The real reason for pruney fingers

UPDATE: 2012-01-09 Researchers at my alma mater, Newcastle University, have today published experimental evidence that supports Changizi’s theory. According to a report from Nature news: “Laboratory tests [by Tom Smulders et al published in Biol Lett] confirmed a theory that wrinkly fingers improve our grip on wet or submerged objects, working to channel away the water like the rain treads in car tyres.”

The real reason for pruney fingers – Sit in a bath too long and your fingers will wrinkle up. Everyone from 5 to 95 knows that. The scientific explanation was always that the skin absorbs water and the underlying layer buckles. That’s as may be, but writing in Nature News, Ed Yong explains an explanation from Mark Changizi and colleagues that suggests pruney fingers have an evolutionary advantage in that they allow us to get a grip when we’ve been in the water.

Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist at 2AI Labs in Boise, Idaho, and his colleagues think that the formation of wrinkles on the pads of our fingers when we swim or bathe act like tyre treads in wet conditions expelling water when conditions are slippery. It’s possible, just don’t rely on a theory to save your glass if you enjoy long soaks champagne in hand.

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty – “In today’s unpredictable and chaotic world, we look to science to provide certainty and answers–and often blame it when things go wrong. The Blind Spot reveals why our faith in scientific certainty is a dangerous illusion, and how only by embracing science’s inherent ambiguities and paradoxes can we truly appreciate its beauty and harness its potential.”

So says the blurb on Byers latest book. I’m not so sure, there are many scientists out there, who while recognising that there is uncertainty and subjectivity in observations, particularly thanks to those bastions of 20th Century physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, still maintain that we could eventually explain everything.

Perhaps, there’s actually a middle ground, with a universe at least 100 billion light years across (viz its almost 14b year expansion) and theories that suggest the tiniest of entities are 100 times smaller than the smallest observed subatomic particles, between uncertainty and absolute objectivity.


Science goes mobile – SciMobileApps

Science goes mobile #SciMobileApps – ChemConnector Tony Williams nudged me towards a relatively new initiative to help science "get" mobile. Mobile apps for science are expanding in scope and capability very quickly, yet there is no easy way to source information regarding what is available, what the community thinks of these apps (in terms of general reviews) and clustering of these apps into functional groupings. This wiki aims to remedy that situation. It is a community resource for developers and users to share information about the various science apps that are available. All users are encouraged to participate by adding your comments and adding new pages.

Negative science

Negative science – Often the "eureka moment" occurs not in the sense of "I've found it", but more as a "WTF?" Indeed, it's been estimated that more than two-thirds of scientific experiments fail to produce the results anticipated and in one way might be considered failed experiments, or negative results.

But, such results are not worthless, they are critical to progress as they contain a high level of knowledge despite appearances. Unfortunately, in the climate of scientific publishing in peer-reviewed journals, such knowledge is mostly lost. The All Results Journals hope to recover negative results and reveal the valuable pieces of information in science from so-called "failed" experiments. Browse the journals here.

Science across the spectrum

Penrose, Escher, back – M.C. Escher’s famously paradoxical illustration of 1960 depicting a stairway atop an “impossible” building, and made famous recently in a dreamscape of the Hollywood movie “Inception”, that seems to ascend or descend interminably is a good example of how projecting our 3D world into two dimensions in artwork can be exploited to manipulate our perceptions. The stairway was originally conceived by father and son team Lionel and Roger Penrose in 1959. Now, Japanese chemists have reconstructed the illusion using a single molecule.

Yet another source of antioxidants, in the trees – Researchers in France explain how several species of poplar tree have been used in traditional medicine for their anti-inflammatory properties. They have investigated the sticky fluid that coats poplar buds and demonstrated the presence of various phenolic compounds, terpenoids, flavonoid aglycons and their chalcones and phenolic acids and their esters. The antioxidant potential of these substances might one day be exploited in skincare products or dietary supplements. Once the marketing departments “twig” the benefits, the advertisers will really be able to branch out as long as they can stil see the wood for the trees.

Cystitis clue – UK scientists have revealed the structure of a complex protein called FimD that acts as an assembly platform for the pili of the bacteria that cause cystitis. The structure of the FimD protein means scientists reveals, for the first time, how these pili “hairs” are assembled from individual protein subunits to complete structures. The work offers up a new target for antibiotic drug design.

Taking the lead – It is illegal to use lead as an additive in the manufacture of pewter kitchenware, tableware, drinking cups. However, work in Brazil using atomic absorption spectroscopy not only provides a benchmark for standardizing tests for lead, cadmium and other toxic metals, but reveals that some manufacturers are flouting the law.


  • Molecular illusions and deceptions. Ascending and Descending Penrose stairs. (Henry Rzepa)
  • Escher-Inspired Origami
  • Blog – Beyond Escher: The Art Of Tesselation Revealed

Sharing on the global scale

There are obvious differences in quality of life in terms of food availability, access to fresh water, disease prevalence and medicine across many parts of the world. Until recently, the notion of the Third World had a far greater poignancy than the politically correct term “developing world”. While labelling the poorer nations as somehow separate from the West (the First World) and the old communist bloc (Second World) may have somehow eased the consciences of some, the term developing belies the true nature of life across the globe for billions of people.

For those of us in Europe, the potential for surplus food production (cucumbers and bean sprouts aside), compared with current production and trade volumes as well as our well-off society ‘s desire to use land for non-agricultural purposes, such as biofuel production and sport, leisure and tourism, points to the possibility that there are two paths available to Europe. Such a suggestion to unlock the gate on Europe’s agricultural potential might, at first sight, seem to be mocking the dearth of clear paths ahead for many parts of the world. However, researchers in The Netherlands suggest that Europe can, and must, assume an active role in world food security by using its surplus potential to correct the food deficit in Asia, one of the most troubled regions. It can also use its agricultural prowess to lead agriculture in Latin America towards a sustainable path and to support overall agricultural development in Africa.

Prem Bindraban and Rudy Rabbinge of Wageningen University and Research Centre suggest that the prospects for the coming decades for European agriculture are “so favourable that there is little need to introduce agro-energy or heavy subsidy measures to stimulate or revitalise agricultural development within its territory.”

Bizarrely, and in seeming contrast to pessimistic forecasts and the urges of the vegetarian and meat-free food movements, global food production potential actually surpassed food requirements and would be entirely adequate even at the point that the human population of the planet exceeds ten billion and continues to eat a meat-rich diet.

“For that we should obey basic agro-ecological principles, and continue investments to increase yield of crops as the most important strategy to minimize pressure on natural resources,” Bindraban told Sciencebase. “Agro-ecological principles reveal that the use of fertilizers, agrochemicals and other high-technology innovations are indispensible in this regard. Also, ecological production opportunities such as the enhance use of grassland for the collection of rainwater for production of ruminant meat should be exploited. Rejection of agrochemical input use in agro-ecosystems, in particular fertilizers, lead to deterioration of land productivity, increased releases of greenhouse gases and an accelerated push of poor people in a downward spiral of poverty.” If we are to face up to these problems, what we must not do is shut that gate on the possibilities…

Research Blogging Icon Prem S. Bindraban, & Rudy Rabbinge (2011). European food and agricultural strategy for 21st century Int. J. Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology, 9 (1/2), 80-101

The return of the arsenic-munching microbes

The return of the arsenic-munching microbes – ChemBark sums up what he sees as the state of S(s)cience with respect to the infamous arsenic-exploiting bacteria reported by Wolfe-Simon et al: "…a study as flawed as Wolfe-Simon’s should never had been published in Science in the first place. The most obvious problems and omissions should have been ironed out by peer review. For a paper as manifestly flawed (or incomplete—take your pick) as Wolfe-Simon’s to be published in a top-tier journal, something went wrong. But I’ll agree that once such a mistake has been made, the (informal) backlash and (formal) technical comments are probably the best way to mitigate the damage." Pretty much says it all. He also criticises the team for their every response being a riposte, as if they couldn't possibly be wrong on any aspect of their experiments and their paper…

Earth Alerts for natural disasters

Earth Alerts for natural disasters – Earth Alerts is a Windows-based application that allows you to keep a weather eye on natural disasters as they occur across the globe. Alert notifications, reports, and imagery gleaned from National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey and Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere as they happen and before the media even know about them, give you a convenient way to view natural phenomenon as they occur. The app has been around for some time, but more recently they have developed a Google Maps version, which is currently in beta –

Scoop the gloop

UPDATE: I asked an experienced engineer friend to comment on this technology to see whether we could determine if it were genuine or not, it is patent pending and lots of people have discussed it for several months now, including a blogger who posted the video on April 1st…

Anyway, my engineer friend, Chris Moller of Evonet Telecommunications and IT Consultancy had this to say: “No, not a hoax. The top of the PTFE film is stationary. The middle is steel and moves at x. The bottom PTFE film moves at 2x. Gloop normally distorts because you’re sliding something under it, creating a shear force. In this case, the relative speed of the gloop and film is always zero – clever. Interesting to note that the video didn’t show picking up off tissue – only putting it on!”

Scoop the gloop – Japanese technology known as "SWITL" uses a hydrophobic (water hating) material to scoop up gels and other semi-liquids on to a motorized conveyor-belt system without disturbing the material’s shape. Watch the video, it looks like a trick, but seemingly is just great tech. This first did the rounds in March, but the demo video is beginning to stick now. The applications for automated food processing and packing are endless, but for parents everywhere the possibility of a de-toddlerizing spill reversal gadget is perhaps too good to be true.

Six signs your wine stinks

Mary Orlin gave a run down on how to spot tainted, corked or just plain bad wine. I’ve distilled down her article to reveal the six chemical signatures that tell you your wine stinks:

Oxidized – The wine will smell stale, burnt marshmallows, nutty, sherry-like or of stewed fruit. The ethanol in the wine has probably been exposed to air for a prolonged period and is heading towards ethanoic (acetic) acid, better known as vinegar.

Volatile acidity – If your wine’s bouquet smells of nail-polish remover (acetone) or vinegar it has “volatile acidity” caused by bacterial spoilage. It’s off. Spit it out.

Sulfur – Wine makers often use sulfites as preservatives (which can be irritating to asthma sufferers and others) but if your wine smells of rotten eggs, there’s hydrogen sulfide in there, or dimethyl sulfide, and that’s bad. The wine is literally rotten.

Brettanomyces — If your quaffing reminds you of taking cherry cough syrup, sticking plasters or the farmyard, then it’s got brett – a yeast infection caused by Brettanomyces. Some old world wines have a tiny whiff of brett, which some connoisseurs enjoy, but if your wine reminds you of a wet horse blanket, probably best to get another bottle.

Cork taint – Many people don’t know when their wine is corked, but if you know the smell of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, TCA, then you will recognise corked wine. It’s a mouldy, musty, wet newspaper, dank basement, smell, a bit like brie cheese or a wet shaggy dog. Send it back.

Sulfites – Sulfites prevent bacterial contamination, but they do give a sulfurousness to the aroma and taste of wine, ans like I said, can be problematic for some people. Best avoided, but not a real problem unless you react or cannot get past the smell/taste.