Cause of death

I just read a fascinating feature in Science on minimally invasive autopsies. In short, we know very little about what kills people in developing countries because autopsies are rarely done. One way that people are trying to correct this is by developing autopsy methods that rely on small amounts of fluids and tissues removed from a cadaver using needles. Unlike a normal autopsy, this approach leaves the body largely intact and therefore, might be more acceptable in cultures with strong taboos against cutting open the dead.

I think the topic is inherently interesting, but I was also struck by how well the piece was written. It was gripping in a way that only great nonfiction can be – the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks comes to mind as another example. One paragraph that I found particularly striking was the following:


One figure—or really two figures—sums up the problem. A few years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, Washington, each tried to determine how many people died of malaria in 2010. WHO calculated 655,000 deaths, IHME 1.24 million. Two of the world’s most respected health groups could barely agree within a factor of two, and similar problems exist with AIDS, tuberculosis, and other killers.


To me, this is such a concise and elegant summary of the problem. It’s a way to present numbers that makes you pause. It’s the kind of paragraph that I would love to write. Another striking paragraph comes at the end of the piece, and the end of an autopsy described by the author:


A [minimally invasive autopsy] would also have left Antonio’s body in better shape for his family—pockmarked, but in one piece and recognizably human. Still, the eviscerator does what he can for decorum, sewing up the torso and scooping every organ—even the brain—into the abdomen. He slots the sternum into place, and tugs the final stitches taut.


Unlike the previous paragraph, this one is all about the small details that stick in your mind. And that detail, of the brain being placed back in the abdomen at the end of a conventional autopsy, is going to stay with me for a very long time.

World Malaria Day is April 25th

I like weighted maps and infographic maps in general for their instant impression and information they convey.

This example below shows deaths from malaria in 2011. The world malaria day website says that Nigeria and the DRC account for around 40% of malaria deaths out of the 97 countries where malaria transmission still occurs.


Alternatively, this infographic displays the wealth of nations. Malaria prevention and treatment costs money. Something to keep in mind.


Pylon appreciation

People are “into” lots of things, but lots of things people are “into” I had no idea were even things. I finally got around to reading a book I’ve had on my reading list for a long time: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. Chapter VII is on transmission engineering and introduces a founding member of the Pylon Appreciation Society (“Ian”). I didn’t even know what pylon was, so obviously I had no appreciation for what pylon-appreciators must be appreciating.

Pylons are those big metal things that hold our electricity cables. When you stand under them you can hear a crackling sound which is called “corona discharge” (the sound of nitrogen and oxygen splitting). The distance between pylons is a very interesting science: longer cables, vibrate more, the more they vibrate the weaker they become and the more pressure they put on the pylon. The reason we don’t see the cables shaking violently even with massive amounts of electricity vibrating through, is because of weighted tubes that have springs which vibrate at an opposing frequency to the conductor. So that’s what the coily things do that are attached to pylons.

Something I found particularly interesting was the naming scheme for cables that are different widths. Widths vary depending on how much electricity they need to carry, and this determines how many strands of aluminum cable are twisted together. The names for cables of different thicknesses are named after flowers that have stems with similar looking cross-sections. The smallest type of electric cable is called poppy because it has one strand of aluminum surrounded by six strands that go around the circumference. As you go up in size there is the laurel, the hyacinth, the marigold, the bluebonnet and the cowslip. 7,19,37,61,91,127.

The number pattern got me side-tracked because I couldn’t figure out how you would predict the next number in the sequence, de Botton didn’t seem to find this interesting because he didn’t mention anything about why cables and flowers should be like that.

The pattern is this: each number in the sequence is predicted by 1+6(1/2 n (n-1)). When you google this that means the numbers are called hex numbers or centered hexagonal numbers. You can also predict the next number in the sequence by taking the difference between consecutive cubes.

In our field we use hexagonal numbers to get the area estimates for ring vaccination. Maybe we should start calling our ring vaccinated areas after flower names. Large vaccine rings can be bluebonnets and we can call the smaller ones “Poppy vaccination campaigns”?


A mantra for our time – and all time

Just back from the outstanding Evolutionary Medicine meeting in Phoenix, Eleanor’s inspired waffle post reminds me of one of the messages rap artist Baba Brinkman delivered at the meeting in the debut performance of his new album The Rap Guide to Evolutionary Medicine [I know, what are scientific meetings coming to?].

Performance, feedback, revision…. That is why science works. It is also the recipe for how to get better at doing science – and, evidently, waffle-making. And, by coincidence (?), it is also how natural selection works.

Will it waffle?


The newest additions to my kitchen.

A good friend of mine recently sent me this book, titled “Will it waffle? Yes it will!”. I love this book. In addition to the recipes for waffled tostones, waffled sweet potato gnocchi, waffled squid salad, and waffled waffles, I love the optimism inherent in the title and honestly, in the very premise of this book. An optimism that runs through the last section, where the author closes with:


“Is there anything that won’t work in a waffle iron?” I get this question a lot. I’m not sure how to answer it. Sure, there are things that won’t work in the waffle iron. Soup. Daquiries. Ice cubes. But more than anything else, this is what won’t work in the waffle iron: giving up. Some of these recipes didn’t work the first time I tried them. Or the second. The ice cream sandwiches fell apart or were hard as bricks. The maple butter burned. The waffled fries were neither very waffled nor very much like fries. That’s why we test recipes – again, and again, and again – to get them right. When it comes to trying your own recipes, persevere. I’ve had epic meltdowns – so have my waffles irons. The only thing all of these mistakes had in common was that they didn’t stop me from trying again.


Words to live by, both insides and outside the kitchen. Maybe next time that science gets me down, I will find inspiration in these words. And if not, I can always bury my sorrows under waffled apple pie.

What’s worse … ?

Sometimes I poll people on questions I don’t have an answer to because (1) it is an easy way to crowd-source my internal moral dilemmas and (2) it makes for more interesting conversation than talking to someone about the weather. My most recent poll question of interest: which is worse smoking a cigarette or eating a slab of meat? The results are very one-sided. Everyone I’ve talked to says the cigarette is worse*.

This confuses me. Smoking meat-eaters say the cigarette is worse. Smoking vegetarians say the cigarette is worse. People that abstain from both practices say the cigarette is worse. I thought the question would generate multiple answers but instead it was unanimously answered with the same answer. Chose the meat.

I thought maybe people would ask what metric I was considering: Environmental health? Personal well-being? Degree of venial sin? No one asked because no one cared. Everyone seemed to think that always, all the time, regardless of serving size or frequency, cigarettes are bad and meat is good. It feels a bit like grading student quizzes and everyone answers the question “wrong” with the same “wrong” answer. Are they cheating or am I missing something?

I am probably missing something.

Cigarettes are bad for your lungs. Yes.

Cigarettes are also bad for life expectancy, the cardiovascular system and littering sandy beaches. With the exception of the sandy beaches, sitting down for extended periods carries most of the same risks. If we consider other bad habits that we humans love, smoking seems on par with death risks and the healthcare burdens associated with not exercising, food overindulgence, stimulant use, driving too fast on interstates and being stupid.

What about meat-eating? Last year an article in Cell metabolism reported that people who eat high-protein meat-based diets have a “75% increase in overall mortality and a 4-fold increase in cancer death risk” based on data from middle-aged Americans. Yet meat-eaters don’t experience social stigma for their dietary choices.

Meat eating also is associated with tremendous amounts of water waste, methane production, and according to an FAO report accounts for “65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2.”

It would take a lot of second-hand smoke to release the same amount of atmospheric pollutants. So why do we hate on cigs but support the beef?

My best answer is media brainwashing: ads that relate to cigarettes are sponsored by organizations like the American Cancer Society and meat ads are sponsored by the meat industry.

*One exception was a respondent who replied: “Both sound good.”

Follow Up On “Good Reads?”

Thanks for all of the great suggestions in response to my last post. I plan to pull most of these books from the library’s shelves. That is, excepting “Adaptation and Natural Selection”. I have ordered my own personal copy of this book so that I can mark up the margins with impunity.

Red tape and locked doors

I have two new officemates today.  Apparently, my previous officemates  failed to return their keys, and so my new officemates won’t have keys until new ones are made.  How long does it take to make a key?  The estimate was two months.  Two months.  For a key.  Seriously.

I could probably sculpt a working replica of my own key out of stone faster than that.  And it would probably be cheaper for the University.

Chew your food, and get sick regularly?

Below is an excerpt I lifted from the most recent issue of The Sun Magazine, which is an interview with Daniel Lieberman, a biology professor who studies why the human body looks and functions the way it does.

Jaw size develops in response to use, and similarly, Lieberman suggests that the immune system grows to meet demands as well. My question: How much immune exposure is too much? If you’re sick all of the time, when do you have the time or resources to grow? This “use it or lose it” theory must come with some moderation and with balance. Also, does this demand change with age? (Are older people less exposed to germs and become more sick as a result??).


(below: credit to The Sun Magazine, March 2015)

Frisch: In your book you say that “to grow properly, almost every part of the body needs to be stressed.” What do you mean by “stressed”?

Lieberman: When you’re born, your body doesn’t yet know how much it should develop any particular organ. How large should your liver be? How strong should your bones be? How much muscle should you have? How big should your heart be? There’s a normal range of variation for each, of course, but we can’t predict in advance from a person’s genes exactly how everything will turn out, because our bodies grow in response to stress, by which I mean excess demand on the system. The body adjusts its capacity according to demand. […] Your immune system, too, responds to demand, and when you decrease that demand — as we have done by creating relatively germ-free environments — the system loses capacity. If you’re not using something, your body sort of “decides” you don’t need it, and gives it fewer resources. With all the modern conveniences that we’ve created for ourselves, we’ve reduced demand to the point where we have weak hearts, weak bones, and various other problems.

We also process our food so much — grind it, purée it, cook it — that we chew less. When we don’t use our jaws as much, they don’t grow as long. Over time our faces have actually shrunk.

Frisch: Is that why people don’t have room for their wisdom teeth?

Lieberman: That’s right. There’s just no room for the last teeth to come in because we don’t chew our food as much. We’ve done experiments in which we’ve raised animals on soft diets and shown that their jaws don’t grow as long. There’s no question that impacted and crowded teeth are more common today because we eat so much cooked, chopped, and ground-up food.

Good Reads?

I am interested in reading some good books on the theory of evolution. In particular, I am looking for good candidates for my night stand.

It seems that the natural place to start is at the beginning …… but before surrendering myself to Darwin’s tome, I thought I would canvas the group for suggestions.

One esteemed colleague of mine recommended “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathan Weiner. The virtue of this book is that it provides a bird’s eye view of the landscape of evolutionary theory. Although it is a popular science book, and so won’t discuss the finer points, it should give a nice road map and help me plan where I would like to stop and explore the theory in more detail.

I have placed a hold on this book and look forward to some enjoyable nights of reading.

What are your favorite books on evolutionary theory?