I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Things we take for granted

Having grown up in the 20th Century, in a rich, developed country, Tuberculosis (TB) is not something I ever even thought to worry about. I was vaccinated against this disease as a baby, and never really heard anything about it, except when reading classic novels by Dickens or the like, which were written in a time when people still died of ‘consumption’ in Western countries.

TB vaccines are still standard issue for babies in developed countries, as far as I know. Again, it’s just something most babies are vaccinated against and then the rest of us in the rich world have the luxury of forgetting this illness even exists.

However, in other parts of the world, TB is still a deadly killer, responsible for 1.5 million yearly deaths worldwide. It ranks right behind HIV in terms deadly infectious illnesses.

According to this article from the Guardian, since TB was eradicated in rich countries around the middle of the 20th Century, people stopped caring about this disease or the treatment of it. In that time, new treatment-resistant strains of TB have evolved and these new strains now pose an extremely deadly threat. Not only that, but the current treatments for TB take about two years, are seriously painful and some can cause deafness or psychotic episodes… all with no guarantee of curing the illness.

I found this article quite shocking and it is so tragic that a disease eradicated in rich Western countries still kills so many people worldwide, and since those people are poor and living in developed countries, their plight is largely overlooked.

The things we take for granted, indeed.

Read the whole article here:

Tuberculosis is an old disease with a new face – and it needs to be stopped | THE GUARDIAN

 When rich countries eradicated TB, new treatments dried up. Now the disease has evolved to become drug-resistant – and it’s the world’s poorest people who are bearing the brunt


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The wonders of the universe

I stumbled across this great astronomy site today. There is an amazing collection of astronomy photos from various photographers around the world, each with a brief descriptions by a professional astronomer. It sounds incredible, but it looks like there is a photo for every day of the year, each year, since June 1995!

Click here to check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Enjoy some amazing images of our wonderful universe!

 

 


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The universe is in us all

‘The knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth – the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars- the high mass ones among them- went unstable in their later years- they collapsed and then exploded- scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy- guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems- stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.’    ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson ticks a lot of boxes for me.

First, he is clearly brilliant. No need to elaborate there.

Second, the way he describes space, matter, stars, physics, life and the potential for life in the universe… he makes it so accessible, even to people like me without much background knowledge in these topics. In fact, he makes me eager to learn so much more!

Third, his enthusiasm is absolutely infectious! I really didn’t enjoy any science classes when I was in school, but have become a fan of ‘popular science’ as an adult. Reading about biology, chemistry, evolution, genetics, and cosmology – it’s a challenge for me, but I also find it intensely rewarding because it forces me to look at the world and the universe in such a different way than I normally do. For one thing, it encourages me to see things from a non-anthropocentric perspective, and I enjoy the way it reminds me of my place in the universe.

It helps me to remember I am not the centre of everything. Not only that, but humans as a species aren’t the centre of everything. We share a kinship with all the creatures on our planet, with the plants, with bacteria, with stones and seas and the clouds in the sky… as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, we even share a sort of kinship with the stars. Not in a sort of magical airy-fairy way, but in a real, chemical, atomical, physical way; we are all inter-connected. We are all a part of each other, and there is something beautiful and humbling about that reality.


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Do we inherit the suffering of our ancestors?

I’ve recently come across a number of articles on the subject of epigenetics. According to LiveScience, epigenetics ‘literally means “above” or “on top of” genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells “read” genes.

Studies have seemed to show that the effects of things like stress, obesity, and living through famine or war can be passed on from parents to children, and perhaps even to grandchildren and beyond. The effects of these experiences on a parent can alter the way genes are turned on or off in the DNA of one’s offspring. So, in my lay person understanding, it seems that parents might not just pass on their basic genetic material to their children, but also residual effects of certain life experiences.

I’m not going to pretend to understand it all, and I’m certainly not going to try and explain what I’ve read. It’s a bit too complex for me, and I think I’ll need to give these articles a few more readings to better get my head around the information. But this certainly adds a whole new layer to the way we think about genetic inheritance and the effects parents have on their children and future descendent. Our experiences, life style choices, and physical and mental health may be even more important to those who come after us than we previously thought.

If you’d like to read more, here are a few recent articles on epigenetics:

The Economist Explains: What is Epigenetics? | The Economist

Epigenetics: The Sins of the Father | NATURE

Can Children Inherit Stress? | New York Times

Poisoned Inheritance | The Economist


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Everybody wants a piece of King Tut

I came across this interesting and incredibly well-woven article about King Tutankhamun and the quest to figure out his bloodline and ethnic origins, and all the pit-falls, road-blocks and challenges those studying this ancient king have dealt with along the way.

Here’s a true story intertwining ancient history, biblical mythology, cutting-edge technology, Mormons, British colonial history, genetics, Egyptian revolution, forensics, international politics… this story’s got it all!

If you have any interest in Egyptology, or just love a well-told tale, this is definitely worth a read!

Tutankhamun’s Blood: Why everyone from the Mormons to the Muslim Brotherhood is desperate for a piece of the Pharaoh | MEDIUM


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Breakthrough for children born with HIV

Here is an exciting article from the New York Times, about a baby born with HIV who has been ‘cleared’ of the virus due to aggressive treatment started soon after birth.

This discovery could potentially change the fate of the hundreds of thousands of children born with the virus each year. Amazing stuff!


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Is science truly objective?

Here’s a thought-provoking post from Intentio Lectoris.

The author discusses some of the practical limitations of scientific inquiry that effect objectivity (finances, countless variables in the natural world that complicate things, outdated methods or equipment, etc.), but perhaps more importantly, the ways in which value judgements do come into the interpretation of data. This isn’t to say that if science isn’t perfectly objective, the whole thing is a big conspiracy and we should all forget about this whole science thing. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that stance!

Instead, it seems to me (as a non-scientist) that it is a call for scientists, and those interested in science, to be aware that scientists, like everyone else, are products of culture, particular organizations and institutions, their particular time and place in history, etc.,  and as such, carry cultural baggage, make assumptions, take certain things about the world for granted, and make value judgements based on their own prejudices.

Of course, the idea that true objectivity doesn’t (and perhaps, shouldn’t) exist isn’t only relevant for scientists. This little blog here is my personal attempt at challenging my own assumptions about the world. I try to seek out new information that gives me a more ‘objective’ view of reality, but at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that I can ever actually be completely free of biases and certain cultural values, no matter how hard I try. I also wouldn’t really want to give up all of my cultural values because they do serve a useful purpose in life. Humans live with other humans, and as a way to communicate and create social bonds and cohesion, it is necessary to have some common ground with others, a sort of default setting of background information so we don’t have to be explaining ourselves to death all the time!

What do we really mean when we talk about objectivity anyway? What does it mean to be ‘objective’ and why does modern Western culture value this trait so highly? In what situations might it be undesirable to try for objectivity? How can we strike a balance between objectivity and the inescapable reality of personal and cultural biases and assumptions? 

For more on this topic, there is also a follow-up post here discussing why, in fact, it isn’t desirable for science to be completely objective, which is also worth reading.