Had the colonists not rebelled against the British Tea Tax and Stamp Taxes, America would have probably remained under colonial rule. We would probably be attending the Shanghai British School. Some of the most acclaimed writers and poets, by the likes of Langston Hughes or Franz Kafka, have often broken the rules of grammar in their writing. Moral standards are more constant, and are regarded as our fundamental principles, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible to change. We don’t still cut off the noses of our infidel wives, do we?

Thinking Outside the Box
Thinking Outside the Box

We need not disregard all laws and plunge into anarchy, but we need realize that sometimes, it’s fine to break the laws. So, let’s sit back, relax, and watch Bugs Bunny shatter the accomplishments of brilliant physicists into many, many pieces.

The Inadequacy of Language

(Cross-posted from the ToK Blog)

For blogposts like this, where do you usually go for information? Wikipedia maybe, or Questia, but every so often you stumble across a really interesting news article, like this one. The New York Times has a reputation for being a fairly reliable newsource, but perhaps not for every topic. The above article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for example, was written by a journalist and not a physicist. As journalists write a different audience, to the general public instead of to other scientists, explanations of scientific concepts have to be simplified.

Science reporting like this could be unintentionally spreading misinformation. Newspapers, no matter what their quality or their content, are businesses. That New York Times article for example may sound tongue-in-cheek, but you can bet that there will be some readers who will take it at face value.

Problems arise when readers try to share the news. It’s like a game of Chinese telephone, where the sentence that emerges at the end is completely different from the one you started with. The sentence could have warped naturally as it went through the players, or it could have been intentionally changed by someone in the group. For example, a news agency may zero in on one aspect of the discovery or concept, and spin a story out of it. With the LHC, it was about the possibility of the Collider creating a black hole that would destroy the Earth. The probability of this is actually happening extremely slim, so slim that it’s practically negligible. Furthermore, even if a black hole were created, it certainly would not be able to destroy the earth. Doesn’t stop people from freaking out and suing CERN though.

However, reporters and newspapers are not all at fault, the limitations of language must also be examined. How do you properly explain something that can only be best explained with mathematics and complicated equations? Well, you could use an analogy.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity for example, is often explained with the use of a flat, rubbery surface, much like a stocking. If you place a cannonball on the sheet, the sheet warps, forming an indentation in the stocking. Now imagine that you start flicking marbles on the sheet. If you flick them across a flat section of the sheet, the marbles will go straight. If you flick them near the indentation instead, the marbles will start to curve around the indentation. Now imagine that the rubber sheet is the spacetime continuum, our universe, the cannonball our sun and the marbles the planets in the solar system. Now you have a pretty good visualisation of how gravity is the result of the curvature of spacetime.

The main problem with analogies is that they’re not quite right. Analogies allow you to grasp the concept more easily, but they not an accurate representation of our universe. We do not live on a rubber stocking. Analogies are only models of a concept, and may be inadequate representations of those concepts. I can explain the analogy, but because I do not know the physics behind the theory, I cannot be said to understand it. However, for the majority of us who do not have a solid background in physics, analogies are the best explanations that we can get.

The Beauty of Chemistry

This is, in fact, a TOK blog post of mine that I thought I should share on the chemistry blog as well. Even though it may relate more so to sense perception and its use as a way of knowing, I believe that it is a simple but refreshing take on chemistry and I hope it will make you take the time to appreciate beauty in the most unlikely of places.

Y-Lynn did an interesting presentation on string theory and beauty…and it got me thinking. So, perhaps by searching for it I was meant to find it, but nevertheless, I was struck with the realization that chemistry (yes, chemistry! of all things) is beautiful. And I know that this may sound nerdy, geeky, what have you, but just listen to my reasoning.

In class, I was preparing an experiment that tested the rate of reaction for the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen gas. When I added catalyst, the solution immediately – well, I like to say it “exploded,” but I believe the correct term is that it reacted, and a plume of hot, dark gas shot up from the flask and started billowing outwards like an erupting volcano. I was immediately reminded of the Hollywood image of “experiments gone wrong,” and in my fascination, I quickly began recounting the events of the experiment to everyone in my next few classes. This experiment, in my opinion, was an example of the beauty of even simple chemistry.

But to ground my idea of beauty, I first had to look at its definition. According to Merriam-Webster, beauty is:

the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.

I’ve never been blown away by the concepts of chemistry, nor its technical language. Sure, I’m amazed by the breadth of our understanding, and by that which we have yet to understand, but to say that I’ve been “blown away,” as I said earlier – no, I can’t say it applies. And, really, the math is a painful reminder that, even in science, I can’t escape numbers, though this doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it. So, in my approach to logic, I, personally, fail to see the beauty in chemistry.

However, I can much more picture the beauty of chemistry in its application and I definitely deem the earlier experiment “visually stimulating,” as well as physically involved with the sense of touch (increase in heat).

“Pleasure to the senses”, check

Perhaps I notice this more easily because I have been lead to attribute beauty first with my senses. However, I’m also reminded that my interest in another subject, biology, stems from the subject’s logical arguments and the way they broaden the “mind or spirit.” Therefore, I’m heartened by the realization that all forms of beauty are not completely lost upon me.

But, if I may go over word limit slightly, I’d just like to comment on the cliché phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If such is the case, then wouldn’t this imply that nothing can be termed universally beautiful? I’d like to believe that this is possible and that we can come to a general understanding on what is visually appealing, such as may seem the case in art or even the golden ratio.

Although the golden ratio may not fit this scenario, when I replicated the experiment, many people expressed their wonder for the reaction – I think the word, “cool” may have been tossed around. Although these were chemistry students, I think this could be extended to the general population and that the reaction may be termed universally pleasing.

So, would you agree that chemistry is beautiful? If you do, perhaps it’s important to know what elements of chemistry, no pun intended, make it so fascinating.

The images used above are from google image searches and, in order of appearance, were found on the following websites:

1. http://ideas.unt.edu/innovation.htm

2. http://www.miller-mccune.com/science_environment/california-green-chemistry-1364

A Cure All?

Disease has been a plague throughout all of history ranging from the black plague to small that both cripples and kills millions each year. With the constant influx of disease, there has always been a constant search for cures; however, we have yet to find cures for many diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, or strokes. But biological insights over the past years and recent breakthroughs have brought us many steps closer towards a cure for all these diseases and many more. This supposed cure all is none other than the immortal, malleable stem cells.

stem-cells2

Stem cells are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity, and under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue or organ-specific cells with special functions. The beauty of stem cells from a medical standpoint is their potential to develop into any type of cell in the body acting as an “internal repair system” able to theoretically repair any and all organic damage whether it be producing new blood cells to counter blood related disease or even used to replace organs like the heart or lungs.

scientsit

Recently, stem cell research has made great strides despite some controversy and opposition – some view harvesting the stem cells from embryos as murder. In 2007, scientists reported that they were able to cause skin cells from mice to revert back into the embryonic state (into stem cells). Without the need for an embryo, this breakthrough circumvented the controversy enabling stem cell research to proceed without restriction. And then in 2008, another group of researchers discovered a method to derive an entire stem cell line from an embryo without destroying the embryo and then manipulate these cells into blood, muscles, retinal tissue, or even neuronal tissue. Stem cell treatments for many blood related illnesses leukemia or sickle-cell anemia have already become a reality, and future projects will tackle Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, even paralysis.

Despite stem cells undeniable potential and swift progress, many obstacles remain. The problem comes when trying to integrate the stem cells into the body; in addition to stem cells and protein scaffolding, the complex array of signaling molecules, molecules that tell the cell which side is left or right, where to become a specific cell, and when to stop growing, are necessary for the regeneration of body parts. One of the most shocking implications of this issue is the ability of stem cells to reproduce over and over. Without knowing how to tell the stem cells to stop growing the stem cells can form clumps of undifferentiated cells that grow out of control – in other words: cancer. Another area of difficulty is the fact that each disease has a set of conditions that must be met in order to cure it. The stem cells must be introduced in the correct order and correct stage. According to Doris Taylor, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair at the University of Minnesota

“we don’t understand all the cures, so we can’t control, the outcome, and we aren’t ready to use them without more research in the lab”

Aside from their potential medical usage, stem cells illustrate a key issue of scientific research. The controversy of stem cells reminds us that scientific research is not only subject to the critique or review of other scientists but to the critique of the people as well. On the one hand, these controversial debates corrode the pure and innocent notion of pursing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. On the other hand, these ethical critiques are a beneficial (as evidenced by proactive work to synthesize stem cells) and sometimes necessary element of scientific growth as they push and encourage the powerful adaptability and inventiveness of science.

Sources:

Lenzer, Jeanne. “The Super Cell.” Discover November 2009: 31-36

Say NO to Science!

Usually, when I think of scientific inventions, discoveries or investigations, when I consider the works of brilliant scientists, I am reminded of inventors like Thomas Edison. I admire scientists by the likes of Albert Einstein in physics, Marie Curie in chemistry or Charles Darwin in biology. I remember these people who have toiled and sacrificed so much of their lives to the betterment of society and the lives of man.


Yet, are ideas in science invariably beneficial to mankind? And, if they are not, are we justified to prohibit their implementation?

I had been reading a peer’s ToK Presentation script on censorship when this issue occurred to me. Censorship involves the removal of matters considered harmful or objectionable to society. In the West, this action is usually viewed in negative light, as an infringement upon the freedom of expression.


However, are there certain times when the withholding of certain information is necessary, for the “greater good”?

These two areas I wondered about fortunately combined into one tangible question: Is censorship necessary for science which proves to be harmful to mankind?

In 2007, the Bush administration received criticism for censoring a report concerning the effects of global warming and the urgency for mending it. This is, of course, because it had contradicted the administration’s policies on oil and pollution reduction. This act of censorship may, in the short term, lessen some potential social unrest and maintain the integrity of the government. In the long term, however, it may serve to delay necessary actions to be taken to protect the environment. In this case, removing the report is selfish on part of the Bush administration, and is clearly unjustified.


However, at certain times, science is conducted against the favour of society, and censorship is employed more legitimately. In 2005, an article in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, which discussed the vulnerability of the US milk supply to botulinum toxic, was suspended by the US Department of Health. The article, they believed, provided a “roadmap for terrorists” to begin a biological warfare.


Even so, at first, I thought the research seemed trivial, and the censoring of it unnecessary. However, when I put the concept into greater perspective, the possible implications became clear to me. One of the key issues facing the United Nations today is nuclear proliferation. Suppose, after the Manhattan Project, the US had not maintained the secrecy of the technology developed, but, in the spirit of the freedom of speech and the sharing of knowledge, published it to the world. Had any nation, then, have access to the knowledge of assembling nuclear weapons. The subsequent disaster is clear to the human imagination.


As we can see, the three examples above argue that science can sometimes be conducted against the favour of mankind. Furthermore, the examples increase in magnitude of its potential harm on society, and with each one, I have become more convinced that its censorship is justified. Science is not, as I had believed, a perfect, meticulous system solely responsible for the development of a modern world. Should it fall into the wrong hands, it could come back to hurt us. Censorship is not, as many in the West would argue, a wronged principle and violation of a fundamental human right. At least for science, and dependent on circumstance, censorship appears to be required and righteous.


China’s choky dilemma

battersea

Every day, our buses roll past countless factories and industrial facilities on the road to school: GM, Sulzer, Sanjia Blower Company, Tomson plastics… industry is undoubtedly an essential part of our everyday lives. Indeed, industrial advances have made our lives much more convenient, from the widespread uses of electricity to the production of everyday objects, to logistic chains that transport goods or people. In China especially, industrialization had led to a large jump in the average person’s quality of life, with the creation of more jobs, the increasing purchasing power increasingly widespread demand for modern appliances and other items that make life more enjoyable.

The sudden industrialization and increase of average quality of life in this country have acted as the causes for an ever-increasing demand for electricity. To cope with this rising demand, China has been building power plant after power plant–most of them coal powered, as coal is a cheap and convenient fuel. It is estimated that a new coal power plant opens every week to ten days, offering a quick, cheap fix for China’s insatiable hunger for more power.

However, whilst coal power plants power China’s economy further into the 21st Century, they do create a significant number of negative effects that are gradually becoming extremely alarming. The vast majority of China’s coal plants use outdated technology that does not burn coal very effectively and releases much more noxious emissions than cleaner, more modern and more expensive technology. Amongst these emissions are the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which reacts with rainwater in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid, a primary component of acid rain that can have devastating effects on marine life and vegetation as well as on human health. A World Bank report estimated that more than $4 billion worth or crops are lost each year due to acid rain. Sulfur emissions also have a large impact on human health, and are suspected of being at the root of over 400,000 premature deaths each year in China.

The effects of hasty industrialization are already having alarming effects on the people and environment of China. But, other nations are also beginning to see the effects of Chinese pollution. In areas of the West Coast of the United States, particles issued from the combustion of coal have been detected in otherwise unpolluted areas, raising concerns of potential health and environmental consequences. If China’s unrestrained industrial expansion continues following current trends, these consequences would become quite noticeable coming years.

Fortunately, there are solutions to this issue. Modern equipment could drastically reduce coal power plant emissions (see my previous post on clean coal). However, this equipment is costly and would have to be imported, something that Chinese authorities have been reluctant to do. Other renewable sources of energy could also be more widely implemented. Several windmill farms already exist in Northwestern China, in the XinJiang region. Al Gore estimated that a 10,000 square mile area of solar panels would be sufficient to supply the entirety the United States’ electricity requirements. China has vast areas of sunny, dry terrain, and even a smaller area of solar panels could satisfy a healthy portion of China’s energy demands. Whilst most of these renewable sources of energy are less cost-efficient to harness, they could very well pay for themselves in the health and environmental benefits gained.

China will have to make a choice between cheap, instant power and the health of not only its own its citizens and environment but those of other nations. After all, what good are a strong economy and industry in an uninhabitable world? Does China have an ethical responsibility to protect the global population and environment? From my perspective as a young person that really cares about the future ecological condition of our world (I don’t wanna die prematurely!), I certainly believe so. But I feel it is a decision that China will ultimately have to make on its own.

Salicylic Acid- acne treatment or Reye’s syndrome?

Acetyl Salicylic Acid moleculeWhile reading about Medicines and drugs for class last Friday, I came across a part in the text that mentioned a possible connection between aspirin and Reye’s syndrome, due to the acetyl salicylic acid it contains. Acetyl salicylic acid is made by reating salycilic acid with ethanoic hydride. Salicylic acid itself isn’t used because it irritates and has a foul taste. The strange part is that according to the book, Standard Level Chemistry Heinemann Baccalaureate, it’s the salicylic acid that relieves pain and fever, and the substance that inspired the creation of aspirin.

In searching salicylic acid, I found that it’s not only a substance used in the manufacture of aspirin, but a common chemical found in acne products. The strange part was that there was no warning attached to the guarantees of clearer skin, even though the website I found seemed to have no intention of advertising salicylic acid-containing products.  When searching Reye’s syndrome, however,the possible threat of salicylic acid in both aspirin and “topical use products” (National Reye’s Syndrome Foundation) was addressed multiple times.

Therefore, I think it’s appropriate to think that the Reye’s websites, as well as the acne website, provided slightly biased information. From the Reye’s point of view, the object is to educate visitors of the website of the possible causes of the Syndrome, raise awareness, and emphasize the dangers of the disease. From the acne point of view, the website I found the information on provided several different types of information, ranging from acne to zebras. For that website, the objective was most likely to simply give some basic facts about salicylic acid and its effects on acne. Even then, I found it odd that when I searched for salicylic acid on google, the first few pages had nothing on the possible effects of salicylic acid as a cause for Reye’s syndrome, most of them concerned only the treatment of acne and topical products. What does this mean for the credibility of the Reye’s Websites? I find that they’re still credible, since I haven’t found that they make full claims that salicylic acid causes Reye’s syndrome, they just warn about the possibility of it. Therefore it’s important to keep a critical eye open to these claims- before believing any of them, we have to assess where they’re coming from, and under what motives the information is being presented. This is especially true nowadays- it’s as if everything is linked to a disease, but we can’t really know for sure. A quote from one of my favorite TV shows satirizes the situation with Dr. House’s crude humor in House when he says

Holding things in gives you cancer.

And as terrible as that sounds, I think the irony of it points at some truth. Sometimes people get too paranoid over things they’re not completely sure about. So in my opinion, although the warnings should be considered and salicylic acid may very well be a cause of Reye’s syndrome, it’s ultimately up to a doctor. Until something is proven to be harmful or a doctor doesn’t recommend it, I think taking it is fine, as long as it isn’t taken in excess.

Drill Baby, Drill

 In light of both Earth Week and some of the recent posts, the following post takes a chilly look at recent activity and interest in the North Pole.

The past two summers have seen the two record lowest measurements for the summer retreats of the North Pole ice cap.  Satellite imaging as well as well kept records tells us that while the ice covered a span of 3.01 square miles in 1980, in 2007 it amounted to the record lowest – 1.67 million square miles of ice. Below is a NASA image of the Arctic ice in 1979 and then another from 2003, the change is both worrying and visible.

 

The implications of this; a blaze of environmental concern for polar bears, a concerned look from Al Gore or green friendly celebrities, better yet, an international response? Well, it certainly got the latter. 

America, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway are spending billions of dollars establishing cases for land grabs, for the receding ice has ironically allowed access to fossil fuels, particularly oil and natural gas.  It is suggested that the Arctic Circle has a further 90 billion barrels of oil to be found and exploited, and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, meaning that almost a quarter of the world’s undiscovered deposits of oil and gas may be found there.

It is rumored that modern science has enabled us to have more detailed records of the surface of the moon than we do of the Arctic seafloor, as little is actually known of the arctic seabed, which is why there has been a recent rush to map the arctic seafloor.  The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a maritime border past 200 nautical miles must have an ocean bottom that is of the same continental mass of the country, and now the low amount of ice is allowing scientists to make more accurate maps needed to stake claims to the land. 

The efforts and energy of Earth week are in my mind, somehow eclipsed by the fact that at an auction in Anchorage, 488 exploration blocks in the Chukchi sea were sold to oil companies for 2.66 billion dollars.  

2.66 billion dollars – I can’t help but wonder the changes that could be impacted on our world if this money was put to better use.  The efforts and energy spent by these five nations in establishing land grabs in the Arctic has epitomized the two faced environmental stance many of these countries are famous for.

I apologize for the cynicism of this post.  It has most definitely been biased against the actions of these nations, because of my person opinions on global climate change. However for every post on the effects of global warming, the actions done to prevent it, or the hopes of changing our enormous carbon emissions, I feel it only proper to document some of the actual responses to veritable climate crisis.

I end with an image designed to make you all chuckle. I hope these enterprising nations make good money for whatever they discover in the Arctic.

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http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=3900

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/05/healy/funk-text