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SitP: Heina Dadabhoy from Islam to Atheism. [caption id="attachment_2139" align="alignright" width="239"] A ninja warrior welcomes guests to Convergence/Skepchickcon[/caption]Boston Skeptics welcomes our January guest speaker, atheist feminist secular...

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Book Club: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha... [caption id="attachment_2131" align="alignright" width="197"] The Emperor of All Maladies[/caption]This month's book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist...

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SitP: David Ropeik and the Risk Perception Gap Update! Thanks to Andrea and Francois, we now have a video of David Ropeik's talk available on our

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SitP: Larry Gilbertson on GMOs and Biotech [caption id="attachment_2117" align="alignright" width="300"] Feeding the world[/caption]The population of the earth will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Arable land is decreasing, dietary preferences...

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SitP: Larry Gilbertson on GMOs and Biotech

Posted on : 04-06-2015 | By : John | In : Skeptics in the Pub

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a field of growing grain

Feeding the world

The population of the earth will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Arable land is decreasing, dietary preferences are shifting in the emerging economies of the world, and climate change will present further challenges to food production. Meeting the needs of the growing, changing planet will require new approaches and technologies. Biotechnology is an important approach to improve agricultural productivity that, combined with other practices, has the potential to solve some of these challenges. The commercialization of genetically modified plants began in the mid-1990s with launch of herbicide tolerant and insect protected crops, which were widely adopted by farmers in the US and other countries. More varieties with new and improved traits have been released since then, with a robust pipeline for the future.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Not so fast, say some. There is currently an ongoing, robust debate involving many sectors of society, include skeptics, over how agriculture and food production should work, the role of new and emerging technologies, including the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the role of multi-national corporations in agriculture.

Dr. Gilbertson in his lab

Dr. Larry Gilbertson

At this meeting of the Boston Skeptics, Dr. Larry Gilbertson will talk about the science of GMOs and the research at Monsanto Company. He will also answer questions collected from skeptics via social media, facilitated by Mary Mangan, a member of Boston Skeptics, as well as from the audience in the room.

Dr. Gilbertson is a Monsanto scientist in the company’s Biotechnology organization. He fell in love with basic research while taking biology courses as a pre-med major, and quickly changed plans to attend graduate school instead. He became so infatuated with lab work that he courted his girlfriend (now wife) with heart shaped pink and white Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) designs in petri plates.

Dr. Gilbertson joined Monsanto in 1995 as a post-doctoral researcher out of curiosity (and a bit of skepticism) about industrial career paths, and was won over within a week by the shared passion for science that he saw among his colleagues. He has worked on and led a variety of teams performing original research in plant transformation, gene expression, vector technology, and insect control, leading to 26 patents and breakthroughs that have enabled the advancement of the Biotechnology pipeline. He currently leads a Monsanto protein engineering team in Cambridge MA.

Dr. Gilbertson has been a Monsanto Science Fellow since 2004, and was recently recognized with the 2014 Monsanto Science and Technology Career Award.

Dr. Gilbertson is from the heart of the corn belt, Iowa, but rarely came close to corn plants until he joined Monsanto. He received a B.S degree in Biology from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Oregon. He has taught graduate courses plant biology and genomics at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and at Washington University in St. Louis.

Location: We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, June 22, 2015 in the third floor of The Hong Kong Restaurant, 1238 Mass Ave in Harvard Square, Cambridge.

RSVP or leave questions for Dr. Gilbertson on our Facebook event page. You can also leave questions for Dr. Gilbertson on our Meetup page, at reddit/r/skeptic, or on the SGU forums, or tweet them to Mary (@mem_somerville).

SitP: Dr Alessio Fasano and Gluten Freedom

Posted on : 30-03-2015 | By : John | In : Event, local

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The structure of gluten

A little biochemistry…

Gluten is a protein structure found in wheat, barley and rye. It is the substance that gives bread its chewiness and because it is strong and stretchy, it helps bread dough trap the CO2 produced by yeast or baking powder, making it light and airy. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Mmmm gluten, is there anything you can’t do?”

Gluten has become one of the most controversial topics in the modern diet. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by one of the components of gluten. It causes abdominal pain and discomfort, constipation and diarrhea, anemia and fatigue. It affects millions of people, and in extreme cases, especially in children, it can cause serious vitamin and nutritional deficiencies because the inflamed small intestine doesn’t function properly. Long term, untreated celiac can lead to many serious complications. Celiac is distinct from wheat allergy, which also exists.

(Wheat allergies involve different components of the immune system reacting in different ways than what occurs in celiac, and are similar to other food allergies. Wheat allergies can be triggered by one or more of the many proteins in wheat, not just those in gluten.)

Many people who don’t have the classic symptoms of celiac or wheat allergies, or who were determined not to have those diseases by various diagnostic tests (which according to the Wikipedia articles appear to have very low false negative rates), none the less claim or suspect they have some sort of gluten sensitivity. Hence the enormous current interest in gluten-free foods. (“Gluten free” gets 107,000,000 hits on Google.)

So is wheat the staff of life, responsible for getting humanity out of the stone age, and in the top five discoveries ever (along with fire, the wheel, beer and video games), or is it the greatest evil ever perpetrated, responsible for more misery and death than cigarettes, automobiles, alcoholism and war combined?

our speaker, Dr Fasano The Boston Skeptics are fortunate to have as our guest for April’s Skeptics in the Pub world-renowned pediatric gastroenterologist, research scientist and entrepreneur Alessio Fasano, M.D., who is director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC). His prevalence study published in 2003 established the rate of celiac disease at 1 in 133 Americans.

His visionary research has led to the awareness of celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders as a growing public health problem in the United States and worldwide. As Visiting Professor at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at MGHfC, Dr. Fasano treats both children and adults for gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.

A passionate advocate for collaboration in research and clinical work, Dr. Fasano recently authored Gluten Freedom to provide patients, healthcare providers and general readers an evidence-based yet entertaining book to dispel some of the current confusion about gluten and how it can affect your health.

Dr Fasano will tell us about his research, the causes and treatment for celiac disease, wheat allergies and gluten sensitivity, and I’m sure we have many questions on these topics.

We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, April 6, 2015 in the back room at The Burren, 247 Elm St. in Davis Square, Somerville. RSVP on our Facebook event page. If enough people say they will attend in advance, the Burren will provide us with our own wait staff and/or bartender, which will avoid a crush of people trying to get food or drinks. Also, it might be a good idea to arrive a little early if you possibly can.

BTW, someone asked if the Burren has any gluten-free items on their menu. I am informed that the Cod Espanola, the Balsamic Chicken, the veggie shepherds pie and nachos are all gluten free.

Hopefully, we won’t have yet another blizzard!

UPDATE Dr Fasano’s talk is now available on Vimeo:


Dr. Alessio Fasano speaks at the Boston Skeptics in the Pub, April 6, 2015

SitP: Invisible Threat

Posted on : 25-01-2015 | By : John | In : Event, movie, Skeptics in the Pub

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Re-opening announcement

Grand Re-re-re-opening


Good News, everybody! We have a new home for Skeptics in the Pub. Our first event will be watching a DVD about the immune system, the threat of communicable diseases, how vaccines work, why some people choose not to vaccinate, and what the public health consequences of that choice are.

Invisible Threat is a 40-minute documentary made by a group of students at the Carlsbad High School in Southern California. Judging by the trailer and reviews (and the anti-vax reactions to it), it is very well done and informative. Their scientific technical adviser was Dr. Paul Offit, pediatrician and vaccine developer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and author of several books about vaccines, alternative medicine.

Before the video was released, and unseen by its critics, the students making it received bullying and threats from the anti-vax and conspiracy theory communities. Some of the teachers and adult advisers wanted to pull out of the project, but fortunately for us, the students persevered. Still the intimidation continued and anti-vax propaganda was aired unchallenged on a Teach the Controversy report on local TV.

Following the film, we will have a discussion led by some members of our group with an interest in and knowledge of vaccines, communicable diseases and autism.

Our new location is The Burren, located at 247 Elm Street in Davis Square, Somerville. We will be meeting in the back room at 7PM on the first Monday of every month. If you want to familiarize yourself with the Burren, please come to our Getting Acquainted event on Monday January 26.

You can RSVP on Facebook. The Burren wants a preliminary estimate of attendance so they can decide whether to assign a bartender and/or wait staff to the back room for that night. It would make it easier, quicker and less disruptive for us to get food and drinks if they do, so please sign up ASAP if you are planning to attend. (But if you aren’t sure or don’t sign up, no worries. There is plenty of room, and we want to see you again.)

Summary:

  • When: February 2, 2015 at 7:00 PM
  • Where: The Burren, 247 Elm St, Davis Square, Somerville
  • What: Invisible Threat video and discussion

  • (The official starting time is 7PM, but if people arrive early, they can order dinner and/or drinks. The Burren said they could open up the room to us earlier than 7 if there is demand.)

    Book Club: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

    Posted on : 15-10-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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    XKCD cartoon depicting odds of surviving a lightning strike

    Scientific analysis of real-life problems

    Our next book is “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe.

    Munroe supplies scientific, in many cases, mathematical answers to the deepest, darkest questions one can ask. Some are very unpleasant, such as what would happen if the Earth suddenly stopped rotating? (Scientists at the South Pole and people in coal mines would probably survive, for a while.) What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball thrown at .9 c? (Not good for either the batter or the pitcher, not to mention the catcher, umpire, ball park and the city.) What would happen if you gathered a mole of moles? (Not good for moles in the middle, since they would form a sphere larger than the Moon.) Some answers are surprisingly benign, such as could you survive swimming in a spent nuclear fuel pool? (You’d be fine, as long as you didn’t dive too deep or pick up any random objects lying at the bottom.) Or what would happen if everyone stood near each other and jumped at the same time? (Basically, nothing, because the Earth out-masses us by 12 orders of magnitude. Except we would take up an area the size of Rhode Island, and T F Green Airport would be overwhelmed for thousands of years as everyone tried to return home afterwards, and we’d mostly starve to death as the world plunged into chaos and anarchy.)

    Then there are the scary questions. They all seem to have the proviso that the person asking the question really, really needs to know the answer by Friday.

    The book is fun and quick to read, and is copiously illustrated with Munroe’s surprisingly evocative stick-figure drawings. I got the Kindle version, which seems to freak out my Kindle occasionally. (It’s rebooted at least 3 times, and has a few formatting problems, mostly connected with the footnotes. Paging forward and back seems to fix most of the issues.) I wish had purchased a hard-copy version, as it would make an ideal bathroom book.

    Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, October 25 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary phaser blast. (Set to stun unless I remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

    Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (October 26) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

    Book Club: “Life Ascending” by Nick Lane

    Posted on : 13-08-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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    This month we are reading Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane.

    Nick Lane is a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London. He has written books about oxygen, mitochondria and cryobiology. Our current book is organized into 10 chapters, each covering an important advance (“inventions”) in the history of life. It is one of the most “sciency” books we’ve read recently, with occasional vivid descriptions of, for example, the view of the Earth from the Moon first seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, the early Earth before the first life emerged and both kinds of hydrothermal vents (I didn’t know there was more than one.) There is little in the way of personal anecdotes or historical discussions. For the most part, the book dives right into the science, and there is a lot of it!

    I’m finding it dense going but thoroughly worthwhile. A lot of it, especially the first chapter on the origins of life, is new to me. It also clears up a lot of common misconceptions, such as where the oxygen (O2) released by photosynthesis comes from. (It comes from splitting water molecules, not from reducing CO2. But it does convert atmospheric CO2 into solid carbohydrates, which is why plants are the ultimate solution to global warming.)

    SitP: Julia Wilson

    Posted on : 09-02-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Skeptics in the Pub

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    In April of 1775, William Dawes rode through Harvard Square on his way to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams and the Concord Militia that the Redcoats were coming. They’re BACK!!

    On Saturday afternoon, Feb 16, 2013, we will be holding a special Skeptics in the Pub with Julia Wilson of the UK science education organization Sense About Science. She is here in Cambridge to help organize a new campaign, Ask For Evidence USA. The goals of the campaign, along the lines of a similar campaign in the UK, are to encourage people* to ask for the evidence behind scientific claims made by scientists, politicians, public officials, the press and random people on the Internet, to teach the basics, such as critical thinking and how the peer review process works, so that they (i.e. we) can ask intelligent questions, and to teach scientists how to communicate with non-specialists and the general public. One of her first events is a Boot Camp** for PhD students, post-docs, and other young scientists, to be held this week at MIT, to teach communications skills. She may well inspire the next Carl Sagan or Eugenie Scott.

    This promises to be an important and fascinating talk.

    We will be meeting at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, our usual spot, at 2PM on Saturday, Feb 16, 2013. You can RSVP on our Facebook event page if you want, so we can get an idea of how many people will be attending.

    [*] Including the general public as well as scientists, politicians, public officials, the press and random people on the Internet.

    [**] Sorry, it’s too late to register for the Boot Camp. :-(

    Book Club: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

    Posted on : 19-11-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Book Club

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    Book coverWhen my nephew was 5, his favorite board game was Trouble. (If you aren’t familiar with the game, each player has several peg-like markers that they move around the holes on the edge of the board. The winner is the first player to move all their markers completely around the board. If a player’s marker lands on a hole occupied by another player’s marker, the second marker is sent back to the start. In my family, traditionally when this happens, the player says “Bonky Bonk Bonk” and chortles maniacally.) My nephew loved getting bonked, and always played to lose. In contrast, his sister, then six, was ferociously competitive and always won, mostly due to the obscure rules she would make up on the spur of the moment that would guarantee her victory.

    Mary Roach has written a book on Trouble, getting into it, staying out of it, game strategies, the history of the game, famous matches and so forth. At least, that’s what I assume is the topic of her book, Bonk, which is our next Book Club selection.

    Oh, wait, never mind…

    The actual subject of Bonk is “The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” So, I was almost right.

    In this book, Roach tackles yet another staid and boring scientific subject with “her outrageous curiosity and infectious wit” (according to the back cover.) I’m sure it will live up her three previous books we’ve read, Spook, Stiff and Packing For Mars.

    We will be meeting at our usual location in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard at 3 PM on Saturday, December 8. RSVP on Facebook, if that’s your thing.

    Upcoming Events for April and May 2012

    Posted on : 23-04-2012 | By : John | In : Event, local

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    The Cambridge Science Festival is happening right now! Tomorrow (Tuesday April 24) The Story Collider, a sort of oral history meets particle physics project, will be doing a presentation at MIT. They sponsored a fantastic show at NECCS last Friday with 6 prominent skeptics telling brief personal stories of they journey to skepticism. Tuesday’s edition will feature 7 local scientists and science journalists. Free.

    Don’t forget Mary Roach on Wednesday.

    On Saturday May 5th, our own Todd W will be running for his life, pursued by ravenous Zombies, all to promote vaccine research. Help support this worthy cause.

    Book Club: Douglas Starr’s “The Killer of Little Shepherds”

    Posted on : 11-08-2011 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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    Our book club meeting this month is again at the usual place and time, 3 PM Saturday August 13 on the lawn just north of Harvard Yard, between Memorial Hall (the big ugly pseudo gothic building) and the Science Center (the big ugly modern building that looks like a flight of giant stairs to nowhere.) It’s supposed to be warm and sunny, but if it rains, we’ll move indoors to the cafeteria of the Northwest building up Oxford Street just past the museum.

    The book is about the birth of forensic science (CSI: Lyon, as in Lyon, France, circa 1894.) I’m about 1/2 way through, the prime suspect is about to go to trial, and is attempting an insanity defense. It’s a pretty compelling story, all the more so because it’s true. The author alternates chapters between the story of the criminal, Joesph Vacher, and the history of forensics, mostly focusing on Professor Lacassagne of the Lyon Medical School, who was the leading forensic scientist of the time.

    Skeptics in the Pub with Jonathan McDowell: Elegy For A Spaceplane: 30 Years of Space Shuttles

    Posted on : 29-06-2011 | By : John | In : Event, local, Skeptics in the Pub

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    Jonathan says:

    NASA’s Space Shuttle is being retired this month after three decades of ups and downs both literal and metaphorical.

    I’ll take a trip down memory lane and review what the Shuttles did and didn’t do, and discuss other spaceplanes past and present. Finally, I’ll speculate about what’s next for the US human spaceflight program.

    Jonathan McDowell in the Soyuz T-3 reentry module

    Hello, Earthlings!

    Jonathan is a long-time member of the Boston Skeptics, an astronomer, and expert on space travel. He writes a monthly column for Sky and Telescope and maintains the Jonathan’s Space Report web site. He previously spoke to us about the history of the Moon Race, in a very interesting, informative and popular talk, especially about the little-known Soviet moon program. Be sure to arrive early so you can get a seat in front!

    RSVP on Facebook

    When: Monday, July 25 at 7pm

    Where: Upstairs at Tommy Doyle’s Irish Pub,
    Harvard Square

    See you all there!