Stem cell treatments hold much promise in the future as a novel treatment of countless injuries and illnesses.  However, some recent cases have demonstrated that applying stem cells to ailments willy-nilly isn’t the best way to go, and can result in some very creepy side-effects:

I’ve linked to an article giving some professional perspectives on this case; you can also read the original New Scientist article here.

The lesson here, it should be emphasized, isn’t that stem cell treatments are evil, dangerous or wrong, just that the field of research is still very young and unexpected side-effects can happen.  Such creepy surprises will certainly diminish as more clinical trials are done and researchers learn more about how stem cells operate.

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There’s an interesting article on the Washington Post today, about a weather phenomenon that most of us probably don’t even remember being quite so deadly:

Saturday, July 2, 1994, was hot and humid when USAir Flight 1016 took off from Columbia, SC to Charlotte, NC. The plane carried the usual mix of passengers, including a couple embarking on their honeymoon and an entire family that had never before flown.

As the aircraft approached the north end of the runway at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, an intense thunderstorm was in progress. While the captain and first officer discussed the storm as they flew the final approach, evasive action was not taken until they encountered intense wind shear inside a wall of heavy rain. By then, it was too late. The DC-9 cut a grotesque path through a thick stand of trees to the right of the runway, then crashed on the west side of the airport.  Thirty-seven perished.

The cause of the crash was a downburst, a sinking column of air that spreads out in all directions, producing fierce and damaging winds up to 150 mph.  Back in the 1970s and 1980s, these downbursts caused an appalling number of deadly airplane accidents, and almost took out Air Force One with Ronald Reagan aboard.

Fortunately, science came to recognize the threat and advanced warning systems and training have almost eliminated such catastrophes.  The entire article is a fascinating and somewhat chilling read.

I find it interesting that downbursts are, in a historical sense, somewhat of a spiritual cousin to another deadly natural phenomenon: ship-crushing rogue waves.  Both effects are now implicated in significant loss of life (rogue waves in sea travel, downbursts in air travel) but both of them were rare enough that it took a lot of time for science to even recognize their existence, let along understand them.

The world is a complicated place; who knows what other rare dangers might still be out there, not recognized?

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io9 is regularly a source for creepy science-themed posts, and today is no exception:

Go read the whole post to find out why this girl is not, in fact, going to be the source of a zombie pandemic.

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Lest you think I only present cutting edge horrific science, I present to you this project I came across on Instructables today:

It would be a fascinating thing to try out, but not quite sure I’d allow a middle school child — if I had one — to do this as an official project!  Better to stick with potato clocks…

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The banshee, a spirit omen of death in Irish mythology, turns out to have been inspired by a much more elegant, and natural, source, as explained in a post on Wired

Be sure to watch the video at the link to hear what a barn owl sounds like; you’ll understand how it came to be associated with a horrifying wailing spirit!

Thinking of banshees reminds me of an old and often forgotten episode of Ray Bradbury Theater, in which a Peter O’Toole squares off with one of the spirits.  The ending of the episode (part 1, part 2, part 3) is one of my favorites.

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What’s even kinda creepier than murder crime scenes?  Those same crime scenes painstakingly recreated in dollhouse form!

Creepy though they may be, dollhouse crime scenes played a significant role in the birth of modern forensic science, as a post on Salon explains:

It is worth reading the whole thing.

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In what must be one of the oddest stories in the year so far, NPR reported the other day that cat litter was implicated in an accident in nuclear waste disposal.

In February, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst open inside America’s only nuclear dump, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Now investigators believe the cause may have been a pet store purchase gone bad.

"It was the wrong kitty litter," says James Conca, a geochemist in Richland, Wash., who has spent decades in the nuclear waste business.

It turns out there’s more to cat litter than you think. It can soak up urine, but it’s just as good at absorbing radioactive material.

Cat parents (like me) are well aware of the dramatic differences in different types of cat litter.  I wouldn’t have expected that organic vs. non-organic litter could make the difference between the explosion, or lack thereof, of nuclear waste products. 

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Amusement park rides: fun? Sure. Potentially deadly?  Also sure, as I’ve noted before about early “loop-the-loop” coasters.  Modern rides are much safer, of course, but that didn’t stop one journalist from wondering what would happen if the “Booster Maxxx” carnival ride he loved were to malfunction, and he did the math to find out:

Once the adrenaline wore off and I regained control of my limbs, my background in physics (which usually stays pretty well hidden) started rearing its head and I found myself wondering a few things. There are signs plastered all over the Booster that proudly tell you the speed and height of the thing. Which means that it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out how far you would fly if something, or everything, went horribly wrong. And because it happens to be my job to share these kinds of brain farts with the world, I decided to do just that.

It’s a fun calculation, and I especially love the use of Google maps to determine exactly where he would go “splat!” if optimal (by which I mean awful) disaster were to strike.

(h/t Jennifer Ouellette!)

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I’ve been rather busy lately with travel and work, but I thought I’d stop by to link to a video that answers a rather burning question:

Personally, I find it a little anticlimactic.  Sure, there’s a bunch of lava that explodes from the impact zone, but the bag of waste disappears quickly.  Maybe someone can dub some horrifying screams onto the video?

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In an interesting article about nanotechnology, a scientist’s misadventures with nanoparticles of nickel is given as a cautionary tale:

A report published this week in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine told of a Harvard University study examining the little-known field of nanotoxicology, the potentially poisonous properties of these futuristic substances.

The report told of a 26-year-old chemist who used nickel nanoparticle powder at a work bench with no safety procedures in place such as a breathing mask or ventilation hood. Over time she began having throat irritation, facial flushing and nasal congestion. Her skin began to react to the nickel posts of her earrings and a belt buckle that touched her stomach.

Medical tests showed that the scientist had developed an allergy to nickel. In time, she became unable to return to work due to her recurrent symptoms.

It’s definitely good to be worried about the dangers of novel substances whose effects on living creatures are unknown.  However, I found this article almost a hopeful one, because (a) the poisoning came from a lack of obvious and simple safety protocols, and (b) the result — an allergy to nickel — seems like a very predictable outcome, and relatively benign.

That is to say: if unexpected allergies are the worst result from working with nanotechnology, I’ll be delighted.

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