To Sit Or Not to Sit . . . Or to Sit.

The online science publication Ars Technica came out with a piece today entitled, “The new study suggesting sitting will kill you is kind of a raging dumpster fire.”  The title alone fills me with glee!  Debunking science!  Using “kind of” in the title!  And, it’s OK to sit again!!!!

In truth, the study today’s article alludes to completely freaked me out.  It had me googling “treadmill desks” and envisioning doing squats during nighttime TV watching.  But the sun has come out today — the Ars Technica authors poke enough holes in this study to put me back on good terms with our couch.

The particulars on the beef the authors have with the original study, which appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

  1. The study was funded in part by Coca-Cola.  The authors find fault with this saying that rather than focus on unhealthy consumption, Coca-Cola funds studies like these to shift the conversation to focusing on unhealthy behaviors.  Personally, this doesn’t bother me that much.  I feel like most people interested in heath — i.e., the people who are interested in these studies — already know drinking sugared sodas isn’t a great choice.  The “conversation shift” certainly won’t lead me to begin chugging sugared soda after a workout.
  2. The study didn’t actually measure sitting.  OK, getting warmer.  Researchers did not rely on subjects’ reports of sitting times, as these are notoriously error prone.  So, they used something called an Actical accelerometer, mounted to one’s hip, which tracks the amount of oxygen a person uses in various activities.  Unfortunately, it cannot distinguish between sitting and standing.  Or lying down and light movement.  So, in this study, working at a standup desk is lumped into regular old sitting.  As the authors point out, nuance is severely lacking here.
  3. The study demographics are problematic.  A bunch of people dropped out early, leaving the more sedentary participants to complete the study which lasted a week only.  Also, the more sedentary groups in the study were on average ten years older than the least sedentary groups.
  4. Statistical challenges.  Once the data were in, the researchers broke the participants into four groups, those who:
    1. rarely “sat” (or did something else of low intensity), and when they did, “sat” in short bursts
    2. rarely “sat”, and when they did, “sat” for long durations
    3. “sat” frequently, in short bursts
    4. “sat” frequently, for long durations

The numbers of participants in the middle groups, as well as mortality rates, were      not high enough to permit any statistically significant conclusions on the effects of sitting in short or long bouts.  The researchers themselves cap off the study with a statement on the difficulty of drawing any conclusions due to issues with statistical significance.

The problem is that while this disclaimer appears in the actual research paper, how many of us read that?  Rather, we tend to read the news summaries, which are often based off of summaries like this, which appears in Science Daily.  And according to this summary,

“A new study founds that sitting around for 12 or more hours per day, particularly if accumulated during 60- to 90-minute periods, increased the risk of early death — even in those who exercised.”

With no mention of the above limitations.  So a big thank you to Ars Technica for probing deeper!

No really, have a seat.


Green Roofs

Last night Eric and I went to an Empiricist League event — one of regular nerdy dates.  The Empiricist League describes itself as “a creative community for those who believe in evidence, observation, and experiment”.  In other words, science.  A few times a year, the Empiricist League holds an event with 3 speakers focusing on some aspect of science, at an area bar.  Last night we funneled end-of-the-week alcohol at Union Hall while learning about “The History of the Future: Steampunk, Spacesuits, and Beyond”.

Wythe Marshall (Harvard grad student in History of Science dept) opened the night with a talk on “Cities of Futures Past: Strange historical visions of the urban future”.  He spoke about early visions of green space in city planning, and then posted a striking photo of a colossal green roof which made me wonder where I’ve been — I had no idea this was happening on Randall’s Island!

Wythe Marschall talking about Cities of Futures Past.

The Five Boroughs Green Roof is a green roof on top of the headquarters of the Five Borough Technical Services Division of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.  The idea was conceived in 2007.  The before and after photo is striking.

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 8.36.36 PM

At 29,000 square feet, it is the 5th largest green roof in NYC.  (What are the other four?)  I don’t really understand why every roof isn’t green, because the benefits seem so obvious.  I wonder, what are the disadvantages, if any? What specs does a building need to have in place before the roof goes green?  Can anyone recommend a great green roof book/primer?

Friday Night (Very) Short Story: The Cricket

I wrote this a year and a half ago, and read it at an Open Mic night on Houston Street on a freezing January night.  And thus began my moonlighting as a Open Mic reader.  I’ve done it 3 more times since!

The Cricket

“We have a cricket!” Edna called out to Louise and Ron, as they made their way up the front steps burdened with suitcases, a baby seat, and bags of all shapes and sizes hanging from their arms like Christmas tree ornaments.  Edna was 82 and lived in this house with her husband Arthur, 86.  Their daughter Louise and her husband Ron, both in their 30s, were visiting Louise’s childhood home in Massachusetts with their daughter, who was almost 2.  Three generations in one house, and, evidently, a cricket.

Resignation lined Edna’s voice.  As if the cricket had some kind of real estate rights, had moved in unannounced but with the proper paperwork.  “He’s been there for weeks,” Edna went on, speaking above the confusion of transporting items from the car to the house and determining what went where.  After unpacking, the cricket’s chirping took centerstage.  Louise heard it in all corners of the house.  “CHIRP!”  The 40th chirp of what was sure to be a long weekend.

“Do you hear the cricket?”, she hissed to Ron, upstairs, a full two floors higher than the basement, the cricket’s new quarters.  She wondered about the likelihood of any sleep whatsoever during their stay, as the chirp reverberated through two flights of stairs and a door.  Making matters worse, Arthur had recently repainted the guest room and chemical fumes saturated the air.  “I can’t sleep in here,” Louise stated, and in a huff made camp in the downstairs “den”, a tiny, cramped, claustrophobic room just feet away from the basement door.

Edna helped her daughter spread sheets over the couch.  “That sound is really annoying, Mom. ” “I know it,” said Edna, shaking her head, and then, in a softer voice, as if sharing a secret, “They say that crickets can nest “, her eyes grew wide, “and eat through your carpets.”  Louise imagined the house devoured from the inside-out, by an army of nesting crickets.  She felt that familiar annoyance of her mother’s reverence to what They Say.

Later, Louise and Ron sat in the den.  Ron watched football.  The cricket’s song was a metronome.

Louise had an idea.  She would time the chirps.  At the next chirp she pressed start on her phone’s stopwatch.  50 seconds passed.  CHIRP! 50 seconds, again. CHIRP!  This time, 54 seconds.  “Odd,” Louise said.

She tried again.  Same thing.  Intervals of 50, 50, then 54 seconds.   A few more rounds confirmed it.

She jostled Ron out of his football trance.  “Look at this!”, she exclaimed, holding the data up triumphantly.  “Do crickets chirp in intervals like that?”, she asked.

“I’m going down to investigate,”  Ron said.  The sound of the basement door opening sent Edna approaching.

“Be careful!” she called after Ron, who was already halfway down the stairs.  “I get goosebumps every time I go down there to do the wash,” she said, and peered suspiciously down the staircase.

Louise kept timing, believing the pattern would change in the presence of a human visitor.  The pattern held.  “That’s no cricket,” Louise said to herself.

Just then Ron emerged, something in hand.

“This is your Cricket,” he said, laying down a white square object.

“What’s that?”, asked Edna.

“A carbon monoxide detector,” he replied.  “I found it on the shelf.  It was tucked in between Scrabble and Battleship.  It’s low on batteries.  I disabled it.”  Sure enough, the chirping had ended.


“For Heaven’s sakes!  Arthurrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” Edna yelled, “Ron found the cricket!”

“What?!”, Arthur staggered into the kitchen, aroused from an accidental early evening snooze.  “The cricket? You found him?”

“I found the carbon monoxide detector,” Ron said.  “The sound you heard was the low battery signal.”

“The what detector?!”, Arthur shouted.  This, from the man who upon being shown a North Face windbreaker on a recent birthday shopping trip for Edna, exclaimed in recognition, “Facebook! Oh yeah!  That’s a good brand!”

“We were trying to trap it with a bowl of molasses!,” Edna said,  “And all we got was mold!”, Arthur continued.  Both Edna and Arthur laughed, hard.  They were good sports.

Later that night, when everyone was asleep, Louise relished in the restored silence.  “What would they do without me?”, she uttered, feeling superior.  Edna and Arthur had Louise later in life, and she felt she was always opening their eyes to the world.

About to fall asleep, she stopped, went to the window, and looked out, scanning for branches, stray wires, or perhaps a fallen antenna.  She wondered if the woodpecker attacking the side of the house Edna talked about last year was still an issue.

Sometimes science is confusing. (Part I)

Tonight my husband texted me this photo, from ScienceDaily (read the first two headlines):


I was amused.

“Sometimes science is confusing”, I texted back.

After all, it’s often difficult to compare two different studies testing the same variable, due to differing parameters like sample size, dose, subject profiles, etc.  I thought about how science headlines often become so distilled we lose the meaty complexity that made the story a headline in the first place.

And then I went to Science Daily and realized these headlines referred TO THE EXACT SAME STUDY.

The study is entitled, “Effect of Vitamin D and Calcium Supplementation on Cancer Incidence in Older Women”, and was published today in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The JAMA abstract states that:

“in this randomized clinical trial of 2303 healthy postmenopausal women with a mean baseline serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 32.8 ng/mL, supplementation with vitamin D3 and calcium compared with placebo did not significantly reduce the incidence of all-type cancer over 4 years of follow-up.”

The ScienceDaily summary also presents this conclusion, and goes on to explain that after four years of supplementing a treatment group with vitamin D and calcium, and monitoring a placebo group, there was no statistically significant difference in cancer diagnoses between the treatment and placebo groups.  3.89% of individuals in the treatment group received a cancer diagnosis over the four years, compared with 5.58 % in the placebo group.  As prior evidence suggests low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of cancer, the summary states the authors of the study suggest higher baseline vitamin D levels in the subjects, as compared with the U.S. population, as one reason for the lack of statistically significant results.

The summary underneath the next ScienceDaily headline, again, ON THE SAME STUDY, states that supplementing with vitamin D and calcium may lower risk for developing cancer, and states that “women who were given vitamin D3 and calcium supplements had 30% lower risk of cancer.”  The summary then goes on to state that, “this difference in cancer incidence rates between groups did not quite reach statistical significance,” but, that “in further analyses, blood levels of vitamin D, specifically 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D), were significantly lower in women who developed cancer during the study than in those who remained healthy.”


The second summary goes on to state that one of the researchers said the study suggested that higher levels of vitamin D are are associated with lower cancer risk.

This additional claim is not made in the JAMA summary, which feels surprising as it’s the kind of result you’d think the research community would want to tout.  In addition, this second summary is actually a press release put out by the university where the study was conducted.

My question: when were the further analyses done?  As part of this study?  In a separate study?  My inquiring mind wants to know.  So, I will be reading the ACTUAL STUDY this week and getting to the bottom of it.



Two Science Things

I read two science stories last night.

One was about BBC journalists frantically racing down Mount Etna, scalding rocks from an eruption at their heels.  I was astounded.  “Didn’t they know it was going to erupt?” I thought.

Mt Etna
BBC image of the flight from Mt Etna

As the caption in the above picture explains, something called a phreatic explosion was responsible for yesterday’s surprising attack of nature.  From the BBC article, it sounds as though it wasn’t the lava flow of this very active volcano that took people by surprise, but its interaction with the thick snow cover.  Did the magma sublime the snow to steam so fast as to cause an explosion?  That’s my reasoning based on reading this one article.

It certainly will lead me to think twice before touring a volcano at some date in the future.  I have always wanted to, and this will not deter me, but will likely lead me to study volcanoes in more detail and research the competence of the guides, etc, on whatever volcano I choose to explore.

The next story I found via slashdot had the following headline: “Astronomers Just Found a Star Orbiting A Black Hole at 1 Percent the Speed of Light”.  I’m no astrophysicist, but I teach 9th grade high school physics from time to time.  I don’t know enough to completely understand the story, but here, I was actually most struck by the comments.  (I know, I know, never read the comments). They ranged from disinterest to ignorant to hateful.  I’m still puzzled over how this hardcore physical science headline conjured so much emotion.  These negative comments were to the tune of, “Science research like this is a waste of time because my life isn’t impacted by this discovery.”  I was discouraged by this myopia.  First, I think, our lives could be impacted by this more than we can know, and second, are we in the business of only caring about things that impact us directly?

Hopefully these comments were by a few trolls and don’t represent more than a blip.  But my takeaway is that I would like to beef up my own knowledge base of the many discoveries in science that seemed irrelevant or impractical at the time and went on to have huge impacts, and push myself to step outside of my daily concerns and interests to appreciate the ideas and concepts on my periphery.  To read a poem to simply appreciate it.  To take out an old-fashioned dictionary and find a random word and learn it.  To try and understand an article about a star orbiting a blackhole.  I wonder, is research on phreatic eruptions more important, more relevant than research on blackholes?  Is the act of couching it in those terms limiting?

I guess this makes me also think about how much of science is actually art.  Things rarely proceed in a practical step 1, step 2 manner with no circuitous meanderings, no backtracking, no drawing from philosophy or language or geography.  For example, the chemist Friedrich Kekule was inspired by an image of a snake seizing its own tail when he proposed the structure for the chemical benzene.  What if he had dismissed all thoughts of non-chemical things as nonsense and irrelevant?

From the wikipedia entry on “Benzene”

I want to have a well-crafted answer the next time I hear someone ask why we should care about something that doesn’t seem to alter our day-to-day existence, when that someone is not merely an internet troll in the Comments.