Sciencey Bits: Saturday, Mar. 12th, 2016

My love affair with the sciences began years ago when my dad would let me play with his slide rule as he explained how people had used them for calculations before the advent of the calculator. Later, when I was five, he gave me a magnifying glass and showed me how to concentrate the sun’s beams to set things on fire, always warning me not to burn down the house and forging in me a love of science. I found out years later that (during one of his childhood birthday parties) the younger natives had grown restless and burned down the garage. Clearly, the man knew of what he spoke.

In honor of my dad who taught me well the love and wonder of science, I’m dedicating Saturdays to science and offer these three gems:

Does A Clap Make You Itch?

handclapVibratory Urticaria, a rare form of hives, is caused by running, hand clapping, towel drying or even taking a bumpy car ride. Recently, the National Institues of Health identified a genetic mutation responsible for this rare illness by studying families afflicted by it. The hope is that by understanding how patients with the condition excrete an excess of inflammatory chemicals from their mast cells, scientists will learn more about how this aspect of the immune system works. “This work marks, to the best of our knowledge, the first identification of a genetic basis for a mast-cell-mediated urticaria induced by a mechanical stimulus,” said Dean Metcalfe, M.D., chief of NIAID’s Laboratory of Allergic Diseases and a study co-author. It seems a round of applause is in order.(Source info.: Science Daily; Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.)

Hand Me That Sugar Pill Would Ya’

As possible evidence that the notion of truth is so muddied on American shores, I present the following. Researchers at McGill University have discovered that response to the placebo effect seems to be growing over time.  According to Will Parker who reported this finding at,  the researchers found, “…that in the U.S., but not elsewhere, trials are becoming longer (from an average of four-weeks long in 1990 to 12 weeks in 2013) and larger (from an average of fewer than 50 patients in 1990 to an average of more than 700 patients in 2013).”

Possible reasons for this effect may include greater direct-to-consumer advertising of medical products (something only one other country, New Zealand, allows) and greater knowledge of what the placebo effect actually is.

Given the high costs of running clinical trials and America’s dominant role in the development of drugs which impact the world pharmaceutical market, the possibility exists that good drugs won’t make their way to the marketplace due to the fervent belief in sugar pills. This anomaly has been seen so far in the development of cancer drugs and painkillers.

For those who would like to buy sugar pills in lieu of real medicines, check out: Here, you can buy sugar pilules to trigger the placebo response in the privacy of your own home. This has set me to wondering how a 30 gram bottle of sugar can cost $20 when 30 grams is roughly 7 to 8 teaspoons of sugar (4 grams per teaspoon) at a true cost of less than 25 cents.  In the words of Mark Twain, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” (Sources:; Nature.)

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Sugar pilules source:

An Update on “Beardgate”

wp-1457842186399.jpgThinking about growing a beard and not sure where to start? Fearful of beard-loathing statements that male facial hair is a bacterial cesspool that poses a threat to public health? (see more here). In response to growing concerns about the this subset of the dermal biome,  Adam Roberts, Ph.D. a microbiologist from University College London, swabbed the beards of twenty men and identified more than one hundred different commonly occurring bacterial isolates. At the suggestion of colleagues, he tested those swabs in the lab on dishes of growth media pre-innoculated with bacterial strains. Surprisingly, 25% of the beard-derived bacteria started to produce their own antibiotic strains, killing off the colonies found in the growth media. Inspired by the possibilities, Dr. Roberts now runs the Swab and Send program which uses antimicrobial isolates gathered by citizen scientists with the hope they may help shed light on drug resistant forms of MRSA and E. Coli.. (Sources: Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News;  New York Post







17 Replies to “Sciencey Bits: Saturday, Mar. 12th, 2016”

      1. Aw, man. Thank you. That was kind. I just know what I like, and I like your writing and your wide-ranging connective way of thinking.

  1. Round of applause? Oh, I enjoyed this. At 3:30 in the morning.

    Looks like I am logged in on my phone with Eordpress, so here’s a BLOGMENT!

    1. I’d heard of the elusive Eordpress, but had never experienced a true “sighting”. So grateful I was awake. Now I know they aren’t crepuscular but nocturnal.

  2. Oh, I love this! My dad had a slide rule, too. He was always very gadget-y and that’s definitely where it started for me, though I have long out-distanced him in science-y endeavors.

    Hyphens, much?

  3. Alright – who thinks to research beard microbes? Well, that researcher of course. Great post and I think this will be a fun series of posts to read!

    1. About facial har, I would say there is such a strong ribbing of hipsters and sometimes, hipsters have beards. Call it beard bashing and it might make more sense. Thanks fro reading and commenting too.

  4. Not going to lie- I clapped my hands to test and see if hives popped up. I’m sure I’d have known by now, but still. And the next time I feel under the weather, I’ll take a teaspoon of sugar and see how that works. Love this series – interesting and fun!

  5. I always learn from you and you share in such an entertaining/interesting way that I look forward to reading sciency stuff. Now give me a thirty day supply of sugar pills…

  6. Vibratory Urticaria! Who knew? Could this the reason for itching and welts when I exercise? I like how your posts are long enough to catch my attention and interesting enough for me to want more information.

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