Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Reflection on the Circle of Life (Not The Lion King)

"It's the ciiiiiircle of life..." -- The Lion King

First, I would like to address the gap between my posts. I've been moving places and trying to get my jobs in line. That's right "jobs" with an s. Boy's got to pay his rent. Anyway, I've been having a hard time finding an opening in my schedule to cuddle up in a nice nook with wifi to update this blog.

Lately I've been thinking about the cyclical nature of life. We spend work-hours in the office, which can often worsen our health, to gain money to spend on health care to artificially extend our lives so we can put in more work-hours before we reach old age (yes- I know that's a run on sentence, but I can't be bothered to fix it. I don't English).

Perhaps, this is a factor in why people working in high-stress, high-injury environments often to fail to amass any significant savings. Thus, their children are left without any beneficial funds to improve their education. They have to take up similar positions to their parents and repeat the process. With this in mind, it is an easy step to assume that poor families can find it hard to crawl out of a low socioeconomic status.

I'm strong believer in the transhumanist movement, but with this rotation of work and flagging health I'm starting to question the purpose of extending our lives beyond the natural capacity. Yes, if we augment ourselves with new technology, great people will live longer to possibly achieve even greater things, but what will this mean for us average joes? Will we go insane from the monotony of the cycle, or will we use the extra time to find a field we excel at and become great people ourselves?


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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why Does Basic Health Care Cost So Much In The U.S.?

Many of us have gone to a hospital for an emergency or just a routine check up, but are soon discouraged from returning because of the shocking price tag. I, myself, had an unsavory bill a couple of months ago from a visit to the ER. Because the hospital wasn't covered by my insurance, I had to find a way to pay around $9,000 for some IV meds, an Xray, and for a bored doctor to poke around my throat. With the Affordable Care Act coming into effect next year, there's a growing interest in finding out how much basic health care costs and why Americans are paying so much for so little. The answer is, well... complicated, so I'm only going to hit some low points.

First, I'd like to address the unfounded belief that the U.S. is paying more because of the obesity epidemic and our other unhealthy behaviors. America, in fact, has a lower prevalence of smokers and drinkers than most European countries, and even if that wasn't true, an increased prevalence of disease doesn't equal an increased price for the treatment.  Though we do have an obesity problem, our inflated bodies shouldn't account our inflated fees.

Source: Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services
However, the bill, when we finally receive it, has been delegated and added to so much that the price we pay is fairly arbitrary. Costs for therapies and tests not only vary between states, but between facilities and patients. The difference isn't really even related to the quality of care either. Patients given an IV(a bag of sterile salt water thats production cost is kept secret but has been said to be less than a cup of coffee), a procedure with minimal physician interaction, can expect a wildly varying bill costing hundreds of dollars. 

Basically hospitals and clinics charge whatever they think that they can get away with. Sure, insurance companies try to haggle price down, but many times they don't have much bargaining power, because if the hospital is unmovable in its opinion the insurance company can just transfer the costs down to the patient by raising premiums. The patients have even less of a chance to lower their bill. There isn't a tidy menu with therapies and their prices on display so most doctors will choose to give their patients pricey, yet unnecessary, tests and drugs even if there are cheaper and equally effective alternatives available.

Now, in my opinion, how we fix these problems:

  • Government regulation: Most countries with lower health costs have some way of keeping tabs on drug and therapy pricing, but in the U.S. we like to consider the health industry a free market. This usually keeps prices down through competition, but, when patients are uninformed, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and other health facilities are free to raise their prices without their customers realizing that there are other options. 
  • A menu: I know it sounds ridiculous, but, once prices are set, if there were menus above each department displaying the prices for common procedures, I suspect that hospitals would have to make their bills honest. (In my mind this conversation would happen if menus were in hospitals. "Could I have this gunshot wound patched up?" "Would you like a drink with that?" "No, liquids go right through me." *Ba dum tish*
  • An addendum to "informed consent": If doctors were more forward with their patients and mentioned the alternatives to the expensive test they were about to order I think most patients would choose the cheaper option if it had similar effects. 
  • Education: As in everything, don't trust me or any other uncredited source. Get out there and read some articles! The New York Times, the Vlogbrothers, and many others have talked about this. My blog entry is just a stub, because I have so little time to dedicate to this to this huge topic. There is plenty of information out there if you look for it. 
  • I don't know... Immortality: If we were somehow impervious to harm or disease we wouldn't need health care, would we? 


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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: Tissue Economy: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism by Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell

"Tissue economies are about the way the biological capacities of the human body contribute to social, economic, and political systems of productivity and power" 

As bio-commercialism has grown, so has our need to put a price tag on an important new resource, our bodies. Catherine Waldby and Robert Michel address the struggles around identifying the value of and distributing biological donations and transformations in Tissue Economies: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism. The authors carefully disentangle the complex history of property claims and ethical dilemmas in biotechnology.

In this spiritual follow up to my previous book review on Henrietta Lacks we get a closer look at the sticky politics around making tissue a commodity. This book highlights two camps in the tissue donation and therapy fields: those for an altruistic gift-economy, and those that support profitable, yet possibly more efficient market based economy. Should giving and receiving donations be part of the social contract of just being human, or should we pay an 'arm and a leg' (sorry, I had to) for an artificially extended life?


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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The People Behind The Curtain: Ernest Rutherford

"For Mike's sake, Soddy! Don't call it transmutation. They'll have our heads off as alchemists."
-- Ernest Rutherford

 If there had to be one scientist I could choose to be my grandpa, it would be Ernest Rutherford. He has just the right ratio of quirk to genius, and, with eleven protégés becoming Nobel Prize winners themselves, I'd say he would be the perfect man to teach me about life.

Look at that glorious mustache! 
Ernest Rutherford was born 1871 in New Zealand  and was raised on a flax farm where he didn't get his first taste of academia until, at the age of ten, he received a textbook that he read and reread. He eventually went on to Nelson and Canterbury Colleges, and, in order to work on early radio wave technology, he moved to England to do his postdoctorate at Cambridge. After becoming knighted for developing ways to better detect submarines, he became the director of the University of Manchester's physics lab.

However, Rutherford did not quite fit in with the stuffy scientists in England. He was utterly ridiculous. As a lab director he sported a dense walrus mustache, walked around campus carrying radioactive elements in his coat pockets, and reliably smelled like the cigars and pipe tobacco he smoked. On top of that, he shouted bizarre euphemisms ("For Mikes's sake") instead of swearing, which he would often do at his lab equipment if they wouldn't cooperate, and sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" loudly, without reason, and usually off pitch. Once, Rutherford even remarked that he "felt like an ass in lion's skin," because, as a boisterous farm boy, he couldn't relate with his reserved colleagues.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) his abrasive and hilarious personality, Rutherford would end up doing his most influential work with nuclear physics there. I am going to explain three of his most popular experiments: where he discovered that radioactive elements transform as they decay (Radium => Radon), where he proved the existence of radioactive alpha particles released from decay and that they are actually the gas helium (Two Glass Bulbs), and his most famous work, where he proved the existence of a small but dense positively charged nucleus (Gold Foil).

Radium => Radon Experiment

After Marie and Pierre Curie's work with radioactivity in the late 1800's, it was understood that radiation spread outward from a radioactive element. Many people thought that it was spread by a gas of some sort, similar to the idea of an "ether" that most doctors earlier in the century believed spread illness before the germ theory was developed. Rutherford set out to find out what kind of gas was being released and spreading the radiation.

To do this he and his partner, Fredrick Soddy, placed a sample of radium in a container full of water and collected the gas from the bubbles forming on its surface. They were thrilled when they found out that the bubbles were a new element, radon. And not only had the two scientists discovered a new box on the periodic table, but they noticed that as the amount of radon they gathered increased, the original sample of radium decreased. Ergo, radium had actually transformed into radon! Rutherford had discovered radioactive decay, and how unstable substances jump across the periodic table as they change.

Two Glass Bulbs Experiment

Helium gas being excited by electricity. This would
have been the same glow that Rutherford saw when he
ran a current through the alpha particles.
Rutherford noticed that even though elements decay, they don't decay in the obvious way by moving one place to the left on the periodic table, loosing a single atomic mass unit. Elements jump two spaces to the left, loosing two electrons as opposed to one. Rutherford named the packets of two electrons shot out of the decaying element alpha particles. Alpha particles, having two electrons and two protons, were actually single helium atoms breaking out of the large unstable element.

To prove this, Rutherford made two glass bulbs: one small and bubble thin, and one larger and thicker. He pumped radioactive gas into the small bulb which he placed in the larger bulb, and waited. The alpha particles had enough energy and were small enough to tunnel through the first glass but were stopped by the larger glass. To show that the invisible gas trapped between the bulbs was the helium alpha particles, Rutherford excited them with an electrical current and the bulb glowed the customary helium purplish color. (If you've ever seen neon lights, you'll know the glow).

Golden Foil Experiment

Or instead of reading this section, you could just watch
this .gif... 
Though Rutherford is known for this experiment it is important to note that his colleagues, Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, are the scientists that carried it out, even though his work made it possible. Rutherford just presented the idea and published it.

Previously, the established idea for the structure of the atom was the "plum pudding model", the thought that the atom was a positively charged mass with free-floating electrons meandering about inside like the raisins in plum pudding. Though Geiger, Marsden, and Rutherford doubted this, because they believed that there was a small positively charged nucleus that the negatively charged electrons were orbiting, much like planets around the sun (or pedophiles around an elementary school... whatever).

The scientists set up an experiment where a decaying element would shoot alpha particles into gold foil. After hitting the foil the alpha particles mostly passed through the atoms unscathed, but some veered off a few degrees as if being deflected. If the plum pudding model was correct then no particles should have been deflected because the atom would have been mostly empty space, but by measuring the angles at which the alpha particles were deflected Geiger and Marsden figured that there was a center, a nucleus, that the particles were bouncing off of.


Works Cited
"Ernest Rutherford - Biographical." Ernest Rutherford - Biographical. 19 Aug. 2013 <>.
"The Gold Foil Experiment." The Gold Foil Experiment. 19 Aug. 2013 <>.
Kean, Sam. The disappearing spoon: And other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the element. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
"Legacies- Ernest Rutherford." ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation. 19 Aug. 2013 <>

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Vitro vs. In Vivo

While reading, I came across the terms "in vivo" and "in vitro".  Because I was in a hurry, I just skimmed past them, assuming that they were the same thing. It wasn't until I was four pages in that I realized that I was completely lost, and that these latin terms have completely opposite meanings. Here is an important distinction:
In vivo: (Latin for "within the living") This term is referring to the body as a whole, in that it is the larger, inclusive processes in the body. 

In vitro: (Latin for "within the glass") When you take anything out of the body or the context of the body it becomes in vitro. This would be something like cell biology or culturing in a petri dish. 

To sum up, 

In vivo fertilization: "Ay babe, let's have sum sex so we can make dat bay-bay."

In vitro fertilization: "Ay babe, let's takea few of doze eggs outta dat body and fertilize dem wit sperm inna test tube.... gurl."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

" If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta's cells make perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. "
-- Rebecca Skloot

 Though one of this book's focal points is the HeLa cell line and its history, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks barely skims the surface of what was made possible by the research into Henrietta's cells. If I wanted to read about that, there are over 60,000 papers I could pick up detailing everything from making a polio vaccine to cell contamination. Instead, Rebecca Skloot  uses this book to write about the lasting effects of uninformed consent on a patient's family.

With practices that can only be compared to the Tuskegee syphilis study (an unethical experiment from 1932-1972 where doctors studied the natural progression of syphilis in an African American community even after an effective cure, penicillin, was made), doctors took a cancerous biopsy from Henrietta Lacks for purposes they did not reveal to her and made an immortal strain of cells that, through an unintentional chain of events, became a multimillion dollar industry. The business and research became so big that Henrietta's part in this field was cast aside. She became a product to be sold for $167 a vial. And though scientists learned innumerable things with her cells, Henrietta's family seemed to be the last to find out.

This book is amazing. It highlights unethical practices America has abolished, and some it hasn't. It even tackles health disparities between races, because Henrietta and her family are black, and their distrust for the "white doctors" moves the narrative forward. Even a divided world couldn't care less what race the cells were, because "under a microscope, cells don't have a color."

Thanks to this book, I think my next book review will be Tissue Economy: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The People Behind The Curtain: The Lives And Works Of Great Scientists.

"I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something"
-- Richard P. Feynman

Time Magazine's 1961 "Men of the Year"
 featuring  15  U.S. scientists.
The reason why I think that science is so inaccessible to us is that scientists are, well, as far as the public thinks, tight asses. They seem so caught up in their work that everything else is just a distraction... and heaven forbid if you don't know as much as they do. There is anger, hateful emails, and enough scoffing in science that if someone had enough patience write down the emotional back-and-forths then hire a team of actors to read the lines you would end up with a pretty convincing soap-opera. Better yet, I'd like to think of the scientific community as a much more intelligent but equally as rude YouTube comment section. 

However, these scientists are people like us. They have human brains that can reason out very human things. There is nothing super about them. Everything that scientists have come to know, with a little work, we can comprehend as well . That is just what I intend to do.

 I figure that the best way to understand concepts that shape discoveries today is to understand the people who worked on these concepts, the pillars of science, the founding fathers. I want to tag along with them and stand next to the lab table as they make their careers. I would like to write about their eureka moments and what led them down that path.  This series will be about those who made everything possible. 


This will take a lot of work, so I expect to make these infrequently, because I want to do these people justice.