Bond, James Bond

London Pearlies

Anne, Joan, Pat and I attended Science on Tap, the monthly lecture series hosted by Washington University professors and curated by Dr. Cynthia Wichelman. This month’s lecture was entitled, “Serial Bonds: 007 Storytelling since Casino Royale (2006)”. It was given by Colin Burnett, PhD. This talk was a bit of a departure from the scientific origins of this lecture series, but it was not its first trip away from science and towards art. The crux of Burnett’s argument was that the four Bond films starring Daniel Craig represent a departure in the 26 film Bond series. Previously, Bond films all followed the same formula and were cookie cut from that mold. Now, in the Craig era, Bond movies have adopted serialization, just like almost all other blockbuster franchises have since Star Wars. As late comers to this party, this begs the question, what took them?

Burnett touched on the revenue benefits of serialization to the Bond franchise. In my mind these monetary gains are more tangible than any artist ones. I’ve seen all four Craig Bond films and can’t say that they were any better than their predecessors. For me, James Bond has become an anachronism. As a murderous and misogynist white male, is he really what we need now in the #MeToo era?

Milk with Altitude

Schooners at Sunset

Marco! Polo! Marco! Marco! Mark, are you alright? Polo! Mom, I’m OK.

I have never traveled the Silk Road, like Marco Polo did. I have never sailed the seven seas. I haven’t even been to Katmandu, like last night’s lecturers. Science on Tap reconvened after a long hiatus and we were all in attendance. EA Quinn and Geoff Childs, both Washington University professors were our speakers. They had been to Katmandu and beyond and they told us of their work. First they had to deal with some A/V devils. Light electrical work compared to fanning an over heating generator or holding up on the roof solar panels to generate juice. Both examples of hardships that research in Nepal entails. Enough of the Indy Jones intro, on to the science, in this case anthropology.

Their NSF funded study at the intersection of biology and culture in the Himalayas centered upon the effects of altitude on mother’s milk. Nubri, near the Tibetan border was the area of their research. Katmandu is the big city where their young people go for an education compared to this place. Travel is by foot or donkey. Although, a helicopter was utilized to transport the liquid nitrogen that was used to preserve the milk samples. Samples that once back in the lab were analyzed for composition along three lines:

  • Macronutrients and Energy (Yes)
  • Metabolic Hormones (No)
  • Immune Factors (No)

The parenthetical yes and no neatly summarize their findings. Yes, they were able to find differences in milk composition that correlated with altitude or no they did not. 69 mother-infant dyads participated in the study. Nutrients were further broken out into sugars and protein, which were normal and fats, which were the highest ever seen. The daily infant intake translated into an extra 10 grams/day of fat or +110 calories/day than what a sea level infant would get.

The Q&A session was as always also interesting. For example, while cow’s milk production decreases with altitude, yak’s milk production increases with altitude. Quinn and Childs were reporting from an earlier completed NSF study. One that they leveraged into their current study, which since it is still ongoing, they were not willing to report on. They hinted though of revelations to come.


Moon and Astronaut Teapot

Yesterday, the last Wednesday of the month, was Science on Tap night. Once a month, during the school year, WashU profs come before the beer swilling public and deliver a lecture on their research. Last night’s talk was given by Dr. Bradley Jolliff and was entitled, The New Moon: Recent and Future Exploration of Earth’s Nearest Neighbor.

Much of his time was devoted to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Dr. Jolliff is on the satellite’s camera science team. For eight years, this system has been photographing the moon, mapping and remapping the same locales under different lighting conditions and from different angles, assembling the most detailed record of lunar features. Also presented was a survey of other satellite programs, both US and international. One such US program (LCROSS) worked in conjunction with the LRO. Like in the pictured teapot, a booster was slammed into the Cabeus crater at the moon’s south pole. The ejected dust cloud was spectrally analyzed, looking for water.

Jolliff’s lecture was unusually well attended. We had six people at our table. Plus, I saw several former colleagues. As near as I could tell the beer hall was full, providing ample justification for the series’ move to Kirkwood’s larger venue. It was an enjoyable evening, hanging with all the other science nerds.

V vs. Empire

V vs. Empire

We attended Science on Tap last night, where the evening’s talk was entitled, Digital Privacy and Other Civil Liberties and was presented by Professor Neil M. Richards, of Washington University in Saint Louis. In addition to his scholarly writings, Mr. Richards has written for the Guardian, Salon and Slate. He also has a book, Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age that formed the basis for the talk. Richards was an excellent speaker and his talk was on a subject that is currently much in the news:

Earlier this year Congress passed and Trump signed into law a decision to overturn new privacy rules for Internet service providers (ISPs) that were passed by the FCC last year. The rules never went into effect. If they had, it would have given consumers control over how ISPs use their data. The rules would have required consent from consumers if sensitive data, like financial or health information, or browsing history, were to be sold or shared. – NPR

The following paragraph is the Science on Tap synopsis of the evening’s talk:

Why is it bad when governments or companies monitor our reading or web-surfing? Intuition tells us such surveillance is bad but—in an age of global terrorism and rapid innovation—it fails to explain why the surveillance poses a problem. Professor Neil Richards offers a new approach to thinking about the ways we’re being watched—one that ensures our ideas and values keep pace with technology. While we might think of privacy and free speech as being in conflict, Richards will explain how the two are often essential to each other. He will explain the importance of “intellectual privacy” protection when we are thinking, reading, and communicating with those we trust; and as we increasingly depend on technologies that can track us, how protection of intellectual privacy has become an imperative.

I’m old enough to remember the days when the Internet was like the Wild West. It used to be that you could ride into any town as the man with no name, but those days are gone. Now, all you have to do is glance at any product or service and ads for that commodity with follow you around wherever you go. Now, when you surf, from behind your screen you are already being watched closely. So, the notion of Internet privacy already seems a thing of the past, but it doesn’t have to be that way and it still isn’t universally like that. To illustrate this point, Richards used the example of Fifty Shades of Grey.

This wildly popular story involving S&M is the stuff of guilty pleasures. It first appeared as a novel and then later as a movie. It is the type of material that you might enjoy, but is also the type that you might not want everyone else to know about it. You could buy the book from an old bricks and mortar bookstore, but the judging eyes of the sales clerk could be enough to dissuade you from that course. You could download it to your Kindle, but your ISP would have a record of that and now can sell that dirty little secret to anyone it wants.

Interestingly, if you choose to stream the movie version, your privacy is still protected. The story behind this loophole dates back to the days of VCRs and video rental stores. Back in the day, a federal judge had ruled that lists of movie rentals were not considered protected information. This ruling incensed a privacy activist, who also happened to patronize the same corner video store as the judge and who was able to convince the store’s owner into giving him the judge’s list of rentals. As it turned-out there was nothing salacious or damaging in the judge’s viewing habits, but this case soon came to the notice of Congress, who quickly decided to outlaw any repetition of this act and has done so to this day. What I see now is an opportunity for history to repeat itself again.




Even though it is still only January and as such it is still well within the depths of winter, colleges and university across the country have reconvened and begun this year’s spring semester. Along with this beginning, Cynthia Wichelman MD restarted her Science on Tap speaker series. In conjunction with her Washington University in Saint Louis colleagues, Wichelman holds a monthly talk on the last Wednesday of most months of the regular school year. We met last night at the Kirkwood Station Brewing Company. The evening’s speaker was Erik Henriksen, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Physics at WashU. His talk was entitled, Graphene: Particle Physics in Pencil Lead.

Graphene is a relatively newly isolated and novel form of carbon. Other more common forms of carbon, like diamonds and coal have been around forever. Even graphite, also known as pencil lead, which is another form of carbon has been known about for a while. Graphene is a single atom thick sheet of carbon. The molecular bonds between the carbon atoms in these sheets are extremely strong. It turns out that graphite is composed of many layers of graphene. In graphite, the weak bonds between the many layers of graphene allow those layers to be easily sheared apart from each other, like when you drag a pencil across a piece of paper. Graphene as a material has some interesting properties. It is much stronger than steel. Likewise, it is a far superior electrical and thermal conductor than copper. A single layer of graphene is also transparent.

In his talk, Henriksen, introduced us to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, the Nobel Prize winners who first isolated graphene. They called their technique micro-mechanical cleavage, but it was soon dubbed the Scotch tape method and was surprisingly simple. Starting from a block of graphite, Geim and company would apply ordinary Scotch tape to it and then peel off a thin layer from it. This technique would be repeated on this thin layer, until only one layer was left. In science, Geim is relatively unique, because he not only won the Noble, but also the Ig-Nobel. The Ig-Nobel is a parody prize given to scientists for conducting trivial experiments. Geim had suspended a frog is a magnetic field. Last night, in his own parody of this experiment Henriksen suspended a sheet of graphene is a magnetic field.

The particle physics aspect of Henriksen’s talk is the crux of his research into graphene. Per his on tap bio, in this 2D material, electrons move from one atom to the next as if they have no mass, acting like ultra-relativistic particles despite having an actual velocity that is just a fraction of the speed of light. Physicists like Henriksen are using this quasi-relativistic system to investigate some long-held predictions about the theory of relativity.

While following up on last night’s talk, I learned that Geim at his University of Manchester institute has added a new wrinkle in the design of the ultimate little black dress. It is made entirely of graphene. This is a dress that reacts to the person wearing it. It responds to the breathing rates of the wearer, changing color and illuminating in different ways. Oh, and it is incredibly light weight.

West Nile and Zika

Robin in Holly

Robin in Holly

Joe LaManna was last night’s speaker at Science on Tap. Dr. LaManna is an ornithologist who is studying at Washington University the long term effects of the West Nile virus on US bird populations. While, his talk was about West Nile, he began with a discussion of the Zika virus. Both viruses are of the Flavivirus genus and both viruses have in recent years emigrated from the Old world to the New, 1999 for West Nile and 2014 for Zika. While humans are the primary host for Zika, birds are the main hosts for West Nile. Mosquitoes are the vector for both diseases. The Asian tiger mosquito spreads West Nile in Saint Louis, while the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is spreading Zika across the Americas. Both mosquitoes are members of the Culex genus and also look enough alike that they are difficult to tell apart. LaManna referred to Aedes Aegypti as the Norway rat of mosquitoes, because like that rat, it has adapted well to living with humans. He offered one bit of solace for Saint Louisans, Aedes Aegypti is a tropical mosquito and as such will not likely range any further north in the US than the Gulf coast.

West Nile entered the US through NYC, most likely carried by a sick bird imported as part of the animal trade. In three years it had spread across the lower forty-eight states. While birds are the most affected by West Nile, humans are susceptible too. 80% of humans contract the disease without manifesting any symptoms. 20% of people have mild cold or flu-like symptoms and 1%, mainly the elderly becomes seriously ill and some die. There have been over 5,000 human deaths attributed to West Nile in the US, with half of them coming from eastern Texas. LaManna even supposed that Alexander the Great might have died from West Nile. Outside Babylon, a flock of ravens fought in the sky above him and then fell dead at Alexander’s feet. He became ill and died in Babylon soon afterwards.

When West Nile swept across America bird populations crashed, but scientific studies showed that these populations soon recovered. I can still remember the disappearances of the crows and their subsequent recovery. LaManna contends that this is not the full story. For some bird species this is what occurred, but for more species the detrimental effects of West Nile continues to this day. Those initial bird population studies used a technique called the point-count survey. Simply put, experts go to a point in the woods and count the birds there. Then they come back the next year and repeat the process. While this system is accurate at counting bird populations, it doesn’t account for the disease’s enduring effects. Subsequent counts can include individuals that weren’t in the previous ones. Reproduction and migration can recoup losses from West Nile and skew these surveys.

LaManna recommends using banding and recapture as a more accurate means to count birds. He piggybacked upon just such a nationwide survey that began well before the advent of West Nile. He concentrated on about fifty common species of small birds, like the pictured robin above, giving his research good sample sizes. His results showed that while a third of the species showed the predicted initial mortality and recovery, two-thirds of the species show persistent mortality due to West Nile.

While, LaManna’s talk was about West Nile the specter of Zika was always lurking and it resurfaced again during the Q&A session. A question was asked about Brazil’s current Zika epidemic and the associated occurrence of microcephaly in infants. Columbia is also enduring a Zika epidemic, but doesn’t seem to have the same number of microcephaly cases, LaManna’s response was “It sounds like we both heard the same NPR article this morning.” In today’s news three pregnant women in Florida have tested positive for Zika. LaManna hopes that some of the lessons learned dealing with West Nile can be applied to the looming Zika crisis.