Author Archives: Brian Dougherty

Death and Dying

I think one of the most interesting things to think about is what happens after you die. What is it like? Is there a heaven and hell or are we reincarnated into a tree, a slug, another human, a rock? Or is there just endless nothingness, an eternity of pitch blackness? However, this post is not about the issue of life after death, it is about life just before death.

People have varying views on how they want to live their last days and the critical decisions they make in those last days. I wanted to see if this varied in any significant way from country to country.

One study was done on the views of death and dying in Ireland. The study was a survey in which they asked the 667 adult participants a variety of questions pertaining to their ethical views of health care at the end of one’s life.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Questions the surveyors asked the participants on the issue of decision making in relation to terminal illness (answers as percentages).

As you can see, most participants believed either the doctor, the family, or a combination of the two had authority over decision making when determining treatment in the event they were in the hospital. In actuality, in Ireland, the family does not have any legal standing in terms of decision making for incompetent patients. Decision making is left to the lead physician unless there is a conflict between the best interests of the family and the doctor that decisions are left to Irish courts.

Figure 2

Attitudes towards how the participants would like to be treated while dying (answers as percentages).

Most participants believed a competent person has the right to free will, and also put a strong emphasis on quality of life rather than length, as well as that they feared helplessness and dependence more than death. In addition, the participants put a strong emphasis on spiritual and religious support, showing the country’s strong sense of Roman Catholicism (84.2% of the population).

The study concludes that the Irish general public is massively misinformed on end-of-life care, dying, and death. For many, trust is left to physicians and family. In addition, quality of death is profoundly more important than timing of death and religion plays a major role in determining that quality. But how does Ireland compare to the United States?

A study done by the Pew Research Center set out to ask some similar questions to Americans.

Figure 3

This question most closely relates to question 6 of Figure 2. Interestingly, there is an 8% increase in America compared to Ireland in favor of wanting to be alive no matter what (31% in America and 23% in Ireland).

Figure 4

To me, this is one of the most interesting parts of the entire study. What really jumps out at me is that White and Hispanic Catholics believed it is acceptable to have a moral right to suicide under any case. Of course there are varying views and a vast array of liberal and conservative Catholics, but Catholicism believes that it is a sin to commit suicide as God has given you life and to take that life which he has given you would be grounds to go to hell. At any rate, I found it to be interesting.

I would be curious as to take a look at some of the other major countries around the world (France, China, Japan, Germany, etc.) to find out their views on life just before death and the treatment one should be able to receive. It might be able to tell us a lot about each country’s culture and show some similarities and differences on a topic for which many people have very strong opinions.


The Nicotine Patch

Walking around campus, I always see extraordinary amounts of people smoking. It made me think about ways to quit and which are the most effectively. Specifically, I wanted to look at NicoDerm CQ.

As most know, nicotine is the addictive drug in cigarettes. “Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States.” (NIH) Additionally, cigarette smoking causes 48,000 premature deaths in the US each year. This equates to about 1 in every 5 US deaths. Cigarette smoking and nicotine addiction are very serious issues both here at home and around the globe. As of now, it is still unclear the mechanism behind nicotine addiction, and most drug addiction for that matter; however, it is a serious issue that many people are trying to combat, such as GlaxoSmithKline with the NicoDerm CQ patch.

The NicoDerm patch is a nicotine replacement method. It is three step aid, each with a smaller amount of nicotine than the previous one. The idea is that as the user experiences less and less exposure to nicotine, the less addicted that person will be and has a higher chance of success of quitting than if the person were to quit “cold turkey.” The plan is designed to be an eight or ten week process.

A study was done on the effectiveness of extended-duration transdermal nicotine therapy. It was a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial from September 2004 to February 2008. 568 adult smokers were part of the trial in which they were randomly allocated between two groups: standard therapy (NicoDerm CQ, 21 mg, for 8 weeks and placebo for 16 weeks) and extended therapy (NicoDerm CQ, 21 mg, for 24 weeks).

This study design is very effective and was executed well. Double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials are often the best trials to account for bias and other errors.

Results: After 24 weeks, extended therapy proved to produce higher rates of point-prevalent abstinence (P=.002), prolonged abstinence (P=.001), and continuous abstinence (P=.032) versus standard therapy. In addition, extended therapy reduced the risk of lapse (P=.013) and increased chances of recovery from lapse (P=.001). Time to relapse was also slower with extended therapy (P<.001). Finally, quit rates were higher among the extended group for prolonged abstinence only at week 52 (P=.027).



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The above image shows that extended therapy is more effective in promoting abstinence than standard therapy.

Take home message: NicoDerm CQ is effective in helping people to abstain from and to quit smoking and has other benefits after quitting. Further, another double placebo study of 28 smokers found that transdermal patches and nicotine gum were about equally effective. Even more, combining a patch therapy with a nicotine gum therapy may be even more effective than either therapy alone. The double placebo controls for sensory, psychological, and ritual variables for each therapy method. To me, this study was well done and is credible.

In short, if you are looking to quit using tobacco products, use both a transdermal patch and nicotine gum. If that is not possible because of cost or other possible reasons, choose the one which you prefer because they both are of equal effectiveness.


Athletes: Born or Made

As I sat there watching the Eagles-Giants game, I watched these incredible wide receivers contort their bodies to make some impressive catches, running backs bull through tackles, and pass rushers bust through the offensive line and plant the quarterback on his butt for a sack. It got me wondering, are these athletes born with incredible skill or is most of it earned?

I came across an interesting CBS article called “Are elite athletes born or raised“. The article begins by explaining the story of 30 year old photographer Dan McLaughlin. He wanted to quit his job to pursue his dream of being like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson: to be a professional golfer. A crazy idea, but McLaughlin wanted to find out exactly what I want to find out, if athletes are born gifted or if its something it must be worked for. His coach reported saying his chances of success are smaller than his chances of being a surgeon. His practice schedule: six hours a day, six days a week. This is believed to be the requirement for true expertise.

Genetics play a huge part in determining the success of athletes in their respective sports. LeBron James, who is 6’8″ with a 7′ wingspan is successful in basketball because of his height, his incredible leaping ability with a 40″ standing vertical, and his quick 4.6 second 40-yard dash time. However, place him in a gymnastics competition and he probably will not be as successful as 4’9”, 90 pound Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas who is able to contort her body in unfathomable ways when performing routines. Conversely, place Douglas on a basketball court against towering defenders, and you can probably guess what would happen.

So, genetics clearly plays a major role in determining whether you will be good in one sport or another, but how do people become good at that sport? Here is where the made part comes into play. Professional athletes are rigorous in their workouts and training in order to be one step ahead of their opponents. An NCAA conducted a study on 21,000 current athletes at 627 Division 1-A schools. In this USA Today article the college football players surveyed said they spent, on average, about 44.8 hours a week on the sport between practice, games, film, and weight training. Athletes spend incredible amounts of hours honing their skills and trying to be the best athlete they can be through their training and the amount of time put into their sport. Unfortunately, for student-athletes, this can take away from the amount of time they spend on being a student. This is a major argument for people who do not support collegiate athletics, and is an issue which must be discussed and rectified by experts very soon.

I encourage everyone who will read this blog to watch an ESPN 30 for 30 called You Don’t Know Bo. It very frequently airs on ESPN and its sister stations ESPNU and ESPN2. It is the story of sports phenom Vincent “Bo” Jackson, pictured below. The documentary discusses his life in sports from childhood, when he would reportedly throw stones and kill wild boars with them, to his professional career where he played baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. He was born with spectacular athletic abilities, but injury forced him to work harder than ever before to return to athletics. Bo is a perfect example of how even a once in a lifetime athlete, who was rated the greatest athlete of all-time by ESPN, still needs to practice and work to be great.

Take home message: people are born with genes suited to certain physical traits that allow for increased athletic performance, i.e. height, build, natural flexibility. What sets these people apart is drive, another thing people are innately born with. You cannot teach or be taught drive and desire to reach a specific goal. So, are athletes born or made? The answer: both. Genes and practice are both quintessential factors in building an outstanding athlete.



Fish Are Friends, Not Food

I recently came across a strange species of fish called the pacu, a relative of the piranha known for its mythical taste for human flesh. The pacu is native to South American freshwater and is well known for its teeth, which are scarily similar to human teeth. Pacu can reach up to 3 feet long and weigh up to 55 pounds in the wild. Pictured below is a massive Black Pacu (Colossoma macropomum). 

The pacu has been blamed for the castration of several fishermen wading in the water trying to get a bite. Ironically, the only bite they got was one on the testicles. We now know it is not the pacu who is responsible; however, the most interesting thing about this fish is not the mythical taste for human testicles, but its uncanny similarity to humans. Unlike its relative, the piranha, the pacu does not have sharp pointed teeth. Instead, it possesses a set of square, straight teeth very similar to human teeth as seen below. Pacu feed on seeds and nuts. The outer shells of its diet require teeth stable and blocky enough to bite through the hard shell, hence why pacu do not have razor sharp teeth like the piranha.

I am not one who believes in coincidence very often. I strongly believe in everything has a purpose to it. So because of the way I think, I automatically said to myself, we must be related to these fish in some way or form. 10th grade biology taught me that everything on Earth evolved from a common ancestor, so I know somewhere along the line we are related to the pacu. But the issue in question is not are we related, it is how closely related we are.

One way to answer this is to look at the anatomy of fish and humans and compare the similarities. In an article written by Joe Palca of NPR, Neil Shubin claims that every component of our being is a variation seen in fish. He suggests this after spending years in the Canadian Arctic searching for a very important part of the story of sea-dwelling animals making the transition to land. He discovered Tiktaalik (seen below) in 2004. Dubbed a “fishapod”, Tiktaalik (who lived 375 million years ago) may have been the missing link to finding out how we got to where we are now as humans.

From the two pictures above, there are clear similarities in the bone structures of Tiktaalik and modern humans. Both have a rib cage, joints, shoulders, a neck, and a skull to encase the brain (the human brain is much more complex, but Tiktaalik shows evidence of the beginnings of a much more complex brain than earlier animals). The most interesting bones found in Tiktaalik are not the ones listed above, but the fins as seen below. As you can see, Tiktaalik has a very primitive human hand with a humerus, radius, ulna, and what looks like to be the beginnings of a set of fingers. Tiktaalik’s fin bones show the beginning of the long evolutionary process from fish transitioning into many of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals we see today. Furthermore, in a series run by PBS called Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin is featured as he explains our evolutionary process from sea-dwelling creatures. This short clip from one of the three episodes explains the finding of Tiktaalik.

So after seeing the evidence that Tiktaalik may be our earliest fish ancestor, I was still left wondering how possible it is that humans and pacu are related in some way. I would argue that it is quite possible. In order to explain that argument, I must first explain the evolutionary process. I remember from my 11th grade anthropology class that one theory of evolution argues that many variations of a species inhabit our planet at once, but natural selection causes the weaker, less well-adapted species to go extinct. Tiktaalik’s successors likely would have broken into several variations, some big, some small, some fast, some slow, some herbivores, some carnivores. How possible is it that somewhere along the line, humans and pacu shared a later common ancestor than Tiktaalik? Such an animal would have to have use for a set of teeth to break hard objects and it would have to be amphibious in order to eventually break into land-dwelling species and sea-dwelling species.

As of now, the only way to truly know how closely related we are to pacu and other fish would be to conduct a gene test between the species. A gene test would allow us to look at the genetic sequential similarities and be able to put a percentage on how similar they are. For example, chimpanzees and humans are about 96% similar in their DNA. Clearly pacu and humans would be far less than that, but I believe the percentage has the potential to be much higher than most would assume. Shubin and his team continue to learn about Tiktaalik and its importance to human evolution and the evolution of land creatures as a whole. I believe a genetic comparison between humans and pacu would not only surprise a lot of people, but would also reveal a lot about our origins as humans and our path to where we are today. Additionally, it may also put into perspective just how intertwined we are with the rest of our world.



The Phantom Limb

One of the most interesting phenomenons in medicine is the phantom limb. The phantom limb refers to the pain or sensation in an amputated part of the body. Early accounts of this syndrome go as far back as the 1550s when French surgeon, Ambroise Paré, took note of his patients’s pain in the effected limb even after amputation. So why do people feel pain after amputation?

The British Journal of Anaesthesia (BJA) reports that “several retrospective studies—but not all—have pointed to pre‐amputation pain as a risk factor for post‐operative phantom pain”. A relationship between pre-amputation pain and post-operative phantom pain, 1 week and 3 months after amputation, was found when Lone Nikolajsen conducted a study on mostly vascular amputees; however, this finding was not consistent among test subjects who were operated on 6 months before the study. This graph below is the data he found. Pre-amputation pain ≥20 increases the risk of phantom limb pain ≥20 1 week after amputation. Each dot on the graph represents one amputee. In addition, other cases show that phantom pain can mimick pre-amputation pain in severity and location. In another study done by Joel Katz and Ronald Melzack, 68 amputees were asked about the relationship between their pre-amputation pain and their phantom pain from 20 days to 46 years after amputation. 57 of the amputees said the phantom pain resembled their pre-amputation pain. 

This evidence establishes that pre-amputation pain is co-relational to phantom limb pain, but what is the mechanism? As of now, the BJA is not positive on a mechanism for phantom limb pain but there is evidence for peripheral contributions to the phenomenon. Most listed by the BJA are far too complex and complicated for us non-science majors, but they do explain that phantom pain is far more common in those who experience long-term stump pain rather than those with persistent pain. In addition to the peripheral factors, the BJA says there is likely a mechanism linked to the spine and/or cerebral area. The mechanism probably begins peripherally and generates into the spine and brain as the pain persists over a longer period of time. A better understanding of the mechanism will lead to better treatments of phantom limb pain.

The BJA reports that in 1980 there were 68 known treatments for phantom limb pain of which 50 were still in use. One of the most interesting therapy methods is mirror box therapy. Mirror box therapy gives the illusion of having the amputated limb. The patient places the amputated limb into a box, or an enclosed area, with a mirror attached to the outside. When the patient looks at the mirror, the brain is tricked into thinking the limb is still there. David Butler explains the construction and psychology behind mirror box therapy in this video. I would like to see a study done on mirror box therapy as follows to see how well it works, on what conditions of amputation it works, and how frequent it works. 100 amputees of various amputated limbs would be asked about their pre-amputation pain, the same as the Katz and Melzack study. Then, they would undergo mirror box therapy each for the same amount of time. Following the therapy, they would compare the pain to pre-amputation pain. A month after therapy, the amputees would be asked one more time to compare current pain to pre-amputation pain and direct post-mirror box therapy. The study might give us insight to what kinds of amputations can be treated effectively with mirror box therapy and how often it works.



Does Homework Promote Academic Achievement?

We all hate homework. It’s tedious, frustrating, time-consuming, and downright horrible. Sometimes we get points for doing homework and doing well which is always a good reason for getting it done, but could success on homework be the reason for fantastic final grades?

Let’s establish the basics of what we are trying to find here. The x-variable is doing your homework while the y-variable is earning excellent grades. Confounding, z-variables, could include personality traits, lack of procrastination habits, natural ability to succeed in school, etc. Our null hypothesis is that doing your homework does not improve your final grade. Our alternative hypothesis is that doing your homework does improve your final grade and promotes academic achievement.

Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and his colleagues compiled an analysis of dozens of studies done on homework in order to come to a conclusion on whether homework is effective. If it is effective, how much homework is too much, and what is the appropriate amount to give out to students?

Many of the studies done on this question examine students who are assigned homework with students who are not assigned homework but are still similar in other ways. Interestingly, many of the results found that homework can improve test scores at the end of a topic. “Students assigned homework in 2nd grade did better on math, 3rd and 4th graders did better on English skills and vocabulary, 5th graders on social studies, 9th through 12th graders on American history, and 12th graders on Shakespeare.” (Cooper)

Some studies do not attempt to control for student differences. 35 studies suggest that 77% find the correlation between homework and and academic achievement to be positive; however, they fail to make this correlation among elementary students. One possible solution to control for student differences would be to randomly distribute the students based on similarities so that on average, both the homework group and the non-homework group are about the same in terms of similarities, i.e. learning disabilities, gender, and prior achievement in school. Additionally, Cooper says an explanation for why there is not a correlation among elementary students could be because they do not have well developed study habits and because they get distracted easily.

In short, Cooper suggests that through his analysis, homework is in fact beneficial to students. Not only can it have positive effects on overall grades, but it can also have other benefits such as developing responsible character traits, maturing cognitive capacities, fostering independent learning habits, and growing of good study habits. Cooper, along with most educators, says homework should not exceed 10-20 minutes for children K-2, 30-60 minutes a day for grades 3-6, and varying times depending on the subjects for middle school and high school students.

Some feel that homework can have many negative effects such as developing a disinterest in school among students, homework denies children of leisure time and takes them away from extra-curricular activities which also teach important life skills. It is important to allow teachers and administrators to have flexibility to account for the differences in some students and their families; however, sticking to the prescribed regiment is most effective for most students.

Rival ACC school, the University of Virginia, has a much different take on homework than Cooper. Co-authors Adam Maltese, assistant professor of science education at Indiana University, Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, and Xitao Fan, dean of education at the University of Macau, conducted their own studies and published “When Is Homework Worth the Time?”

Because the paper is twenty-two pages long, I will summarize the findings. If you would like to, the full report can be read here. 18,000, tenth grade students’s survey and transcript data were observed in the study collected from 1990 to 2002 by the National Center for Education Statistics. Unlike many studies done on homework and final grades, Maltese, Tai, and Fan found that time spent on homework did not effect the final course grade among those who did and did not do their homework. Conversely, they did find a correlation between time spent on homework and success on standardized test scores. Maltese says, “Our results hint that maybe homework is not being used as well as it could be.” In order to be more effective with homework, teachers should assign homework which is useful, sort of a quality over quantity type of thing. Rather than give a designated amount of homework, give assignments which will keep the students engaged for a short period of time and allow for a greater chance of retaining that information. In effect, this will also allow for appropriate amounts of time to be allocated towards extracurricular activities which teach young people other valuable lessons while also learning from engaging homework.

All of this raises the question: what is the most effective type of homework assignment? I certainly feel as though this question can best be answered based on each individual person. Because some people are inherently auditory, visual, or hands-on learners, one standard type of homework cannot be called the best. I believe in order to really get the best result from everyone, each person would require their own homework regiment. Seeing as though some schools have entire graduating classes of well-over 2,000 students, creating an individualized homework regiment for each student is simply impossible. So what basic principles should teachers and administrators use to create effect homework?

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) attempted to tackle this tricky question with their “Five Hallmarks of Good Homework.” The first principle is purpose. Students must be given a clear end goal to their assignment such as giving simple division problems in order to understand the concept of division or writing sentences using certain vocabulary words so that students can understand the context of those specific vocabulary words. In addition, ASCD says practice is most effective when given in small doses over long periods of time, concurrent with Maltese, Tai, and Fan. The second principle is efficiency. ASCD says projects which involve cutting, gluing, and constructing are often extremely inefficient even though the teacher has great intentions when they assign them because they are fun and creative. Instead, rather than making a poster, students should be tasked to put themselves in the perspective of their project. For example, ASCD suggests if students are tasked with a history assignment, they should be asked to create a diary entry as if they were the person who experienced what they are trying to learn (writing about what it was like to immigrate from another country, writing about what World War 2 was like, etc.). The third principle is ownership. One of the easiest ways to promote ownership is by giving flexibility. Instead of prescribing a common book for the class to read, teachers could allow students to find their own sources such as magazines and academic journals which are still relevant to the topic. This keeps the students engaged and interested in what they are learning. “Instead of worrying about whether students did the reading, we should be focusing on whether the reading did them any good” (ASCD). The fourth principle is competence. Because, each student is different, they should be allowed to work together if they choose to and receive help on assignments. Students often get discouraged when forced to work alone and are more likely not to complete a task. The fifth, and final, principle is aesthetic appeal. First impressions are extremely important to students. As soon as they see the requirements and details of an assignment, they make a snap decision about whether they are going to do it or not and, if they are going to do it, how well they are going to do it. Students are more inclined to complete an assignment which are visually uncluttered with few information on the page. Lots of room to write answers and the use of graphics and clip art on the page are also quite appealing to students. Visuals are just as important to the student as knowing they have little work to do.

Take home message: homework is beneficial to the student in more ways than just improving final grades but only when allocated effectively. In my opinion, and I think most would agree, there need to be more studies done on the effectiveness of homework. Preferably, some kind of experimental study would be conducted to almost definitively prove that effective homework benefits the student in multiple ways. Of course, a double-blind placebo would be out of the question because the student would know if they are doing their homework or not. Maybe a single-blind study could be effective where the students are randomly placed into two groups, homework and no homework. The teacher would not know who is and who is not doing their homework, but would still assign regular assignments to the class. The students either do or do not complete their homework, and at the end of the semester or grading period, examine the results of how many students received good or bad marks on their final reports. Of course, this study would flawed in that if a student gets placed into the group who does not do their homework but normally would have done their homework and their grade suffers from not doing it, that is infringing on the student’s ability and right to learn, and compromises their own responsibility for their grades; however, at this point, this is the closest I could get to an appropriate experimental study. Any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated in the comments.

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Out-of-Body Experience: Real or Fake?

Many people have reported exiting their natural body and being able to explore their surroundings and even look at themselves, typically as a result of a traumatic experience. This is called an out-of-body experience (OBE), and the religious explanation would most closely be related to the spirit leaving the body. From the views of those who have never experienced this, it is quite difficult to imagine the accounts of those who have experienced it to be credible until now.

This year, Dr. Arvid Guterstam, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and his team of researchers followed the brain as participants underwent a simulated OBE. As the participants lay in an MRI scanner, they were given the illusion of teleporting to another area of the room where they were able to look down at a stranger’s body while being able to see their own body in the background. They were hooked up to a set of cameras located around the room, giving the feeling of having an OBE. Guterstam and his team would touch the stranger’s body and the actual participant’s body simulatenously in the same place. After a few touches, the participant feels as though they are floating (LiveScience).

They examined the brain activity in the temporal and parietal lobes, both involved in spatial perception and the feeling of owning the body. They discovered that the hippocampus is responsible for recognizing where the body is. They also found that the posterior cingulate cortex is what links the feeling of where the body is and the feeling of owning the body.

So what? Why are these findings important? How can they help us? The findings can lead to better understanding of what happens in the brain under a condition called focal seizures. All seizures begin with an abnormal electrical disturbance in the brain, but focal (partial) seizures are limited to one part of the brain. In addition, the research can lead to better understanding of the effects of the anesthetic drug Ketamine. When used recreationally (which is illegal), the drug can induce a feeling similar to an out-of-body experience.

Our World After Fossil Fuels

Our world is run on fossil fuels. The cars we drive, the planes we fly, the electricity that powers our refridgerators and the electricity that powers my laptop to be able to write this post are mainly run on fossil fuels. We are so dependent on them that we cannot imagine our current lives without them…but we are going to have to pretty soon. There is lots of debate on when fossil fuels will be depleted, but Ecotricity estimates our known oil deposits will run dry by 2052, known gas deposits will be gone eight years later, and known coal mines will be empty by 2088. Of course we will continue to find new deposits, lengthening our ability to burn fossil fuels but this is still a huge problem.

Graph showing future energy reserves for coal, gas and oil

First, let’s look at what the world would look like environmentally without fossil fuels. This implies we have burned every last drop of oil and gas and burned the last bit of coal; we have polluted the planet to almost our greatest capacity if not to our greatest capacity. “Burning all fossil fuels would produce a different, practically uninhabitable, planet…Our calculated global warming in this case is 16°C, with warming at the poles about 30°C. Calculated warming over land areas averages ~20°C. Such temperatures would eliminate grain production in almost all agricultural regions in the world,” (MAHB). If we could live on the planet, it would be quite uncomfortable temperature-wise and food production would be quite difficult.

Not only would food production be difficult, inspection would be non-existant and we would not have the capacity to provide enough food for everyone as harvesting and fishing would have to be done by hand. Water treatment would be depleted and humans would delegate back to a time of disease and death as a result of drinking polluted water. The Urban Heat Island Effect would create brutal conditions in cities and make them virtually uninhabitable.

Simply put, we need to find other sources of energy and we need to continue to develop our renewable resources. We must find a way to produce solar panels and wind turbines more cheaply and efficiently so that when the time comes that homes cannot be fueled by coal and oil, everyone can still have electricity in order to avoid a world of chaos and virtual anarchy.


The Wonders of Fasting

 I have always been fascinated by the religious practices of fasting. I’ve always wondered why do people do it and how they are able to go without eating for days when I cannot go even a few hours without eating before I start to feel depleted of my energy. I started to think about the health benefits of fasting, if there are any. It turns out fasting could solve lots of health issues and increase your life span.

First, why do religious groups fast? Perhaps the most famous religious fasting practice is the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Ramadan lasts for one month (the ninth month in the twelve month Islamic calendar) where Muslims do not eat or drink for every day in the month from sunrise to sunset. The fasting is supposed to remind worshipers of people who are hungry and are suffering in the world. It is also supposed to maintain empathy for those suffering. There are clear psychological and moral benefits to fasting in this sense, but what about the health benefits?

Intermittent fasting is a broad-range term for diets which follow a plan of cycling between periods of fasting and non-fasting. Authority Nutrition suggests there are ten potential benefits to intermittent fasting. More can be read by clicking the link above, but I will be explaining a few which I believe to be of most benefit to fasting.

The above chart is a proposed fasting schedule.

The first benefit is that intermittent fasting can reduce weight and help lose body fat. Fasting will enhance hormone function, lower insulin levels and increase amounts of norepinephrine. All of these facilitate the burning of body fat and promote weight loss. In addition, short-term fasting can increase metabolic rate by 3.6-14%. Increased metabolism allows for increased burning of calories.

In addition, fasting can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a condition when your body does not utilize the insulin it produces properly. The pancreas starts to produce extra insulin to compensate, but over time it is not able to produce enough insulin (American Diabetes Association). Fasting reduces insulin resistance, lowering blood sugar levels by 3-6% and reducing insulin levels by 20-31%. This all contributes to the reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the most common type of diabetes.

Heart disease is currently the number one killer in the world (WHO). Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve risk factors for heart disease in animals including cholesterol, blood pressure, blood triglycerides, and blood sugar levels. Most of this evidence has come from animal testing and more human testing must be done.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, intermittent fasting may help prevent cancer. Fasting has been shown to reduce cell proliferation rates, an elemental aspect of cancer development. Cell proliferation reduction has been demonstrated with reduced feeding frequency. Again, lots of these studies have been done on animals; however, fasting has also been shown to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy in humans. Lots of other health benefits from fasting can be explored here.

The evidence given shows that intermittent fasting can be quite beneficial to your health. The only negative about it is that most testing has been done on animals rather than humans. Clearly, more testing must be done on humans to truly understand the benefits to humans. Regardless, periodically starving yourself may be the secret to a longer, healthier, and happier life.



The Harm of Being a Pitcher

On my most recent post about the difficulty of hitting a baseball, one Alexandra Herr posted a comment wondering about the harmful effects of being able to throw as fast as MLB pitchers do. Hopefully she reads this as I would like to thank her for giving me the idea to research and blog about the subject because it is an age-old question being tackled in various ways. Some pitchers can throw well over 100 miles per hour, faster than some cars can even drive. This surely must have some large part to play in injury; however, I believe it is important to examine the effects on young pitchers around the Little League level as well because young pitchers harmed by elbow and shoulder injury could have their baseball careers cut too short.

Pictured above is Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher, Aroldis Chapman. He currently holds the MLB record for fastest pitch ever thrown at 105.1 miles per hour, an unfathomable speed. Before even discussing injury, it is important to understand the bodily mechanics of how it is possible to throw this fast.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are six phases to throwing a pitch: windup, stride, late cocking, acceleration, deceleration, and follow-through.

The windup is started by lifting the glove-side leg to its highest point. This allows the pitcher to reach maximum velocity. When the leg gets to its highest point, balance is maintained by keeping the center of gravity over the planted leg. If balance is disrupted or the stride begins too early, more stress will be placed on the shoulder to throw at top velocity, increasing the chance for shoulder injury.

The stride, or early cocking, starts when the glove-side leg gets to its highest point and the ball is separated from the glove and ends when the glove-side legs plants on the mound. The stride occurs in order to achieve maximum energy transfer to the upper part of the body. The throwing-side knee and hip begin the process of pelvic rotation. During the pelvic rotation and forward tilt, the pelvis reaches maximum velocities of 400 to 700 degrees per second. The lead foot lands in line with the stance foot, and so starts the late cocking phase.

Late cocking begins with the lead foot landing and ends with maximum external rotation of the throwing shoulder. As the body rotates to face home plate, external rotation of the throwing shoulder can reach between 165 degrees to 175 degrees as shown below. These extreme rotations allow the arm to maintain accelerating forces over longer distances, resulting in a faster pitch.

The next phase is acceleration. This requires the arm to travel from up to 175 degrees of external rotation to 100 degrees of internal rotation in just .042 of a second. Unfortunately, this is where most of the worst pitching injuries come from. Extreme rotations in a fraction of a second cause massive stress on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), often tearing it and forcing the infamous UCL reconstructive surgery (Tommy John). Internal rotation of the humerus can reach as much as 185% of its maximum muscle test strength while reaching velocities of 9,000 degrees per second.

For the purposes of this blog, the deceleration and follow-through phases are insignificant, but more can be read on some incredible discoveries in the phases via the link to the NCBI.

Through the previous information, we have learned the incredible stress on the throwing arm that occurs with each pitch, and some pitchers throw up to 120 pitches a game! The amount of stress is staggering and it comes as no surprise that over the past three years, 25 to 30 pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery each year.

While most pitchers who undergo UCL reconstruction are able to return to their previous level of competition, some may never recover. In addition, most pitchers can expect to miss entire seasons during the recovery phase. It usually takes anywhere from 12-16 months to return to competitive throwing but some have returned in as little as 11 months and some as many as 30 months.

Another common injury experienced by pitchers is a tear in the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons which connects the humerus to the shoulder blade. The tendons provide stability to the shoulder while the muscles allow the shoulder to rotate in a circular motion (WebMD). Rotator cuffs can be repaired in a plethora of ways with the most drastic being full shoulder replacement. Depending on the size of the tear, recovery can take up to 6 months which may not seem like much, but to an MLB pitcher could be the difference between missing the playoffs or pitching in game 7 of the World Series.  A video of how the rotator cuff works and can be injured can be seen here. On the same site, the variety of rotator cuff treatments can be seen, as well.

So the next question is: how do we prevent these injuries? Little League Baseball has taken the lead in preventing young throwing injuries. In 2006, they implemented pitch count limits designed to protect young arms. Those rules can be seen below. To date, this is the most effective way of ensuring the safety of young baseball players and protecting their future prospective athletic careers.

Yet, another question remains: how do we protect our professional, multi-million dollar pitchers? Further, do we have the responsibility to protect them since they are not amateur? In addition, I would like to see some studies done on the restrictions overuse injuries have on everyday life after retirement for these pitchers. Similar to the studies being done on concussions after football for NFL players, I would like to see advancements in elbow and shoulder injury research get done in the very near future.

How Hard is it to Hit a Baseball?

Everybody knows how hard it is to play the game of baseball. It is so hard that the great Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams once said “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Once in a while, we are given the privilege to watch wonderful athletes on the diamond; generational players like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter, and Mike Trout continue to amaze us with their performances on the field. Just like every other sport, they are professionals for a reason: not everyone can do what they do.

Without even getting into the science of hitting a baseball, it just looks hard. A whistling ninety five mile per hour fastball is zooming just sixty feet six inches away from you, or a diving breaking ball is dropping off the table from where it started to where it will end up on the opposite side of the plate. You are required to make a split-second decision without hesitation whether to swing or to let it pass for a ball. How do these incredible athletes do it? First, let’s take a look at exactly how long you have from the time you must see the ball, to making the decision to swing, and eventually swinging and making contact.

Wayne State University Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Lead Engineer for ESPN’s Sports Science series, Dr. Cynthia Bir, explains just how much time a batter has to hit the ball. In .1 second, the ball has traveled twelve feet as the batter locates the ball out from the pitcher’s hand. It takes another .07 of a second for the batter to recognize speed, movement, and trajectory. By now, the ball has traveled another ten feet, and it will require .017 of a second for the brain and body to work harmoniously when swinging. This leaves just .09 of a second for the batter to decide to swing or not. The slightest hesitation could be the difference between a home run and a swinging strike. This video gives a nice explanation of the aforementioned information.

This is, however, only one aspect of hitting a baseball. Another aspect is swinging with the right trajectory. Swinging with too steep of a downward trajectory will result in a ground ball. Swinging with too much of an uppercut will result in a pop-up. David Kagan, physics professor at California State University-Chico, plotted all 586 home runs during April 2009 of the MLB season. The plot shows trajectory versus exit velocity off the bat. Kagan found that the average home run was launched at an angle of 29 ± 5 degrees at a speed of 101 ± 4 miles per hour (Kagan). There is not much room for error when swinging with the appropriate trajectory for hitting a home run. In addition, the trajectory at which you must swing varies from pitch-to-pitch. Thus, finding the right path at which to swing is quite difficult since there is not one given trajectory for every pitch under the sun. This ESPN special, “Swing of Beauty”, shows this swing trajectory and the swing path of MLB players Michael Young, Curtis Granderson, Dustin Pedroia, and Chase Utley.

In short, the small window of time from when the pitcher releases the ball to when the hitter makes contact paired with swinging at the appropriate trajectory for the given pitch provides one of the most amazing feats in sports: hitting a baseball. Of course, every sport is difficult in its own rite, but hitting a baseball is in a league of its own. I chose to write about the difficulty of hitting a baseball because I know just how frustrating it is from my experiences of playing since I was four. Is there a more challenging feat in the sports world? Are there better ways to understand how hard it is to hit a baseball? Is every sport equally as hard as the rest?

First Entry

Hey, SC 200! My name is Brian Dougherty and I am from Media, Pennsylvania, about fifteen minutes southwest of Philadelphia. I was born in the City of Brotherly Love and lived there for seven years before moving to the suburbs. Philadelphia is a great sports town, and the sports culture certainly found its way to me ever since I can remember. Being from Philadelphia, I am extremely upset that Meek Mill was roasted by the 6 God. Whoever wrote “Back to Back” for Drake…get that man a record deal.

I am a freshman currently in DUS but I plan to major in Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I got the idea to become an entrepreneur after watching a few episodes of Shark Tank). I am taking this course because it fulfills a general education requirement in natural sciences; however, I also enjoy science very much and am interested in how it pertains to everything in life, especially in things you would not expect science to come into play. I am not a science major because becoming an entrepreneur will allow me to work for myself and I will essentially be able to enter any field of my choosing, including science, since I will know how to run businesses no matter the field.

This is the Philadelphia skyline, and if you have never visited the city, try to make your way to the greatest city on earth for some great cheesesteaks! As always, WE ARE!