Why the BP Oil Spill is Hard to Fix

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been gushing its toxic crude into the ocean for over two months despite BP’s focused efforts to bring it under control. Occurring at an unprecedented depth of 1,500 meters (5000 feet) below the sea, the BP oil spill lies in the ocean’s Bathypelagic, or Midnight Zone. This great depth poses several challenges which have made oil containment difficult.

A Deep Sea Oil Spill Response

The incredible depth of the BP oil spill makes direct human intervention impossible. SCUBA divers cannot go down and simply patch up the broken oil well due to the freezing temperatures and crushing pressures occurring in the ocean’s Midnight Zone. Temperatures at this depth hover at a constant 4 °C (39 °F) and the pressure at 1,500 meters is roughly 2200 pounds per square inch*. Consider applying one ton of force to every square inch of the body – it is certainly enough to crush a person. Adding to the difficulties, the aptly named Midnight Zone is pitch black as sunlight simply does not filter down to these depths.

* Calculating PSI: 5000 feet* 0.445 lbs per foot of depth = 2225 PSI

Oil Spill Response Equipment: Robots

Since the BP oil spill is happening in a place humans can’t reach in person, robots are sent instead. However, according to CNN’s John D. Sutter in “Deep-sea mysteries: Why drilling in ‘inner space’ tests human limits”, robots present a few challenges of their own. First, the oil containment robots BP is using were designed to support drilling operations – not repair blowouts. Second, these robots simply do not have the dexterity humans do. According to Sutter, simple tasks such as attaching a nut to a bolt would take a human a few seconds – but would take a robot about 30 minutes.

Finally, the robots are operated through cables that are miles long. This restricts the robots’ movements. It also means it can take hours to bring the robots up to the boat and send them back down again. Compared to space exploring robots, the oil spill responders have it hard. Sutter notes that robots in space could send back signals to Earth via low-power radio frequencies. Sending signals through water however is difficult – hence the bulky cables.

Oil Spill Containment At Last?

According to The Washington Post article “Oil leak is stopped for first time since April 20 blowout” (Joel Achenbach), BP has finally stopped the flow of oil. However, the well must still be monitored carefully and pressure readings must be taken to ensure there are no leaks. This requires further use of video carrying robots looking for leaks. It is also important to note that even with the well shut, the oil spill will continue to affect the marine environment for years to come.


Human Evolution Since Modern Man: Larger Populations Evolve Technology Faster

Animal evolution involves genetic change, and this is how modern humans evolved from their ancestors. These modern humans appeared around 20,000 years ago, and, according to recent research subsequent changes owe more to cultural transmission than any biological changes.

Modern Humans

Homo sapiens sapiens (the subspecies usually known as ‘Modern Man’) probably originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Biologically they were the same as any humans alive today, and the earliest used stone tools much as their ancestors had.

Stone Ages of Man

Humans, and pre-humans, have made and used stone tools for 99% of human history.

  1. At first the tools were little more than handy cobbles with sharp edges made by banging two stones together, and the sharp flakes of stone that were created in the process
  2. Later the stones (usually flint) were shaped much more carefully, producing ‘Hand Axes’ or ‘Bifaces’.
  3. In the final stages of the palaeolithic (the Upper Palaeolithic, or the Late Stone Age) much more complex stone tools were created.
  4. Eventually (in the Neolithic) the stone tools associated with agricultural people were finely polished.

Length of Each Period in the Stone Age

  • The first two stages lasted for an incredible length of time (around 2 million years), and it has always been thought that the changes reflect the evolution of the various species involved. All these animals spent most of their time in small groups, and life was short.
  • The last two stages began around 90,000 years ago and ended when people began using metals. During these (much shorter) periods people seem to have been living in larger groups, culminating in settled agricultural villages.

Human Intelligence and Development of New Technologies

Skull remains show that the new species (Homo sapiens) had a larger brain size than most predecessors, and the fact that this species went on to develop new technologies at an ever-increasing rate used to be attributed to a steady increase in intelligence. But there have always been problems with this idea, for example:

  • The New Stone Age began in Africa around 90,000 years ago and then died out 25,000 years later, only to re-appear about 40,000 years before present. This would imply that the species became more intelligent, then lost intelligence for thousands of years, then re-gained its mental abilities.
  • People in different parts of the world developed new technologies at different times – indeed in historical times some were still in the Stone Age while others were industrial. How is this possible if they were all equally intelligent?

New Theory of Technological Development

A team at University College London has just put forward a new theory to explain why people in different parts of the world might have developed their technologies at different rates. Broadly this theory suggests that the size and age-structure of the population was the most important factor – a lot of people having a lot of ideas, and some people lasting long enough to pass on these ideas to the next generation. This would explain the accelerating effects of literacy, printing, and more recently the internet – indeed, in one sense, the whole human population in now one community, and new ideas can be spread widely and archived indefinitely!

Zoologists have long considered humans a special case where their recent evolution is concerned, recognising that changes in the way they behave owe more to their cultures than their genetic makeup. This new theory uses evidence to show that they are correct.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): Dealing with Inflammation and Infection of the Reproductive Organs

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) is a broad term for infection of one or more of the female reproductive organs – the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. It is relatively common, according to NHS Direct, affecting one in 50 women. It is caused by an excessive growth of bacterium in the vagina, and is sexually transmitted in most cases. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea are common culprits*.

In some cases, bacterial infection is introduced to the vagina during medical procedures such as abortion, gynaecological examinations, fitting a coil, or as a result of miscarriage or childbirth. The bacterium live in the vagina and slowly travel upwards to infect the reproductive organs. This can lead to the development of cysts, which will need to be removed. The movement of bacterium can take a while, which is why a woman may have no symptoms for a while after being infected.

Symptoms of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

Part of the problem with PID is that symptoms can be mild, and a woman may not realise she has it until it is picked up during routine testing. Ask your doctor to check things out if you have recurrent stomach, pelvic or lower back pain, or vaginal discharge of any kind. An bacterial infection can spread quickly and make you feel quite ill so seek medical help if you have any of the following common symptoms: –

  • Recurrent pelvic, stomach, rectal or lower back pain.
  • Feeling sick.
  • Developing a fever.
  • Heavy periods and spotting blood between periods.
  • Constant tiredness.
  • Vaginal discharge.

Diagnosing Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

Your doctor will do several tests to determine what the infection is. These include swab testing, which involves taking a sample of any discharge for lab analysis. Blood and urine tests may also required. If the infection cannot be identified, a laparoscopy may be required to examine the internal reproductive organs.

Treating Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

If left untreated PID can damage the fallopian tubes and affect fertility so treatment needs to be prompt. The NHS explains that even a few days can make a difference in terms of the amount of scarring to the fallopian tubes. If your symptoms are mild or come and go, have a check-up to make sure everything is okay. If PID is diagnosed, antibiotics (Ofloxacin, Metronidazole, or Doxycycline) are usually prescribed, which should clear up the infection and inflammation within 1-2 weeks. Even if you feel better after a few days, you need to finish the course of antibiotics to avoid recurrent infection. Painkillers will help ease any chronic pelvic pain, if required.

During treatment, you need to rest and look after yourself. Eat a balanced diet and abstain from sex until the infection has cleared up.

In severe cases, surgery may be required to remove abscesses and/or the fallopian tube(s), if the damage cannot be reversed. This is a process called Salpingectomy.

As Pelvic Inflammatory Disease is usually sexually transmitted, you will need to inform any recent sexual partners so they can be tested and treated, if necessary.

Preventing Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

To help prevent vaginal infections and PID it is important to have regular sexual health checks to identify any problems early on. Practise safe sex and use condoms with new sexual partners. If you are using the coil as a contraceptive method, your doctor may advise that you review this, as the coil can be an irritant and cause of PID.

PID is a serious health issue that requires prompt treatment. In most cases, antibiotics will clear up any infection and inflammation within two weeks’. Even if your symptoms are mild, always seek medical advice from your doctor or local sexual health clinic.

Sexual Health Resources

*Chlamydia is responsible for 75% of cases of PID, followed by Gonorrhoea (14% of cases) NHS Direct, accessed 30th August.

Women’s Health Handbook, by Dr Miriam Stoppard, Dorling Kindersley, ISBN 07513 1434 X.

What Is the Pupil and How Does It Change Size? How Your Eyes and Brain Control Light Intensity on Your Retina

Nerve responses and specialized structures control the aperture that regulates the amount of light that enters the eye and falls on the photoreceptors.

The eye is the brain’s window on the world, the first portal to the processes associated with vision. And similar to cameras and taking pictures, either too much or too little light can lead to images that lack for detail, display distorted coloration, and generate lower resolution images than desired. The eye has a specialized structure at its anterior (front) end, the pupil, which plays a critical role in maximizing visual inputs.

The Eye and Refraction of Light

The front part of the eye is most involved in the process of refraction of light. That is, the structures of the anterior segment of the eye are most involved in the process of bending (refracting) light so that the images will focus on the retina, the light-sensitive and sensing structure in the posterior (rear) of the eye. The front part of the eyeball, or globe, contains the cornea, the anterior and posterior chambers, the iris (the visibly colored circle in the front of the eye), the ciliary bodies, the lens, and the pupil.

What Is the Pupil?

Most simply, the pupil is an aperture, an opening. In this case, it is the opening through the iris that lets light pass to and through the ocular lens and onward towards the retina. The pupil is the dark spot in the center of the iris. It appears dark because light that enters the eye is absorbed by the internal structures of the eye and doesn’t reflect back through the pupil.

What Controls the Pupil?

The size of the opening through the iris, known as the pupil, is controlled in response to contraction and relaxation of the different muscles that are part of the iris. The dilation (widening) or constriction (narrowing) depends on numerous signals in a circuit that involves the pupillary muscles, the retinal ganglion cells, the optic nerve (the second cranial nerve, CN II), regions of the brain and brainstem and the oculomotor nerve (the third cranial nerve, CN III).

How Does Pupil Size Change?

When light shines into the eye, the signals from the retina travel to the higher centers of the brain for the processing of visual input. But when it comes to constricting the pupil, neural signals exit the retina and then pass through a different circuit that goes to deeper, older structures of the brain and a signal goes back out through a different nerve back to specific muscles of the iris, the sphincter pupillae, causing them to constrict, narrowing the pupil. This is known as the pupillary reflex. It can not be consciously controlled and serves as a useful indicator of neural function through specific parts of the brainstem. More importantly, this reflex is “consensual”; that is if light is shone specifically into one eye, the pupil of the other eye will constrict right along with the pupil that is being illuminated.

There are another set of muscles in the iris that are known as the dilator pupillae. When these muscles are activated, via a different neural pathway than the sphincter pupillae muscles, the pupil will dilate. Both the constricting and dilating pathways are themselves countered by other neural signals that can inhibit their action. Ultimately, the size of the pupil is determined by the intensity of contraction of the different muscles, regulated by both their positive and negative signals.

Drugs That Change Pupil Size

When someone has a dilated exam at the eye doctor, specific drugs are used that block the action of the muscles controlling pupillary constriction. This aids in the examination of the eye and its internal structures. So drugs like tropicamide, phenylephrine and atropine can cause dilation of the pupil, but so can cocaine, amphetamines and other illicit drugs. Constriction of the pupil can be caused by drugs such as pilocarpine or neostigmine, but can also be caused by drugs of abuse such as heroin or morphine.

In everyday use, the pupil changes size in response to ambient illumination. A lot of light and the pupil constricts to help with visual acuity and keep the light sensing cells of the retina from getting “overexposed”. When it is dark out or a person is in a dimly lit room, the pupil dilates to allow as much light as possible to enter the eye. A remarkably involved system for something that seems so simple.

To learn more about the eye, visit the interactive eye diagram at the US National Eye Institute

Genealogical Surname Studies and the Home DNA Test

While DNA tests are certainly useful for paternity testing, there are many other applications, including some that can be quite helpful from the point of view of genealogy and family heritage research. Surname studies, in which people who carry the same last name can determine how closely they are related to one another, is one such use of DNA testing.

Home DNA Tests

To participate in a surname study, one must have Y-chromosome DNA tested. DNA companies will provide a kit that allows for the collection of a saliva sample at home. A personal DNA test kit consists of a mouth swab or scraper, a collection tube, and a mailing envelope. Home DNA testing kits can be ordered online, and range in price from less than $100 to several hundred dollars, depending on how many markers and how many tests are wanted. Most websites offering tests provide explanations of the various tests, with recommendations for their use. Only men carry the Y chromosome, so male DNA must be collected. Women may participate in a surname study, but only by providing a test from a close male relative with the same surname.

Surname Studies in Genealogy

Surname studies involve compiling the Y-chromosome profiles of men who carry a particular family name. While compiling these profiles will not produce a family tree, it will allow people to determine the probability of relationship. Y chromosome testing can show if two men share a common ancestor. In a surname study, once a Y-DNA test has been completed, the results can be compared with those of other men who carry the same surname.

Joining a Surname Study

The first step in joining a surname study is to find an existing one. Be sure to check variations of the last name, since names like Edmond, Edmonds, Edmund, Edmonde, etc., might easily all be part of the same family. People in the past were not always as concerned about spelling as people tend to be today.

One place to check for studies is Family Tree DNA, where a simple search engine will tell you if a study exists, and how many people are currently part of the study. People who have had their DNA tested at other labs, including the National Genographic Project, may also join a surname project using the results of that earlier test.

Other ways to check for surname studies are by searching Google for a particular name and the words “surname study,” and on the DNA page on Cyndi’s List. If no existing study can be found, a new one can be started. Family Tree DNA provides a link to start a new project.

Non-Paternal Events

There is one aspect of participating in a surname study that may come as a surprise. A significant number (somewhere between 1 and 10%, according to various studies) of people discover that there is a break in the line. For example, a man named Martindale, while participating in a Martindale surname study, may have a genetic profile that does not correspond to anyone else in the group – in fact, he might match a group of people name Edwards.

This is what is referred to as a “non-paternal” event, denoting that somewhere in the line the surname and the DNA don’t correspond. This can be the result of adoption, a name change, or illegitimacy, often many generations in the past. Many name changes were informal, as when a recent immigrant simplified or Americanized his name, or when an orphan was adopted by a relative, step-parent, or neighbor. Until recently, no legal papers were required for these changes.

Genealogy and DNA Tests

Traditional genealogy relies on paper documents to prove relationships between family members, but sometimes those documents are hard to find or non-existent. That’s when DNA and surname studies can help fill in the blanks, by providing clues, opening up new avenues for research, or even disproving kinship theories.

Human Leukocyte Antigens and Autoimmunity: The Role of HLA markers in the Immune Response

Various protein antigenic molecules found on white blood cells determine what substances our immune system cells will react with and to what degree.

Various HLA markers highly influence the immune response. These markers are comprised of the class I and class II Human Leukocyte antigens (HLA). To date, 3,3731 different antigen alleles have been identified. The HLA type represents one’s HLA antigen profile just as the blood type represents the antigen markers on one’s red blood cells.

HLA antigens were first studied as a means of tissue typing compatible donors for transplant matching. Tissue donors with the same HLA profile as the recipient are likely to donate organs that aren’t rejected. Today, tests for HLA antigens are also used to understand patterns of autoimmunity, vaccine efficacy, and one’s response to therapeutic agents.

HLA Testing

Today, tests for HLA typing are also more sophisticated than the early tests, and they rely on DNA-based sequencing technologies rather than antigen-antibody reactions. With these technological advances, HLA testing is more specific and sensitive.

Class I and II HLA Antigens

Class I HLA molecules identify the internal contents of cells and display these contents on the cell surface. Class I molecules act as the cell’s internal alarm system, sounding an alert when changes suggest cancer or viral infections.

Class II HLA molecules act as an external alarm system, initiating an immune response when the body encounters extracellular microorganisms. These HLA antigens prompt the recruitment of antibodies and other immune system components that can fight and eliminate cancerous changes and infected cells. Everyone has their own unique HLA alarm system depending on their HLA type. Different HLA molecules typically send alarms in dissimilar ways.

For instance, the class I HLA antigen B5701 is thought to efficiently alert immune cells to the presence of the HIV virus. This antigen helps to control HIV infection. This is an example of how HLA typing can help identify host resistance or susceptibility to particular organisms as well as drug therapies.

When the HLA-directed immune response is working properly, it protects the body. However, if this immune response is too weak or too strong, it can lead to rheumatoid arthritis, transplant rejection, cancer and infection.


HLA typing has become increasingly important in the study of autoimmune diseases. It’s long been known that certain HLA antigens confer susceptibility to specific autoimmune diseases, and certain HLA antigens offer protection. For instance, a majority of (but not all) Caucasion patients with Graves’ disease have been found to have HLA B8 and HLA Dr3 but not HLA B7. HLA B8 and DR3 are associated with susceptibility to Graves’ disease and HLA B7 is thought to protect against the development of Graves’ disease. Genetic susceptibility can vary among different ethnic groups.

Because there are adequate diagnostic tests and procedures available for the diagnosis of most autoimmune diseases, HLA testing is not routinely performed. An exception is testing for HLA B27. This antigen is often seen in patients with ankylosing spondylitis, uveitis, seronegative spondyloarthropathies, and Reiter’s syndrome. Tests for HLA B27 are often used to help diagnose these conditions.

Adverse Drug Reactions

HLA typing is also useful in identifying the immune system’s response to various drugs. For instance, patients with HLA B1502 treated for seizure disorders with carbamazepine (Tegretol) have a high risk of developing Steven Johnson Disease. Patients infected with HIV who have HLA B5701 and a slower risk of disease progression are likely to react with hypersensitivity reactions to the antiviral drug Abacavir