More on teaching science

Regular readers know that teaching science is an area of interest. Mike has a post up asking, How would you teach science? He suggests:

I think the problem is that we do a very poor job of teaching the basics. By basics, I mean arithmetic and basic scientific facts. Without that foundation, it is very difficult to get to the next level. If you can’t read basic French, what chance do you have with Sartre (in the original, of course)? Or to put it another way, you won’t succeed in algebra, if you can’t perform basic arithmetic.

Several commenters weigh in with their own suggestions. I’ve mentioned here that I don’t think it’s just teaching the basics–it’s getting people interested in learning the basics (which, of course, goes along with doing a good instead of a poor job of teaching them). Which all leads back to getting better teachers in the first place–which leads back to the problem of pay and training, which leads back to getting people interested…

Viruses vs. Superbugs

On a recent episode of the drama House, the medical team finds that a patient improves from his illness when he’s infected with a particular species of bacteria, Legionella pneumophila. Though mysterious at the time because the cause of the patient’s illness was unknown, it was later determined that the patient was infected with naegleria, an amoeba. Legionella is an intracellular bacterium that just happens to naturally live in amoeba. Therefore, when the patient was co-infected with the amoeba and Legionella, the Legionella killed off the amoeba–using one microbe to attack another.

This strategy will sound familiar to those versed in the history of microbiology. Before the advent of antibiotic drugs, one method used to treat bacterial infections was to attack them with another microbe as well: with viruses called bacteriophage. In a new book, Viruses vs. Superbugs, Swiss journalist Thomas Häusler details the extraordinary history of this treatment method.
Continue reading “Viruses vs. Superbugs”


I was off this weekend, so I’ve just now published some of the comments that got caught in the junk filter. My apologies to the authors–contrary to what at least one of you mentioned, I’m not censoring you, and a few comments I agree with also got stuck. Swamped today, but I’ll have some new material up tomorrow. In the meantime, I encourage you to browse ye olde blogroll or the scienceblogs main page for some excellent posts elsewhere.

Saturday roundup

More topics I’d have liked to discuss, given the time…

The Vigil after Dover. A free public forum, May 17, 2006 8 PM EST at The Florida State University College of Medicine Auditorium. Featuring Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse, John Haught, Robert Pennock, and others, it will apparently be broadcast live as well.

An article on “Europe’s unknown viral nasties”, discussing the importance of surveillance (especially at the animal-human interface) to help detect emerging infectious agents.

Discussion of a new study that chipmunks and acorns hold the key to forecasting Lyme disease:

The abundance of infected ticks in any given Lyme disease season strongly correlated with mouse and chipmunk populations the year before and acorn abundance 2 years prior, the team reports in the June issue PLoS Biology.

Rather short this week, since I was swamped with lab work, lectures, and meetings and didn’t have as much time to read the lit and find interesting topics to write about.

In addition, some reminders:

Don’t forget to check out Seed’s writing contest–entries are due June 30.

The next edition of Animalcules will be hosted here this coming Thursday–send your entries to me (aetiology AT gmail DOT com) by Wednesday evening. I’m also looking for future hosts, so drop me a line if you’d be interested in that as well.

“Pizzly bear” found–on wrong side of rifle

A polar bear-grizzly hybrid was found in Canada. My first thought was, “cool!” Then I clicked on the story, and now I’m ticked off, because 1) the bear’s dead (why didn’t they say it had been shot in the headline? Jerks); 2) the guy paid $45K US for a license to hunt polar bears (and is currently in Yellowstoneknife hunting grizzlies); and 3) all the references to it as a trophy. I’m not against hunting in principle or anything, but the whole “wow it’s so great how this guy shot a rarity in the wild–and phew! good thing it was a hybrid or he’d have been in trouble for shooting a grizzly in Canada” angle of the story wasn’t what I was expecting. I suppose that appeals to more readers than a more in-depth discussion of the biology, genetics, and ecology involved in the topic, though.*

*To be fair, they touched on that, but dang it, not enough…

Stamp out Hunger day–May 13th

Tomorrow is the annual Stamp Out Hunger food collection drive. Sponsored by Campbell’s Soup and the National Association of Letter Carriers, this is the largest single-day food drive in the country. You can help by 1) contacting your local post office or mail carrier and see if they’re participating tomorrow, and 2) leaving a bag of non-perishable food items next to your mailbox (not IN your mailbox, as many of the mail carriers will have volunteers assisting in their collection). No glass, please–canned or boxed goods are ideal.

Hunger is still a real problem in our country, and many of those who go hungry are children. Stamp Out Hunger is a way you can help with minimal effort–heck, you probably have some staples in your cupboard already that you could easily spare. All you need to do is bag them up and set them by your mailbox before collection tomorrow.

Mercury and mythology

I very briefly mentioned new research suggesting mercury fillings aren’t harmful back here last month. In Saturday’s Guardian, Ben Goldacre (who runs the Bad Science blog) had a short article on the topic. In it, he addresses the lack of coverage of the research in the UK media, despite stories in the last decade suggesting how dangerous mercury was. He notes:

Panorama did an excellently chilling documentary in 1994 called The Poison in Your Mouth. As far as I am aware there is no Panorama documentary in the pipeline covering the startling new research data suggesting that mercury fillings may not be harmful after all. In the UK there is not a single newspaper article to be found. Not a word on this massive landmark study, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

This brings to mind the current “controversy” over the connection between thimerosal (a mercury-containing compound) in vaccines and development of autism–a connection that hasn’t been substantiated, but there certainly is a lot of fear and misinformation about the topic. Indeed, like the “Poison in your mouth” documentary, there are splashy books written on the topic (such as Kirby’s Evidence of Harm, which has also been optioned for a movie. Additionally, while those who are anti-vaccine accuse the government and public health officials of “fear-mongering” about the potential harm of infectious disease, who are the ones continually throwing around words like “poison” whenever the topic comes up?

I wonder, when the data in the coming years show no decrease in autism despite the removal of thimerosal from vaccines, will the press coverage of the topic be similarly lackluster? Will the advocates of the link have moved onto another “poison” by then?