There´s scientific life outside the academia, but what about in Brazil?

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Translation by Gabriel Cunha from the original.

I´ve been to the Expanding career options lunch held in the EMBO Meeting (one of the reasons this blog seems forgotten). The event was OK but it could be better. The time was short, it´s hard to eat and drink and all the noise from the tables really makes the conversation difficult. Nevertheless the problem could be summed to the format of the event. All attendants seemed interested and interesting, I´ve participated in three 35 minute discussion tables each with a former grad student that left the academic life.
Their areas, names and some comments follow: 
• Scientific politics
 He basically connects research groups to the government in social interest themes. For example, he is now inserting neuroscience concepts in education to improve the education system. The Centre´s role is to gather data from its associates in an easy understanding report to non-scientist legislators apart from keeping in touch with great names in both scientific and political areas. 
• Scientific communication 
She´s like a PR for a research group but although the job really resembles the one of a PR professional some scientific knowledge is important to translate the institution production into press-releases and media contact. The main role of such a professional is the visibility increase in the area of interest using the media, hosting events, fairs and other initiatives. In Rosina´s case the institution is local, inside Cataluña, so the targets are media and the local population. Despite the obvious director position in terms of creativity liberties a professional dedicated to scientific institution media relationships starts and stays writing press-releases and organizing events for a long time. 
• Industrial R & D 
 Yeap, you can do research in the industry (those damn children-eating capitalists). And according to Cronet you might even have more freedom than in the academic field due to less pressure to publish results or meet funding deadlines. Sure the deadlines are shorter but all objectives are well calculated and split among different teams, which can bring more results and a greater satisfaction achieving them rapidly when compared to 3-4 years of a PhD. There´s no individual project and eventually your boss might say “the competition is already doing it, cancel the project” but hey, it doesn´t mean you´ll be fired – just switch project. 
Careers in politics of communication are really exciting but I realize the huge difficulties to follow such path in Brazil due to the same problem: the lack of a scientific culture that leads to a poor structure. 
Where´s Brazil “Royal Society” to sponsor a scientific politics office? Does the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) or the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) fulfill this role? Who should have such responsibility? 
I remember a professor that was invited to the House of Representatives to give a presentation on stem cells during the voting of the corresponding legislation in Brazil. The only one that attended the event was the congressman that made the invitation and I wonder if that was the only attempt to explain the stem cell concepts to our legislators. 
The same thing occurs with scientific communications, it’s unusual to have a PR professional even in the major companies and even less common in research institutes. There are a few initiatives but none structurally robust and lasting. The journalism seems to be evolving with news agencies in universities and in grant foundations but scientific communication goes beyond journalism, and it´s in this exact question that I sense a lack of examples. 
Concerning the industry I was astonished by the amount of European doctorate and post-doctorate students that had no one familiar working in the field. I´m a mere creature from a developing nation but I know about a dozen colleagues working in research or related areas in different companies. This might be a problem in my sample group because this colleagues graduated in the most reputable universities in Brazil, what makes them disputed by a small but expanding market while the European market might be saturated. 
Bonus: I strongly recommend the reading of this report by the Royal Society and surfing their great website.

The Brazilian blog network: learning to fly

Bora wrote an insightful post about the advantages and disadvantages of blog networks and how he sees they would work in a post-Diaspora blog ecosystem. I thought it would be interesting to compare his views and experiences with blog networks with ScienceBlogs (SB) with my vision of the history of the much smaller network, ScienceBlogs Brazil.
ScienceBlogs Brazil ( was not born this way. Back in 2008 – an eternity in Internet time – Atila Iamarino and I decided that a science blog network could make the number of Brazilian blogs about science grow faster. At the time, blogs were starting their exponential expansion in Brazil and there were less than a dozen active science blogs older than a year (and there was us). In August 2008, we managed to launch the blog network Lablogatórios, heavily inspired by SB, with 18 blogs. Two days after our launch, to our great surprise, we were contacted by SB: the network we aspired to be was inviting us to join then. In March 2009, was launched and we now have around 30 blogs.
Atila and I like to read about Science but there were not enough blogs written in Portuguese to ease our hunger. Moreover, science education in Brazil is deficient and there is a great need for science communication projects. We believed that we could not wait to have a lot of science blogs to make a network, instead we decided to build a network to make a lot of science blogs. The plan was straight forward: we would make a network to attract readers to the few Brazilian science blogs and this would make more people interested about blogging about science. I think this is when a network is beneficial to its bloggers: it is a way to streghten small niches.
When we started inviting blogs to our network, we used three criteria: it should be accurate, it should be well written and it should be frequent. The first bloggers that were invited were the older bloggers but just a few of them accepted, then we invited a few promising bloggers and started some blogs from scratch. When we launched, we had just 4 blogs that were older than a year, 3 brand new blogs and 11 young blogs. Bora mentioned that SB attracted about 10% of the science blogging community. I estimate that we attracted around three-quarters of the active blogs at the time. If the use of popularity as selection parameter biased SB blogger diversity, scarcity biased ours.
The most noticeable bias was our initial female:male ratio (1:8), which was unacceptable (even for Brazilian standards). Also, half of our bloggers were from the state of São Paulo – the richest in Brazil. Finally, we had a massive number of blogs about biology. We have been fighting to increase our gender, regional and subject diversity. Now, our female:male ratio is 1:3, which is the same of the Brazilian bloggers ratio, and bloggers from many other states were incorporated.
One curious aspect of our history was how our strategy to incoporate new blogs evolved with time. In the begining, Atila and I were decided to bring in every blog that was considered good enough. This helped our increase our numbers very fast, specially after we became However, a large influx of new bloggers started damaging the sense of community inside the network. We now open two new positions every semester – with occasional special invitations in-between. The new bloggers are not chosen by the “overlords” anymore: they are voted by their future peers. We also have a “test blog” for new authors, a place for people who never blogged to have a go before getting their own blog.
In the technical aspect, Lablogatórios was built in WordPress MU, which was very easy to manage. Our traffic was light enough to let us have a virtual dedicated server. This meant that the site was not costly and the few rupees we manage to gather with adsense and the only ad banner we sold were just enough to pay the bills. In this aspect we benefited hugely becoming SB. We were aware that many successful sites had financial problems due to server costs and other maintenance cost due to heavy traffic. was so smaller than SB that even MT4 behaved well enough.
What is working
I think the main strength of is the cohere community forged in the backchannel. We are small enough to have a manageable email lists, where we can bicker friendly away from the public eye. About a third of our bloggers are not engaged in this list but they still maintain some contact with the other bloggers. Moreover, I think I can brag that the fact that Atila and I are also bloggers in the network helped our job as community managers. The fact that we are also the founders of the network also give us enough authority to stop arguments that get… uncivil. We also frequently discuss the future plans for the network with the rest of the community, which reduces the burden of planning our future ahead.
The decision of stop bringing so many new bloggers into the network also helped strengthening the community of science blogs outside It is really important to us not to be seen as the best Brazilian science blogs or to give the idea that the only good blogs are the ones in the network. This would certainly hurt our goal to make the number and the quality of Brazilian science blogs increase, as it has been happening even before Lablogatórios.
When we entered the SB we were surprised with the differences in the community dynamics between SB and Communication among bloggers in SB always seemed too aggressive and communication between them and the SB overlords was almost null. These two characteristic – that emerged as consequences of SB history – only helped to fuel the Diaspora that was triggered by PepsiGate.
What is not working
Every time a group is formed, the concept of “us” and “them” automatically arises. It is very tempting to defend our Labrothers when they are attacked, grouping on the attacker. It also easier to link each other than blogs outside the network. The fact that we talk a lot in the backchannels also helps to develop a hive behaviour, the same Borg concept used to describe SB, as ideas emerge to the public as a consensus after being widely discussed in private. This affects the way we relate with other bloggers and to our readers. For example, people frequently judge the whole network by the behaviour of a few bloggers. If one of us mistreat a reader (deservingly or not), the blame usually falls on the network.
The feeling that we have the “best science blogs” is also a problem as it takes attention from excellent blogs that are found outside the network. This “best blogs” syndrome also makes easy to interpret any personality traits we have (such as short temper, introversion, extroversion, etc) as a sign of arrogance. The network help us share relevance and credibility but it also makes us share our vices.
In the technical aspect, joining SB solved a lot of our problems but it also created some others. The freedom we had to customize the platform and the homepages greatly reduced. There is some evidence that search engines likes this plaform less than our previous one and MT4 is too complex for new bloggers.
Learning to fly
The history of blogging in Brazil has a delay of two or three years when compared to the blogs written in English. Thus, when we see what is happening “out there”, we are a seeing our potential future. Blogs about science have been growing in numbers for some time, most of science journalists have their own blogs and other media are starting to notice us as well. It is also possible to see people trying other media such as podcasts and videocasts. Sophistication is only happening now for us but the question of how to aggregate everything is already on our minds. is becoming less and less dominant in the Brazilian science blogging ecosystem, and this is good because it keep us from going stale. Bora had this interesting image of SB being big, dangerous dinosaurs roaming around the blogging ecosystem. And PepsGate definitely seemed like the triggering event that will drive these dinosaurs extinct. In this sense, the SB Diaspora worries me a lot, is this also the future of the Brazilian dinosaurs?
We might, but now that we have the foresight, we will do everything to become birds.
Image from Wikipedia

Darwin, the abolitionist – An interview with James Moore

darwin_sacred_cause.jpgDarwin’s theory of natural selection, first published 150 years ago, has been called a dangerous idea. A new aspect of the theory now joins the Darwinian bibliography: behind it was a “sacred cause”, Darwin’s commitment to the abolition of slavery. The claim is made by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, and unleashed this year in the book Darwin’s Sacred Cause.
In a conversation during a visit to São Paulo, Moore told me a bit more about their thesis. Their interpretation, as authors of a hefty biography on the founder of modern evolution-theory, is that an abhorrence of slavery was part of Darwin’s character since childhood. And it pushed him to develop his theory of evolution by common descent.
He also applied his understanding of nature to people to the point of suggesting that men turned the seduction game around relative to other animals – this is the follow up I promised here.
When your Darwin biography was published, it left the impression that we now had the definitive account of Darwin’s life. Did the book open new doors for you, or raised further questions to pursue?
Writing that book nearly killed us. Adrian and I weren’t planning to write anything more together, but then we saw 2009 coming and thought it would be a good time to publish something completely original. I came up with the subject; I had been interested for quite a while on what happened to humans in Darwin’s theorizing, because The Origin of Species supposedly wasn’t about human beings, only The Descent of Man was. So we decided about 10 years ago to work on that difference or discrepancy, and in 2004 we published a Penguin Classics edition of Descent with a long introduction. In that introduction we broached some of the arguments of Darwin’s Sacred Cause, but didn’t offer documentation. We promised in a note to publish more.
Can you in a nutshell explain its thesis?
This is our “Star Wars 2”. “Star Wars 1” was the Darwin biography, “Star Wars 2” is the “prequel”; it asks the question that went unanswered in “Star Wars 1”: “Why did he do it?” The Darwin biography is about an ambitious young man with a terrifying secret, which he keeps quiet for 20 years before being forced to publish. But we never figured out why he tackled evolution in the first place — it was professional suicide. Darwin had everything to lose, even while working in private. Anybody who knows anything about the period knows that going public with evolution for Darwin would have been like Richard Dawkins standing up in Teheran today and declaring that God doesn’t exist! Life for him would suddenly become very difficult. Darwin knew what was at stake, so why did he take the risks? That’s where his moral commitment comes in. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause we trace it in his family background and education, before he ever got to evolution, and then run the story all the way up to The Descent of Man.
So why did he do it? How did his moral views bear on his theorizing?
Darwin is very clear, he is angry. In his private notebooks, he remembers from the Beagle voyage how black people were treated as animals, that slaves were bought and sold and abused like horses or dogs. And for Darwin that was abhorrent because he had been brought up to hate slavery and to believe that black people were of one humanity with himself.
Was it in Brazil that he first saw this?
In the flesh, yes, but at home he’d read about slavery and had been friendly with a black man. At Edinburgh University in his teens he had paid for lessons in bird stuffing from a freed Guyanese black slave named John, and this had reinforced his family’s anti-slavery conviction that black and white people – all the races – had a common humanity. What was theoretical to him until he got to Brazil was the horrors of slavery, which he had only read about. And immediately in Salvador he saw black slaves working along the docks and they seemed to be happy. But when Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle claimed that the slaves of Bahia were happy because he had heard them saying so to one of their masters, Darwin demanded to know what a slave’s word was worth under those circumstances. Obviously slavery was a talking point between them. And then very rapidly Darwin found evidence of the evils he had been taught about since childhood. The realities of slavery were no longer theoretical for him when he had witnessed it among real people in real life. The climax came in 1836 at Itamambuca when he heard the cries, the shrieks of a tortured slave and was powerless to intervene. On that note his voyage ended and the horror of those sounds stayed with him for life.
Does he refer to it in print?
In the revised 1845 edition of his Beagle journal, there’s a blistering attack on slavery — two long paragraphs, more than a page. Here for the first time Darwin opened a window to let the world see what he had witnessed in Brazil. He’d also seen slavery in New Zealand, where people of the same race were made slaves through war and women became sexual slaves. He tells of finding escaped or freed slaves on Mauritius and Saint Helena. Of course all the slaves of England’s Cape colony had been liberated in 1834; Darwin arrived there a year later and hired a Hottentot, or Khoikhoi, groom to be his guide, a diminutive young gentleman whom he found speaking perfect English. In our biography, Darwin’s anti-slavery is a sort of golden thread running through the narrative, which becomes visible from time to time. Weaving all the threads together — what Darwin’s Sacred Cause does — they make a strong rope, strong enough to support a big conclusion. And our big conclusion is that Darwin’s burning hatred of slavery fired his quest not only to show that the races were of one blood, but also to explain how all living things had descended from “one common ancestor” in the family tree of life.
And Darwin’s tree of life is a way to prove that you can’t set races apart and treat them differently.
No, there’s no proof here, the tree is only a starting point. We all grow up taking certain things for granted. Darwin never questioned God’s existence, at least not in print; he never questioned his wife’s love or his family’s love. It was the same with anti-slavery, or anti-cruelty in the broadest sense, a sympathy for living things. Darwin grew up with it. He did go shooting in his teens, and I think some of the birds he massacred weren’t just for food. But by the end of the Beagle voyage he had left off shooting, or he would have his servant do it for scientific purposes. Eventually Darwin gave up the slaughter because he couldn’t stand the suffering it caused. I have heard it argued, rather cynically, that the reason why he talked about slavery the way he did in his private notes and in the Beagle journal is because he imagined that an anti-slavery tone would help sell his theory. “Look, the whole nation has mobilized against slavery. It’s a huge constituency waiting to be recruited for evolution!”
So an anti-slavery moral conscience was widespread in Darwin’s society?
Right. Very few people had a vote in those days, but one way you could register your opinion was by signing a petition to Parliament. These petitions were brought on piles of paper or great long rolls and laid on a table in the House of Commons or the House of Lords in London. Almost all of the petitions were destroyed when the Houses of Parliament burned in October 1834, but a few of them survived with tens of thousands of names. I looked up the parliamentary records and found out where all the petitions came from — such-and-such Baptist chapel, such-and-such anti-slavery association, such-and-such a public meeting. Darwin’s home town of Shrewsbury sent petitions. It was a massive movement, the first protracted experiment in democracy before democracy was extended among the middle classes.
And were there lots of anti-slavery petitions?
Thousands, all very politely worded, begging Parliament to take what measures were necessary to bring about the emancipation of the colonial slaves. I’m sure that we’d find Darwin’s aunts’ and uncles’, his sisters’ and cousins’ signatures in the original petitions if they had survived, but it’s almost enough to know that petitions came from the very villages and towns where the family lived. The anti-slavery movement was the greatest moral movement in British history, at least since the peasant’s rebellion of the 13th century. I’m amazed that historians have taken so long to place Darwin’s life and work in its context.
That was exactly my next question: why hasn’t anyone discussed this?
Because they didn’t ask the right questions. The documents I read in the Wedgwood family papers have been open to historians and biographers for generations. And scholars have gone through the letters, thousands of them, written since the end of the 18th century, looking for evidence of the family’s literary interests, for evidence of early photography, early chemistry, early industrial history. Scholars have toothcombed the documents, but why didn’t they find slavery? They weren’t interested, they were blind to it. And I have to say that digging out the gold was hard work. I spent three weeks in the English Potteries one torrid summer, as hot as it is now in Salvador, perched in a grim university library reading the Wedgwood papers for nine hours a day.
The big work on humans by Darwin is The Descent of Man, but that book is not very much talked about and maybe not much read. Why?
Because it is huge – that’s one reason! Two-third of the text, about 500 pages, is a vast catalogue of evidence for “sexual selection”, ultimately Darwin’s mechanism for explaining the divergence of the human races. Today you have to be interested in the differences between male and female beetles to be gripped by this part of the book. In the 1850s, Darwin was writing a huge work in several volumes to crush the creationist opposition, including followers of the latest theory that made the human races separately created species. He was determined to anticipate every possible objection to his theory of “natural selection” — the title of his big book — and answer them, or at least give evidence for answering them, so that no one would catch him out later. But finally he was forced to publish something quickly, so he cut the big book down, left out the part on sexual selection and the human races, and called the rest On the Origin of Species.
Maybe he also wanted to work more on sexual selection and “man”?
He didn’t want to spoil his case for natural selection and what he had to say about human origins by going forward prematurely. Better to bide his time than come out with something that could be easily refuted. That’s also one of the reasons why Darwin told nobody about the importance of sexual selection, not even his scientific best friend. He hinted at its scope in the Origin of Species, but he hadn’t worked it out far enough to be confident of its power; he didn’t let on until much later that sexual selection was his prize solution to the racial origins problem. Darwin was incapable to do anything by halves. It wasn’t just one barnacle that he had to describe, he had to describe every barnacle species in the world. And not just the living ones, but the extinct ones too! He was obsessive, and in discussing the human races, about which he felt so passionately, he needed even more evidence, if that were possible, to undermine the view that each race had originated as a separate species. The Descent of Man is intimidating because it is so big, but it got that way because sexual selection was so important. Darwin’s catalog of apparently obscure sexual information is his knock-down case for race-making by mate-choosing throughout the animal kingdom.
So he starts with male and female beetles and that’s a step to figuring out how the human races are related?
He had to explain why males and females don’t look alike, not just internally but externally. Why do males tend to be big, violent and armed – I mean “armed” in the sense that they have, say, big biceps or powerful claws for pinching -, as well as gaudy and showy. And why do females tend to be smaller, less aggressive and less showy, not just among birds, which was the crucial case for Darwin, but across the whole animal kingdom, with crustaceans, and spiders, and beetles, and fishes, and birds, and mammals, and primates, the lot (with some exceptions). And humans were no different. Darwin attributed the external differences between the sexes (their “sexual dimorphic characters”) to sexual selection, that is, the competition for mates. It’s there in the bars of São Paulo every weekend: women stand around watching, teasing, coaxing, while the guys beat the hell out of each other as love rivals. Darwin sees this happening in most animals, or at least mammals. As a result of the competition, the bigger, more aggressive males are more successful lovers and pass on their macho characteristics to their sons. The choosier females, who “get lucky” with the best males, also have more offspring, and their daughters inherit the choosiness. Amplify this through the generations and the males pull away from the females, in mind as well as body. Males are both mentally and physically superior to females; males have genius, females normally don’t. Darwin was quite explicit about this. He didn’t think that women should have the vote and he didn’t educate his daughters to university level, because to him biology set limits to female attainment, sexual selection set limits. But sexual selection for Darwin isn’t just about sheer physical and mental power; it’s also about attractiveness — beauty. Unlike the characteristics developed in the prize-fight, those acquired through the sexually selective beauty contest don’t have advantages in the struggle for existence. What beauty marks do is make you sexier, so you’re more successful in leaving copies of yourself: thus male animals got more beautiful or showy than females from their success in enticing them, but in humans — that is, in Darwin’s own culture, which he saw as sovereign — there has been a reversal: males, being more powerful than females, had turned the tables and become the choosers. As a result, women were now more gorgeous than men, displaying characteristics that proved attractive to them. It seemed so obvious to Darwin: why do women adorn themselves with make-up and jewelry? Because they are trying to attract mates, pure and simple. They want to be sexually selected!
And that sets humans apart from the rest?
Males seizing the power of choice through superior strength and wit, yes. Though Darwin knew that females were still drawn to male beauty. He grew a beard in the 1860s, not to attract women of course; but there was a fashion for hairiness as a sign of virility. Victorian gentlemen grew beards like their descendants did in the 1960s. And about the same time women developed a craze for wearing bird feathers on their hats and in their hair, whole stuffed birds even! The world’s avian populations were decimated.
To make hats?
Hats, hairpins, brooches, and other fashion accessories. There is a historical literature about this. A burgeoning female fashion industry is one main reason why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was founded. In Britain, young women are still often called birds. You go out at night and try to “pull” a “bird” and “get off’ with”, i.e. mate, with her. It is derogatory to think of women as birds, but Darwin took such behaviour seriously, naturalizing it. He didn’t see sexual selection in humans as a cultural creation, or one among many more or less valid social options; instead he thought that men and woman look and behave as they do because sexual selection made them the way they are. And, ironically, this was the same sexual selection that made whole groups of people look and behave differently, males and females alike, with different physiques and different notions of beauty – the human races. For Darwin, the races had emerged and diverged, body and mind, from a primordial population, with a common ancestry, by the same mating game that made hairy gents and buxom girls in his own day.
So Darwin is still being a naturalist, with his moral views firing his curiosity about nature to understand how humans evolved.
He looked at society and tried to find a natural explanation for it. Darwin was a sociobiologist before there was sociobiology. If the world is governed by natural law, and therefore our evolution is governed by natural law, why shouldn’t everything in society be seen as the product of evolution? Why shouldn’t evolution explain all the ways that men and women live together, not just the shapes of their bodies? Darwin had no problem with that, though most of us today do.
Darwin didn’t make a distinction between a race and a species, he thought each was an artificial construct.
It was a continuum. Species to Darwin were just well defined races. We’re not sexually attracted to other species – normally. Something like this happens if animals are isolated in groups, as on islands: the groups each become modified to subsist on their own patch, they acquire distinguishing “specific” differences, and eventually the groups become sexually repugnant and unavailable to one another.
How does this apply to the discussion today on whether there are human races or not?
Darwin supposed that black people and white people – for his purposes, Africans and Europeans – were on the way to becoming separate species. They weren’t there yet, not by a long shot, but given enough time, and isolation, black and white would diverge permanently. He saw black men tending to have sex with black women, because they find them more attractive; the male sense of black beauty was bred into them as a result of a long history of mating choices. And to Darwin, an English woman was preferentially attractive to him in the same way. That’s the point of repugnance, and Darwin also identified repugnance with body odor. Black people to him smelled different to white. At some point the smell might become so strong and so distasteful, that white and black wouldn’t copulate, and then the races would continue on separate paths to become separate species. So Darwin had no problem with human racial speciation, but he would have added that we can’t begin to conceive of when that might take place. It seemed more likely to him that in coming centuries, long before the races could become separate species, white Europeans would actually have exterminated black Africans.
Darwin thought that the white Europeans had a superior civilization because they had more superior brains, honed by competition, just as men have better brains than women. What Darwin gives with one hand, he takes away with the other, often. He gives you emancipated slaves, but he doesn’t give you emancipated women; he gives you blacks and whites as equal humans, but he also gives you blacks extinguished by white guns and white diseases and superior white civilization. And Darwin says, in effect, “that’s nature for you”. Progress costs lives. Tragic it might be, but he thinks it’s ultimately for the good.
So even though he hates cruelty and abhors slavery, he still believes that all humans are not equal before nature.
He doesn’t use his moral framework to judge how nature behaves because he holds that this moral framework has been erected by nature – by a beneficent evolution. In the near future, Darwin says in the Descent of Man, humans will have become so improved and so many races will have become extinct — races of people as well as races of primates — that the gap in the ascent of life will not exist as at present between a Hottentot or an aboriginal Australian and a chimpanzee, but between, say, a primate as low as a baboon and some race far higher than contemporary Englishmen. Every species, every race in between, from baboons to Hottentots up to Englishmen will have been extinguished in the progress of life on Earth. We grieve the loss of biodiversity; Darwin seemed to think it was a good thing, even the loss of human racial diversity.
It’s all part of nature.
Yes, but that only makes Darwin a man of his time. Poor old Darwin, he couldn’t see much beyond the nineteenth century, just as we must struggle to see beyond our own.
In 2009, we have heard a lot about Darwin because of the anniversaries, but you’re talking about a different Darwin, aren’t you?
Not entirely. I’m just emphasizing parts of his story that haven’t been told fully or adequately. Adrian and I would have to modify the biography a great deal to work all of it in. At one point in the book we ask whether, far from having everything to lose, there was something important to be gained by theorizing about transmutation. We suggest that Darwin had seen “savages” in the raw in Tierra del Fuego, and there his problem became: how could humans like that and humans like himself — rich, cultured, a Cambridge Master of Arts — come from the hand of the same Creator? Perhaps explaining human diversity was that “something” to be gained, but we didn’t then conceive that Darwin’s experience of slavery in South America might have pointed in the same direction. Now we know: if he cared for one thing more passionately than anything else in life, save his family, it was the emancipation of black slaves. There’s no other candidate for Darwin’s supreme moral concern, his “sacred cause”, which we believe radically shaped his science.
And that’s the new Darwin that you’re showing.
This text was originally published by Maria Guimarães in her blog Ciência e ideias/

The Universe in a Christmas Tree

Joy to the world! The solstice has come, bringing the ancient traditions that celebrate the season. Among those traditions, the ones that involve the Christmas tree are particularly beautiful. The Christmas tree represents a renovated eternal life, with hopes for the future. It also represents the knowledge the ancients had of the very meaning of the solstice: that it may be the longest night of the year, but it’s also the day from which the days will get longer and bring abundance to the world.
The solstice is one of the earliest and most important astronomical discoveries. Since then, we discovered a bit more about the world and the whole Universe.
How about looking at the Christmas tree through the light of this knowledge? Here is some food for thought:

  • We know more planets beyond the solar system than there are Christmas balls on your tree. The current count is at 358 exoplanets, and growing;
  • If the planet was shrinked to the size of a Christmas ball, it would be the smoothest ball of the tree. The Mount Everest (8 km) or the Marianas Trenchr (11km) are small imperfections relative to the planet’s 12,000 km diameter. It’s an imperfection of less than 0,01%;
  • “Earth is not spherical, it’s an oblate spheroid”, some Grinch may say. Indeed, our planet wider in the equator, but even this deviation from a perfect sphere is of less than 0,04%;
  • If an 8 centimeters Christmas ball represented Earth and the nearest ball represented the nearest known exoplanet – Epsilon Eridani b, 10.5 light-years away – then the distance between them should be around 630,000 km. Almost twice the actual distance from Earth to the Moon. Epsilon Eridani b is quite far from here
  • Now, if the star at the top of the tree represented our Sun, 1,392,000 km in diameter, and the star at the top of your neighbor’s tree – say, 50 meters away – represented the nerest star system, Alpha Centauri at 4 light-years of distance; then the size of our Sun-star to be on the same scale it would have to be 0,74 micrometers large. From 1,4 million kilometers to more than 100 times smaller than the width of a hair, that’s how small the star should be for it to be in the same scale as the distance between it and the neighbor’s Christmas star.

It’s a very big Universe. It’s also a very old one:

  • Let’s say your Christmas tree took ten years to grow. If the moment in which it was sprout was the Big Bang – 13,7 billion years ago – and the rest of its history was compressed to present day, then the Christmas tree would have known the first primates only in the last few hours, and all our recorded history would have ocurred in the last minute. Ten years growing from a seed, and all our human adventures would have been instants played in a tiny little part of this huge tree full of balls and stars. The ten year-old Christmas tree can be seen as a version of Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar.

“Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience”, noted Carl Sagan. “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”
It also should do no harm to the romance of the Christmas tree to know that it’s a conifer, that conifers date from the late Carboniferous, about 300 million years ago, which means that we don’t have to use too much of our imagination to picture a Christmas tree watching the whole of human follies in an instant. In a way they literally did.
Feel dizzy? Perhaps some Christmas Chaos will help you see the infinite that can lie in a Christmas tree.
Science can lead to awe inspiring thoughts, based on the real and awe inspiring observations of the world in which we live. It’s the greatest gift we have, and our greatest hope for the future.
Happy holidays!
by Kentaro Mori, original text at 100nexos
[top image from dyet]

When swine flu gets serious

In 2009 the swine flu, caused by the H1N1 virus, was recognized as this century’s first pandemy. In Brazil at least 19,000 people suffered the fever and aches caused by the flu, and over 1,300 were killed.
As it is now the northern hemisphere’s turn to fight the flu, it may be useful to draw from what was learned by researchers from southern countries. Some of it is summarized by Ricardo Zorzetto in the article published in the December issue of Pesquisa Fapesp, a Brazilian science news magazine: in some cases, the immune response against the virus is so strong that it destroys the lungs.
A companion article in the same issue discusses the benefits of vaccination against swine flu in the northern hemisphere. Bellow is a translated version of both stories.
by Maria Guimaraes
Exaggerated reaction
Influenza A, H1N1 virus, the cause of swine flu, induces inflammation that destroys lung cells
by Ricardo Zorzetto
In mid-spring, the 2009 flu season came to an end in Brazil. This year, the chief villain was the influenza A, H1N1 virus, the cause of swine flu and of this century’s first pandemic. In the second week of October, the Health Ministry recorded only 78 severe cases of swine flu in Brazil, a dramatic drop (97%) in relation to the mid-August peak. In six months, the H1N1 virus caused at least 19 thousand Brazilians to get a high temperature, along with severe muscular pain and a painful shortness of breath, and killed 1,368 – almost one third of the 4,735 deaths by flu recorded worldwide during this period, when 399 thousand cases were confirmed. As Brazil and other countries started to prepare for the second wave of swine flu that is already spreading in the Northern Hemisphere, as winter approaches, researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) concluded the first analyses of H1N1 damage to the body. The São Paulo group found that, in the most severe cases, the body produces such a strong immunological reaction that it kills the virus, while also damaging the lungs so heavily that they stop working.
The most obvious sign of such damage is labored breathing (dyspnea), very frequent among those who developed the most serious and sometimes lethal form of swine flu. “All doctors should be alerted to this symptom, which indicates that the infection may be severe,” states pathologist Thais Mauad, from USP, the main author of the study published online on October 29 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the first to describe systematically the fatal lesions induced by H1N1.
Thais and another 14 researchers from the USP Medical School, who worked under the coordination of pathologists Paulo Hilário Saldiva and Marisa Dolhnikoff, came to this conclusion upon examining samples of different organs of 21 swine flu victims who died in São Paulo. “These cases are representative of the Southeast and South, which accounted for the majority of cases in the country,” states epidemiologist Denise Schout, from the USP team.
Heavy damage – In almost all cases – 20 out of the 21, to be precise – the lungs suffered mass destruction of their alveoli, microscopic cavities within which gas exchanges occur. Though with lower incidence (29% of the people), there was also severe inflammation and cell death in the bronchioles, the ramifications of the tubes that carry the air from the trachea to the lungs. Additionally, in 24% of these cases, bleeding (hemorrhage) due to the bursting of the blood vessels that irrigate the alveoli was also identified.
“This kind of damage is similar to what was observed in other flu pandemics, such as those in 1918, 1957 and 1968, though in the previous ones and in the first one in particular the death rate was far higher,” comments Thais. Another finding that struck the researchers was that 38% of these patients also had infections by Streptococcus pneumoniae, bacteria that cause respiratory system problems. “In cases such as these, it is important to add antibiotics to the antiviral drug treatment,” says Thais. “This information helps us to understand how the infection sets in and advances and, in the future, it can provide guidance for treatment,” comments Denise.
Natural killers – The concentration of the damage in the lungs does not mean that H1N1 only affects these organs. In almost all cases, the virus invades the cells that internally line the upper respiratory tracts (nose and throat), just causing typical flu symptoms: coughing, pain and a runny nose. Only in a very small number of people does the H1N1 escape the layer of mucus that helps to protect the upper respiratory system and reaches the lungs, which are normally sterile, complicating matters – in 7% of such cases, according to data from the USP team, the lung infection becomes so severe that it leads to death.
Microscopic and biochemical analysis of the lungs, however, indicated that the damage to these organs is not caused by the virus directly. Once infected by H1N1, which takes over control of the genetic apparatus, the alveoli cells start to make a chemical signaler, interferon-gamma, which inhibits the multiplication of the virus and activates the defense cells known as natural killers (NK). The NK, in turn, pour toxic compounds into the infected cells inducing the cells’ programmed death, i.e., apoptosis. At a suitable level, this sequence of actions in the defense system eliminates the infectious agents and helps to reestablish the organ’s health. However, when the level is exaggerated, it damages the organ – irreversibly, in some cases.
In the lungs of the fatal victims of swine flu, Thais and Ludhmila Hajjar found interferon-gamma levels and NK cells in numbers far greater than exist in healthy individuals’ lungs. It is not yet known what triggered the exaggerated response. “Some factor that we haven’t identified yet must have created this imbalance,” says Thais. Out of the 21 people analyzed by the USP team, 16 had already suffered from other serious diseases, such as cardiovascular conditions or cancer, before they caught swine flu. In Thais’s opinion, it is likely that their immunity had already been jeopardized, to the point of allowing the infection’s severity to rise sharply. Until answers to these questions are found, experts worldwide believe that the best protection against the virus is to take the vaccine, which some countries have already started distributing.
The second wave and the vaccine
Countries in the Northern Hemisphere start pre-winter vaccination drive
Weeks ago, the United States and China started vaccination drives against the influenza A, H1N1 virus, of swine origin, that caused the flu pandemic in the first half of 2009 and created panic in many countries. Health authorities worldwide consider immunization the chief means of preventing swine flu deaths and of containing the spread of this virus, which started in the Northern Hemisphere even before the onset of winter and is likely to become the chief cause of flu in upcoming years.
Despite the confidence of health administrators in immunization, in countries such as the United States, part of the population is skeptical about having the vaccine. The same feeling that the virus awakened at the beginning of the year is what underlies this doubt: fear. If before people feared the virus’s aggressiveness, now they question the vaccine’s safety and fear its side effects. This is so because, even before trials for safety and effectiveness had been completed, the FDA (the United States Food and Health Administration) released the production and application of two types of H1N1 vaccines: one in injectable form, made from inactive viruses and suitable for any person aged 1 or above; and another in breathable form, made from attenuated viruses and recommended for healthy people aged 2 to 59. As these only protect against swine flu, they are being applied along with the seasonal flu vaccine.
Danielle Ofri, a professor at the New York University Medical School, published an article in November in the New England Journal of Medicine describing the contradictory behavior of people seen at the Bellevue hospital, the oldest one in the United States. At the onset of the epidemic, fear of this unknown virus drove them to demand a vaccine that did not exist. However, now that it is available, most people, being less anxious and more used to the virus, refuse to take it.
Experts have no doubt that the vaccine works, although some disagree as to the level of protection it provides. “Even if the vaccine doesn’t protect 100% of the people, it should protect at least some 75%,” states Edison Durigon, head of the Virology Laboratory at the Biomedical Sciences Institute of the University of São Paulo. According to him, those who have the vaccine may even catch the flu, but it will be less severe. “The vaccine will only lose its effectiveness if the epidemic’s predominant virus variety undergoes very drastic genetic changes, which is rare.” Should this occur, the loss of efficacy will become known in a while, after more people have been vaccinated and the level of protection provided by the vaccine is analyzed.
Up to mid-November, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 65 million people in 16 countries had already taken the H1N1 vaccine. In one report, the WHO stated that in China 11 million people were vaccinated, with 15 cases of serious side effects being recorded and two deaths, although the latter did not necessarily result from the immunization. As the vaccine production will be insufficient for all (WHO expects world production to reach 3 billion doses a year), the priority is to immunize those who are at particular risk: children from the age of one, people with serious diseases and healthcare professionals. In Brazil, where the H1N1 death rate was 0.8 per group of 100 thousand people (the rate of seasonal flu is 0.5 per 100 thousand), the swine flu vaccine is expected to be available before the winter of 2010.

Hi… come here often?

Latrodectus hasselti (3).jpgResearchBlogging.orgThe dating game is cruel. It can be poetic like in sea dragons or it can be lethal like in the spider on the left but, in general, it is not easy.
If the male of the Australian redback spider Latrodectus hasselti doesn’t try hard enough, he is immediately killed by the female he was trying to impress. Jeffrey Stoltz and Maydianne Andrade, from the University of Toronto Scarborough, in Canada, showed that the maiden demands at least 100 minutes of display (I saw the news here). If the suitor fails, the surviving rival wins. And there is more: in the paper they published in October in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers also showed that a competent male mesmerizes the female in such a way that it becomes easy for a smart sneaker who didn’t make any effort to mate with her without anyone noticing. Cheateries of the wild world.
perus.jpgLess akin to Halloween, but not any easier, is the dance of the wild turkeys of the species Meleagris gallopavo, common in the United States.
In the picture on the right, which I borrowed from flickr (johndykstraphotography, you can see some of the hardship. During the courtship season, the males puff up their feathers, fan out their tails, change their breathing in such a way that their heads become blue, bloodless, and some appendages on the head (the snood, the dewlap and the caruncles) become bright red and engorged with blood. They hold this posture for some time while they take short runs forward and gobble, which can be heard from far away, over the hills. They do this for hours on end, during weeks on end.
During my Ph.D I used to see these animals at Hastings, a research station managed by the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology of the University of California at Berkeley. My labmate Alan Krakauer was studying the turkeys and I had the privilege of helping him out sometimes. But more then helping, I used to get spellbound by the strutting of the turkeys. Unlike the turkey hens, who pecked at the ground looking blasé. I even took loads of pictures, but can’t use one of them here because they’re on slides. Alan was trying to unravel a mistery: all this work to seduce a hen. The males display in pairs like in the picture. Do both win? Do they compete?
After much following the animals, setting huge traps, marking them, watching them and doing genetic analyses, he found that the wild turkeys are a textbook case of cooperative seduction. Only one of the males, always the same, scores. The other one helps with the synchronized dance, but leaves empty-handed. Genetics make up for it, according to Alan: the partners are closely related, so indirectly the secondary male ends up passing his genes forward. That’s kin selection, or Hamilton’s rule (William D. Hamilton mathematically described the theory). The turkey work earned Alan a paper in Nature in 2005.
manakin.jpgBut helping with seduction doesn’t always come from kin solidarity. Another Ph.D labmate, Emily DuVal (now a professor at the Florida State University, the picture is from her lab’s website), studies the charismatic lance-tailed manakin Chiroxiphia lanceolata, in Panama. There, a pair of males sits on a horizontal branch and they fly over each other like a cartwheel. Until the female is convinced. In their case, the dancing partners are not related. What seems to happen is that the subordinate male gains experience while at it, and some day he just might get there.
Mercival Francisco, from the São Carlos Federal University at Sorocaba, in Brazil, argues that the blue manakin Chiroxiphia caudata, typical of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, follows another system. In a paper published this year in The Auk, he shows that groups of dancing males (several of them in this species, not just a pair) may or may not be related. As he told me when I wrote a story on his work for Pesquisa magazine, they tend to stay where they were born. By chance, they may end up dancing with kin.
When I told my cousin Laura about the manakins, she expressed regret that the males of these birds are so spruced up but not ours aren´t. “Men have Ferraris,” I joked. A guy was passing by, not in a Ferrari but with a blasting stereo, elbow sticking out of the window and watching out for any women who might be watching. I never saw a woman do this.
Imagem0216.jpgRecently, just as I was getting to São Paulo, traffic stopped as it often does on that point. The Ferrari guy was as stuck as I was, but a lot more upset. I couldn’t help thinking that the males of the rest of the animal world face huge costs to impress the ladies. Ours are not much different. I don’t imagine it is very comfortable, much less economically viable, to own such a car in a city filled with potholes and where you can’t push the gas pedal very far down.
Darwin reserved a special room for sexual selection in his theories, it was one of the major disagreements he had with Alfred Russel Wallace, codiscoverer of natural selection. I’ll come back to this soon.
Written by Maria Guimaraes, originally published at her blog Ciencias e Ideias
Stoltz JA, & Andrade MC (2009). Female’s courtship threshold allows intruding males to mate with reduced effort. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society PMID: 19864292
Krakauer, A. (2005). Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys Nature, 434 (7029), 69-72 DOI: 10.1038/nature03325
DuVal EH (2007). Adaptive advantages of cooperative courtship for subordinate male lance-tailed manakins. The American naturalist, 169 (4), 423-32 PMID: 17427119
Francisco, M., Gibbs, H., & Galetti, P. (2009). Patterns of Individual Relatedness at Blue Manakin ( ) Leks
The Auk, 126 (1), 47-53 DOI: 10.1525/auk.2009.08030

A pixel, from Earth to the Moon, to the infinite and beyond

This is a translated version of this post, written originally in Portuguese by Kentaro Mori at 100nexos and translated by Carlos Hotta.
Can you imagine a 1.700 km rock about 400.000 km from Earth? It is really hard for us to picture that. This rock, however, is our Moon. It is really difficult to grasp the Moon’s distance and dimensions, specially because our senses fool us. Try to represent with your hands, or even your arms, the size of the Moon in the sky. If you did that, you probably made a circle that is much larger than the one you see in the sky.
The angular size of the Moon is only half of a degree. If you extend your arm in front of you with your thumb pointing up, its width is about two degrees. That is right: if you extend your thumb towards the the Moon, you can cover it about four times. Even thought the Moon is 1.700 km. Go on and check yourself! ALmost everyone of us will overestimate the size of the Moon in the sky. Some of us will even use their arms when estimating it! This is called the Moon illusion. And this is why the Moon looks so tiny when we take a picture of it: cameras do not lie but our brains do.
We have been observing the sky above us for thousands and thousands of years. We have understood the celestial mechanics for a few centuries. And four decades ago, humans, with no more than six degrees of separation from you and I, have landed in the Moon. There you could not cover the Moon with your thumbs (unless you put then directly in front of your eyes, an occasion when you would see little else).
There are many ways to express how fantastic it was to land in the Moon. As we are talking about distances, please have a look at the image bellow – the inspiration of this post – and join me towards the infinite — and beyond.
This image was created by Drew Olbrich, that wanted to correctly represent the scale between sizes and distances of the Earth and the Moon. We are used to see the pair represented in an artistic way, ignoring their true proportion. This is understandable, as you can see the emptiness between both bodies. This is the truth, however, the space is a great emptiness. In order to see this image in space, you would have to be approximately 560.000 km from where you are now. You may click the image to visit Olbritch’s site and check the image with higher resolution.
“This image has the most impact if you make it fill your whole screen and then turn off all the lights in the room” recommends Olbrich. “Stare at it for a while and try to imagine that you’re out in space looking back through some kind of bizarre porthole.”
Speaking of higher resolution, while I was contemplating Olbrich’s image I started thinking of what would be the size of Apollo space shuttle in the image. It would certainly be so tiny that it would be invisible to us. The next geekiest question would be: what should be the image’s minimum resolution to make the modules appear as a single pixel?
The command and service modules were about 11 meters high. The lunar module that landed in the Moon was about 6 meters high. Let’s be generous (and a bit mathematically lazy) and consider the whole set as 20 meters. If they were the size of a pixel, than the 400.000 km, or 400 million meters that separate the Earth from the Moon would occupy 20 million pixels.
20 million pixels is the equivalent of 10.147 full-HDTVs side by side if your resolution is 1980 pixels in the width. If your horizontal resolution is 1024, then you would need 10.531 HDTVs. If your screen is about 40 cm, it would be almost 4 km of screens.
Amongst all these screens, running for kilometers, a single point, a tiny pixel represents Apollo space shuttle. Everything else would be empty space. A single dust particle could accidentally cover the pixel. A dead pixel would cover it. And the three astronauts inside the shuttle would be even smaller. They would be still smaller than a pixel even if with kilometers of screens.
Now, picture yourself being inside this lone pixel.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life.” wrote Michael Collins while he was orbiting the Moon alone. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking in our satellite for the first time in our epic naked-primate history. Collins loneliness may not seem so great if you imagine that, even though he was far from Earth, his two friends were “just” 105 km away. However, Collins was orbiting the Moon. He was 105 km away from his two friends only when he was directly above then. But he would still be in orbit. For two revolutions, Collins was over the dark side of the Moon, where not only were Amstrong or Aldrin unseen but communication with Earth was also impossible. These were the moments he was “truly alone”.
Collins also confided in his notes that “My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone”. Try to imagine being smaller than that pixel and having to go through 4 kilometers of screens. “Now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter, if they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.”
Fearful words that show an unknown side of Apollo 11 mission and the “forgotten astronaut”, detailed in an excellent article from Robin McKie at the Guardian. We now know that nothing like that happened. Fortunately, all manned missions to the Moon had three passengers counting with each other.
Which reminds me of something else.
Right now we are more than 6 billion astronauts that, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, make the Spaceship Earth. We are not alone, but all we can count on is each other. And while the Earth would fill a lot of screens, our planet is not really large. And is only one.

It would be impossible to end this post without mentioning that, as well as Apollo could be represented as a pixel lost in the middle of thousands of screens, Earth itself is a small pixel at the edge of the Solar Sysrem. It is a Pale Blue Dot. Collins fears were not a sign of weakness but a sign of sanity. These are the fears we need to have when we are reminded of how “truly alone” we are and how we are “absolutel isolated from any known life” besides our own, with or without considering other intelligent life in the rest of the Galaxy.
The loneliness abyss Collins felt us the same as we feel, in our Pale Blue Dot, since the dawn of mankind in the planet. The only difference is that many of us have not realized it yet.
We must take care of our tiny pixel. And seek other pixels – going to the infinite and beyond. And perhaps finding other lfeforms, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Or at least seed other pixels with naked primates. It should not be the fantasy of a few scifi geeks. It should be the natural drive of the whole species.
Collins conquered the abyss and safely returned with his friends, five other missions conquered the 400.000 km, landed on the Moon and came back. We are capable of achievements that are so literal and absurdly great that we cannot even grasp it – if oly we tried.

The subsidiary patient

Many times, in my practice, I am required to explain some statistical concepts to my patients in order to make them avoid some frequent pitfalls. The most common concept I explain is what is “normal” in lab exams.
Let’s suppose someone invents a new lab test to measure the glucose in the blood. How would we determine what are the normal values for this test? Once we are certain that the exam will not harm anyone, the researcher start looking for HEALTHY (this is important) subjetcs in order to measure their blood glucose levels. The researcher will probably measure thousands of blood samples, put them in a graph and what will she/he find?
Normal distribution

A distribution like the above (if not, statisticians will find a way). In our hypothetical situation, the y-axis is the number of subjects that has a particular glucose level in their blood while the x-axis show the glucose level of these people. We can easily see that a few subjects have very high glycemia while another few have very low glycemia levels. Most of the subjects are found in the “peak”of the curve, with intermediary glycemia levels. The σ is the standard deviation, a measure of how variable is the sample (please, don’t panic). The σ measures how the measurements are usually away from the average.

The normal distribution has some interesting properties. The one we are using in this example is the one above. It is possible to calculate the proportion of the subjects (area under the curve) in each point. If we evaluate the area between μ-2σ and μ+2σ, we will find out that it corresponds to about 95,44% of the whole population Here you are. I thereby declare that the “normal” values in this alb tests are found between μ-2σ and μ+2σ, as 95% of all the healthy people are found in this interval.

Whenever a patient comes to see me, and I decide to test her/his glycemia using the method we have just described, there will be a chance, intrinsic to the method, that it will give a result that is out of the boundaries determined as “normal” limits, even though the patient is completely healthy. This chance, as explained, is about 5% (2.5% for each side of the distribution). Somebody may say: “OK, Karl, nothing is perfect and there is always margin for error.” I agree. The problem is that we never ask for only one exam. On one hand, patients love to do a full check-up “Please, test me for everything because my health plan will cover everything”. On the other hand, doctors love to ask for exams “I will ask for all the exams since blood will be drawn anyway”. In Brazil, doctors ask for an average of 1o to 20 tests per consulattion, depending on the specialization and health plan.

(OK, now it is time to PANIC) When we ak for 1 test, the chance of this test come back as NORMAL/NEGATIVE and the patient does NOT have the tested disease, is 95%, or 0.95. If we ask for 2 tests, the chances of both test come back normal and the patient does not have the tested disease is 0.95 x 0.95 = 0.9025. That means that there is about 10% of chance of one of the test come back as ABNORMAL/POSITIVE and the patient is healthy. If you consider 4 tests, the chances are 0.81 and when we achieve the number of 16 tests, the chances of one test coming back as abnormal is a THIRD!
The conclusion is quite important. Whenever I ask for a brazillion of tests, the chances that at least one of the results will come back abnormal and the patient is healthy is overwhelming. If I am, as I usually say, a doctor that is “hostage” of the exams, I will look for diseases where there are none! I will keep trying to fit the patient in the test results and not the opposite! This is what I call of “subsidiary patient, when the tests are what matter.

Some years ago, there was a trend in Brazil to take some flock of hairs and send them to USA, where they examined for almost all the elements in the periodic table! There were more than 50 exams. And who knows how the normal values for, let’s say, Cadmium, were established. The chance of at least one of the tests coming back as NOT NORMAL was close to 100%. Then, the doctor, in possession of the lab results, would say “Your Cadmium levels are high! We have to detoxify you!” and would prescribe you with some medicine. Some patients would become better, of course, and the rest of the herd would follow…

That’s something that is always on my mind: how many doctors today would have the guts to ignore a lab test just because it does not fit with the picture he drew from his patient? Hard question. Another: what kind of patients would believe his doctor if she/he decided to ignore the lab test? This one is easier: a patient that do not want to become subsidiary.


This post was written by Karl in his blog Ecce Medicus and translated by Carlos Hotta.

A XIX century Photoshop Disaster

The Atlantic Forest is a little known tropical hotspot in the coast of Brazil. The blog network Rede Ecoblogs released the following image to celebrate the Atlantic Forest Day, in May 27th:
As you probably have noticed, there are four flamingoes displayed conspicuously in the image. However, there are NO flamingoes in the Atlantic Forest! Of course you may find flamingoes in Chile, Peru and Argentina, even in the extreme south of Brazil, but not in the our tropical forests. A very bad mistake for a network that is supposed to be all about ecology.
My first impulse was to blame their designer as the image was clearly photoshoped (the flamingos and their whereabouts were duplicated). Another possibility was that the image was not from the Atlantic Forest but somewhere else. Little I knew that the history behind image is way cool than a common intertube mistake.
The first step was to find the author of the original image and compare it to the one above. Paula Signorini helped me finding another example of the image:
1112003023 Rugendas Mantiqueira.JPG
At this other website, the image is annotated as “Rugendas – Mantiqueira”. In this image, the birds are blue, which was also added afterward as Rugendas published these images as lithographs in the beggining of the XIX century.
Rugendas was a German painter that is famous in Brazil for his illustrations depicting the Brazilian landscape and the people that lived here. His most famous work is the book “Picturesque Voyage to Brazil”, published in 1835. This book is the result of his adventures following the Langsdorff Expedition,which he abandoned (or was abandoned) before it arrived at the Amazon forest.
According to the ornithologist Dr. Guilherme Renzo Rocha Brito, who had help from the book “Rugendas e o Brasil” from Pablo Diener and Maria de Fátima Costa (editora Capivara), “Rugendas brought the original illustrations, made using oil paints or pencils, and part of the texts (actually, nobody knows who wrote those texts)… an editor put some money on the project and hired a few (8, I think) artists to make the lithographs. These artists, who had never been to Brazil, transformed the original illustration in stones. However, they took a lot of liberties in this transition, putting their own interpretations of Brazil and even signing the art!”
In summary: the lithographs where made by people that did not know Brazil and tried to carve the illustrations in stone only reading some texts and looking at Rugendas original work. Many of the artists, like the French A. Joly, the author of the flamingo pictures, interpreted the descriptions in their own way adding plant and animals that were not Brazilian (well, as the original illustrations were lost, it may be wring to blame Joly for the birds).
von Marthius, a naturalist that explored Brazil even commented: “I saw Rugendas’ drawing notebook. It seems to me that there is more aesthetic than truth. There are, for example, African birds in the jungle and Brazilian coniferous with palm trees in the mountains.(…) I have been seeing many of Rugendas’ work. I recommend it as an artistic conception and as a piece of French lithography. However, it is true that it is noticeable that many of these representations were done in Europe.”
Guilherme Brito also notes that the illustration is not from Serra da Mantiqueira, as written above, but the “Forét Viérge prés Manqueritipa / dans la province de Rio de Janeiro“or the Virgin Forest of Mangaratiba, at Rio de Janeiro province.
The lesson we take home is that illustrators try to retouch images since the XIX centuries, sometimes with disastrous results. What we cannot do is to replicate, and duplicate, the error in the XXI century.
Thanks to Lama for the help.
Images: Ecoblogs e As Minas Gerais
This post was translated by Carlos Hotta from the original published at the Brazilian blog Brontossauros em meu Jardim.

Deforestation does not lead to development

ResearchBlogging.orgScience magazine has published a paper that is extremely important for the Brazilian Amazon. Brazilian researchers (IMAZON), in collaboration with researchers from other nations, evaluated the impact of the deforestation in the social and economic development in the affected Amazonian towns. The paper starts with some pretty impressive numbers: this country has 40% of the remaining tropical forests in the world. However, between 1998 and 2008, we took our forest down at a rate of 1,8 million ha/year (almost a third of the world’s tropical forest deforestation), releasing around 250 million tons of carbon every year. There are two patterns in Brazilian deforestation: we take the best wood first then we burn everything to make pastures or to make new crops. We are doing this conversion in a few decades, while it took centuries to other countries to do the same.
The advance of the deforestation in Brazil is justified by its advocates by the increase of the quality of life of the population around the forest areas. That’s it: environmental degradation leading to the increase of quality of life. In this context, the authors of the paper divided 286 Amazonian municipalities in 7 classes divided by when the deforestation took place and its extension. The classes ranged from pre-frontier (intact forest and no sign of the start of the deforestation) to post-frontier (severe deforestation and the shift to other economic activities). They also estimated the Human Development Index (HDI) for each municipality to estimate the development stage of each area. The HDI is the average of three other index: life expectancy, literacy and GDP per capta.



The HDI and its components in each municipality class (from the most preserved, A class, to the most degraded, G class).


As you amy observe, there is a pattern in the HDI and its components. There is a fast increase in the region HDI soon after the start of the deforestation. However, after this first moment of deforestation and resources over exploitation, there is the decrease of this index back to its original legal (there is no statistical difference between the A and G classes). This means that you may have development for a while but it vanishes with the natural resources. The authors of the paper also point out that Brazil’s HDI increased in the studied period but the HDI of A class and G class municipalities decreased.
What is the reason for this pattern? It is possible that the increase of the HDI is the result of the migration of people to the towns with intermediate deforestation levels as people with higher education levels and better financial status would arrive. However, this would not explain the sharp increase in the initial levels of deforestation, when the immigrants are largely poor people looking for a fresh start. An alternative explanation is the construction of infrastructure around the town, like roads and the initial profit with natural resources which allow a better access to services like doctors, etc. However, after a while, the profit levels decrease and the initial benefits are gone.
This shows how wrong the chaotic exploitation frame of the mind is. The whole “We are developing the Amazon region”is a lie! As everything in Brazil, only the richest benefit from the transitory development, accumulation all the profit from the natural resources. The poor are left with nothing. Deforestation do not increase the quality of life of the population that lives around the forest!
This means that it, in a first moment, is urgent to stop this model of deforestation followed by agriculture expansion. Next, we need to start the reforestation of degraded areas and to start investing in a sustainable exploitation of the forest (if such thing is possible). The authors also suggest the investment in carbon sequestration projects, as Brazil has large carbon stocks and a has advanced technologies to track changes in the forest. Once the Brazilian government understands that the forest worths more intact than destroyed, then we might understand what is development.
Rodrigues, A., Ewers, R., Parry, L., Souza, C., Verissimo, A., & Balmford, A. (2009). Boom-and-Bust Development Patterns Across the Amazon Deforestation Frontier Science, 324 (5933), 1435-1437 DOI: 10.1126/science.1174002
This post was translated by Carlos Hotta from the original published at the Brazilian blog DIscutindo Ecologia.

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