After 25 years trapped in woman’s stomach, lost pen still writes

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After 25 years trapped in woman’s stomach, lost pen still writes

 After 25 years trapped in woman's stomach, lost pen still writes

Here’s a reason to leave any and all tonsil examinations up to the professionals. From an article last year in the journal BMJ Case Reports comes this anecdote about a woman who managed to keep a pen marinating in her gut for a quarter-century until doctors plucked it out. Report the authors, who are physicians in Exeter, England:

After 25 years trapped in woman's stomach, lost pen still writes

A 76-year-old female, with a blameless medical history other than well-controlled depression, was referred for urgent investigation due to weight loss and diarrhoea. A flexible sigmoidoscopy demonstrated severe diverticulosis and a subsequent CT abdomen showed a linear foreign body in the stomach but no other abnormality. Her symptoms resolved spontaneously. On subsequent questioning, she recalled unintentionally swallowing a pen 25 years earlier. While she was interrogating a spot on her tonsil with the pen she slipped, fell and swallowed the pen by mistake. Her husband and general practitioner dismissed her story and plain abdominal films done at the time were reported as normal. A gastroscopy demonstrated a plastic felt-tip pen sitting in the lumen of the stomach without evidence of any gastric damage […] The pen was still in working order (figure 2). This case highlights that plain abdominal x-rays may not identify ingested plastic objects and occasionally it may be worth believing the patient’s account however unlikely it may be.

Now — for the sake of testing an old aphorism — somebody needs to swallow a sword and email us the findings 25 years from now.

[Via Improbable Research]


The International Space Station, set to the soundtrack of Sunshine

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The International Space Station, set to the soundtrack of Sunshine

Oh, this will give you chills. The International Space Station’s orbital vantage point never ceases to amaze, and it becomes downright spine-tingling when Underworld and John Murphy’s famous theme from Sunshine is added to the mix. This time-lapse from Knate Myers blends images collected by ISS astronauts and NASA’s Johnson Space Center with the pounding score to director Danny Boyle’s 2007 solar mission flick, a soundtrack that we’ve professed our love for previously.

Between this and Annalee interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson last night, I’m downright indignant that there’s an infinitesimally slim chance I’ll be kicking around by the time humanity gets a decent space elevator (and should I make it, I’ll be a cackling, semi-comatose mummy, asking befuddled passers-by if Ghostwriter is still on the air).

[Via Jason Sondhi]

Benjamin Franklin’s Fluid Theory of Electricity

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Benjamin Franklin’s Fluid Theory of Electricity

Benjamin Franklin's Fluid Theory of Electricity

Benjamin Franklin is best known as a Founding Father of the United States, with historians often referring to the Boston-born Franklin as the First American.

Franklin lived in era where men and women wore many hats, with a lucky few spending their free time uncovering the mysteries of life and nature. Amidst time spent as a publisher, politician, and inventor, Franklin constructed one of the early theories interpreting the behavior of electricity, with parts of his theory informing our modern view of electricity.

Top image via snowpeak/Flickr.

The polymath hobbyist
My view of Ben Franklin is often informed solely by HBO’s John Adams series – the annoying guy living it up in France most of the time, wearing a fur hat and wooing old ladies.

Benjamin Franklin, however, walked the Earth as a polymath in an era of polymaths, a self-made printing magnate who spent his spare time inventing and making scientific discoveries long before entering the world political scene.

In between creating bifocals and urinary catheters, Franklin ruminated about the size of the atom, tracked hurricanes, and studied climate change. Tying into the latter, Franklin theorized that dust, gas, and rockthrown into the air from a volcanic eruption could play a role in changing the climate thousands of miles a way by blocking the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface of the earth. Franklin made this connection on a jaunt to Paris in 1784 that followed a series of eruptions at Lakagígar, a volcanic fissure in Iceland.

The fluid theory of electricity
While Franklin’s fateful date with a kite and key is debated, Benjamin Franklin is the first person to correctly suggest the positive and negative nature of electrical charge. In Franklin’s Fluid Theory of Electricity, he posited that electricity acted as a fluid moving through the planet. The theory called for “electrical fluid” to move through the ether as a single substance and not two completely different fluids per the contemporary belief of the time.

Franklin’s mid-18th Century theory called for a neutral equilibrium of electrical fluid, with electricity flowing from an area of electrical excess to areas lacking the electrical “fluid”. Franklin deemed the areas of excess “positive” – a flipped viewpoint from our current scientific understanding wherein electron rich areas likely hold an overall negative charge or a negative dipole.

The previous theory of Franklin’s day called for two competing fluids, one vitreous and one resinous, that flowed through the air. Franklin also suggested that deposits of excess electrical fluid repelled each other, in line with the positive-positive repulsion of charges. While the idea of a fluid may sound unusual, it is a quite good approximation for the time, as Faraday’s electric field theory would not surface for decades.

Lightning rods
Benjamin Franklin championed the use of lightning rods in cities to divert strikes and decrease fires. Franklin kept a lightning rod on the top of his house, but for a completely different reason. The Founding Father used the rod to perform to draw lighting to his house for the purpose of experimental observation, with a series of bells connected to a grounding wire signalling a successful strike.

During 1816, a year marked with a bizarrely cold summer and snow falling in July, quizzical citizens used Franklin’s own Fluid Theory to blame the deceased founding father for the change in climate. Individuals linked the unusual climate to Franklin’s curious experiments with lightning decades prior, particularly those using a metal rod to divert lightning.

Citizen scientists of the day suggested the influx of lightning rods placed near houses and businesses at the behest of Franklin forever changed this flow and damned humanity to a reversal of the season. Apparently, one can invent, make scientific discoveries, and help draft the Declaration of Independence, but one can’t prevent people from heaping world-ending blame on their shoulders decades after death.

The portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin is within the public domain and on display at the White House. Carbonic alloy engraving of Benjamin Franklin is also in the public domain, drawn by C. N. Cochin and engraved by A.H. Richie. Lightning rod image viam.gifford/Flickr. Sources linked within the article.

3D printing technology could let you print your pharmaceuticals at home

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3D printing technology could let you print your pharmaceuticals at home

 3D printing technology could let you print your pharmaceuticals at home

3D printers have made incredible promises about the future manufacture and distribution of goods. Already we can print out toys, mechanical components, and even foodstuffs. One team, though, has set it sights on something with even more incredible potential: 3D printed pharmaceuticals that can be manufactured anywhere in the world.

The Guardian recently interviewed Professor Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow, who is currently leading a team of 45 university researchers. Among their goals: adapting 3D printing technology to create downloadable pharmaceuticals. The Cronin group mainly works on creating complex molecules, with an eye toward developing inorganic life. Cronin believes that these skills can be applied toward turning 3D printers into drug manufacturing plants.

The idea is still in its fledgling stages, but a pharmaceutical 3D printer would be loaded with simple molecules that would allow it to easily handle carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, plus vegetable oils, paraffin, and other common pharmaceutical ingredients. Cronin told the Guardian that with a relatively small number of “inks,” “you can make any organic molecule.”

So what are the advantages of printable drugs? For one thing, it lets you create modular drugs tweaked to individuals. Where it might not be worthwhile to manufacture custom drugs on a wide scale, having pharmaceuticals that are printed off in smaller batches would give people access to drugs that are aligned with their unique biochemistry. And there’s the portability of manufacture; suddenly, you’d be able to manufacture any drug anywhere in the world.

I do wonder, though, how printable pharmaceuticals would change the drug industry from a business and intellectual property perspective. Would pharmaceutical companies, instead of filing patents, hold their formulas as closely guarded trade secrets? Would we have to worry about potentially inferior counterfeit drug formulas? And if the machines could print controlled substances, how would that affect government control of the printers?

Still, if Cronin and his team are correct, this technology could result in incredible medical and humanitarian benefits. But even as he dreams big, he reminds us that there’s still a long technological road ahead before these “chemputers” can become a reality.

3D printer photo by Clive Darra.

The ‘chemputer’ that could print out any drug [The Guardian – Hat tip to Albert!]

Do people of different races have different voices?

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Do people of different races have different voices?


Is there such thing as a Caucasian, Asian, or African voice? And could you actually identify someone’s race just by listening to him or her? Admittedly, the whole notion of race is nebulous to say the least — it’s a concept that blends physiological and social differences indiscriminately. But there are still scientists trying to study the actual physiological differences between different racial groups. And one of those differences is how we sound to each other.

The moment you try to study the actual physical differences between races, you run into trouble. The data gets tangled pretty quickly because genetic makeup doesn’t always match up with how you look. Sometimes the data are statistically tangled, since any physiological characteristic of a race, from height to skin color, will overlap with characteristics of other races. And when you start to look into the question of vocal differences, you run into sociological tangles as well. Humans are talented, and often unintentional, vocal mimics. We’ve always been unconscious mimics, which is how language spread around in the first place. So it’s pretty much impossible to find such a thing as a completely uninfluenced voice.

In spite of the complications, there have been a few studies looking at race and voice, both from a physiological and a social standpoint.

Physiology of Voice

The studies on physiology of race, as it applies to voice, are few and far between. For one thing, there are the technical challenges of studying a living voice box, especially as it moves. Still, a few studies have delved into the vocal tract.

Speech therapists, for example, are helped by knowing the different physiology of their patients. So one fairly limited study looked at exactly what the dimensions of the vocal tract are in each person. Because people use everything from their throats to their noses when speaking, any people who have different facial features should have different voices.


The study used about one hundred and twenty individuals, of white American, African American, and Chinese descent, including both men and women. The researchers studied the dimensions of basically everything, from the lips to the bottom of the throat — working out exactly how much length and volume the different parts of the vocal tract gave different people. What they found were significant differences in some areas, including the inside of the mouth, the pharynx — the little pocket of space behind the flaps that come together when people swallow — and the vocal tract.Unfortunately, the data was pretty inconclusive. Gender juggles the overall size and dimensions of the inside of the mouth. In males, researchers found an overall size gradient, with African American males having the smallest oral cavities, Chinese men having the largest, and white American males splitting the difference. Chinese women headed the list in terms of oral volume and just barely won out in total vocal tract volume, while white American women had by far the largest pharyngeal volume. African American women came in last in everything except oral volume, where they outdistanced white American women. The sound of a voice, then, doesn’t just vary by race and gender, but by gender within race.

The researchers obtained these dimensions via acoustic pharyngometry. This procedure involves a computer that processes sound waves that bounce off the inside of a person’s vocal tract. And different dimensions will produce different sounds. Few people, though, use the extreme edge of their vocal physiology in everyday speech. If anything, humans in a society try to sound like each other. But the different acoustics inside your mouth should have some impact, right?

The Sound of Speech

The data regarding the sound of different race’s speech are even more limited than the last. There is one publicly available study, in which volunteers attempt to identify a person’s race by the sound of their voice, but it involves only males, and only white American and African American subjects. A total of one hundred volunteers were asked to record vowel sounds. Those sounds were then put in pairs, and played to more volunteers.

The listeners were asked to identify which race each of the speakers on the tape were. Overall, they were successful sixty percent of the time. That’s significant — but not too much more accurate than a coin flip. What’s more interesting is that the sixty percent guess rate held despite the race, sex, or listening experience of the listener.What was the difference in these vocal sounds? African American voices had greater frequency perturbation, greater amplitude perturbation, and a lower harmonics-to-noise ratio. This means that, on average, African American male voices varied in tone and loudness more than white American male voices. Is this a built-in measure of a racial difference in voice? Not necessarily. Studies have indicated that greater frequency perturbation is a good indicator of vocal cord health. In other words, it’s yet another tangle.

So what have we learned? Possibly, if you cloned a number of people, raised them without any exposure to society, and forced air through their vocal tracts, they might produce different overall sounds, depending on race, and purely as a matter of physiology and acoustics. Right now, however, there’s no real evidence of a characteristic physiological voice produced by people of different races. What differences there are, physiologically, are more than overwhelmed by age, health, and the deliberate use of the social voice.

Top image: Sebastian Kaulitzki/ Vocal Tract Structure Image: SEER


The Universe Could Tear Itself Apart Sooner Than Anyone Believed

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The Universe Could Tear Itself Apart Sooner Than Anyone Believed

Many physicists now believe the universe will end by tearing itself apart — and now it appears that this could happen sooner than anyone expected. Originally, scientists predicted the Big Rip would happen in 20 to 22 billion years — but now it sounds as though we may not have that much time left. And the end of the universe could be much stranger than the graceful “heat death” we’ve all been looking forward to.

The discovery of a gravitationally repulsive force called dark energy, back in the 1990s, provided cosmologists with a neat and tidy explanation of why galaxies are moving away from each other at an accelerating rate. A surprising implication of this theory, however, was the realization that this same force could eventually cause the Universe to rip apart into nothingness. And the more we learn about this mysterious force, the sooner it looks like this will happen.

Crunching numbers to predict the rip

Dark energy is a kind of cosmological placeholder that helps scientists explain why the universe behaves the way it does. They aren’t exactly sure how or why it exists, nor can they come to a consensus on its exact nature. But one thing they do know is that, without it, the universe doesn’t make much sense. In fact, scientists believe dark energy makes up about 70% of the current content of the universe, so it’s a major player in the cosmological game — a force that will in all likelihood determine the final end-state of the universe’s developmental cycle. 

To help cosmologists with their chalkboard equations, they have assigned the letter ‘w‘ when working with dark energy — a way to mathematically depict the ratio of pressure and density of dark energy. The only problem, however, is they’re not exactly sure what value to give it. But what they do know is that if they give w a value less than -1, their calculations reveal that dark energy will eventually grow to infinity — a regrettable turn of events that will cause everything in the universe to fly apart from each other — including tiny particles and any other building block of the Universe.

And lamentably, cosmologists are pretty sure dark energy has a value less than -1.

Now, a recent study published in Science China’s Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy is reaffirming this assessment — but their calculations show that, when applying a likely value of -1.5, the Universe’s potential expiry date has to be pulled closer by as much as 6 billion years.

Previous estimates using a similar value had suggested that the Big Rip wouldn’t happen until about 20-22 billion years from now, but after developing and applying a new technique, a Chinese team led by Zhang Xin and Li Miao are suggesting it could happen as early as 16.7 billion years from now — an indication that the Universe is about 2 billion years away from hitting the halfway point in its life. The scientists have assigned a 95.5% confidence level to their prediction.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers devised a new method for coming up with the parameters required for their calculations. Previous estimates had used the Chevallier-Polarski-Linder (CPL) parameterization, but Zhang and Li felt it was insufficient on account of its inability to handle divergences, namely the redshift parameter. In its place, they developed the divergence-free Ma-Zhang (MZ) parameterization — what the scientists say is a method that offers “a more well behaved, bounded behavior.”

The ultimate fate of the universe

It’s worth noting that, given this timescale, and assuming that the big rip will hold as theory, the Universe will never go through the much-considered heat death phase, which was scheduled to start 10100 years from now. And what’s particularly disturbing about all of this is, stars and planets will very much be still in existence at the time of the big rip. It’s going to be a universe-wide catastrophe, that words cannot even begin to describe

When considering their data, the cosmologists are fairly convinced that w will continue to exhibit a value less than -1 well into the future — which, in the words of the study’s authors, “will lead to a strange future for the Universe.”And the picture they paint is very strange indeed. The cosmologists suggest that dark energy’s gravitational repulsion will continually increase until it overcomes all forces holding objects together, causing every structure in the Universe to be torn apart. Nothing will be immune to this cataclysmic event — including those atomic-scale objects that are more tightly bound (they’ll be the last to go).

Now, it’s very unlikely that our solar system will exist in its current form at that time, but it’s worth considering what would happen if it did.

Zhang and Li write that the the Milky Way will be torn apart 32.9 million years before the big rip. The Earth will be ripped away from the Sun two months before the end, and we’ll lose our moon with five days left. The Sun itself will be destroyed 28 minutes before the end of time, and the Earth will explode a mere 12 minutes later.

Fun times.

Read the entire paper.

Image NASA. Inset images via and DailyMail.

Heat map of the Sun looks like something Monet would be proud of

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Heat map of the Sun looks like something Monet would be proud of

 Heat map of the Sun looks like something Monet would be proud of

NASA’s Nicholeen Viall has developed a new visualization technique for studying the Sun’s temperature fluctuations — and the eye-catching results are startlingly beautiful. Each color-coded area in Viall’s composition represents the star’s temperature shifts over the course of a 12-hour span. The new method could help scientists better understand the mechanisms required to drive the Sun’s temperature and the movements of the corona.

Heat map of the Sun looks like something Monet would be proud ofViall was able to do this by analyzing the data collected by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Her heat map uses red, orange, or yellow to indicate an area that has cooled, and a blue or green color if the area has heated up. The exact shade is determined by how much time it took for the temperature change to occur.

In essence, the map is a visualization of the lag time required to heat up or cool down a specific area of the Sun.

Looking at the map, the wealth of reds, oranges, and yellow indicate that, over the 12-hour span, the isolated area went through a cooling phase. But given that there isn’t an exclusively one-way temperature slide, Viall has concluded that heating must be quick and impulsive — a process that happens so fast that it doesn’t show up in her videos. This may provide further evidence to the theory that the Sun exhibits “nanobursts” of energy to heat up the corona.

Via Daily Mail.

All images via NASA.