Crossroads

Dear me,

It might be slightly confusing to receive a letter from your future self, but time is made of wibbly wobbly timy wimy stuff. A thing which in time you will come to understand in a few years, after watching a year’s worth of Doctor Who episodes – at a moment when in fact you should be working on that 300 page manuscript. But here we are then, four years apart. Not a lifetime. Merely a PhD.

But are we so different, you and I? Both at crossroads in our life. Both marked by what we have been through in these past few years. Both ready for a new challenge. I remember you, on that first day of your PhD, excited and scared at the same time, scared of the plunge into the unknown. Like a first day at a new school. New people, new rules, a new rythm. I feel very much the same now. With a new, unknown path in my life – new colleagues, new rules. And just like you, I know everything will be fine in the end.

But then again, we are different. You are colder, more analytical, unforgiving. You have been trained to be a logical mind, excluding the unexpected, the impulsive, the human aspect. And this has made you hurt people along the road, has led you to make decisions which, with hindsight, you will learn to regret. You are more reckless than I am, unbound by the limits which you will discover and which will impose themselves on your work quite soon. Factors which you will have to take into account. People to reckon with. Yes, people. Those others in the world around you. People with expectations, feelings and emotions. They too, will be part of the quest onto which you embark.

But there will be love too. There too, you are well on the road to discovery. You have just spent your first journey on a different continent with the person you hold most dear in this world. For the first time, really, you have seen what it means to share the road, to share memories. Keep her close, for she will show you how to become the person I am now. To see the world beyond science. There is nothing more fulfilling than to share your daily experiences with the person you love. Without that person, those moments would exist in your memories alone

Your research path will be littered with moments of both joy and dissapointment. Some will drive you to despair. Some will push you forward. There is no advice i can give you other than this: remember why you embarked upon this journey. Remember why you love what you do. Why you chose to spend hours in the lab, to repeat failed experiments time and time again. Because you are a scientist. Because whatever happens, you learn from what you do, what you cause, what you mess up.

There will be tough decisions too. Decisions which will change everything that follows in a radical way. Decisions which will separate you from what you held most dear. Those choices won’t be easy, and they will break you to pieces at first. But after a while you will see that the choices you made were not a spur of the moment but had been there for a while, waiting for you to see them.

You are about to embark on the most exciting journey of your life so far. Four years of research among people who in time will become dear friends. You will forge new friendships. You will travel. A lot. You will see the world through the window of your plane, train or bus. You will see frangrant harbours at the end of the world, smell the spices and the urban chaos of cities near and far. You will see jungles of bamboo, small notes handwritten by Darwin, famous giraffes, cities rebuilt and forgotten. Cherish those moments, for they will change you forever.

And now, i must leave you and embark upon my own voyage. Where it will lead me I do not know. I know i will make mistakes. But i’ll let you know. I’ll write you again.

At the next crossroads.

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Acknowledgments

Acknowledgements to a PhD dissertation rarely find their way into the open. Hidden in plain sight at the front of the volume that represents four years of my life resides a chapter that was incredibly difficult to write, but will probably be skipped by most readers interested in the science. How do you thank everyone, in just 3 pages? And how do you thank the people who, for four years, have been there at the sideline, but will never get to see the paper version of the book?

There’s an obvious solution: to bring it out into the open. To blog it. Not in its final form, though. There will be some modifications here. But also some additions which will not make it into the final volume.  Writing an online version of the acknowledgments allows me to add a paragraph for you, dear online reader, Twitter follower or Facebook friend. Because you were part of this too.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A wise man once said that a PhD is a lonely business. A task which, much like quests in Arthurian tales or in fairy tales, has to be performed alone to prove one’s worth. To slay a dragon, save the damsel, and publish five papers about it. A task which, once completed, opens the castle gates and wins eternal grants and glory.

But that’s not entirely accurate..

A PhD, dear readers, is a Wagner opera. Sometimes tedious, sometimes eventful, but above all a long and exciting journey past trolls, through caverns, swamps and mythical lands to find enchanted rings and swords. But like in any quest, the hero of the PhD drama does not have to be alone.  A team of people and institutions has accompanied me throughout my travels through science. This chapter, this prelude to the Ride of Valkyries that follows, is for them.

Above all I wish to thank my supervisors Nele and Ann. I could not have wished for two better supervisors than my own. For four years, they have followed me, kept up with all the sudden plot twists, developments and changes to the libretto. Their experience and advice has been of most precious value to me. While other projects and quests crossed their path, they have always taken their time to steer me back onto the right path of research. With all my heart, thank you.

I’d like to thank Nathalie, Jaco, Hildegarde and Hans for their counselling and input into my work throughout these four years. In this respect, I also wish to thank the members of the jury for their critical evaluation and comments which have made this thesis a stronger and more robust work of science. Furthermore, such a long and perilous journey could not have been completed without the financial, administrative support of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK●CEN) and the University of Hasselt.

Every good opera has a strong supporting cast to accompany the dramatic moments. To share in the joy of successful experiments, to peer for hours and hours over small eppendorf tubes to place miniscule Arabidopsis seeds on agar (why oh why didn’t I choose beans as a model plant?). To freeze thousands of little seedlings to an icy death. To spend hours in darkened rooms to watch amputated leaves photosynthesise. To provide coffee, chocolate, cake and support. My most profound thanks to all the people (past and present) of the Biosphere Impact Studies Unit. Thank you for these four wonderful years of my life. You have been like family.

There has to be a special mention for my train colleagues here. Sharing two hours each day in a confined space on wheels creates a bond. Especially when that space is usually late or subject to the mysteries of railway operations. Their good humour has on many occasions saved my mood of the day to come.

Between the days of eppendorf labelling and failed PCR’s, there were always the moments of relaxation and comfort among friends. Some had their own quest, and exchanged hints on how to tackle the dragons and save the treasure. Some did not have a clue what I was raving on about (Plants? Mutants?), but nodded quietly and smiled. Some were lost along the way and some arrived late on the scene. But all were part of this thesis. All contributed in their way to make this voyage through research bearable, by giving their advice, their support, their friendship and their love. This is as much your work as mine.

A tous mes amis français qui m’ont suivi lors de mon voyage scientifique… à tous mes amis périgourdins qui m’accompagnent depuis tout ce temps (certains depuis plus de 20 ans)…cette thèse est la votre aussi. Une grande partie de cet ouvrage a été écrit dans mon pays d’adoption, cette terre d’accueil qui s’appelle le Périgord. A travers ces pages vous verrez, je l’espère, le canard, les noix et le Monbazillac qui ont accompagné ces moments d’écriture et les promenades dans la Bessède, peut-être même les moments de repos au bord de la Dordogne. Ecoutez, les gascons, c’est la Gascogne !

For four years I have posted, blogged, tweeted and ranted about this thesis, about the frustrations and the joys of being a PhD student. About the quest i voluntarily undertook. And for all these years, my Facebook friends, my Twitter followers and the readers of my blog have been there, as a chorus to this play. And it would be unfair not to mention you in this chapter. My online presence has become more than just a pastime. It has become an extension of who i am as a scientist, gradually learning me how to communicate science to my peers and to the audience. Some of those anonymous faces on an avatar have become more than that and have crossed to border into ‘the real life’, have become acquaintances, colleagues, dare I say..friends? For all of you across the world, spectators to my journey. Thank you. The rants about my PhD will end soon. But this is not the end, really. While i’m leaving academia, I will still be a scientist, a hedgehog enthusiast, and before all a biologist. I will continue to tweet, blog and post , only with a slightly different hat on. and yes, #ArabidopsisRocks

And finally, but most importantly, I could not have done any of this this without my family. Without both the moral and financial support my parents have given me throughout all these years of study and research. Without the support only a brother and sisters can give to their ‘little brother’. And perhaps most of all, this PhD thesis is my parents’. I could not have done this without the assurance and advice of my father. Without my mother,  who sadly cannot be here today to see the result of all the support and love she has given me. I hope I would have made her proud.

For you, dear reader, who is about to relive this journey, this four year quest, through my eyes. Don’t let the technicalities of the libretto, the formulas and the strange world of radiation discourage you.

There will be music.

The Vinegar and the Ants, or: How did I become a biologist?

My last post on science and academia , which explained why finding a job outside academia is not such a bad thing, stirred up quite a few questions among friends, colleagues and readers.

Some people continued to disagree. Some had good arguments for that. Some did not, and disagreed simply because a little voice in the back of their head told them to disagree. Overall though, the replies and encouragements told me I had hit upon a subject which, though very much alive, is still a bit of a difficult topic around the academic coffee- and cafeteria tables.

But gradually, the debate became a bit more philosophical. After all, it’s all very well to say that being a scientist has something to do with the way you think, the way in which you solve a problem and see the world. But where does it start? When do you become a scientist?

And, more specifically, how do you become a biologist?

Now, as always, there are people who have asked these questions before. One of these questions has been answered quite brilliantly by my Twitter contact Anne Osterrieder (or @AnneOsterrieder , if you like). Her excellent story in drawings which describes her journey through science is a very good illustration (mind the pun) of the bumpy, long and winding road most people follow in their travels through science and research.

My own story follows similar roads. But I am not as good a communicator as Anne, and I cannot hope to match her drawing skills.. so I will try to do it in words only. Well… almost.

Consider…the ant.

An Ant

My earliest contact with (what you could consider) science are the ants behind our rented holiday house in the South of France.

And a bottle of vinegar.

Now, before you start calling the Ethics in Animal Testing commission, let me explain. I was six years old. No, that’s not an excuse. But still. Hold on. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

There was a nice trail of ants all the way across the stone stairs behind the house, leading from their colony to whatever food source they were interested in. I never found out what it was, of course. Mainly because I quickly got distracted and lost track of whichever ant I was following. After all, their tendency not to go to their destination in a straight line is really quite annoying. But we digress.

Then, for some reason, I started playing God. What would happen, I wondered, if you pluck an ant out of its trail and put it down a few inches to the left? Would it have a kind of Flatland experience, being pulled out of its world and transported to another part within seconds? Of course, this was much too tempting to resist. And so it began. Dozens of ants did not find their way home that night.

I then discovered I could divert them to a different food source. If you soak a sugar cube in water and place it not far from their trail, eventually a stray ant will bump into it and then something magical happens. The lucky individual starts running around in circles as if it has hit the jackpot (in a way, it has), until it bumps into a colleague. What follows is a thing that, until this day, still marks me as a defining moment: they communicate. You can see them exchange information. Now, I know it is easy to anthropomorphise such things, but you could *see* them exchange the information. And I knew. Because, instead of going on to whatever it was going to, the second ant went straight for the sugar. Obviously, I did not decide there and then that I would become a biologist. Let alone an entomologist. Or an ant-ologist (I prefer that to ‘Myrmecologist’). But it did place the living world into a new context for me. It had suddenly become a lot more interesting.

So, when 12 years later I was sitting in that lecture hall in Antwerp for my first lesson of Zoology, I was looking forward to it with a certain feeling of excitement. Now, I know we’ve gone a bit fast-forward here. But really, for 12 years, not much had happened. At least not on the ant-front. Somewhere along the road I must have become a scientist, at least in thought, because I had nicely followed the path to exact sciences during my entire school career and here I was in the 1st year of BSc. Biology. Had I been drawn towards science? I don’t know.

So there you have it. The great reveal. I really don’t know exactly when I became a scientist. All I know is that I started to enjoy (and still enjoy) every bit of science I could read  hear about. At some point the Milky Way in the sky became not only a pretty sight, but the delayed light of millions and millions of stars. At some point, the seemingly quiet world became a fascinating place where living things cover every inch of surface and most of our living space (yes, even those exploding face mites are fascinating). Scientific knowledge has, aside from its role in increasing the understanding of our world, another very important function for me: it adds a layer of fascination and detail to the world. Like an Instagram filter, only slightly less hipster. It makes things much more interesting than they seem.

And once you understand how science works, how it builds new knowledge out of previous facts, how it advances by question, falsification and answer, there must come a point where your mind tells you to release your inner explorer.

And then you become an academic.

An academic

Just kidding, of course. Really.

I realise I haven’t told you about the vinegar. Or the lemons. Or the explosions.
But that will have to wait.

Why i’m leaving academia (but not Science)

I’m leaving academia. There, i’ve said it. Those few words which are apparently enough to incite outrage, unbelief and feelings of treason. For some reason, finding a job outside the world of universities, lectureships and tenure track sparks a fierce debate among fellow academics and the inevitable question “why on Earth would you want to do that?”. A more accurate question, of course, would be just “Why?” At least, that is one which deserves an honest answer. In fact, there are several reasons… First of all, it isn’t as if I haven’t tried to find a job inside academia. I’ve tried hard. I’ve spent quite some time sending CV’s, writing nice letters on why I’m the best, the only one, the alpha and the omega of [insert field name] . But let’s face it: Finding a post-doc position isn’t easy, let alone in times of financial crisis. Chances of finding a post-doc in a niche field like mine are even worse. Not zero, of course, but let’s say it’s quite hard. So inevitably you venture outside of the scope of your PhD field (Radioecology, in my case), and you start to expand your horizon to related fields (say, ecotoxicology), sending even more letters, pictures and CV’s. All that while writing a 250-page PhD manuscript. So whenever people tell me i ‘should have tried harder’, my blood pressure rises. Of course, in the end something will turn up. Something always turns up, doesn’t it? Well, yes. But what if it’s not what you want? After all, research is a bit of a romantic relationship with your subject. There are days when you bounce around the lab, happy with the results that the Machine that Goes Ping has produced (fellow scientists, if the PCR machine goes Ping, you’re doing it wrong). There are the dark days when things go wrong and you’re ready to quit. There are days when you look like this:

A Typical Happy Academic

There are days when you’re ready to commit murder. Or at least inject someone with a GUS-construct. (or perhaps that’s just me). But the bottom line is: it has to match. Your subject is your baby, your friend, your prrrecious. And a PhD is (for most) that one time when you have near complete control of where your research goes. Which road you take. There are others to help you, but it’s up to you to find the yellow brick road. So choosing a post-doc is not as easy as “let’s just do that”. After all, you’re giving away your baby (after 4 years, in my case), and are ready to adopt a new one, which has to be a challenge. (“These are the labnotes of the PhD enterprise. Our mission, to find strange new results. Discover new anomalies in the machines. To boldly go, where no one has gone before”) Which brings me to the second reason: the challenge. After four years, i know most of the ins and outs of my field and of research. I know when the PCR machine is going to give me an error just by the slight delay in the appearance of the dashboard window. I know by the happy purrs of the centrifuge that she is in complete balance. I know when not to enter my supervisors’ office. All these things are part of the apprenticeship that is a PhD. So do i want more of that? Why…yes! But not necessarily.

Because there are so many things I do not know.

How, for example, will my research influence ‘the bigger picture’? Will someone pick up those results and build upon them in the future, letting science run its natural course? It is a big part of the frustration in fundamental research, and I think a lot of people can relate. You’re working on one thing, but you rarely see the end of it.  In a way, that’s a good thing, because it keeps research going. But when you look at the 250 pages of research which represent 4 years of your life, it comes as a bit of a shock.

What does legislation within my field of environmental science look like? I’m in the study of radioactivity, so it’s a bit of a tricky subject, but up until a few  weeks ago I had only a vague notion of how the national legislation surrounding radioactive exposure is structured. These are things of no concern in fundamental research, but of major concern in policy. A side of things you rarely see from inside the lab. These are things that four years of labwork can’t teach you and, most of the time, won’t teach you. Including policy chapters in an otherwise research-based PhD dissertation is a bit of a taboo in most fields of life sciences.

So , there you have it. My main reason: to seek new horizons. To learn things that research can’t tell me. And hopefully to teach things that research has taught me. To use my background as a researcher to analyse problems and to bring scientific thinking to the table. After all, that is the main thing a PhD trains you to do.

And another thing…

This might all sound as if i’m leaving science behind out of some kind of frustration. But no. This is wrong in two ways: i’m not frustrated by research. You occasionally do get frustrated DURING research. Actually quite a lot. Some weeks you’re frustrated all the time. Some days you stare pointlessly at oversized molecules in front of an expensive microscope…ALL THE TIME.  But I love research. I really do. I adore every minute of it. From the irony of getting the liquid nitrogen from the storage tank outside when it’s -15°C in winter to playing the pipetting robot when processing hundreds of samples. And why? Because there’s a point in there. And it’s the science.

You see, by choosing a job in policy (or any job outside of academia) you’re not suddenly transformed into a different human being. You remain a scientist. Because you don’t become a scientist the moment you step into the lab for the first time and write on the cover of you lab notebook. Nor do you become a scientist by wearing a ridiculous hat.

You become a scientist by adopting rational and critical thinking. It’s a process that can begin at a very early age, and gradually evolves towards a desire to apply these values to a problem. But some people are scientists without actually looking like the people in the pictures above. Scientists walk among us, hidden in plain sight. Some might even be close friends,  sit on the bus, play in the kindergarten. Science is a state of mind.

So while i’m leaving academia, i’m not leaving science. One does not simply walk out of science.

For the sake of Greta

Image

Folklore is a strange thing. One day it can be the living memory of times past. The next it can be a collection of rituals underlining the assumption of cultural supremacy of one group or another. In Antwerp, under the rule of the newly elected Flemish-nationalist mayor, the public notion of folklore is shifting rapidly to the latter, with flag-waving and extensive World War I remembrance parties on the horizon. However, there are some events that withstand time and political influence. One of them is the election of the heaviest cow, the so-called “Fat Ox” event.

Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who once called Antwerp ‘the Pistol aimed at the heart of England’, started a competition to find the heaviest cow, sheep, and pig in the land. The meat of those heavyweights was then given to the poor, while the lard was used to grease the cannons. While that didn’t get Bonaparte far with the invasion of England, the tradition stuck with the locals, most likely because the weighing of the animals on the town square was a good excuse to stage a festival, and to get drunk. Others say that it was the Dutch king William that started it all, not Bonaparte. But nevertheless, it was a good excuse.

All we know is, somewhere early 19th Century a club called the Royal company of St John  was founded among the butchers and cattle-rearers, with the aim to help the poor (and to hold binge-drinking festivals). And so the tradition continued until today, though the exact details were modified several times during that time. Today, only cows can participate, and more specifically the Belgian Blue. (Though, at some point during the event, I’m sure I heard someone say “Flanders Blue”. There you go. Even cows can be nationalist).

So what is the set-up of the event? Well, yesterday morning it looked like this.

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The thing in the back is the weighing scale. At some point, as we shall see, the cows have to be convinced to walk into that wooden thing, and be weighed. But while waiting, they have to stand peacefully in their temporary numbered parking spots in the front.  The scale has to be tested first, another ritual that no doubt stems back many many years. So here you are: Five adult men posing as a single cow:

2013-03-09 14.25.52

Then, it was time for the cattle. One by one, the cows were led to their parking spot by the man in blue. Note that this is, apart from the daily horse carriages for tourists, the only time in the year when cattle is present on the Town Square (not counting last Election Day, when there were quite a lot of sheep).

Each cow has then to be motivated to move into the wooden construction. Some of the cows did not protest too much. This cow, for example, was quite happy to float a few centimeters above the earth:

Others were less happy. Cow number 4 had been a problem from the beginning, as she made a dashing entrance into the arena by escaping her owner, and nearly trampling the man with the microphone. Or how Antwerp became the Sevilla of the North for the duration of a few seconds. Leading Cow Number 4 into the scale was not that easy. They had to tie her to Cow Number 3, a more friendly specimen of merely 1,080 kilos, to lead her, as you can see here:

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Cow Number 4, after nearly destroying the wooden shed, was declared as 1,274 kilos. But would she win the contest and Eternal Glory? Weighing the final cow would decide the contest.  The tension in the air was tangible. Or it might just have been the smell of cow dung. Excitement rose as Cow Number 5, owned by last year’s winning owner, entered the shed and was declared… 1,272 kilos.

Consternation! Uproar! Did someone cheat with the weights? When were the scales last calibrated? Did Cow Number 4 drop dung into the weighing shed, thereby falsifying the measurement? Would this be just another case of Animal Fraud? Would she turn out to be a Horse in disguise?

Nothing of the sort. Cow Number 4 did drop dung into the shed, but the Principle of Conservation of Mass was invoked, thereby validating the measurement and avoiding a small catastrophe. The owner of Cow Number 5 had to bow to Newton and the laws of Bovine Dynamics, and was later spotted in a local bar with a 2 kilo hangover.

Then came the Winner Ceremony.  No Chariots of Fire here, but nevertheless with a golden medal for the lucky owner. One disappointing detail: each year, the mayor of Antwerp has to be present to baptise the winning cow with a name of his choosing. This year, the newly elected mayor did not turn up, but sent his deputy. No doubt to avoid association jokes about the irony of fat cows in front of the town hall and his recent diet that made him lose 60 kilos in a few months, got him on the covers of nearly every magazine, and made him win the elections.

Cow Number 4, while probably hoping for the title Destroyer of All, ended up with the name Greta. Here seen in front of what once was marked as Parking Spot 4. Notice the absence of the panel with the number ‘4’ (wrecked) and the absence of the barrier between her and Cow Number 3 on the right. (That barrier, with one well-aimed kick of the horns, had ended up earlier at the place where I was standing to take this picture.)

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Folklore, it seemed, was still armed and dangerous.

The Killer from the Cold

Source: Wiki Commons

This weekend, my attention was drawn towards what looked a straightforward toxicological problem: Antifreeze kills.

Antifreeze is mostly used to prevent your engine coolant from freezing in winter. It lowers the freezing point of water (and, incidentally, raises the boiling point), so you can still use your car when winter hits. It’s also used as an additive to a lot of other products such as paint or window cleaner, but in far lower concentration than the concentrate you need for a car..

Most antifreeze products use organic substances to obtain the necessary properties of the anti-freeze product. The two most popular components of antifreeze are ethylene glycol (EG) and propylene glycol (PG). While PG is a harmless substance used in food and drinks with extremely low toxicity and does not form a health hazard, EG is completely the opposite.  The Environmental Protection Agency files EG as hazardous, and the list of effects in humans is quite long. The estimated toxic dose lies around 1 mL / kg body weight in humans (for a 50% EG solution), and most likely similar for animals. which means that a 10 kilo pet could die after ingestion of 10 millilitres of antifreeze product.

But before we move on to pets, let’s get one thing off the table straight away: EG and PG get confused. A lot. And while it is easy to confuse two substances so much alike in form (and  antifreeze use) as those two, their completely different toxicology should be enough to keep them apart. And yet. Confusing two compounds on purpose can be a very efficient strategy to spread wrong information, and pushing people towards so-called ‘natural’ solutions.

Take, for example, this site. At first, it looks like an valid information sheet on PG, but if you look closer, things go wrong. First of all, compare it with the ATSDR toxicity report to which I linked above. The information on the ‘good human’ website is rubbish. But wait, you might say. Didn’t they just confuse it with EG? Not really. Because they go on to cite numerous products that contain PG. Including skin care products. And by coincidence, there are links to ‘natural’ (more expensive) solutions without PG. It’s interesting to read the comments below the article. All the sensible comments were completely ignored. One person mentions the confusion with PG, and is ignored completely. And that’s just one example of deliberate false information. While many good articles on the facts are available on the internet (like this one).

Where safety is concerned, people want to believe whatever truth looks scarier. Hold that thought.

What about pets?

But let’s just look at the big killer, EG, and concentrate on pets.

And what’s better to get an idea about what’s happening than to google it? A quick search on “Ethylene glycol pets” gives 710,000 results, “Antifreeze pets” gives 1.4 million. Those results can be put into two categories: scientific reports or hazard warnings on the one side, and what i would call ‘concerned citizens’ on the other. The scientific reports usually consist of a list of lab tests that where done  to see how toxic EG really is. Most of them on small mammals. Which is how we know it kills animals too.

The other group, the vast majority of the hits, consists of the vast and treacherous wasteland where fact and fiction blend: “common knowledge”. Half of those hits are discussions, either under articles such as the one mentioned above, on facebook, or on forum threads about pet care. The other half is a blend of pet care websites, kennels websites and petitions (like this one called “Blue Death”, which mixes up EG and PG. More on them later)

Looking for the facts

So what do these people talk about? Why is EG a concern for pets?

From the noise and clutter of the conversations, the following reasoning can be distilled:

1.Antifreeze is poisonous
2. Sometimes antifreeze leaks or spills onto the ground during a refill
3. Dogs and cats are attracted to antifreeze because they like the sweet taste
4. Dogs and cats will drink antifreeze, even if water is around.

As to the death toll, most cite 10,000 pet deaths every year (in the US) as a result of EG poisoning through antifreeze. None of the sites cite a source for that, but let’s just assume that they are right. To be on the safe side, let’s double that. 20,000 dogs and cats every year in the US. There are approximately 80 million dogs and 90 million cats in the US. A quick calculation learns us that it’s 1 pet in 10,000. By comparison, most websites on pets cite 1.2 million dogs run over by cars per year (in the US). That’s one in a hundred.

On all of the sites I’ve consulted (50 or so), on EVERY single one, those 4 statements were stated as solid fact. None of them, not a single one, made references to the basic science to prove those fairly simple statements. All they did was copy the exact same text from somewhere else, adding some comments about how sad and cruel poisoning is (it is. it really is. I’m not disputing that). If this goes on for a while, you end up with thousands of webpages (1 million, in this case) blurring out the same unreferenced statements as facts.

But it can’t be that difficult to check the facts, can it?

Let’s do some science!

If we have a look at statements 1 to 4, it’s immediately obvious that 1 and 2 are true. EG is poisonous, as we have proven before. No doubt about that. It’s poisonous to mammals in very low doses. No problem there. And of course sometimes EG spills onto the ground when you refill the car. So far, so good.

Statement 3, however, is a problem. From a biological, human point of view, sweetness is a good thing . Sweetness attracts us, because it signals the presence of sugars. Energy. But is the sweetness I taste the same as the one you taste? and is sweetness to us also sweetness to cats? Or dogs? To avoid philosophical discussions about sensory input, let’s just assume that the concept (and the meaning of) sweetness is a universal thing among mammals. That’s the reason why statement 3 consists of both the attraction and the preference for sweetness. We assume they like sweet things because we do.

Fair enough. But wrong.

Cats, it seems, can’t taste sweets. The full story can be found in this “Strange but true” feature in Scientific American. Cats exclusively eat meat, and lack the ability to taste the rich sugars present in plants. They even lack key enzymes to digest them.

At least for cats, statement 3 is false. For dogs, the situation is more complex. This article in the Journal of Nutrition states that dogs lack the ability to taste some sugars, but still respond to most sugars. Dogs are partly omnivore (mostly carnivore), so there’s no real evidence that EG wouldn’t taste sweet to them.

But there’s another problem. The attraction. Let’s assume dogs like the taste of EG. If they can smell it, perhaps they can be attracted to it. EG does not evaporate that easily (it has a high heat capacity), but dogs have sensitive smell, so perhaps it might be true. However, and this is crucial, there is NO evidence whatsoever to believe that dogs (or cats) are attracted to EG puddles. Nada. None. Everything is based on the assumption that pets will eat anything sweet they come across. Which for cats isn’t true because they can’t taste it, and for dogs highly unlikely, as most of them are overfed.

**UPDATE**

Hold the (Word)press!

There is a 2006 study on rats and dogs (both of which can taste sweets) which rejects the hypothesis that animals are attracted to anti-freeze.
It’s an interesting read, and it points to the impact of water content and water deprivation, which I discuss below.

Source: wikimedia Commons

Ethylene Glycol (EG), main component of anti-freeze

An inconvenient truth?

But let’s just, for the sake of argument, proceed to statement 4. That animals will prefer EG over water. They might. But there we come to a point that, on all those websites, is plainly ignored. Why, in an environment where dozens of water sources are available to every single pet, would they happen to stumble upon the tiny puddle of EG that lies near a car? Unless you spill enormous amounts of the stuff, which would be plain stupidity, the amount of antifreeze that ends up on the ground is minimal. Most of those websites and petitions will let you believe it’s an extremely common thing.

But think about it. Imagine that by some accident you spill antifreeze liquid on the ground, outside or in your garage. What are the chances that it will form a puddle on the ground? It’s my guess, but an educated one, that 9 out of 10, a spill of EG (and how common is a spill of EG on the ground, anyway? doesn’t it all end up on the engine block?) will hit the ground, splatter in all directions, and form tiny droplets that will be absorbed by the soil or surface.

So chances for encounter are small, the chances to have deadly puddles of EG even smaller. Will a cat, not attracted to antifreeze, really stumble upon deathly amounts of EG every time she puts a paw outside her sleeping basket (or box)? Unless she’s forced and deliberately poisoned, Not really.

The only logical reason I can think of to increase the accidental probability for an animal to stumble upon antifreeze is when all other sources of water are not available. It’s just a hypothesis, but it seems obvious to me that the two moments when this could be the case is during heat of summer, when antifreeze avoids boiling of the engine and water sources are more scarce, and during winter when antifreeze avoids freezing and all the water outside is frozen. That’s a testable hypothesis. Checking cat behaviour and liquid source preference can’t be that hard.

One last thing about the US death toll of 10,000 each year. Allow me to doubt those numbers. When I read a number like that without a source, alarm bells start ringing in my head. Deliberate antifreeze poisoning (by animal-hating neighbours for example) is quite common (and sadly, efficient), but remember: those 10,000 deaths are supposed to be accidental. How did they count that? Is there any source among vets that can confirm this? If so, please put it in the comments, and I will gladly stand corrected.

I’m not an animal hater, as many of the chief defenders of the EG-sweetness will probably throw me in the face after they read this (if they read this at all)

One more thing…

Why did I start my short research into EG in the first place?

Well…because of Blue Death Org UK (the people from the petition mentioned above). They have a Facebook page where every voice of reason is blocked and removed from the webpage, dismissed as “trolls”. The admin of the page uses violent measures to remove every other (scientific) argument that dares to contradict the 4 statements I discussed here. What’s more, other related issues are wiped off the table as well.

Rock salt, another antifreeze for road surfaces, is much more dangerous to animals than EG. The risk at poisoning is actually much higher (it get’s mixed with snow). But dare to suggest it, and you’re forever denied the right to discuss the issue.

This is, in my opinion, appalling. These people have started a petition to force the EU/UK to add bitterant additive to anti-freeze. That, in itself, is a noble cause. It helps avoid poisoning of children, and might in its wake also avoid the occasional pet poisoning. In fact, the US has just approved a decree that forces bitterant additives in most states two days ago.

Where they go wrong, however, is their basic understanding of science, and most of all, their attitude. The motivation texts for the petitions are a mix of urban legend (people died after their drinks were spiked with EG!), insufficient knowledge (mixing up EG and PG), and exaggerated reasoning based on a very emotional reaction.

And I can understand that people get emotional when their pet dies. I really do. And i would sign any petition based upon solid facts. But this? A combination of hoaxes and confusion? No. Emotions are not a good indicator of scientific value. Especially when that means refuting every scientific evidence to the contrary.

Remember, these people are backed by several charities, have a website, gather money. And the EG debate is just one of the examples. Many more can be found. And in every case, the underlying science is dodgy. How can you hope to convince EU officials when your basic facts are wrong? Emotion? Think again.

Think again. Then Act.

Travelling the slow way, on iDBUS

These are dark times for European rail travel.

While the annual timetable change on the 9th of December was a memorable day for high speed rail, a large number of long distance trains were shortened, confined to one or two days a week, or axed altogether. No more Amsterdam-Beijing with only one change of trains in Moscow, for example.

I can image that, for a lot of national railway companies, night trains are something of a puzzle. Until recently, France had an extensive network of night trains, bringing you from Paris to every corner of the country with their Lunéa trains. And while they still exist today as ‘Intercités de nuit’, their number has been decreasing each year. Advertising by the national rail operator SNCF ranges from poor to non-existent, as high speed daytime services on the same routes give them easy money and more passenger turnover. Why cater to the slow traveller anyway?

For this reason, among all these cutbacks, it was quite interesting to see SNCF launch a long-distance bus service, iDBUS, which does exactly that: it creates a slow alternative. And, of all routes, they chose Paris-London, and Paris-Brussels. Two routes where Eurostar and Thalys trains bring you from A to B in under two hours. So why would people take a bus that travels 9 hours from London to Paris?

Cheaper?
Well..yes, but not in a spectacular way. At least not if you book two months in advance. I use Eurostar frequently, and if you book a few months in advance, the price difference between iDBUS and Eurostar is not that large. If you want to travel to London tomorrow, however, it becomes interesting. A Eurostar ticket for today or tomorrow costs at least €120, an iDBUS ticket will set you back about €55 for the London-Paris trip. Even 1 hour before departure.

But if you book two months in advance, is it really worth travelling the slow way..on a bus?

To find out, I decided to test it on my way back from Yorkshire to Belgium.  Instead of taking the last Eurostar of the day, I booked a seat on the overnight iDBUS from London to Lille (halfway on the London-Paris route), and made notes along the way:

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22:00 London Victoria Coach Station, Gate 6
Coach stations are quite special. Wherever you go in the world, there is nothing more interesting than a place where people are waiting for a bus. I travelled through quite a few bus station in China, and they were all indistinguishable from each other: Victoria station could easily have been one of them. It is not the most attractive spot in London, and it looks like something from a by-gone age, but it communicates exactly the kind of atmosphere you associate with coach travel.

My coach is not due until 23:30, but I spend my time observing. The next bus at the gate is the 22:30 to Aberdeen. It takes nearly 12 hours to go all the way to Scotland, 7 more than the fastest train, but tonight it is full. Mainly elderly people and students, it seems. The man sitting next to me, a 85-year old northerner from Carlisle, opens a tin of biscuits and tries to seduce the two 70-somethings across the aisle, but they fend off his advances by claiming that Scottish shortbread does not agree well with their false teeth. As the departure bell sounds, both pepperpots and Don Juan de Carlisle stumble off towards the coach outside.

At 23:00, the iDBUS staff arrives, and does a quick passport and ticket check. Perfectly bilingual. Very polite. A few moments later, all passengers (there are only 7) are led towards the coach, where the driver scans my ticket and shows me where to leave my luggage.

One thing that is immediately apparent  when you board the coach is the smell. Everything smells new and leathery. Like an expensive taxi service. I suspect it is part of their client-binding strategy, and a way to distinguish themselves from the 48 hour Eurolines bus to Kiev, but it does work. It creates a sense of security and trust. The seats are excellent and very large. There’s a 220V plug on every seat. And on-board Wi-Fi. Included in the price.

23:30 iDBUS
After a short introduction of the on-board facilities by one of the two drivers and a brief ‘sleep tight’, the bus sets off across midnight London. One of the nice things about night travel, either by train or by bus, is the way you travel through suburbs, cities and countryside as a silent observer. The first hour or so, the coach travels through London, past Battersea, Vauxhall and the southern suburbs towards the M20 to Kent. You can see the city slowly falling asleep, as people leave pubs, walk drunk along (or on) the road, and go home. The best way to see a city alive, is by travelling through it.

1:15 Folkstone Channel Terminal
Here, I should point out the difference between the day services and the overnight service. iDBUS uses the Chunnel to cross the Channel to France, so the time spent waiting at the Channel Terminal depends on the availability and timing of shuttle trains. During the day, this takes only half an hour or so. At night, there’s a 90 minute pause on the parking lot, because there’s one train every 2 hours. But this isn’t really important, as you’re asleep anyway. In very much the same way as night trains sometimes spend a few hours at a station to change locomotives (or simply to stretch time to make you arrive at your destination at daybreak).

3:10 Le Chunnel
The bus drives through Customs (from what i’ve heard, passport checks occur on board on some coaches) and into the awaiting Shuttle train. What follows is all very futuristic. Train closes, spaceship health and safety announcements are made, and 30 minutes later (or 90 minutes, if you count the time zone) the carriage opens up again and you drive off on the wrong side of the road. You can leave the bus during the crossing to stretch your legs, but really, the shuttle train isn’t that interesting. It’s really just a hollow tube on wheels.

6:24 Lille Europe Station
14 minutes later than the scheduled arrival time, the iDBUS pulls into Lille, and stops on the upper part of Lille Europe. The driver makes it a ‘point d’honneur’ of saying goodbye personally to everyone leaving the coach here. In fact, he’s leaving the coach as well, as another chauffeur team boards for the remaining leg to Paris. Nevertheless, it’s a service you don’t get on a TGV.

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The Catch?
There is none, really. Though, if you’re not used to travelling by night in a bus, then it might be a bit tiresome. I admit I didn’t sleep a lot, but that had more to do with the excitement of discovery than my discomfort. As there were only 7 persons on the bus, I could spread my little travel ecosystem over the seat next to me. I can imagine that a full bus is something quite different. Then again, there’s more comfort and leg room than in a 1st Class seat of a TGV.

Overall…
Excellent slow alternative to the Eurostar. Almost spot on time. Well-trained staff. Leg room.
What more can you wish for?