Archive for March, 2011

Of slime and childish curiosity

March 26, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders slime. And scientific tendencies.


Reproduced from the wonderful xkcd.com, the comic strip that regularly captures the spirit and the reality of science

Last weekend the Aust entourage, including Junior Aust (aged six-and-a bit-well-nearly-seven-in-a-few-months) visited this event at one of the nearby museums, run by the people from Manchester University’s Life Sciences Faculty.

In the event you could, as it says, “Come on a tour of the human body” and learn “how the heart works and how your lungs help you breathe”, among other things.

Junior Aust was fairly unimpressed by the nice chaps with their two-electrode ECG trace, even when I told her it was one of the things dad gets his students to measure on each other. I think the ECG wasn’t participatory enough for her, as they weren’t allowed to wire up members of the public (a shame, really, but understandable).

I DID manage to persuade her to blow into the spirometer and have her Forced Vital Capacity measured – another of those things you can find me getting students to do in their lab classes. I also measured myself for comparison, though I’d already done my annual Hypochondrial Full-service Multi-parameter Respiratory Function Self-assessment while I was running the student classes earlier this Semester.

She was a bit more impressed with the video of the view of the inside of your airways during a bronchoscopy (not done live, before you ask!), which I was able to tell her was the kind of thing mummy used to do to patients.

But the thing that REALLY made a deep and lasting impression on Junior Aust was the “make your own mucus-alike slime” stand. Kitted out in disposable plastic pathologist-style apron and dashing purple nitrile gloves, she was helped to concoct some truly disgusting-looking greeny-yellow slime out of acrylic glue, water and food colouring. I reassured her that the yellow colour was just enough to made it look properly yellow phlegm-like and grungey, and she was given some of her confection (tied up in another nitrile glove, no plastic bags left) to take home.

Now, we assumed she would lose interest in the stuff quickly enough, but this turned out not to be the case. For the rest of the day we were repeatedly called into action to stop her turning the slime out over the table, or the chairs, or the floor. Despite our best efforts, small chunks of it made their way onto her and her brother’s clothes, and onto the furniture. Yum.

But then we made a truly catastrophic error.

** Warning – you may find the next bit slightly disgusting. **

In a moment of attempting to out-gross Jurior Aust, The Boss (Mrs Dr Aust) remarked “That slime” (which was now semi-congealed) “looks exactly like what was in Junior Two’s nappies when he was ill the other week*”

Oh dear.

Big mistake.

Big, biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Mistake.

Huge.

For, thoughout the week since this conversation, we have been regaled daily (or indeed several times each day), by one or both children, with the useful information, faithfully and exactly repeated, of just exactly what Jr Aust’s slime resembles. Typically combined with a display of THE GLOVE, turned inside out so we can have a good look at the congealed yellow stuff.

Nice.

Note to self:

Take care what information thou doth impart to those under seven.

For verily, thou canst not take it back.

Anyway, we are trying to look on the optimistic side. You certainly have to applaud Junior Aust, and her younger sibling, for their impressive curiosity. Even curiosity into slightly gross stuff.

Which explains why I found the cartoon at the top of the post, from the brilliant xkcd.com, so funny when I saw it earlier this evening.

Now, Mrs Dr Aust and I have sworn an oath, in blood and in at least two languages, that the Aust-Sprogs are to be discouraged at all costs from going into any career related to science, or into medicine.

But there is, I fear, the chance that genes, or conditioning, will out.

Time, I guess, will tell.

 

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* It was almost certainly a rotavirus infection, BTW. Most unpleasant, and not a week we are keen to remember.

Holding back the tide – it’s alkaline, by the way

March 5, 2011

In which Dr Aust tries to keep things in proportion

A common feeling of those who write about pseudoscience is that one is a bit like King Canute, the man who was supposed to have ordered the waves to retreat.

For instance, for all that has been written about what a total con water ionizers are, people still sell them, and other people still buy them.

And for all that has been written about how “alkaline water” is a bunch of bullshit and a scam – including by me – there are still preposterous claims for its health benefits everywhere. Blogger Andrew Taylor just posted another such claim, which he says he got as a spam email. It is a particularly daft one as it talks about water being ionized, or separated, by their machine into “alkaline water” and “acid water”.

Now, this kind of stuff always claims “alkaline water” is good for you, and the email Andrew got is no exception:

“Alkaline Water being the healthiest drinking water available to us, because it will increase the pH of your body, detoxifies and has an abundance of anti-oxidants”

[Hmm. It can only have antioxidants in it if it has lots of dissolved organic material, actually. Not convinced lots of dissolved organic material is really something you would want in your drinking water. But I digress.]

Having read that boilerplate, but typically overblown claim – “the healthiest… detoxifies…” – I’m tempted to ask sarcastically whether the stuff cures cancer too. Depressingly, the people selling this are there already:

“Due to restrictions on regulating the things we can claim publicly, we can not say certain things, that’s why I want you to do your own research specially on the “C” word”

Sigh. As all too often, the hyperbolic general claims about “detoxifying” are just the scene-setting for the subsequent hint of something miraculous that will cure real, and serious, diseases. (It won’t, of course.) What this suggests is that the sellers are targetting their claims at the sick and desperate, as well as the “worried well”.

Now, remember also that this piece of sales pitch claimed to “separate” water into alkaline and acid fractions. While most quacks tend to claim routinely that “acidity” is bad for you, this email makes an extra virtue of the claimed “acid” water (which won’t actually be acid in any meaningful sense, but that’s another story) by claiming:

“The Acidic Water that is produced is a cleanser and is very good for skin conditions such as the eczema, cleaning vegetables, fruit etc”

Remarkable. No wasted water with Woo-water.

I am oddly reminded of a spa town in southern Spain where I once went for a conference years ago. The major product of the town was its bottled water, and the people in the hotel bar used to tell us how good it was for you. “Good for drinking. For your insides. Makes you healthy”. And if you didn’t like the taste, no problem: “Good for bathing in. For your skin. And for people with arthritis” Good inside OR out. Good acid OR alkaline. Just send money.

Anyway, faced with this daily tide of garbage, it is possible to feel rather like old Canute.

Except that…. the story (which is almost certainly apocryphal anyway) is not supposed to carry the meaning that Canute (or “Knut”, since Canute is an anglicization of Knut) really thought he could turn back the waves.

According to the story as commonly told, he did his commanding-the-waves routine as a lesson to his courtiers that he could NOT actually command the waves to retreat, even if they – the courtiers – kept buttering him up by telling him he was a great king, mighty and wise, could do anything etc etc.

Would that many modern leaders, whether political or in large organisations, were as aware of their own limitations.

Anyway, in the story Knut/Canute is presented as a man with a bit of insight, and not someone who would beat himself up if the tide refused to retreat on command.

Which brings me back to alkaline water. I wrote a post on this almost exactly three years ago (it went live on March 1st 2008) called:

What Could Be So Fine… As to be Alkaline (Warning: Irony)

The post has logged over 1200 “page loads”, so most days, on average, someone has at least had it open in a browser. Last month there were twenty-seven. I hope some of those people read it. I hope some of them found it useful, and that perhaps it helped to clarify for some of them why alkaline water is a scam.

And like the Knut of the story, I am not hoping for miracles. So I will settle for that.


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