Analytical lab

Science Flights of Fancy

Ever considered using your hair for tapping into the internet? Or as an antenna? Or…? Personally, I’ve used my hair as a weapon, having worn it as long as past my waist, and put up into a whip-like braid. Long enough to sit on! If I dyed it with graphene, in the new process that is being explored in this paper, I could ‘integrate it with wearable electronic devices.’ Like perhaps a fitbit without having to wear the gadget? So many fun cyberpunk possibilities! Of course, it only comes in black, which has me imagining a future of gamine anime-lookalikes.

“People could apply this dye to make hair conductive on the surface,” Huang said. “It could then be integrated with wearable electronics or become a conductive probe. We are only limited by our imagination.”

Imagination has it’s place in science, to be sure. And it can be good fun to indulge in flights of fancy once you’re certain of your data. But using your imagination to massage the data into a story you can sell has terrible consequences, as Brian Wansink is discovering. In science, you create a hypothesis first, and then the data either supports that, or it doesn’t. You don’t collect data and then use it to support what you want it to say. I’ve blogged before about Diederik Stapel, the social scientist who wanted to prove the world was racist, and falsified data toward that end. Wansink, who has become a celebrity darling, had a story he wanted to tell about food, and in the hundreds of papers he’s published, it seems to have been supported… only it wasn’t. Students and other researchers noticed that the data wasn’t quite right. Papers were questioned, corrected, and retracted. Now, former grad students are coming forward with their stories.

Kaipainen was also troubled by lab members’ frequent remarks that a finding “would make a good story or a good article” or “be interesting for media.” At one point, the lab brainstormed questions for an outside party’s market research survey. “That was weird also,” she recalled, “to come up with some questions not based on any theory, just ‘What would be cool to ask?’, ‘What cool headlines could we get if we got some associations?’”

And speaking of science that looks good in the media, I ran across a mention of a new fad: C60 Buckminster fullerene dissolved into olive oil and then ingested. But Why!? I protested when I first saw it. What on earth would nanoparticles possibly do in the human body that would make people want to take them? I wasn’t the only one scratching their head over this, a friend on facebook had posted about it as well, and him a chemist! wondering about the efficacy of such a thing. So I went digging and came up with a couple of articles. Mind you, I am NOT  recommending this in any way, shape, nor form, but I do think I figured out why C60 in olive oil is the latest and greatest snake oil to come along. One article talks about the possible use of the tiny particles in wrinkle cream, which given the massive industry revolving around ‘beauty’ means that suddenly the nanoparticles will be a big thing. But more than that, this article showing some connection between the ingestion (gastric lavage, or forced feeding, usually) of  fullerene in olive oil (any vegetable oil would have worked, the oil is just to speed absorption into the system) by rats and a longer lifespan… ah, that’s it. Longer life has been the obsession of mankind since the quest for the Fountain of Youth failed. Frankly, there’s not enough data here to satisfy me, for one. Although I will admit to a healthy amount of skepticism in my life, most especially when it comes to fad diets and supplements. At least the messy goo seems to have little toxicity in vivo. So what’s going on here? Turns out, the teeny molecules that are usually drawn to look like geodesic beach balls are fantastic anti-oxidants and may be gobbling up lots of free radicals, which according to some studies will lead to a longer life. Color me suspicious of the stuff. A google search initially turned up page after page of companies breathlessly hawking the answer to old age and death… without using those words, of course, lest they invoke the FDA. Because this sort of nonsense is a big part of why the FDA exists. I’m not a fan of big government, but I am definitely a fan of thorough studies and not just ingesting some rando potion purchased over the internet.


18 responses to “Science Flights of Fancy”

  1. “having worn it as long as past my waist,” Pics or it didn’t happen. 🙂

    1. Heh. Problem is that I’m usually on the other side of the camera.

      1. We’ll accept “unusual” pics as proof of your claims. 🙂

        1. Given that I’ve packed my few remaining photo albums already, I’m not sure I even have unusual ones! I cut my hair short in, um, I think 2006 and haven’t had it that long since then.

          1. I know super long hair can be a PITA.

            1. It’s a lot of time to care for. And right now, in a lab environment, the short hair is fantastic to be able to have it out of my face. But I’ll probably grow it out again because I miss my mane.

            2. Please don’t let me stop you.

  2. Anti-oxidants and free radicals. Have there been studies about these previously disproving that whole thing? Something is tickling in the hind brain about a study heard about once on free radicals and how they are a myth maybe.

    1. I think it’s ringing a faint bell for me, too. If I have time I’ll do some digging. I do know that everytime we think we have a handle on what causes aging, we figure out ‘no, that’s not it…’ like telomeres, for instance.

      1. Telomeres have been debunked? Note to Self: Cease acting like you know everything.

      2. Found this page from Harvard. Conclusion? Anti-oxidants don’t really help all that much for most things.

    2. And there’s this meta-analysis that concludes vitamins and anti-oxidant supplements do nothing for heart health.

    3. ISTR that the purging of free radicals from the body was why James Bond is send to a clinic in “Never Say Never Again.”

  3. Fullerenes are aromatics. That’s organic chemistry aromatic, not ‘add it to your ice cream’ aromatic. Aromatics are in many cases carcinogens. Not all. Review your amino acid structures if you do not believe me.After it gobbles up a free radical, what has happened to it, chemically? It becomes something else.

    1. Right. There is a lot we don’t know. And one study showing possible results in rats does not translate to humans, much less humans en masse.

  4. Someone once pointed out that this craze for anti-oxidants kinda fails to notice that metabolic processes basically run on oxidation, and a good term for a non-oxidizing thing is “inert” or “dead”.

    1. I think the idea is to keep the the free radicals in check. Which is nice, but we still understand SO LITTLE about biochemistry that mucking about with it is slightly insane.

      1. Orvan Taurus Avatar
        Orvan Taurus

        Aye. The idea (which might NOT be the reality) is to deal with free radicals (presumed bad) rather than, say, phosphorylation. But how do you tell an oxidation inhibitor, “But NOT that one” ?