All posts by David Harris

January 18

When the United States started requiring background checks in 1994 for people buying handguns from dealers, it was a rare chance to see whether a gun-control measure really worked. Are you an editor or a writer? Writers and editors work together all the time, but the two clans are somewhat mysterious to one another. The treatment may sound appalling, but it works. A new study has found that an infusion of feces from a healthy person into an ailing patient’s gut was significantly more effective than a traditional antibiotic treatment — raising hopes that the unconventional approach could one day help combat obesity, food allergies and a host of other maladies. A little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece in Scientific American about fecal transplants — replacing the stool in someone’s colon with stool donated by someone else — as a treatment for the pernicious, recurrent diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile infection. So it’s 2013 everybody.

January 17

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation’s college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. ABC News is in the midst of a major promotion of Dr. David Agus’ book, “The End of Illness.” Radiation, like alcohol, is a double-edged sword. I’m 61. My mother turned 65 this summer, an event Medicare marketers ensured she would not overlook. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. Notre Dame says a story about Manti Te’o’s girlfriend dying, which he said inspired him to play better as he helped the Fighting Irish get to the BCS National Championship, turned out to be a hoax apparently perpetrated against the linebacker. Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Tommy Craggs says Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey were faced with a tough question when reporting their now famous Manti Te’o story: “What lengths do we go to to try and prove a negative?” Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. I don’t know anything. Her name is Lizzy Seeberg. Less than a day into the Manti Te’o revelations, we’ve heard more about a fake dead girlfriend of a Notre Dame football player than a real dead girl. Well, since you asked — and many of my friends have, some more than once — no, I will not be cheering for my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, to win big-time college football’s championship on Jan. 7. NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to get astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit. NASA and the European Space Agency have signed an agreement calling for the Europeans to provide the service module for the Orion space capsule, the U.S. space agency’s crew vehicle for exploration beyond Earth orbit. Plans for Europe to provide a key component for NASA’s 2017 test flight of a new spacecraft represent the start of the international collaboration needed to send humans on deep space destinations, officials said Wednesday. The US and Europe have cemented their plan to work together on the Americans’ next-generation capsule system to take humans beyond Earth. The Orion spacecraft has gotten a new look for its first launch atop the inaugural flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) booster on the Exploration Mission-1 flight around the Moon in 2017 as seen in this new animation. The European Space Agency will supply the service module that will power an initial unmanned test flight of NASA’s Orion deep space exploration capsule in 2017 and provide components for a second, manned mission in 2021 under an agreement discussed Wednesday at the Johnson Space Center. It is now more than 40 years since a human ventured beyond Earth orbit. NASA’s proposed Orion spacecraft has taken another step closer to its planned 2017 launch with NASA announcing an agreement with the European Space Agency covering the craft’s service module. A new deal between NASA and a commercial spaceflight company to add a privately built module to the International Space Station could lead to future uses of the novel space technology beyond low-Earth orbit, space agency and company officials say. The international space station is getting a new, inflatable room that resembles a giant spare tire, NASA announced Wednesday. NASA is expected to announce today the terms of a landmark deal that will allow Bigelow Aerospace, a private company based in North Las Vegas, to attach one of its inflatable habitats to the International Space Station. An inflatable space pod to be attached to the International Space Station in a couple of years will be like no other piece of the station. A low-cost space dwelling that inflates like a balloon in orbit will be tested aboard the International Space Station, opening the door for commercial leases of future free-flying outposts and deep-space astronaut habitats for NASA. NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to replace the cumbersome “metal cans” that now serve as astronauts’ homes in space with inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap. A COUPLE of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.” It turns out you can deny evolution and still get published on the New York Times op-ed page.

January 16

For an explanation of this project, read here.

We have decided to withdraw from publication the Julie Burchill comment piece ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’. The brilliant writer Suzanne Moore and I go back a long way. On Sunday, the London-based newspaper the Observer published a truly vile, transphobic column by outspoken journalist Julie Burchill. We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads. We screwed up. The Atlantic pulled an advertorial package singing the praises of the Church of Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, last night after the sponsored content drew the attention—and ire—of both reporters and readers, and no doubt sparked an untold number of newsroom conversations about the ethics and optics of such revenue-generating efforts. The Atlantic has done so many things well in its move online that I was among the many readers and journalists flabbergasted when it teamed with the Church of Scientology to repeat a mistake that had already been made more than two years ago, in almost exactly the same form, when Seed sold a blog spot to Pepsigate. At around noon yesterday, The Atlantic posted an advertorial package for the Church of Scientology. Warnings that the world is headed for “peak oil” – when oil supplies decline after reaching the highest rates of extraction – appear “increasingly groundless”, BP’s chief executive said on Wednesday. If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States.

January 15

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Americans catch an estimated 1 billion colds each year. It’s not often that two stories about rape — one in India and one here in the U.S. — get so much attention at the same time. It is as predictable as a heartbeat: when crucial medical results are at hand, cardiologist Jean-Luc Vachiery knows that the hedge-fund managers will come calling. On 20 November, the U.S. government unveiled what it called the largest insider-trading scheme in its history. It’s just like clockwork. Cigarette taxes have been in the news lately, and not just because politicians keep raising them. More than a third of the cigarettes that are smoked in California have been smuggled from other jurisdictions, according to an updated study by the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Last week, about 40 members of the CNET editorial staff met in the CNET trailer in the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center to vote on our official Best of CES winner. There are companies with divisions that spend billions of dollars on entertainment. Are news and reviews subject to different ethical standards? In contrast to official temperature records showing a consistent warming trend, Fox Business reporters have claimed that the “temperature basically hasn’t changed much since the ice age” and that it’s actually “getting colder.” Global warming is already changing America from sea to rising sea and is affecting how Americans live, a massive new federally commissioned report says. Climate change is already affecting how Americans live and work, and evidence is mounting that the burning of fossil fuels has roughly doubled the probability of extreme heat waves, the Obama administration said Friday. Future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100F (38C), with climate change on course to turn the country into a hotter, drier, and more disaster-prone place. The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded. Justin Gillis has filed a post on the Green Blog summarizing the main points in a new and voluminous draft federal report on current and anticipated impacts from greenhouse-driven global warming on the United States. Just reading about the government’s massive new report outlining what climate change has in store for the U.S. is sobering. The difficulties in debunking blatant antireality are legion.

January 14

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Influenza-like-illness is sweeping the country with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reporting that most areas of the country experiencing high rates. Nobody yet knows how severe this year’s epidemic of influenza will be. The study was published in the Annals of Oncology with the title, “Bias in reporting of end points of efficacy and toxicity in randomized, clinical trials for women with breast cancer.” Doctors relying on studies published in top journals for guidance about how to treat women with breast cancer may not be getting the most accurate information, according to a new analysis. Not all patient drug trials published in even the most prestigious of medical journals can be taken as gospel, say researchers, who have found a high proportion of “spin and bias” in the reporting of results. A couple of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.”

January 11

For an explanation of this project, read here.

Turmoil at one of China’s leading newspapers is posing an early challenge to the measured political program of the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, pitting a pent-up popular demand for change against the Communist Party’s desire to maintain a firm grip. Hundreds of people gathered outside the headquarters of a newspaper company in southern China on Monday, intensifying a battle over media censorship that poses a test of the willingness of China’s new leadership to tolerate calls for change. A Chinese newspaper that saw a stand-off over censorship has published a new issue, as police removed a small number of demonstrators outside its offices. People across China have been detained or questioned in recent days by security officers for publicly supporting the journalists at the Southern Weekend newspaper who have been protesting strict censorship, according to a human rights group and online posts discussing the plights of some detainees. The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. As regular Retraction Watch readers may have noticed, a number of sites have sprung up recently to examine — quite critically — papers that other scientists say are dodgy. One of the owners of the whistleblower site Science Fraud, which went dark yesterday in response to legal threats, has identified himself, and explained what happened. Whatever happened to the Mayan apocalypse? As it flares out of the distant Oort Cloud, the newly discovered comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) appears to be heading on a trajectory that could make for one of the most spectacular night-sky events in living memory. A new comet superstar named C/2012 S1 (ISON) is heading for the spotlight starting in November 2013 — but will it perform as some hope it will, or will it be a dud of cosmic proportions? It’s no news that the U.S. has lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than most high-income countries. By now, I’m sure you’ve read an article on how we’re dying at higher rates of so many, many things compared to the rest of the world. The Commonwealth Fund offers ten ways to improve the health system. In keeping with our holiday tradition of highlighting the year’s top stories from Journal Watch Gastroenterology, I have selected 10 stories that I believe will be of keen interest to all gastroenterologists. The top stories this year vary considerably, but 7 of the 10 address bacterial infections, with respect to either treatment or prevention. The editors of Journal Watch Women’s Health want to thank you for joining us in our journeys through the clinical literature. The Institute of Medicine recently recommended that, in keeping with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, reliable contraception be provided at no charge. Each year, the editors of Journal Watch Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine highlight the past year’s most important topics in pediatric and adolescent research from our published summaries. The editors of Journal Watch Psychiatry are pleased to present the Psychiatry Top Stories of 2012. We are pleased to provide you with our top stories list for 2012. With the elections behind us, we can once again focus on more important issues, such as the Top 10 Dermatology Stories of 2012. The AHA has published its annual list of the top 10 advances in heart disease and stroke research. Service members who died over the past decade were far less likely to have atherosclerosis than service members who died in Korea or Vietnam, according to a new study published in JAMA. We are pleased to present our annual Journal Watch Cardiology Top Stories list for 2012. The amount of time and money needed to sequence genomes continued to fall this year, perhaps to no one’s surprise. Although renewable energy made impressive advances this year, its impact has been dwarfed by the changes caused by the surplus of cheap, abundant natural gas made possible by hydrofracturing—fracking—of shale deposits. In May, a Chinese team teleported photons through 100 kilometres of free space, opening the way for satellite-based quantum communications. Although few people are talking about it, the legislation passed yesterday by Congress to avert the fiscal cliff by revising tax policies also contains $4 billion in cuts this year to discretionary spending, including research. Kevin Drum from Mother Jones has a fascinating new article detailing the hypothesis that exposure to lead, particularly tetraethyl lead (TEL), explains the rise and fall of violent crime rates from the 1960s through the 1990s—at which point the compound was phased out of gasoline worldwide. I forget exactly when I first came across the idea that environmental lead, leftover from decades of leaded gasoline, was a factor in mental acuity, violent tendencies, and potentially crime. With most of our regular PLOS Network bloggers taking some time off to cool their laptops and pop some corks, I set out this morning to highlight the best of PLOS BLOGS Network from 2012. I experimented with topics, lengths, forms, and voices, quite a lot this year, trying this and that to see what works for me, what works with the readers, etc. A recent “Perspectives” commentary in Science on the importance of online science news – and associated challenges – has (unsurprisingly) gotten a fair amount of attention in the science communication community.

January 10

There could be a lot of Earth-like planets out there, new analysis of data from NASA’s Kepler telescope suggests. Our Milky Way is home to at least 17 billion planets that are similar in size to Earth, a new estimate suggests. Astronomers say that one in six stars hosts an Earth-sized planet in a close orbit – suggesting a total of 17 billion such planets in our galaxy. In 1750, British astronomer Thomas Wright published a book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe with a diagram showing the stars of our Milky Way, each surrounded by orbiting planets. Planets just like home — roughly the size of Earth and residing at a distance from a star where water would be liquid — are likely to orbit some of the stars nearest to the Solar System, according to a new statistical study using data from NASA’s Kepler telescope. It was a major feat last year when a team of astronomers announced it had detected two Earth-sized planets, circling very close to a star called Kepler-20, which is 950 light-years away. New estimates suggest that roughly 50 percent of sun-like stars could have planets the size of Earth orbiting in a place where liquid water might exist on their surface. This week the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is meeting in Long Beach. We still don’t know if Earth, as a planet that currently harbors life, is alone in the universe. Enough planets exist in the Milky Way to ensure that there is at least one for each of the hundred million stars in the galaxy, NASA has revealed. Two years ago, mission scientists for NASA’s Kepler space observatory announced the discovery of a mind-boggling 1,235 new planet candidates, each revealed by the tiny dip in brightness created as it passed in front of its host star. Classed as a “super-Earth,” candidate planet KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) 172.02 orbits within the habitable zone of a sun-like star. A new study has shown that the number of exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system – discovered by NASA’s Kepler may be inflated by over a third. The Milky Way is awash in planets by the billions, and astronomers are finding more every day.

January 9

For an explanation of this project, read here.

America set an off-the-charts heat record in 2012. It’s official: 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. — and it wasn’t even close. It’s official: 2012 marked the warmest year on record for the USA, scientists from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., announced Tuesday. Temperatures in the contiguous United States last year were the hottest in more than a century of record-keeping, shattering the mark set in 1998 by a wide margin, the federal government announced Tuesday. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) officially crowned 2012 the warm weather king today for the Lower 48 states, and by a lofty margin. It’s official: 2012 was the warmest year on record in the lower 48 states, as the country experienced blistering spring and summer heat, tinderbox fire weather conditions amid a widespread drought, and one of the worst storms to ever strike the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. As the climate has warmed during the past several decades, there has been a growing imbalance between record daily high temperatures in the contiguous U.S. and record daily lows. Global warming is directly linked to only a few weather events and climate trends. You’ve certainly seen the news stories trumpeting data from the National Climatic Data Center purporting to show that 2012 was the warmest year on record in the continental United States. Bush fires raging across some of the most populous parts of Australia — feeding off widespread drought conditions and high winds — pushed firefighters to their limits and residents to their wits’ end on Wednesday as meteorologists tracked the country’s hottest spring and summer on record into uncharted territory. The heatwave that has scorched the nation since Christmas is a taste of things to come, with this week’s records set to tumble again and again in the coming years, climate scientists said. Record temperatures across southern Australia cooled Wednesday, reducing the danger from scores of raging wildfires but likely bringing only a brief reprieve from the summer’s extreme heat and fire risk. There is something very ugly about the commentary on Australia’s heatwave.

January 8

For an explanation of this project, read here.

It’s a journalistic axiom that when your phone rings early on a Monday, from a blocked number, it’s generally not because somebody loves your work. Killer whales are on their way! If humans ever journey to Mars, they will face an array of challenges: assault by cosmic rays, the erosion of bone mass and more subtle problems that could disrupt a mission’s success. What do you get when you put three Russians, two Western Europeans, and a man from China into cramped, windowless quarters for nearly a year and a half? Astronauts have a down-to-Earth problem that could be even worse on a long trip to Mars: They can’t get enough sleep. Mars travelers may want to pack some extra jammies, a study suggests, finding sleepiness and insomnia dogging astronauts in a space travel simulation of a 520-day trip to the Red Planet. Future astronauts going to Mars could have trouble sleeping, become lethargic, and have problems with mental tasks over the course of a long mission. Getting sleep will be one of the biggest challenges facing astronauts in any future manned mission to Mars, according to a study of six men who spent 520 days and nights in a confined “spacecraft” during a simulated trip to the planet. They survived a “mission to Mars” that helped us understand the challenges of long-term isolation. Imagine life on a spaceship headed to Mars. A veteran science journalist will be the next editor of Science’s news section. A mock Mars mission that locked six volunteers inside a simulated spaceship for more than 500 days seriously disrupted the crew’s sleep patterns and waking behavior. For a while there, life in a bunker designed to simulate a 520-day mission to Mars looked kind of fun.

January 7

For an explanation of this project, read here.

After every act of incomprehensible violence, the world asks whether the killer could have been identified ahead of time. In the wake of the tragic shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month, the National Rifle Association proposed that the best way to protect schoolchildren was to place a guard — a “good guy with a gun” — in every school, part of a so-called National School Shield Emergency Response Program. Princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, is spearheading a project for China’s National Academy of Sciences with a start-up budget of $350m. Given its limited reserves of natural uranium and its abundant supply of thorium, India has chalked out a unique three-stage nuclear program. Thorium has always been an alternative to uranium for fueling nuclear reactors, but it hasn’t gotten much play. Imagine a cheap, plentiful source of energy that could provide safe, emissions-free power for hundreds of years without refueling and without any risk of nuclear proliferation. The Norwegian government, in concert with U.S.-based Westinghouse and Norway’s Thor Energy, is facilitating a trial of what could potentially be the energy source of the future: thorium.