Vaping as a ‘Gateway’ to Smoking is Still More Hype Than Hazard

Lynn T Kozlowski, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

As e-cigarettes become more popular, there has been a push to understand whether they are a “gateway” to regular, combustible cigarettes.

Two recent studies on e-cigarettes as gateways to smoking in teens and young adults have made headlines. And opponents of e-cigarettes have welcomed any crude signal of gateway effects.

As a public health professor with related research and interests in tobacco policy as well as in the complex factors that influence use of tobacco/nicotine products, I want to offer some thoughts on this research. Looking for a gateway effect between e-cigarettes and smoking is understandable. But is it the best question to ask about e-cigarette use?

The studies

These studies find evidence for a small association (or limited gateway) between e-cigarette use in nonsmokers and a progression to trying cigarettes in a one-year study period.

The more recent of the two studies was published in September 2015 (authored by Primack et al), in JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers followed 694 12-26-year-olds for a year. None had tried cigarette smoking at the study’s start, though 16 had tried e-cigarettes. (Perhaps the worthiest headline would be that only 2% of never-smokers tried e-cigarettes.)

A year later, 10% of the never-triers of e-cigarettes had taken at least one puff on a cigarette. But 38% (six of 16) of e-cigarette triers had taken at least one cigarette puff. This study focused on cigarettes and reports no information on prior hookah, cigar, marijuana, alcohol or smokeless tobacco use. If even two of the 16 were discounted because of prior use of other products, these results would likely be statistically insignificant.

The other study (authored by Leventhal et al) was published in August 2015 in JAMA. They followed 2,530 14-year-old school students for one year. None were smokers of any combustible tobacco products, including cigars, hookah and cigarettes at the start of the study, but 222 had tried e-cigarettes.

After 12 months, 25% of the e-cigarette triers had smoked at least one puff of a smoked tobacco product, compared to only 9% of the non-e-cigarette triers.

‘At least one puff’

Both studies found that young people who tried e-cigarettes were somewhat likelier to try smoked tobacco products, but that doesn’t mean e-cigarettes are a substantial gateway to regular smoking.

Rather than reporting usual measures of current smoking (ie, any cigarettes in the past 30 days) or daily smoking, both studies used “at least one puff” or “just a few puffs” in the past six months or lifetime.

It is as if an apple researcher thought “taking at least one bite of an apple in the past six months” was an important measure of initiation of apple eating.

But, research shows that a puff on one cigarette is crudely linked with daily smoking. Following teenagers who had not yet puffed on a cigarette, they found that 48% took at least one puff in the 12-month follow-up period. But of those, only 20% became daily smokers.

Leventhal et al do acknowledge that future work needs to assess risks of “regular, frequent” smoking. Indeed, until we understand if the observed small gateway is only to experimentation or to frequent, dependent smoking, the more critical question is unanswered. In that only a subset of these observed gateway triers will move on to be regular smokers, it is almost certain that further follow-up of these samples will be unable to demonstrate a major gateway to heavy tobacco use.

Both studies also used a measure of “susceptibility” to smoking that is even more tenuously connected to becoming a future frequent smoker and also can be greatly discounted by assessing prior use of other drug products, including smokeless tobacco.


That Purple Haze in the Windows of Some Boston Brownstones Explained

If you find yourself walking through the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, you may notice something beautifully strange about some of the windows in the Brownstones there: they are purple! The reason for this goes back to the manufacturing of the glass in the mid-1800s when a mistake made by a European glass manufacturer caused the windows that were cryistal clear when they were delivered to turn purple over time.

A fun article on the Boston Magazine website goes on to explain:

The purple windows, known as Lavenders, are typically found in buildings from the mid-1800s, but these windows don’t incorporate violet hues for stylistic reasons—they were actually a mistake. When the glass for the windows was imported from Europe, it was crystal clear. But after the windows were installed, their exposure to sunlight resulted in a purple tint. The phenomenon was later found to be due to excess manganese oxide in the glass, much to the building owners’ dismay.

Although the chemical flaw was considered a terrible problem back then, in an interesting twist of fate, they have become a status symbol now, according to the article.

To get all the details on the purple-haze windows, see the great article on the Boston Magazine website.


Source: – “Why Some Boston Brownstones Have Purple Windows


Scientists at Work: Space Balloons and Charged Particles Above the Arctic Circle

Alexa Halford, Dartmouth College

I research space weather. That’s how physicists describe how storms on the sun end up affecting us here on Earth. Most days I sit at a computer coding, attending telephone conference meetings with collaborators across the country and meeting with fellow space physicists. But sprinkled throughout the year I get to do exciting fieldwork in remote locations. We launch high-tech space balloons in an effort to help untangle what happens when charged particles from solar storms hit the Earth’s magnetic field, called its magnetosphere.

Events on the sun can change conditions in near-Earth space.

I primarily work with the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL) mission, led by Robyn Millan here at Dartmouth College. We’re investigating the electrons and protons that travel all the way from the sun and then get trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field. Often they stick around, just bouncing and drifting along in our planet’s so-called radiation belts – these are donut-shaped regions rich in charged particles, held in place around Earth by its magnetic field.

It’s a team effort to unravel how space weather works – and affects us.

But during a geomagnetic storm, changes in the Earth’s magnetic field can accelerate and transport these electrons and protons. They can wind up getting “lost”: shot out of the radiation belts back into space or down into our atmosphere. If they start colliding with neutral, uncharged particles in the atmosphere, that can affect upper atmospheric chemistry – and be bad news for our technology down here on Earth. For example, geomagnetic storms can cause blackouts, increased corrosion in pipelines, destruction of satellites and a resulting loss of communication connections.

My colleagues and I focus on the radiation belt electrons that get lost to the Earth’s atmosphere. If we can unravel more about what’s happening with them, the hope is we can figure out how to better predict space weather – and its effects on terrestrial weather. Ultimately, with better understanding of what’s going on, we can work on protecting our technology from these geomagnetic squalls.

What is a magnetic field?

Magnets all around us

The magnetic field of a bar magnet revealed by iron filings on paper. Newton Henry Black

You can think of the Earth as a big bar magnet, like the kind you might have had in your elementary school classroom. You’re probably familiar with magnets’ attractive and repulsive properties. Around a bar magnet, iron shavings trace out what we can think of as lines of magnetic field.

Protons and electrons trapped in Earth’s magnetosphere follow these same kinds of lines, converging at the poles. Typically the particles just gyrate and bounce along these lines, happily drifting around the Earth in those radiation belts. (To get a feel for how the magnetic field lines affect protons and electrons, check out the magnetospheric mini golf game.)

Since space is so big, and the density of particles is so small, they can usually travel without bumping into each other. But during geomagnetic activity – like a storm in space – the particles can get pushed farther down the field line, closer to the Earth. In a process similar to what creates the auroras, they start colliding with the denser atmosphere. And this is when some of the charged particles wind up “lost” from the radiation belts.

What happens to the “lost” particles that seem to disappear in the atmosphere, and why? To answer these questions, we travel to the polar regions to collect data.

Launch of BARREL payload 3B from the SSC’s ESRANGE.  Alexa Halford


It’s a Car! It’s a Jet! It’s a Rocket! It’s Bloodhound!

What’s blue and orange all over and goes 1000 miles per hour on land? The current factual answer is “nothing” but if some wacky English engineers get their way, then the answer to that will soon be “Bloodhound” a fantastic looking vehicle which will use both a jet engine and a rocket engine with an aim to smash the world land speed record. Interestingly, a team lead by the same chief engineer, Mark Chapman, set the current record of 763.035mph (1,227.985km/h) on October 15, 1997.

Bloodhound went on display to the public for the first time yesterday at a car show at Canary Warf in London, according to a very informative article on the BBC’s website.

The car-jet-rocket is about 95% complete, and at the show it is displayed with the panel on one side removed so attendees can see the inner workings of the vehicle.

Bloodhound has yet to take delivery of its rocket system – one of three power units in the car – and is still missing a number of minor aero-surfaces, such as winglets and air brakes, and the long strake that sits in front of the fin on the top of the vehicle.

“It’s amazing to see it like this, away from the workshop and almost ready to go racing,” said chief engineer Mark Chapman.

“I can’t wait to see people’s reaction, to see the look on their faces.”

As you might expect, the propulsion system for car is unique:

To reach 1,000mph, the vehicle will need to produce about 21 tonnes of thrust (210kN).

This will come from a Rolls-Royce Eurofighter-Typhoon jet engine, working in tandem with a hybrid rocket from Nammo of Norway.

The third power unit in Bloodhound is a supercharged Jaguar V8. Its job is to turn the pump that forces liquid oxidiser into the rocket’s fuel chamber.

And if there is technical uncertainty hanging over the project right now, then it has to do with the pump system and the rocket.

Once all the systems are in place and “low-speed testing” (faster than any of us drive!) is complete, the car will be shipped to South Africa to start making runs on a specially-designed track being constructed in the dry lakebed of Hakskeen Pan.

You can read more of the details in the BBC’s excellent article, and we’re looking forward to hearing more news on the SSC Bloodhound next year!


Source: – “Bloodhound 1,000mph car unveiled


[Video] This Futuristic Tech for Soldiers Almost Comes Straight Out of Scifi

There’s this weird feeling I get when I see tech developing that I first saw in a Scifi movie, like we all remember from Alien, with Sigourney Weaver. Indeed, DARPA is funding research by the Harvard University Wyss Institute on exoskeletons for soldiers, as reported in an eye-opening article and video I found on the IEEE Spectrum website.

Here’s the really intriguing video:

Ok, maybe not quite as sexy as Sigourney, but wait ’til they build the real thing…


Source: – “DARPA Tests Battery-Powered Exoskeletons on Real Soldiers


How Climate Change Efforts by Developed Countries are Hurting Africa’s Rural Poor

Kristen Lyons, The University of Queensland and Peter Westoby, The University of Queensland

In recent years there has been significant movement toward land acquisition in developing countries to establish forestry plantations for offsetting carbon pollution elsewhere in the world. This is often referred to as land grabbing.

These carbon trading initiatives work on the basis that forestry plantations absorb carbon dioxide and other polluting greenhouse gases. This helps to undo the environmental damage associated with modern western lifestyles.

Carbon markets are championed as offering solutions to climate change while delivering positive development outcomes to local communities. Heavy polluters, among them the airline and energy sectors, buy carbon credits and thereby pay local communities, companies and governments to protect forests and establish plantations.

But are carbon markets – and the feel good stories that have sprung up around them – all just a bit too good to be true?

There is mounting evidence that forestry plantations and other carbon market initiatives severely compromise livelihoods and ecologies at a local level. The corporate land grabs they rely on also tend to affect the world’s most vulnerable people – those living in rural areas.

But such adverse impacts are often written out of the carbon market ledger. Sometimes they are simply justified as ‘externalities’ that must be accepted as part of ensuring we avoid climate apocalypse.

Green Resources is one of a number of large-scale plantation forestry and carbon offset corporations operating on the continent. Its activities are having a profound impact on the livelihoods of a growing number of people. Norwegian-registered, the company produces saw log timber and charcoal in Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. It receives carbon revenue from its plantation forestry operations.

In Uganda, the focus of our research, Green Resources holds two licenses over 11,864 hectares of government-owned, ‘degraded’ Central Forest Reserve. Historically, villagers could access this land to grow food, graze animals and engage in cultural practices.

Under the licensed land agreement between Uganda’s government and Green Resources, more than 8,000 people face profound disruptions to their livelihoods. Many are experiencing forced evictions as a direct result of the company’s take over of the land.

Carbon violence on local villagers

Villagers across Green Resources’ two acquisitions in Uganda report being denied access to land vital for growing food and grazing livestock. These are at Bukaleba and Kachung Central Forest Reserves. They also cannot collect forest resources. Many say they are denied access to sites of cultural significance and to resources vital to their livelihoods.

There are also many stories about land and waterways that have been polluted by agrichemicals the company uses in its forestry plantations. This has caused crop losses and livestock deaths.

Many of those evicted, as well as those seeking to use land licensed to Green Resources, have also experienced physical violence at the hands of police and private security forces tied to the arrival of the company. Some villagers have been imprisoned or criminalised for trespass.

These diverse forms violence are directly tied to the company’s participation in the carbon economy. Thus Green Resources’ plantation forestry and carbon market activities are inflicting ‘carbon violence’ on local villagers.

Green Resources appears to be continuing to tighten the perimeter of its plantation operations as part of ensuring compliance with regulations and certifications required for entry into carbon markets. This further entrenches these diverse forms of violence. In short, subsistence farmers and poor communities are carrying heavy costs associated with the expansion of forestry plantations and global carbon markets.


Toyota Pursuing AI-assisted Driving for Control Freaks

While some companies, like Google and Tesla, are plowing major research dollars into creating self-driving (autonomous)  vehicles, Toyota intends to create a car that caters to the control freak. A great little article on the Popular Science website reports that the worlds largest automaker has just committed to invest $50 million to establish artificial intelligence research centers over the next 5 years at MIT, Stanford, and other locations:

…the work will have far-reaching interests, from understanding environments and vehicle dynamics to driver behavior. “We’re not just looking at people walking on the street around the car, but also driver distraction, the gadgets we’re using, and general ways and reasons drivers do things,” said Stanford professor Fei-Fei Li, Ph.D. “We’ll be analyzing and understanding this behavior.”

Additionally, researchers will work to make the interventions seamless and unobtrusive—hence the pursuit of artificial intelligence, rather than mere driving capability. “We want the AI system to securely monitor the drive and offer assistance to the drivers,” Rus says. “It shouldn’t distract the drivers by doing something that is unexpected, making the driver wonder what’s happening. But it has to help in case the driver needs assistance. That’s the autonomous driving that Toyota considers best.”

For more on Toyota’s announcement and pursuit of “crash-proof” (but not self-driving!) cars that will allow drivers to still be in control, check out PopSci’s informative article on their website.



Featured Photo Credit: Google

Astonishing Treatment Detects and Fights Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer causes the vast majority of cancer deaths, and it is notoriously difficult to detect, but a new breakthrough may make that problem a thing of the past. Using an already-approved, implantable medical material, cancer researchers from across the US have collaborated on a study that created sponges out of that material and implanted them in cancerous rats. According to a highly informative article we found on the Popular Science website, their findings, published in Nature Communications, are astounding: the sponges not only worked for attracting and detecting metastatic breast cancer cells, but also reduced cancer cells in the original tumor by 10%.

Capitalizing on the tendency of cancer cells to follow immune cells around the body to find advantageous environments to settle down in, the researchers theorized that implanting the sponges would cause immune cells to be drawn to the foreign material and that the cancer cells would follow, and according to the article, they were right:

They implanted the sponges in the mice’s abdomens and under their skin, places where cancer doesn’t usually spread. When they removed the sponges 28 days later, the researchers found that they contained cancer cells, though there were no cancer cells in the same tissues without the sponge.

The researchers hypothesize that, when the immune cells flocked to the site of the implanted sponge, the metastatic cancer cells followed, then stayed there when trapped by the sponge. This could help researchers detect metastatic cancer cells sooner, so they can intervene earlier. What’s more, the sponge seemed to soak up other cancer cells from the original tumor environment as well, reducing the number of their cells by 10 percent, which could make the original cancer easier to treat.

The research team also found that the cancer cells got stuck in the sponge and did not start growing or affect the tissue surrounding the implanted sponge.

Of course, there is more research to do to determine if this simple and apparently effective technique would work for detecting other types of cancer, e.g. leukemia, and also if it will work effectively in humans. The team is hoping to be able to start human testing soon while continuing their research in animals as well. You can also read more about the fascinating details in the article on Popular Science’s website.



Featured Photo Credit: University of Michigan Engineering

[Video] This Ultra-cute Otter Had an Asthma Attack – And Then They Taught Her to Do What??

Mishka is a super-cute otter who lives at the Seattle Aquarium. When she had an asthma attack recently that was triggered by the smoke from the summer fires, it made her the first-ever otter to be diagnosed as asthmatic. The dilemma after that was how to treat her, since normally, people with asthma use inhalers to help clear or control their condition, but no one was exactly sure how to get an otter to use one. So what did Mishka’s trainer do? Using food rewards, she taught the otter how to use an inhaler!

In a fascinating article published on the Popular Science website, a vetrinarian who works for the aquarium, Dr Lesanna Lahner, explained:

“She’s on a combination of medications as we transition her from an oral medication to the inhaler,” explains Dr. Lahner. Fluticasone, the medication in Mishka’s maintenance inhaler, is the same compound used for human asthmatics. “We’re also training her to use albuterol as a rescue inhaler,” she adds.

This short-but-cute YouTube video shows the adorable result:



Myth of the ‘Missing Link’ in Evolution Does Science No Favors

Sean Nee, Pennsylvania State University

This spring, the world learned of a newly discovered missing link between microbes and humans called Lokiarchaeota. The actual story is that the microbe Lokiarchaeota, discovered on the deep sea floor by a hydrothermal vent called Loki’s Castle, shares features with both bacteria and us. The spin is that this makes it a missing link between the two. Microbiologists have been discreetly quiet about this narrative fiction; although the microbe is fascinating, and so deserves the spotlight, it is no more a missing link than the platypus is a missing link between ducks and humans.

This missing link imagery, based on the idea that evolution is a methodical process with logical, continuous connections to be discovered and mapped, might set up a good story. But it’s wrong – and can detrimentally influence our understanding of immediately threatening processes like the rapid evolution of flu.

The Great Chain of Being

The notion of missing links in evolution comes from medieval theology’s Great Chain of Being, an idea that survived Darwin and still persists. It is compelling – not least because you-know-who winds up at the presumed pinnacle of evolution.

Two views of relationships among contemporary animals known to medieval theologians.

On the left of this figure is the usual picture of life on Earth, a chain of creatures smoothly lined up from fish, through frogs, lizards and on up to human beings. The idea is that, step by step, life continually “advanced” to gain greater and greater complexity. The Great Chain of Being is ingrained enough that it’s even become a way for comedy and cartoons to mock the zeitgeist.

But what is the figure on the right?

Both are correct and show exactly the same information about the relationships – humans are more closely related to monkeys than both are related to lizards than all are related to frogs, and so on. But we know people are not a link between fish and frogs in any meaningful sense. Any of the nodes in a family tree can be rotated without changing the correct relationships among the present-day members – the rotation on the left is the usual one just because we like to be on top!

The power of this kind of imagery in science could not have been more starkly revealed than in the positioning of Lokiarchaeota as a missing link in such a fictional chain.

One of the great triumphs of our understanding of life is that the eukaryotic cell, your kind of cell, is an ancient fusion through symbiogenesis of entirely disparate life forms. It’s a chimera or Frankenstein. The microbe Lokiarchaeota is a hodgepodge of disparate elements resembling the three Domains of Life, some of which we share. It is a Frankenstein we have not seen before, but a Frankenstein nonetheless – not a link in a chain.

We see more and more such startling discoveries, all arising from our use of new molecular technologies to explore the Earth’s biodiversity. For example, Penny Chisholm’s lab at MIT has discovered viruses that have borrowed cassettes of photosynthetic information from marine plankton. A remarkable discovery, but not because it is a missing link between viruses and plants.

The continuous chain imagery, step-by-step and link-by-link, is all-pervasive in how we think about evolution – and it affects your daily life. Consider flu, which requires yearly vaccination because it constantly evolves to evade our immune system; what protected you last year will not protect you this year. Ignoring the thankfully rare emergence of monstrosities like Spanish Flu after WWI, the never-ending evolution of the influenza virus is typically modeled as occurring by antigenic drift – a smooth, continuous wander through evolutionary space, finding new places to hide from the immune system.