Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A lesson from a urinal

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, June 24, 2009

For some time now I have had the -slightly strange, I admit it—habit of taking pictures of urinals that get my attention (you won't believe, specially if you're a woman, how interesting and in some cases beautiful these bathroom pieces can be. You can see some pictures in my alternate blog,

Apart from the weird looks that —in some cases, frankly alarmed— I get from the gentlemen that happen to come into the bathroom while I am taking a picture, my hobby has led me to classify these devices.

There are big and small ones, modern and antique ones, elegant and austere ones, but I prefer to classify them as traditional, electronic and ecological.

In the traditional model, the gentleman, after using the urinal, pulls a lever —in more hygienic models, they step on a pedal— that makes the water flow and washes away the urine. (In a urinal I found in the University I work for, there was a sign that asked "don't forget to pull the lever, let's keep the bathrooms clean"... but someone had stolen the lever!)

Electronic urinals became a trend a few years ago. They substitute the mechanical system of the traditional urinal for an electronic one: an infrared beam detects if there is a person in front of it. When the person leaves, the water flows automatically. The idea is to make the user feel cleaner, since he does not touch the device (sounds good until you remember the device you were touching ). The funniest one I saw had a logo of a robot using the urinal (?).

The latest trend are ecological urinals, which don't use water. These are designed so that urine flows to the drainage by simple gravity, without leaving traces or odors. Excellent… if it wasn't for the fact that these are always splashed and full of disposable tissues and chewed gum that block them.

Do we really need urinals that "act" alone? What is the use of a urinal that saves water if the user does not have the culture of using them correctly

Moral of the story: science and technology are useless if they are not integrated with the culture and necessities of the user. A good lesson learned from our good ol' friend, the urinal.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On second thought…

By Martí­n Bonfil Olivera
Published in Milenio Diario, June 17,

Two science news items published last week make us wonder.

One is the discovery that the star Betelgeuse, the brightest in Orion constellation (if observed on infrared, not in visible light), one of the most studied stars, has shrunk 15 percent in the last 15 years. In 1921, Betelgeuse was the first star to be measured. It's a red supergiant; its diameter is around 40 million times that of the sun, and it's on the last stages of its life. It would not be strange that one of these days —or years, or decades— it will become a supernova: it will be a magnificent show.

How is it possible that a star shrinks? Scientists don't know. There are stars that pulse, but until now, it is uncertain whether Betelgeuse's size will increase again.

What confidence can we have, then, in the knowledge of astrophysicists, if they can't even assure that their data will not change any other minute?

The second news item reinforces this sensation of distrust: two researchers from Oregon University reveal that their studies regarding the anatomy of birds and dinosaurs appears to refute the theory, held by decades, that birds are direct descendants from those reptiles.

The special structure of bird bones, necessary to give them the lung capacity they require, is not present in the alleged ancestors. Most likely, they must have evolved in parallel.

Where does that beautiful story, that dinosaurs did not go extinct but turned into hens, stand now? Can we trust, a creationist would ask, in a supposed science that does not even guarantee that the information it generates is true?

Of course, the answer is that science does not reveal absolute and unchanging truths, but useful knowledge, that constantly evolves when subject to testing, discussion, analysis and correction.

It is this capacity for change that gives science its power.

It is difficult to accept science as a human process of trial and error, fallible, yes, but very reliable. Too bad: an infallible science sounded nicer… even if it was just a fantasy.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Darwin and death

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, June 10, 2009

The game of linking concepts that at a first glance look unrelated can be a good way of keeping one's mind in shape. I was invitated to give a talk about "the death of Darwinism", and that's a good excuse to explore the relations between the life and work of Charles Darwin and the subject of death (since Darwinism is alive and evolving).

Darwin's encounters with death are not few. His mother died in 1817, when he was only eight years old; that forced him to be admitted in a boarding school. Years later, already married to Emma, his cousin and then wife, he had ten children, of which two died very young (not an unsual thing in those times). But the death of his favorite, little Annie, at the age of ten, was no doubt the most traumatic encounter of Darwin with death. So much that it is believed that this put an end to whatever rest of religious faith he had left.

Darwin's own death was not unusual: he was buried in with honors at Westminster Abbey, the place reserved for the great men of England. The excessively austere grave on the floor that marks his resting place contrasts with the nearby grave of Isaac Newton, a kind of mini-Disneyland.

Darwin's ideas are too related to death: they help us to understand, for example, how it emerges.

It turns out that the oldest organisms, composed of only one cell, are immortal. They feed, grow and, when the time is right, they divide in two, but they don't die. Only with the emergence of multi-cellular organisms and sexual reproduction do phenomena like ageing and death emerge; they are the price we have to pay for the capacity of forming more complex organisms.

Apart from helping us to understand death, if Darwin's ideas are used in the wrong way, they can cause death: at the beginning of the 20th century, the development of the pseudoscience of eugenics, which intended to improve human race through Darwinian selection, was a global trend, and gave way to the excesses of Nazism. Even today, the application of Darwinian thinking in social contexts bears this stigma.

The moral of the story is that Darwinism, as any other knowledge, can be used for good or bad. That's why it is convenient to have a good understanding of it.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Science in the media

By Martí­n Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, June 3, 2009

The science that appears in the media —newspapers, radio, television, the internet— normally takes the form of news, curiosities, entertainment… science as another form of spending time in a pleasant way.

And it's ok it's like that. It is good that science is present in our daily life, that we know about it, we enjoy it and understand it.

But there are occasions —as happened with the recent influenza epidemic— in which we suddenly remember that science can be a matter of life or death. And we realize that in Latin America we do not have specialized communicators, capable of handling it and putting it into the reach of the public in a clear, rigorous and reliable way.

Science, unlike other journalism "sources", requires a special preparation, because it does not yet form, unfortunately, part of our citizens' culture . That's why I was conforted when I went to two events that seek to put a remedy to that shortage of science journalists.

The first was the seminar "Science, technology and innovation as news", organized in Acapulco, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, by the Scientific and Technological Consulting Forum, an assessing organism of the executive government, and the Mexican Society for Scientific and Technical Popularization (SOMEDICYT).

As already mentioned by my colleague Horacio Salazar, this gathering of scientific journalists served to realize that we are a few and we're isolated and disorganized, but that we have the potential to form networks and associations to make us more professional and increase our numbers.

The second event was the XI Reunion of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology (RedPOP), in Montevideo , Uruguay, where science communicators from Latin America gathered to share experiences and analyze the challenges.

From both reunions I gather the conviction that our labor is necessary, because the need to democratize scientific knowledge will become more urgent day by day, and that it is worth to collaborate in an academic way to make it advance and improve.

After all, what we science popularizers are here for is to serve the citizens that, with their taxes, pay for scientific research. The challenge is to get scientific culture become popular culture.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Falsifying science

by Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, May 27, 2009

The great trust we have in science and in the knowledge it produces is based, mostly, in its rigorous quality control system.

For something to be considered valid in science, its not enough that somebody with a pHD says it, . The work of a researcher, including a detailed description of his records, methods, an analysis of the results and the arguments that support the conclusions, have to be socialized in seminars and conferences and accepted by the community of experts to which he belongs.

The process ends with the publication of the work in an international refereed journal. These journals only accept works that have gone through a thoroughly process of "peer review", generally anonymous, in which is frequent to ask for changes or additions based on the expertise of the referees.

Hence the little scandal that erupted when The scientist magazine (April 30) published that pharmaceutical company Merck, Sharp & Dohme had negotiated with Elsevier, the most famous and powerful scientific magazine publisher in the world, the publication, between 2003 and 2004, of a scientific magazine made by order with summaries and review articles published in other magazines which results were always favorable to Merck products.

The pharmaceutical industry is one of those dangerous places where the border between science and business is blurred. It's not wrong for a company to publicize its products. Informal magazines that are given to medical doctors and summarize information of arbitrary magazines are common practice. But it is always clear that these are not true scientific magazines, but instances of propaganda.

The alarming thing about this case is that Merck's "infomercials" were disguised as good science. And worst: in view of the scandal, Elsevier revealed that it had made not only one, but six magazines paid for by companies. They stopped doing this years ago, but the moral of the story is clear: the greed of publicists and companies can put the quality and the reliability of science at risk.

As it also occurs in democracy, transparency, far from debilitating science, makes it stronger. Let's hope Elsevier learned their lesson.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mexican genome, my foot!

by Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, May 20, 2009

On May 12, the "Mexican genome" was presented with a lot of hype.

But according to the National Institute of Genomic Medicine (Inmegen), which did the work, what was really shown was "the map of the genome of Mexicans". This distinction matters because there is no unique genome that we Mexicans all share. Each human being has its own combination of genes. And although the variation between individuals is minimal (0.5 percent), it's what makes us unique.

The media also gave the wrong impression that the "Mexican genome" information was read letter by letter.

Actually, the study titled "Analysis of genomic diversity in Mexican Mestizo populations to develop genomic medicine in Mexico" was much more modest. It examined the differences in little genetic markers between 300 individuals of seven groups: six mestizo and one from Zapotec civilization. It's a smaller version of the so-called "Hap Map", or "haplotype map": the study of genetic markers in different population groups of the world. It will be useful to relate the genetic variability with the susceptibility of the populations to certain diseases (that' where all the talk about "genetic medicine" comes from).

Inmegen concludes that it would be worthy to perform a haplotype map of the Mexican population. The study is the draft of a draft that would allow to start developing genetic medicine in Mexico.

But reading the statements of Felipe Calderón, the de facto president of Mexico ("we are entering the medicine of the third millennium", "we will have first world health", "we could prevent the development of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension or obesity, etc."), it looks like we were already in the first world.

Reality is different: Inmegen lacks support. It operates in inappropriate facilities - an office building where they cannot work with radioactivity nor microorganisms - and the construction of their definitive building is plagued with irregularities. Until recently, the Institute had a very rigid hierarchical structure in which only its director could make decisions.

And the situation is general: INDRE (the Diagnostic and Epidemiological Reference Institute), fundamental in the influenza epidemic, is "obsolete and insecure", as reported on monday by MILENIO. As published in the first page of El Universal (one of the most influential newspapers in Mexico), "Mexico is paying its abandonment of science".

With all the shortages on the health research system, to simulate that Mexico is a scientific power is dishonest.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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