Thursday, December 04, 2003

Science Journals Round-up

BIOTERRORISM: Anthrax Powder: State of the Art?
Here's a disquieting article about the origin of the spores used in the 2001 anthrax attacks from Science magazine (subscription required, hat tip LGF). Basically, the theories on the origin of the anthrax fall into 2 categories: it's a homemade crude extract or it was made in a state-of-the-art (read state-sponsored) facility. I remember when the analysis of the spores found in the Senate offices revealed that the anthrax contained a milling agent, silica, and electrostatic charges. These results seemed to indicate it was a high-tech job because of the spores' high aerosolibility.

Then for some reason the FBI denied that the sample contained silica and seemed to think that the culprit was a "lone-wacko," Dr. Hattfill. This article discusses in more detail the analyses of the samples and the attempts of the government to reproduce the samples. Basically, Army experts were unable to reproduce the sample by using a crude, lab-in-the-garage (without silica) approach, but got really close when they used silica and a top-secret ingredient (probably a coupling agent that gave the spores electrostatic charge). So what's up with the FBI? They led a wild-goose-chase through Dr. Hatfill's home and a nearby pond. Why? What advantage would they gain by covering up the fact that the spores were produced by a highly sophicated research facility?

Personally, I never bought the "lone wacko" theory. As soon as the I heard about the anthrax, I thought "from Iraq with love." I don't have any evidence for my hunch except that we know Saddam had an anthrax weaponization program at one time. Those spores can sit around in storage for decades maybe even hundreds of years without losing potency. The spores sent through the mail were probably a test run. Fortunately, although a lot of people were freaked out, few people died, and our nation did not grind to a halt. People exposed to the spores were given antibiotics, a mail screening process was developed, and a vaccine was already available.

If I were the conviving little terrorist(s) who did this, I would say the test run was a failure. The next step would be to either develop a better method of spore dispersal (e.g. aerial release) or use a more communicable pathogen like smallpox. Both possibilities are rather frightening. So basically, this article leaves me wondering who's responsible for the anthrax attacks and will we ever catch them?

Update: Here's a website that lays out all the evidence in the anthrax case. A lot of it I haven't heard about before (via LGF).

Update: I doubt that the info from the above site is that reliable. In his profile of the anthrax sender he states, "the refiner/mailer probably watches Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel." What evidence supports that assertion? Come on! At least he has an exchange with the author of the above article, Dr. Gary Matsumoto that's kind of interesting.

And now for something completely different....

Jokes activate same brain region as cocaine
A study at Stanford University showed that the same brain centers that are activated by cocaine are also stimulated by funny jokes or comic strips. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that one particular brain region, the nucleus accumbens, is stimulated by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Looks like laughter is the best medicine (or dope) after all.

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