Do Night Shifts Cause Breast Cancer?

Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 11:34 PM Bookmark and Share
According to this review article, the answer appears to lie somewhere between maybe and probably.  While there seems to be a correlation between the two, more research is needed to determine whether or not there is a causal link as other plausible reasons for the correlation haven't yet been ruled out.
...Shift work. Excess incidence of breast cancer has been observed consistently in studies of women with prolonged exposure to shift work involving exposure to light at night (Kolstad 2008; Stevens 2009). Research needs in this area include a) a better definition of what is meant by shift work and related exposure metrics; b) studies of markers of circadian disruption in non–day workers; c) better descriptions of controls and their exposure to light at night; and d) investigation of the effect of variations in expression of circadian genes on cancer in shift workers. An emerging area of interest is the relative toxicity of occupational chemical exposure depending on time of day of that exposure. The marked circadian variations in cell division and DNA repair during the daily cycle are controlled by the circadian genes (Haus and Smolensky 2006; Stevens et al. 2007). Therefore, non–day workers may have very different susceptibility to occupational exposures compared with day workers. Studies are also needed to determine if shift work is associated with other cancers, especially hormonally related cancers, and prostate cancer in particular. If further experimental and epidemiologic evidence confirms a causal association between exposure to light at night and breast cancer, it will be important to develop interventions to reduce the risk.

You can read more here. For details, see the article and relevant references.


  1. Ward EM, Schulte PA, Straif K, Hopf NB, Caldwell JC, et al. 2010 Research Recommendations for Selected IARC-Classified Agents. Environ Health Perspect 118(10): doi:10.1289/ehp.0901828

    Fluffy the Python Dies

    Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 5:46 PM Bookmark and Share
    The Columbus Zoo's famed Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus) died this week at the ripe old age of 18.

    According to the Columbus Dispatch:
    ...Fluffy died Tuesday night, apparently of a tumor.

    The 18-year-old reticulated python was 24 feet long and held the Guinness World Records title of longest snake in captivity. She weighed 300 pounds, according to a news release from the zoo.
    Sad news, but this made me even more sad ...
    The snake will be cremated, zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters said.
    Cremated?!  Why not preservedLet Fluffy break another record and become the world's longest snake skeleton!  Surely there are people in the area that could prepare the specimen, it it really would make for an awesome display at the zoo. Beyond the immediate future, Fluffy's passing no doubt brings up another big question...

    Will Fluffy Be Replaced?

    I certainly hope so, and I'll go one step further and encourage the Columbus Zoo to not only replace Fluffy but to do so by doing one (or both!) of the following:
    1. Get a "normal" Reticulated Python.  If I'm not mistaken, Fluffy was a "tiger" morph - a pattern mutant commonly bred in captivity that looks like this instead of this or this.
    2. Exhibit this species' natural variation by acquiring (and breeding) some of the diminutive individuals that can be found in the pet trade, or at least individuals from (and representative of) a known locality. These island "dwarfs" (see here, here and here[PDF]) seem to only reach about 6'-10' long (tiny!) instead of 20'+ like individuals from other populations.
    Why a normal looking reticulated python and these tiny island dwarfs?  To quote Melissa Kaplan's article The Use of Reptiles in Public Education (emphasis mine):
    ...The education animal should be representative of a normal form of the species (Gibson, 1994a; San Francisco Zoological Society, 1983). One of the goals of reptile education is to teach not only about the reptile itself but how that species lives in its environment, including how it is camouflaged from predator and prey. In the case of indigenous species, normal forms will help the audience identify the species when they see it in their yards, parks or in wild areas. Captive-bred color and pattern morphs are best saved for use in teaching the basics of genetics and heredity or in lectures addressing reptiles as pets rather than where the focus is on creating an awareness of wildlife and conservation.

    [Hat tip to Cindy Steinle via]

    Can Reptiles Fart?

     at 1:14 PM Bookmark and Share

    [Hat tip to ALT and TIFR]

    Talk on The Math, Physics of Drag Racing

    Friday, October 29, 2010 at 5:00 PM Bookmark and Share
    Thursday (4 Nov) there is a public lecture at COSI in Columbus you don't want to miss.  The talk will be given by Dr. Richard A. Tapia -- a big name in applied mathematics, an entertaining speaker, and long-time "champion of under-represented minorities in the sciences."

    Tapia has received numerous professional and community service honors and awards including the annual Blackwell-Tapia Conference being named in his honor (his reason for visiting Columbus) and being inducted into the Texas Science Hall of Fame (yes, such a thing really does exist!).

    Here are the details of his talk from the event flier (PDF):

    Math at Top Speed: Exploring and Breaking Myths in the Drag Racing Folklore

    November 4, 2010; 7:00pm @ COSI (doors open @ 6:00pm) Admission is free

    For most of his life, Richard Tapia has been involved in some aspect of drag racing. He has witnessed the birth and growth of many myths concerning dragster speed and acceleration. Some of these myths will be explained and validated in this talk, while others will be destroyed. For example, Dr. Tapia will explain why dragster acceleration can be greater than the acceleration due to gravity, an age-old inconsistency, and he will present his Fundamental Theorem of Drag Racing. Part of this talk will be a historical account of the development of drag racing and several lively videos will accompany this discussion.

    Speaker: Richard Tapia
    University Professor Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering, Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM), Rice University

    More about Dr. Tapia can be found here, here, and here.  More on the Blackwell-Tapia Conference can be found by clicking the "Blackwell-Tapia" link on this website.

    The Math Behind Morphing Faces: Linear Algebra

    Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 3:08 PM Bookmark and Share
    Animations of morphing faces or combinations of multiple images into one can be quite a thing of beauty.  But how exactly are those photos so carefully blended together? 

    While the answer to that question is beyond the scope of what I could put into a single blog post, understanding that answer requires some basic knowledge of one very important are of mathematics: linear algebra.  It's important not just for the number-crunching tools it provides, but because it helps us think about things differently and know how to ask the right questions and know whether or not those questions have answers.  Before I get too far ahead of myself lets first take a look at the video which motivated this post in the first place, which strings together 60 years of female actors from CBS (click the button in the lower right corner to watch it full-screen):

    CBS - 60 Years of Actresses from Philip Scott Johnson on Vimeo.
    More videos by Philip Scott Johnson (including CBS -
    60 Years of Actors) can be found on vimeo and on youtube.

    So how are these animations created?

    If you replay part of the video, you'll notice that there are two things going on: 1) facial features in each image are stretched and rotated to line up with the facial features of the next image, and 2) there's a fade from one image to the next. The fade seems simple enough, so lets just focus on the first process of stretching and rotating facial features.

    Why did NPR fire Juan Williams?

    Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 9:41 PM Bookmark and Share
    Fox News and other right-leaning media seem to be jumping out of their chairs over NPR's firing of Juan Williams, claiming it was unjustifiable and politically motivated.  But was he really fired over his recent comments on Fox (see the video below), or did he violate his contract with NPR?

    How many species concepts are there?

     at 11:00 AM Bookmark and Share
    Do you remember the definition of species from your high school or college biology class?  Me neither -- but worry not!  Even if you remembered it word for word, there's a good chance it's not the same definition your friends and co-workers learned and it's certainly not the only definition floating around out there.  So how many species concepts are there?

    According to John S. Wilkins in his recent guest post over at Punctuated Equilibrium (also here on John's blog) there are either 26-27, 7, 2, 1 or 0.  The article is well worth the read as John gives a nice, brief overview of the many different definitions of a biological species, their similarities and differences, and the key concepts behind those definitions. 

    If you don't mind my giving away the punchline, here's what it all boils down to:

    Final score: 26-27, 7, 2, 1 or 0.

    What to think? My solution is this:

    There is one species concept (and it refers to real species).

    There are two explanations of why real species are species (see my microbial paper, 2007): ecological adaptation and reproductive reach.

    There are seven distinct definitions of "species", and 27 variations and mixtures.

    And there are n+1 definitions of "species" in a room of n biologists.
    For a more detailed treatment of the idea of biological species, see John's book 'Species: A History of the Idea'.

    [Hat tip to John Hawks and GrrlScientist]

    Christine O'Donnell: "Where in the Consitution is the Separation of Church and State?"

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 5:50 PM Bookmark and Share
    Christine O'Donnell is shockingly ignorant when it comes to science, creationism, and now apparently ( ... drum roll please ... ) the U.S. Constitution.

    Don't take my word for it, here it is straight from the witch's horse's mouth...

    (Her shockingly dumb question occurs just after the 2:30 mark in the video.)

    [Hat tip to Sandwalk]

    Wind May Have Helped Moses Part Red Sea? Probably Not

     at 11:39 AM Bookmark and Share
    This story got lots of coverage a few weeks ago (even NPR picked it up), but there were problems with the coverage and so I decided to write about it. Unfortunately, I just now realized that I completely forgot to post what I'd written!  So for better or worse, I decided to dredge up old news and clicked publish.

    This story is a classic case of "science journalism FAIL" - despite all the media coverage, it seems nobody gave the story a critical look to see whether or not the conclusions actually follow from the research, and nobody seemed to be calling the authors' motives into question. PZ ranted about it here, Brian Keim over at Wired Science wrote this rather uncritical piece (where I left a couple of comments), and it was covered here at the lead author's place of employment.  Like Brian Keim's article, the NPR piece seems to lack much criticism, so here's my take on what they missed.

    City Council Member to Gay Teens: "It Gets Better"

    Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 5:56 PM Bookmark and Share
    In the wake of multiple suicides among teens who are gay or perceived as gay, a single resounding message has emerged: "it gets better."

    Here's a particularly moving story from Ft. Worth city council member Joel Burns, told during a city council meeting earlier this month.

    More stories like Joel's need to be told, and the teens stuck in these seemingly hopeless situations need to hear them.  To help that happen, Dan Savage and his partner Terry started the It Gets Better Project which helps provide a platform for adults to share their own stories and tell their younger counterparts that they really can get through the bullying, they can get through school, and that it really does get better.

    You can see Dan and Terry's original video and the stories of others on the It Gets Better Project's YouTube channel. For additional resources, see the Trevor Project website, the Bullying Information Center, and resources for educators here and here.

    Alan Alda on communicating science to the public

    Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 12:25 PM Bookmark and Share
    The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has a new paper out on 'Science and the Media' (PDF). Alan Alda wrote chapter 3, and has some good advice for scientists (emphasis mine):
    The effort is not to oversimplify science. We need clarity and vividness, but not — please, not — dumbing down. Some of our great science communicators have shown that there are deeply engaging stories in science (science itself is the greatest detective story ever told) and that it’s possible to be personal and passionate about the study of nature without losing respect for the precision and accuracy at the heart of that study. Richard Feynman was both fun to listen to and precise. Even when he explained something in simple terms, he usually let you know that it was often more complicated than that. And when you were ready, he let you in on a little more of the complexity.

    Feynman was one of those extraordinary communicators that nature produces from time to time. But they occur by chance. Why should effective, inspiring communication of science be left to chance? Science is rigorous; can’t we be just as rigorous about teaching its communication?

    Is it too much to hope that there will be a time when the skills of communicating science will be taught as a regular part of the science curriculum, and not as something added on for a few hours at the end? Isn’t good communication fundamental to science? How else can it be successfully replicated, funded, and taught?

    But don’t let my high-flown arguments fool you. This is really a selfish plea. I’m too old to learn all the math and chemistry I need to understand the subtleties of the Higgs particle or the intricacies of reverse transcriptase. Even if I did, I’d only have access to one small part of the whole. I want to stand next to you scientists and gaze out at the entire horizon, while you point out what to look for.

    Every scientist reading this has a deep passion for science. I implore you: let your passion out. Share it with us. Warmly, with stories, imagination, even with humor. But most of all, in your own voice.

    Home birth death toll rising in Colorado?

    Friday, October 15, 2010 at 12:04 PM Bookmark and Share
    Dr. Amy Tuteur, the Skeptical OB, has a blog post up entitled 'Inexcusable homebirth death toll keeps rising in Colorado.'  Now I'm a big fan of science-based medicine (and of Tuteur's blog), however I have to call foul when it comes to that "rising" part of her post.  Yes, I think it's pretty minor point since the real comparison to consider is the home birth vs. hospital birth mortality rates - but this is a nice opportunity to do some basic stats. Having left a few comments to that effect on her blog, I figured I would summarize them here.

    Templeton Foundation Talk Tomorrow in Columbus

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 5:55 PM Bookmark and Share
    Since 2006, the Ohio State University has hosted an annual discussion of religion, science and evolution entitled The Intersection of Science and Faith. It's funded by the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) and this year's discussion will be happening tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7pm at COSI in Columbus. Attendance is free, but registration is required to attend.

    If you're in town, you should check it out!

    Here's the announcement from the COSI calendar (PDF flier here):
    Beyond Belief: Is Religion in Our Genes?
    October 13, 2010 - October 13, 2010
    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 (7pm-9pm)

    Supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation

    Join COSI and moderator Neal Conan, senior host of the National Public Radio talk show, Talk of the Nation, for a lively panel discussion with Andrew Newberg, MD, Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine, Director of NeuroPET Research, University of Pennsylvania, and author of "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief," and Nicolas Wade, New York Times science writer and author of "Before the Dawn," and "The Faith Instinct." This program takes place inside the WOSU@COSI Studios on COSI's Level 1.

    Register: RSVP by calling 614.228.2674, registration is required.

    Cost: This event is free

    Admission: Free; registration is required - please call 614.228.2674 to RSVP.
    Sounds interesting, right?  But what might we expect from the discussion? What's the John Templeton Foundation?  Who are the speakers?  To answer these questions, lets take a closer look at the speakers and the funding source.

    Free Online Math Books?

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 7:48 PM Bookmark and Share
    I was poking around the web for a copy of Euclid's Elements, and came across a nice list of over 75  freely available online math books. There's a good mix of material there, ranging from centuries old classics up to modern day course topics and modern application areas - something for everybody.  Check it out!

    How hard is it to forward a few emails?

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 2:19 PM Bookmark and Share
    Apparently, kinda hard. I just learned that for at least the past 2+ weeks, certain emails haven't been making it to my academic email address. Not all of them, no, just the ones from (are you sitting down?) everyone at my own University.

    Figure 1. Author's rendition of how email works (black), and doesn't work (red).

    Our departmental email system recently throat-punched itself to death got an upgrade and it was decided that all emails should hence forth get forwarded to our main university email account. It makes sense, and doesn't sound all that hard to implement - right?

    For reasons I won't go into here, I like to keep the two separate so (as was the case prior to the throat-punching upgrade) I had my departmental email forwarded to a gmail account. Somehow, this resulted in all external emails and any emails sent from within the department getting through to that gmail account, but not any emails from others at my MRU - you know, like any administrative folks, professors, researchers, or other grad students I might need to be in contact with. To make matters worse, they don't bounce back or otherwise fail - they just disappear. That means anyone sending me an email doesn't get a warning that I won't ever see that email they just sent.

    Fortunately, the tech team is on top of it as I type this and no doubt they'll have the problem resolved in short order. Just needed to rant about it a bit so I could get back to working on that thesis thing I'm trying to wrap up. ;)


    So it turns out I was wrong (kind of...). My emails weren't being forwarded to the proper place, so no emails were lost - just misplaced. Thankfully, the technician in charge of our system finally has all my emails going to the right inbox. Problems solved :)

    The Sound of Science: Simon & Garfunkel (feat. Darwin)

     at 10:35 AM Bookmark and Share

    [via WEIT]