The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of

Pretty much as long as there has been human civilization, there has been lead. While it’s certainly useful, that usefulness has come with a terrible price. It’s been known since the Greeks and Romans that lead is harmful but it didn’t stop us from using it. It took a “fringe” scientist by the name of Clair Patterson, who accidentally discovered widespread lead contamination while trying to measure the age of the Earth, to finally convince people that the use of lead needed to be strictly curtailed.

It’s hard not to see parallels with the current battle of global climate change. Despite overwhelming evidence a few industry-supported voices still manage to keep us from doing anything. Will there be a modern Clair Patterson to finally bring us to our senses or are we doomed?

Why Men Don’t Live as Long as Women

It’s a well-known fact that on average, women live longer than men. If you’ve ever visited a facility catering to the elderly, you know this is indeed the case. That men die younger is a given, but determining why isn’t quite as simple. Men in general are often involved in more dangerous work situations and are more likely to take risks but much of the difference in life span can’t easily be explained only by these. So what other factors are at play?

From birds to humans, the answer is pretty much the same: testosterone. It’s complicated, of course. Both males and females have it but males obviously have it in much greater amounts. It’s essential for reproduction in both genders but the higher amounts in males has a high price, longevity-wise. It makes men more likely to suffer issues like heart attacks but can also lower immunity to diseases. It’s a double whammy.

Is there no hope for men? Yes and no. Obviously testosterone is necessary to ensure a species continues. Oddly enough, the historical record regarding eunuchs and others who were castrated  doesn’t show a significant difference in lifespan so that in itself isn’t the answer either. But human males may still have reason to hope. We’ve evolved to have much greater paternal roles in child rearing than pretty much any other animal. There is evolutionary pressure to live longer and to avoid some of the behaviors to contribute to earlier mortality. It won’t be enough to eliminate the gap with women but it is likely to shrink it. So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.

The Quest to Make a True Blue M&M

In the last couple of years a number of the big packaged food companies have started an effort to remove artificial dyes from their products. This sounds like a pretty good deal, right? For consumers it certainly is but the food companies it’s been a difficult task.

One of the big advantages of using artificial dyes is their predictability, something lacking from dyes made from natural sources. Particularly difficult is the color blue, which is rare in nature to being with. Candy company Mars has spent years developing a blue M&M based on natural blue dye and they’re still at it.

Drugs You Don’t Need For Disorders You Don’t Have

You’ve seen them on TV. In fact, if you watch more than a few minutes your odds of seeing one are pretty much 100%. What are they? Ads for prescription medications. They tout some science, a distressingly long list of side-effects and tell you to “ask your doctor”. Their ubiquity has created a situation where patients ask for a drug by name and far too often get it, regardless of whether or not they have the condition the drug claims to treat. Italics because in many cases these new, and often expensive drugs don’t necessarily offer improvements over existing ones. But they do offer increased revenue for the drug companies and contribute to the rising cost of healthcare.

The Measles Mystery

The measles vaccine came out in the 1960s and as a result kids stopped getting measles. But that’s not all that happened. Childhood deaths from all diseases dropped markedly. Why did this happen?

Research has shown that the measles virus doesn’t just cause measles, it weakens the immune system overall, leaving children more susceptible to other diseases and more likely to die from them. By arming the immune system against measles it also protects against things like pneumonia and other illnesses that can result in death. And it lasts for years after inoculation.

Hat tip to Dan Lewis and his “Now I Know Newsletter”, which you should subscribe to right now (link on the right of the page).

What Kodak knew about atomic tests the American public didn’t

We know the US government did a lot of testing of atomic bombs in the years after WWII and that many of these tests were done above ground. That these tests were pumping dangerous levels of fallout into the environment was less well-known, except to Eastman Kodak and other photographic film companies.

Kodak was first made aware of the fallout issue in 1946 when customers complained of fogged film. Investigation showed that Indiana corn husks used as packing materials were contaminated with the radioactive isotope iodine-131 (I-131). They told no one.

Then in January of 1951, following a test in Nevada, Kodak scientists detected spiked radiation levels in a snowfall that measured 25 times the norm (Kodak measured 10,000 counts per minute of radiation, compared to recent unaffected snowfalls that registered only 400). Note, this was 1,600 miles away from the test site. This time they quietly informed the Atomic Energy Commission and an industry group of their findings. The AEC did basically nothing until Kodak threatened to sue them, at which time they promised to keep Kodak and other photographic film companies aware of when they were testing along with sending meteorological information to help predict when fallout might reach them. The AEC told no one else.

How American companies sold a toxic product

One of the more infuriating stories that have come out of the disaster in Flint is the number of other US cities who also have elevated lead levels in their water. This is due to the use of lead pipes for water supplies, which cities installed left and right as populations grew in the 19th century. But lead was used in other products like paint and gasoline. But by the 1920s the evidence that lead was harmful was more than clear. Yet the lead industry went on the offensive, threatening lawsuits against anyone who dared say lead was harmful.

It wasn’t until the 1970s the lead paint was finally banned. Lead pipes in new construction hung on until the 1980s. Lead in gasoline began being phased out in 1979 but was still present until January of 1996 (it remains in aviation gasoline and other specialty fuels). But old lead water pipes continue to serve many cities and there simply isn’t enough money to replace them.

The End of the Dinosaurs: How Luis and Walter Alvarez Uncovered the Catastrophic Event Responsible

It’s been known for a long time that the dinosaurs and many other species went extinct fairly quickly. It was likely due to a fairly widespread and catastrophic event, but what?

Luis Alvarez was a physicist on the Manhattan Project, his son Walter a geologist. When Walter showed his father some sedimentary rock of an age associated with that extinction Luis thought that an examination of radioactive isotopes might help reveal what happened. Their investigation showed unusually high levels of tritium compared to both older and newer layers. They knew that such high levels didn’t occur naturally on Earth but were consistent with would be expected if a very large asteroid were to strike.

The proof of this hypothesis hinged on being able to determine its size and where it actually hit. That discovery would eventually come but unfortunately Luis had passed away.