Archive for January, 2012

The Opposite of Patient Zero…

Ali Maow Maalin.

On October 26, 1977, Ali Maow Maalin from Somalia, was the last person known to have contracted smallpox (naturally). He was 23 at the time and unvaccinated. He eventually recovered.


Science journalism versus Science writing…

The difference between science writing and science journalism.

Whenever a science story breaks, you can be sure you’ll read about it in more than one place. Different writers will have their different take on the “paper du jour” and for the most part there’s nothing wrong in that.

Recently, a story broke about evolution and the jump from single to multicellular organisms. All the major places covered it. They all had their take. Funnily enough, the story itself was scrutinised by other experts in the field, wondering on the merits of the original paper. And just as sure that night follows day, a twitter debate ensued.

One thing jumped out at me as I read the different versions of the same piece. There is a difference between science journalism and science writing. Personally, I’m drawn more to science writing pieces as they, on the surface, seem more informed and seem to be more about the one paper that was released. Science writing, to me, has context. The difference between an Op-ed piece and general news.

Freelancers and those starting out in the science “communication” game often have a hard time pitching stories to the major outlets as all the good stories are already taken. Editors have a staff and a list of freelancers that will be their first call to cover a story. As a freelancer its probably more prudent to pitch the stories no one else is writing about, or the unique take on a story everyone else is writing about. This in itself is a double edged sword as the stories no one else is writing about is probably not of interest to your editor. A nice Catch22 to have that will proabably ultimately make you a better writer for it.

And as I write this TheOpenNotebook has a piece on writers looking to make the move from news to features.

Dengue stronger the second time round…

Originally appearing at, Jan 12, 2012…

Albert B Sabin is probably best known for his works and research on the polio virus. During World War II he worked on and developed vaccines for encephalitis (sleeping sickness), sand-fly fever, and dengue fever. It is his work into dengue fever during this time that is now having possible implications for vaccine development today — 60 years later.

Symptomatic dengue infection is characterized by fever, joint and muscle pain, headache, rash, vascular leakage and occasionally hemorrhage. Dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome are the type of outcomes that result with lack of a proper medical care — something not uncommon across much of the developing world. Severe disease in secondary infections is also a common trait of dengue.

Research into dengue fever during World War II in human volunteers showed that some level of protection from the disease is provided further down the line. After an initial infection with one dengue virus serotype, the individual is protected for a period of time from the disease caused by another serotype; for a limited period of a few months, after which protection becomes serotype-specific.

The findings from two independent studies in Managua, Nicaragua by researchers publishing in Science Translational Medicine now points to the mechanism of such protection.

The fours serotypes of dengue are unique in their interactions to form disease. The interplay of disease and immune system could mean the difference between getting a mild fever and going into a fatal circulatory failure from dengue hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome.

After the first infection the immune system reacts normally by creating antibodies to fight the viral invaders. It is what happens during the second that lead the researchers to investigate further. Those antibodies, upon a secondary infection, can often be confused when confronted with a second different serotype of dengue. The antibodies don’t fully recognise the second infection, not only that, they seem to help the virus invade the immune system.

This sort of correlation of prior immunity and disease has been observed in an immune-enhancement way with HIV and influenza. It is only dengue that impacts a clinical outcome.

With the development of the first ever dengue vaccine underway, “Our findings have implications for vaccine development and implementation, as the precise genetics of vaccine strains, as well as the timing and serotype sequence of infection prior to and after vaccination, play an important role in determining the outcome of infection,” said the study’s lead author Molly OhAinle in a press release.

Image — source

OhAinle, M., Balmaseda, A., Macalalad, A., Tellez, Y., Zody, M., Saborio, S., Nunez, A., Lennon, N., Birren, B., Gordon, A., Henn, M., & Harris, E. (2011). Dynamics of Dengue Disease Severity Determined by the Interplay Between Viral Genetics and Serotype-Specific Immunity Science Translational Medicine, 3 (114), 114-114 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003084

Men often hate …

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

The beautiful (numbers) game…

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

In 2006 two nations took to the field in Berlin, Germany in front of a worldwide audience of 715 million people. Italy were to play France in the final of the FIFA World Cup. The match itself would later become famous for  that “head butt” by France’s Zinédine Zidane. But despite being eclipsed by a moment of madness, the 90 minutes of the match played out with each team only scoring 1 goal, ending with Italy winning it on penalties.

Football at its most basic is one played between two teams of eleven players each using a spherical ball. With each team striving to score by driving the ball into the opposing goal — sometimes as the result of skillful interactions among players, other times by hook or by crook. This is the view of researchers from Japan in a recent paper. Publishing in PLoS One the team analysed the 2006 FIFA World Cup final from a purely mathematical view, reducing players to nodes and vertices connected by links representing passes. Apt, as the match itself had nothing exceptional about it.

“Football can be regarded from the network perspective as a competitive relationship between two cooperative networks with a dynamic network topology and dynamic network node.”

Their aim was to examine the network. The network of passes and interactions between players, nodes, and hubs. And to see if they could apply the power law to the perceived network. The power law, a way to describe two differing quantities, can be applied to anything and has been applied to distributions of a wide variety of physical, biological, and man-made phenomena.

Football can be a metaphor for everything. Life, death, birth and redemption. Nations that are the punchlines to each others jokes and nations that drop bombs on each other are reconciled through football.

Football, in their eyes, is simply a competition between two complex networks — a competitive relationship between two cooperative networks with a dynamic network topology and dynamic network node. Two networks trying to get the better of one another by their inherent network actions and interactions — passes and strikes.

The self-organization of networks frequently coincides with the appearance of power-law distributions. They analyzed the probability distribution that emerged in the passing behavior. Investigating the human dynamic movement pattern in a real setting. Indeed, they did show that the power law degree distribution presented itself in the passing behaviour between those two teams in Berlin.

Your playmaker, the player Italians call “fantasista” is a node that has more connections than an average node — a hub through which all things go through. Researchers highlighted this as a unique feature in football games — or more accurately the “stochastically switched dynamics” of the playmaker throughout the game. In many other networks the hub is taken as a static feature. In football, the function of the hub switches, shifting the topology of the network depending on the attacking opposing team.

What goes on during a football game can be described another way — two competing networks that will never synchronise because their “goals” are mutually exclusive. Two networks connected by a feedback loop — external inputs represented by the actions of the opposing team — changing and modifying the system inherently.

Analysing a football match in such a way hasn’t really been done before. All in all, it allows a different view of a game, and also has its implications that can be applied to biological and communication networks. But, as of yet, cannot be used to predict anything about how the game will possibly unfold.

Image — source

Yamamoto, Y., & Yokoyama, K. (2011). Common and Unique Network Dynamics in Football Games PLoS ONE, 6 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029638

What had I twaught…

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