Tag Archives: science

Galapagos mug with English and Spanish maps

I read a lot of books and articles about the Galapagos Islands, and it’s a tad annoying that the islands all have two names — colonial British, and modern Spanish. Most books (but not articles) have a map, but it’s invariably just a monolingual map and also fixed on a given page so it’s hard to refer to frequently. So out of frustration I designed myself a bilingual map mug. Just hold in right hand when reading modern works, and in the left hand when reading something older like Charles Darwin’s, Voyage of the Beagle. It’s also useful when reading about the various endemics that were given names according to the islands where they were first described. E.g., when reading about Microlophus albemarlensis barringtonensis (one of the lava lizards), a quick glance at the mug will tell you that the subspecies is on Isla Santa Fé, though primary species description was for the specimens on Isla Isabela.

I put it up on Redbubble in case you need one for yourself, or need a geeky gift for somebody who’s doing some reading in advance of a trip to the Galapagos.

Mug with English/Spanish maps of the Galapagos

If you’re curious about the map, it’s one I scanned from Darwin’s, Journal of Researches. It’s probably not suitable for navigation purposes, FYI, especially if filled with hot canelazo.

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Antibiotic confusion in the Wall Street Journal

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have a thing against antibiotics. I love to take them when I have a bacterial infection, but I think it’s a terrible synonym for ‘antibacterial’, an older word that doesn’t mislead people into thinking the drug can work against viruses and other microorganisms. The problem with “antibiotic” is that people (as in “folks” who are not scientists, doctors, and science journalists) typically assume that they can treat non-bacterial infections, and this encourages people to demand antibiotics for anything that ails them. Part of this confusion is from the word itself (it sounds like it should work against all types of microorganisms). In addition to it sounding like it should be broad drug that can kill all things living, many dictionaries actually suggest exactly that, and that’s actually what the word used to mean. Unfortunately (and this seems to be the bigger problem), scientists, doctors, and science journalists don’t think “antibiotic” is at all confusing to lay people.

So last week I begged Ben Zimmer (Wall Street Journal) on Twitter to explore the origin of the word “antibiotic”, with the hope that people (folks and otherwise) would listen to him. Here’s his column: A Cure for ‘Antibiotic’ Confusion? It’s short and sweet, so just read it, but here’s my favorite sentence:

In current usage, “antibiotic” is roughly synonymous with “antibacterial,” though technically speaking antibiotics can act on microbes other than bacteria. [italics mine]

Two comments about the column.

First, I wish the article had explored just how common the confusion is. It’s not just that some people are confused. I think most people are confused. Again, I’m talking about “folks”, not the overeducated people who might be reading this nerdy blog post. But to be honest, some of the overeducated people I’ve talked to don’t understand antibiotic specificity, either. Because terrible word.

Second, Zimmer asked two people whether “antibacterial” could ever float as a substitute for “antibiotic”. They answered that it couldn’t because (essentially) the disinfectant lobby would object. That’s an odd reason because just as antibacterial wipes kill bacteriaantibacterial drugs kill bacteria. That’s because they both contain antibacterials, though the sources might differ. Zero conflict. Similarly, disinfectants and pills can contain antivirals. Or antifungals. And if there really was a conflict, I think the original use of antibacterial should trump the wipe lobby. Regardless, some scientists and physicians are already using “antibacterial” as synonym for antibiotic, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent; it’s just too rare that they are doing so.

The issue is more that it’s hard for older people to avoid a word they have been happily using for their entire life. Good examples are “life preserver” (now “personal floatation device”) and suntan lotion (now “sunscreen” or “sunblock”), words that will probably only fully die when we do. But if properly motivated, people can make switches much faster. Two good examples are demonstrated by the employees of BackRub.com and Beaver College, now Google and Arcadia University, respectively. So I think a bunch of PhDs and MDs can summon the mental power to say “antibacterial” when speaking with impressionable patients or when designing outreach graphics. But they’ll only do so if some higher power (CDC, WHO) makes it clear that doing so might reduce overprescription of antibiotics. Even if using “antibacterial” would only reduce overprescription by 5%, the change would be worth doing.

I’m not suggesting that we stop using the word, “antibiotic”. The word is totally fine for conferences, publications, and situations where the context is clear or when there is plenty of time to clarify that they are antibacterials. The word is also invaluable when socializing with people from the powerful wipes lobby.

Thanks, Ben Zimmer!

Here are my previous posts on the topic, if you’re interested. If you conduct “science literacy” polls, you should read them. The reason is that asking something like, “Will antibiotics treat colds?” is a terrible question. You should be asking, “Do antibacterials kill viruses”. That will assess the science literacy more directly. Sticking with the old question just demonstrates that pollsters are unfamiliar with what “antibiotic” actually means.

You keep using the word antibiotic

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Happy birthday, Origin of Species!

On November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Eventually shortened (thank, God) to, On the Origin of Species. First editions can easily fetch $200,000 at auction. Not all copies have been accounted for, so check your shelves. This one is owned by the American Philosophical Society, which also has a huge and entertaining collection of translations and even the draft title page that Darwin sent to Lyell. If you’re shopping for a gift for a young science fan, get Dr Jan Pechenik’s version, The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, As Edited for Modern Readers

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; First edition of Darwin's Origin of Species

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Origin of Species translations

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Origin of Species draft title page

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Tree of life cake for Charles Darwin

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Do antibiotics kill viruses?

Definition of antibioticIf you wonder why most people think antibiotics can treat viral diseases, one reason is that when people use search engines to understand what antibiotics do, they are informed that antibiotics do target viruses. Examples below.


antibiotic: a medicine (such as penicillin or its derivatives) that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms.
microorganism: a microscopic organism, especially a bacterium, virus, or fungus.


antibiotic: any of a large group of chemical substances, as penicillin or streptomycin, produced by various microorganisms and fungi, having the capacity in dilute solutions to inhibit the growth of or to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms, used chiefly in the treatment of infectious diseases.
microorganism: any organism too small to be viewed by the unaided eye, as bacteria,protozoa, and some fungi and algae.


antibiotic: a substance produced by or a semisynthetic substance derived from a microorganism and able in dilute solution to inhibit or kill another microorganism.
microorganism: an extremely small living thing that can only be seen with a microscope.


antibiotic: A substance, such as penicillin or erythromycin, produced by or derived from certain microorganisms, including fungi and bacteria, that can destroy or inhibit the growth of other microorganisms, especially bacteria. Antibiotics are widely used in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.
microorganismany organism, such as a bacterium, protozoan, or virus, of microscopic size.

Britannica Library:

antibiotic:  chemical substance produced by a living organism, generally a microorganism, that is detrimental to other microorganisms. Antibiotics commonly are produced by soil microorganisms and probably represent a means by which organisms in a complex environment, such as soil, control the growth of competing microorganisms.
microorganisms: living things that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. They are normally viewed using a microscope. Bacteria, viruses, and some molds are examples of microorganisms.


antibiotic: Any substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria and similar microorganisms.
microorganism: An organism that is too small to be seen by the unaided eye, especially a single-celled organism, such as a bacterium.

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