Sunday Haiku | The Chicken or the Egg

One of several great things about the new mRNA vaccines is that they’re so simple. They’re basically just the lipid membrane, saltwater, and the mRNA, which is so easy to synthesize that I did it myself as an undergrad. Despite all the rumors, there are far fewer opportunities for side-effects and unknowns than with traditional vaccines.

Unknowns like this. For years, flu researchers at the Wilson Lab at the University of Chicago kept seeing antibodies that were reactive to every virus they tested, and they couldn’t figure out why. It turns out the antibodies were binding to glycan, a sugar molecule found in the chicken eggs that the vaccines were being produced in.

The early polio vaccines were grown in monkey kidney cells, and about a quarter of them turned out to be contaminated with Simian Virus 40, which may increase the risk of soft-tissue cancers (still a controversial claim to this day)—so we started growing vaccines in chicken eggs instead. Almost 50 years later, we just realized this process leads to the production of antibodies for glycan.

As this is a new discovery, we don’t know what it means, if it means anything, but it’s easy to imagine that this has been making all of our egg-grown vaccines less effective than they would be otherwise, as the immune system wastes resources making antibodies to these meaningless clumps of sugar.

The point is, biology is messy and traditional vaccines are a crude technology. That we’re advancing to mRNA vaccines, with much less junk and much greater precision, is something to celebrate.



light’s long journey
from the sun into the son
eggs over-easy


Sunday SciKu | Evaporative Stress

Photo by Cristina Anne Costello via Unsplash

Another old axiom proves true: Stress really does turn your hair gray—and a relaxation can reverse it.

In this study out of Columbia University, researchers used a new technique to make ultra-fine slices through strands of hair, looking back in time the same way climatologists study ice cores. Each slice, 1/20th of a millimeter thick, represents about an hour of hair growth. They then compared changes in pigmentation to psychological stress recorded in the subjects’ diaries.

Grayness increased on stressful days. Moreover, one of the subjects went on vacation during the study, and the gray growth completely reversed over that period.

The researchers investigated more closely and found that these differences corresponded to changes in proteins related to mitochondrial function—our cellular energy factories. Evidence that mitochondria respond to psychological stress has important implications for the study of aging, which we do a lot of this time of year in the western woods.


dry summer
all the fuel in the foothills
going gray


Sunday SciKu | Another Hiccup

There might not be a phrase that annoys me more than “trust the science.” First of all, science is a system of inquiry that’s specifically designed to avoid the pitfalls of belief. Trusting in science is an insult to science. Science is the opposite of trust.

More than that, though, science as an industry is rife with bias and corruption and bad methodology. A large percentage of published studies are total garbage. This week’s sciku draws on one example.

First of all, the press release is titled “Team describes science-based hiccups intervention.” That phrase, “science-based,” foretells the high degree of truthiness we’re about to experience. But it’s worth understanding just how bad this is, so let’s take the time to break it down. And don’t forget this is a study in JAMA Network Open, a “peer-reviewed journal” with an impact factor of 5 (which is pretty good) under the famous JAMA brand.

It turns out that the hiccup intervention is a straw. Not just any straw, but the “HiccAway,” a special straw with its own website that you can also find on Amazon for $14.99 (available July 13th). It’s patented by one of the authors hidden in the paper’s “et al.”

The straw features a “pressure valve,” also known as a small hole, which makes it difficult to suck. Forceful suction, we’re told, induces contraction of the diaphragm, closes the epiglottis, and stimulates the phrenic and vagus nerves. Doesn’t that sound sciency?

Of course there is no mention of the fact that drinking through a 1 cent cocktail straw would do the same thing.

To study the effectiveness of the expensive straw, a team of researchers sent them to 674 participants who had joined their Kickstarter campaign, which raised $60,649, then followed up with an online survey. Of those 674 kickstarters, 249 ended up providing consent and completing the survey after receiving their straws.

This is called self-selection bias, and builds a positive outcome into the study by methodology alone. Who is going to take the time to give consent and participate in the study? The ones who thought the straw worked, of course. If you tried it and thought it was junk, would you waste more of your time on a survey, or would you just throw it away and forget about it?

Unsurprisingly, of the biased sample of participants, 92% found it to be effective. But what does “effective” mean? Here, effective is measured on a scale of 1 to 5, compared to home remedies.

Remember how participants were recruited through a Kickstarter campaign? That Kickstarter campaign video specifically calls home remedies “silly tricks” that “rarely work,” and says that HiccAway is a “guaranteed,” “fool-proof way” to get rid of hiccups created by a doctor. There’s even a cartoon image of the doctor in his white coat, in case the wording alone isn’t enough to induce the white coat effect.

So the participants are not only self-selected TWICE—once for being Kickstarter funders and again for continuing to the survey—but have already been biased to vote for the “guaranteed cure” (5) rather than the silly tricks (1).

Here’s the kicker (no pun intended): the discussion section acknowledges the limitations of the study and the need for a controlled trial comparing the effectiveness of HiccAway to a sham device, but: “The challenge is developing something that resembles [HiccAway] but doesn’t work, Dr. Seifi said.”

Yes, what makes a real trial difficult is that it’s challenging to develop a fake device that doesn’t work. Because it’s just a straw.

How does an article like this get published in JAMA Network Open?

JAMA Network Open is an open access, pay-to-play journal, so you submit your paper, and then pay $3,000 for them to publish it. Roughly one in three submitted papers are published. I’d love to see the other two.

Imagine if a poetry journal accepted 30% of submissions, and then charged the author $3,000. We would call that a vanity scam. Here, it’s just good business to be proven in JAMA, coming soon to a grocery store near you.

In the meantime, we can just invest in a pack of cocktail straws.

I don’t mean to pick on the HiccAway, or imply that this is uncommon—the trouble is, it’s not. I was just looking for something to write my Sunday haiku about, and this cracked me up last night.


we’ve finally
found the cure for—


Sunday SciKu | Compulsive News

This week, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine published work investigating the neural circuits behind information-seeking behavior.

In a clever design, Ilya Monosov and his team taught two monkeys to recognize symbols that foretold either a positive or negative event. By beginning with an uncertain symbol that was subsequently confirmed or denied by a second, they were able to see if the monkeys wanted to know the news.

So basically, the first symbol would mean, “Something good might be coming” (a treat), and both monkeys would watch for the second symbol to learn whether or not the treat really was.

But if the first signal said, “Something bad might be coming” (an annoying puff of air), one of the monkeys waited for the second signal, but the other ignored it, not wanting to learn about the bad news ahead of time.

The researchers then compared the brain activity in the monkeys while this was going on, identifying which areas were involved in making these choices.

Understanding the neurological processes behind information seeking could help develop treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, but has implications for what you’re doing right now, as you scroll through your Facebook feed.

Each swipe up is the addition of another possible positive or negative update, and we become addicted to this casino-style delivery system. Our brains did not evolve for the information age, and it changes our perception of reality in significant ways.

We live in the safest, most tolerant, most prosperous time in human history—there is always more work to do, and always new problems emerging, but the progress we’ve made in the last century is nothing short of amazing. Yet many of those sitting in front of the slot machines at this news casino believe the opposite, and anxiety about the state of the world is at an all-time high. An understanding of the mechanisms underlying this disconnect is important for both society and individual mental health.


our way through
the golden age


Sunday SciKu | Gistification

We’ve long known how memories fade over time into just the kernels of their meaning. After time, most of the details that we recall are only fictionalized details, filling in the gaps around the important narrative.

In a study out of the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham published last week in Nature Communications, researchers were able to quantify this process of “gistification” for the first time.

It seems to me that writers and artists already understand this process instinctively, and it has to do with what we always talk about as “truth.” Facts are the verifiable details, but they often don’t really matter to the deeper meaning that we call “truth.” A poem can be factually wrong, but still be true. And over time, our memories operate in the same way, because they have the same goal—extracting meaning from the unwieldy chaos of our human lives.

The semantic elements are what matter.


you almost remember
what it means