Guru Magazine Issue 1 Autumn 2011

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GOING DEEPER Is seeing really believing?


Guru is intended to be used for educational and entertainment purposes only. Please consult a qualified medical professional if you have any personal health concerns.

The opinions expressed herein are of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Guru Magazine Ltd. © 2011 Guru Magazine Ltd. This work is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this licence, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California 94105, USA.

Guru Team Edited by Stuart Farrimond Marketing & PR by Ben Veal Graphic design by Random Panda Contributors: Natasha Agabaiyan Michele Banks Ben Good Daryl Ilbury Kim Lacey James Lloyd Camila Ruz Advertising & letters: Press & marketing enquiries: Text and picture material is sent at the owner’s risk. Cover image: Flickr • Björn Söderqvist This image: Flickr • Joybot

This beautiful light fitting belongs to a famous person. Can you guess whose it is?


If you see a link or web address anywhere in Guru, it’s probably clickable! Where you see the

at the end of an article,


use it to click back to this contents page.

ARRIVALS LOUNGE follow guru on twitter




BORED AT WORK? THAT’S SO YESTERYEAR... follow guru on facebook /GuruMag

Dr Stu reviews iPad executive toys! #STUFF




IS SEEING REALLY BELIEVING? The Mind Guru explores the art of making false memories #FOOD


The Physics Guru reviews Uncaged Monkeys at the theatre

Guest writer Natasha Agabaiyan gives us her secret recipe for ultra-tasty Shepherd’s Pie



POLES APART Differences of opinion. We all like a good debate... #STUFF


PAINTING BIOLOGY: LOVE & DEATH The Art Guru goes inside the human body and paints what she finds...

The Media Guru investigates the wizardry behind Harry Potter



What makes a sceptic? Are you one? Our Sceptic Guru certainly is...

ARE YOU BEING DECEIVED? Computers that trick us into thinking they’re real people #ASIDES

THE GURU FRIDGE What’s hot on the Guru website



THE GURU GUIDE TO ENJOYING THE BRITISH SUMMER Go on, try clicking on something!


LIES, DAMNED LIES AND DIETS... Guest contributor Camila Ruz debunks five top diet myths!



ARRIVALS LOUNGE THE GURU JOURNEY BEGINS: CHECK IN HERE... Chances are you’re like us – interested in life, love and the world around you. Guru has been launched on a foolishly simple premise: easy-to-read articles about the things that matter but without any tabloid nonsense. Striking a balance between lofty academia and accessibility – we think Guru is unique. Our contributors are ‘Gurus’: a diverse bunch from all over the world. This issue’s topics are as varied as they are: Ever wondered why Harry Potter is so successful? Wanted to cook like Heston Blumenthal? This issue should give you some answers. Check out our Art Guru’s showcase of stunning watercolour paintings: vivid depictions of the unseen microscopic world. Prepare to be challenged by our Sceptic Guru as he questions whether we are as rational as we think we are. When you’re in need of something lighthearted, find out how British folk enjoy the summer with our Design Guru’s hilarious graphical guide. There’s also some great stuff for psychology and technology fans.


Image: Flickr • Casey David

All aboard? Right then, we’re off... Enjoy!

A gadget store run by gadget lovers. We’ve a selection of great gifts, toys, gadgets and gizmos: some useful, some just fun, and some both! Write to us at, marking your subject line with GURUMAIL. The Star Letter every issue gets a sweet prize – this time, a Fushigi Gravity Ball from!


This issue’s STAR LETTER Dear Guru, Recently, on holiday with the family, I found myself reaching for the ebooks, magazines, films and apps on my shiny new iPad. But when I tried to turn it on, I was greeted with a black screen. No matter how many times I pushed the power or home buttons, the screen refused to come on (the panic really was starting to set in). My wife came over and asked why I looked so stressed. I said, “look at the iPad – the screen’s dead!” She looked confused and asked what I was talking about (getting me even more wound up)...

Image: Flickr • Casey David

She said it looked fine to her and she could see the screen perfectly. Then it hit me – I removed my sunglasses and the screen magically reappeared before me! Dear Guru, I recently attended my daughter’s school play, which presented a message of living sustainably and caring for the planet. It compared life on Planet Plenty (where everyone has a swimming pool and leaves the lights on) to Planet Pleasant (where all waste is recycled and transport is powered by renewable energy). The problem was that some of its science was just plain wrong. Not only that, scientists from Planet Plenty were portrayed as distant sociopaths unable to communicate with ordinary people, interested only in inventing nasty chemicals in their laboratories. ‘Planet Pleasant’ didn’t have scientists. Whilst I enjoyed watching my daughter act brilliantly (she’s my daughter!), I was distracted by the content and subtext of the play.

Investigating further, I found that by turning the iPad horizontally the screen was visible, but vertically – nothing. It turns out that my expensive sunglasses are polarised and will only allow the polarised light of the iPad through in one direction (sadly, the wrong way to read Guru without lots of pinch zooming). However, with my wife’s less expensive sunglasses, there was no problem at all. So before you go, check your shades for iPad compatibility unless you want to end up wearing your wife’s sunglasses... Best holiday wishes to Guru and its readers, Shane Burgess

One of its problems was that all atmospheric environmental problems seemed to be blamed on the carbon dioxide monster. Ozone layer depletion? Climate change? Acid rain? Blame the CO2. I’m not saying that mass consumption of fossil fuels isn’t releasing vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. What I object to is woolly thinking, and in this case, woolly teaching about environmental issues. We should make sure we get our facts straight before committing pen to paper (or finger to keyboard? – Guru). Thanks for listening to my rant! What does Guru think? Tim A. Guru – Thanks for venting Tim! Environmental issues and climate change are clearly very controversial topics. Do we live on Planet Plenty? In the

coming months, Guru will take a look at green technology and what (if anything) folk like you and I can do to save the planet. Hopefully we won’t dilute the facts in the same way... Dear Guru, Wow, what a neat concept. I look forward to reading the next issue of Guru. It’s still great to see this research being described in publications that are aimed at the educated layperson and the Mind Guru has described the work in a very engaging and accessible style. Thanks! Dr Kimberley Wade (Author of the research A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies, featured in this issue’s #MIND section)

Guru reserves the right to edit letters



Bored at work? That’s so yesteryear... DR STU • SCIENCE GURU Back in the eighties, executive toys were all the rage. Spinning metal men or a Newton’s cradle could spruce up an otherwise bland office desk. Better still, stress balls and Rubik cubes could provide thirty second’s aversion between meetings. The esteemed wave chamber was the preserve of the rich; but would prove to guests that they weren’t such a dull white-collar worker after all.

Newton’s Cradle: Physics++ IAM Web Services Rating:


Now in the 21st century, these desktop gizmos have all but passed away into gadget heaven. What then, is a bored middle-manager to do while waiting for that important phone call? Ever on hand to meet a market need, programmers have churned out a veritable plethora of useless, timewasting iPad and Smartphone Apps. Designed to amuse, entertain and distract, we decided to check out the most popular

The hypnotic swing and clang of a Newton’s Cradle could be called a form of work-place therapy. Can the electronic equivalent do justice to the world’s most famous office play-thing? This popular app boasts a “real physics engine built on kinematics and momentum equations” (oooh!) Looks-wise, the Newton’s Cradle: Physics++ certainly fits the bill: crisply rendered 3D billiards move and collide just like the real thing. Set

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in motion with a single swipe of the fingertip, you can easily rotate your virtual pendulum and zoom from practically any angle; premium features include textured balls and lighting effects. It’s an authentic and intuitive replica of the real thing, but it’s just, well... a bit dull. A shame, really. Perhaps some things were never supposed to digitised. Overall: Though entertaining for about 30 seconds, you’re unlikely to play it more than once.

REVIEW: iPAD EXECUTIVE TOYS fluidity HD Nubulus Design Rating:


When I was a child, lava lamps were the coolest thing ever, and I always dreamed of having one. Nubulus Design’s “interactive fluid dynamics simulation” is best likened to an interactive version of this 1960’s novelty. Colourful liquid textures flow across the display and tapping on the screen creates moving blobs of wax-like fluid. It’s delightfully pointless and strangely pleasing. Techie-types can

Gravitarium2 Robert Neagu Rating:


It’s difficult to think of a real-life equivalent of this iPad toy, created by Robert Neagu. Combining “music, art and science”, this app offers users the ability to craft moving ‘masterpieces’ from floating stars. Touching the screen with any number of fingers creates “star flows” of various 3D patterns. Accompanied by an ambient soundtrack, playing on Gravitarium2 is purposeless; and yet it’s frustratingly hard to put down. As with similar apps, Gravitarium2 comes laden with options letting you customise your ‘art’. Taking snapshots of your creations lets you



squander further minutes of down-time by modifying their ‘liquid’ viscosity, colour and movement. It’s pretty enough to attract interested glances from onlookers and has enough interactivity to give it some longevity. At last, my very own lava lamp... (sort of). Overall: Moving blobs of artificial fluid around a screen sounds bizarre; but fluidity HD is well executed and has an aesthetically pleasing, relaxing appeal. share your work with your friends. Although very eye-catching, it’s a touch unnecessary. To be honest, Gravitarium2 ‘art’ is not the sort of thing I want to stick on the kitchen fridge. The app is ‘social’ to the extent that two iPads can be linked to form musical firework duets. If you’re feeling particularly proud, there’s even a leaderboard for ‘most liked’ Gravitarium2 creations. Overall: A trippy, oddlyaddictive musical experience. Be advised: if you start playing, you can kiss that lunch break goodbye. Gravitarium SD is available for iPhone users.


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Science stand-up? You gotta be kidding me! JAMES LLOYD • PHYSICS GURU Image: Flickr •

At Guru, we never thought science could be funny. We were wrong. ‘Uncaged Monkeys Live’ is a highly-acclaimed stand-up show that combines science, comedy and satire. By all accounts, theatre-goers have been rolling in the aisles.

sounds: one particular victim of his satirical fury was TV nutritionist ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith, a member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (an association with such loose entry requirements that even Ben’s dead cat, Hettie, is a member).

Our Physics Guru, James Lloyd, went along to see what all the fuss was about…

Image: Wikipedia • David A. Ellis

Never heard of him? Crazy Ken Dodd is a British comedian recognised by his frizz of hair and buck teeth.

Earlier this year, the Uncaged Monkeys were let loose on the British public, billing themselves as the first ever “national science tour”. Robin Ince (co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage – available via podcast) was the host and was joined by Professor Brian Cox (the ‘Peter Andre of particle physics’!) Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Helen Arney. A smattering of other science-y people made guest appearances on different dates of the two week tour. I caught up with the action in Birmingham, UK earlier this year at the Alexandra Theatre – a curious, timeworn place where you expect Ken Dodd (left) to jump out from behind a curtain at any minute, waving his feather duster. The show was a sell-out and busier than Berlusconi’s bedroom. Maybe it was the ‘Brian Cox effect’ (two girls sitting behind me were discussing whether to hire the binoculars to get a closer look at him). Regardless, it felt a world apart from my undergraduate physics days. The master of ceremonies was Robin Ince, and he is a very, very funny man – well worth the entrance fee alone. But this tour was all about the science, so enter the boffins. First in was Ben Goldacre, who gave a presentation, based on his Bad Science book about medical scandals, drug trial farces and Daily Mail scare stories. It was a lot more fun than it

Image: Flickr • University of Manchester Schools & Colleges

As expected, ubiquitous TV scientist Brian Cox (above) did the trade-mark, wide-eyed Wonders of the Universe thing that he could probably do in his sleep by now. This man possesses a superhuman ability for memorising long numbers – and all credit is due anyone who can explain both relativity and particle physics in five minutes without batting an eyelid. Playing a clip of Carl Sagan describing the famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ (a photograph taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back towards the distant Earth) was frankly beautiful and humbling stuff. Simon Singh stayed on the astronomy / cosmology theme with his Big Bang talk, as did Helen Keen with her irreverent overview of the Space Race (conclusion: we owe our space successes to Nazis and Satanists). The other Helen (of the Arney variety) provided an incredible musical interlude in the form of ukulele songs about animal sex rituals and student love in the laboratory. Just a normal night at the theatre, then.

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TV scientist Professor Brian Cox wows his audience (and the ladies) with just how amazing the universe is.

Then again, maybe that was just the effect of Professor Cox’s velvety tones… Tell us what you think at

Suggested links •

The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot narration

James Lloyd has spent the last three-and-a-half years getting his head around climate models, studying for a PhD in meteorology at Reading University. When not being sciencey, James enjoys bashing the drums, memorising French verbs, and marvelling at the genius of Portal 2. He has his own blog at

Design + Illustration


Overall, science in a theatre worked surprisingly well. The production values were virtually non-existent (the nearest we got to special effects was Simon Singh electrifying a gherkin)! However, the presenters and their Powerpoints were alone enough to captivate the audience for the full three hours. Bells and whistles obviously aren’t needed when the subject matter is this mindboggling.

Image: Flickr • ellbrown




The folks at Guru don’t always agree. For example, not everyone loves Harry Potter. We asked our contributors what they really thought about the boy wonder and his lucrative franchise... James Lloyd • Physics Guru I’m potty about Potter! I’ve always been a bit partial to magic, ever since I was given a magic set for my eighth birthday, and Harry Potter is one of my favourite book series. OK, so the stories aren’t perfect, but I can’t think of any that I’ve been more engrossed in. They’ve got wonderfully fantastical settings, addictive plots, and, most importantly, lifelike characters who you find yourself caring for. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, VERDICT: but I’ve shed a fair few PotterLOVE related tears over the years... Ben Good • Technology Guru I grew up with Harry Potter; when he left school, I left school. When he was worrying about exams, I was worrying about exams. When he was trying to fight past dark and evil forces, I was trying to get through the university admissions process! I’ve never seen the Harry Potter series as a champion of children’s literacy; it was a parallel universe close enough to my life as an early-noughties teenager to allow me to feel empathetic, yet fantastical enough for me to immerse myself into thrilling adventures. Even now as an adult, it’s still comforting to be able to reconnect with those old friends VERDICT: in that strange version of Britain LOVE and go on the adventures again.

Andrew Jackman • Guest Opinion

Image: Flickr • striatic

Harry Potter – love it or hate it? Well, actually, neither. Perhaps a better comparison would be “love, hate, yawn”. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed reading the books and love a story about an underdog that makes good. I’ve waited up until midnight a couple of times, and bought two copies so everyone could read it at once. I’ve seen all the movies (in the sense of being in the cinema rather than being awake). At times there are moments of sheer genius, like Quidditch, for example. Even if the rules of Quidditch don’t really stack up. However, the secret is not to look too closely. This isn’t Lord of the Rings or even To Kill a Mockingbird, which at a tenth of the length of the HP series, still manages to make a longer impression. Yes, when I have grandkids, I’ll take them to see the re-runs at the cinema. They will enjoy it, and so will I. After all, there aren’t many places you can snooze in public for three VERDICT: hours without being moved on. MEH...

Daryl Ilbury • Sceptic Guru

Dr Stu • Science Guru

I know you’re thinking that a disagreeable, cynical fool such as I would denigrate anything that suggests magic is anything but an illusion; but you’d be wrong. And here’s why: as father of a red-headed boy, and thus acutely aware of the subtle but savage discrimination directed at persons with his hair colour, any film where the ginger gets to snog the leading lady is alright in my books! Go, Ron Weasley, you stud! VERDICT: LOVE

A boy with magic powers – haven’t we been here before? If I were twelve, I would be lapping it up – but in all honesty, I just can’t get excited about this sort of thing anymore. I’m up for a good bit of escapism but the Potter premise is all rather cliché: I can’t help feeling its huge popularity is not because of Harry’s charm but is a testimony to the glamorous power of the VERDICT: Hollywood marketing machine. HATE

Want to know why the Harry Potter series has been so successful? Turn over and find out!



BEN VEAL • MEDIA GURU Image: Flickr • delphwynd / Brian Smith

Media Guru Ben Veal knows a thing or two about marketing and, like many others, he is also a diehard Harry Potter fan. So why has JK Rowling’s creation been such a runaway commercial success? Ben casts his Guru eye on the franchise and considers why so many have fallen in love with this spectacle-wearing adolescent... Eight years. Seven books. One boy wizard. Like it or loathe it (and there really doesn’t seem to be any middle ground), Harry Potter truly is a worldwide phenomenon, the likes of which haven’t really been seen before. Not only has it re-energised the British film industry, but it’s also played a big role in bringing the lost art of reading to a whole new generation. By the time you read this, the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, will have hit cinemas across the globe. As millions of film fans now contemplate a life slightly less magical, I want to explore just what it is about the adventures of young Master Potter that resonates so strongly with audiences around the globe. How did this previously-unknown author make such an impact? Just what will we do with ourselves now that it’s all come to an end? Cards on the table: I’m a full-blown Potter fan

and have been for well over a decade, so I’m taking an unapologetic look at Potter’s appeal from my perspective. Whilst the series has its critics, here are my five reasons why it has had such incredible longevity:


Simple Characters

It sounds silly, but it’s true. One of the reasons JK Rowling’s books have been so successful is that the characters and their role in the story are clearly defined (as should be the case with any good tale).

Vladimir Propp, a Russian formalist scholar, published Morphology of the Folktale in 1928.It was a highly influential text that influenced many academics including anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and philosopher Roland Barthes. Propp studied various folk tales and determined that they all had similar characters and storylines. He discovered that there are up to eight basic characters in all fairy tales. You can see six of them clearly in the Harry Potter stories (see box below). In short, Harry Potter is a narrative about basic principles of good and evil, of love overcoming hate, and of the value of courage, friendship and loyalty – principles that everyone can

Vladimir Propp’s Character Types in Harry Potter Lord Voldemort is The Villain, who struggles against The Hero (no prizes for guessing who this is!). Hagrid is The Dispatcher, who reveals Harry’s magical roots and sends him to Hogwarts. Dumbledore is The Donor, who prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object. Dumbledore serves as Harry’s guide throughout, advising and preparing him for the final battle Ron & Herminone are The Helpers, aiding the hero in the quest. Good overcoming evil is The Prize (otherwise known by Propp as The Princess) – what the hero deserves throughout the story but is unable to obtain because of an unfair force (in this case, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’). The hero’s journey ends when the prize is achieved and the villain is defeated. Image: Flickr • Tiago Augusto

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SIMPLY MAGIC! identify with. The beauty of the series is that the characters are so well defined, yet complex enough to grow and evolve as the story progresses.


Clever marketing

The marketing team behind JK Rowling certainly aren’t dummies. One of their smartest moves came when they realised that Harry Potter appealed to all ages, not just children. After years of shamefully hiding their copy of ‘HP’ within the pages of their broadsheet on long commutes, sternlooking, suit-wearing businessmen could

breathe a sigh of relief when ‘adult covers’ were created for the childrens’ series – allowing them to step out of the literary closet (so to speak). It was a very shrewd move, and one which demonstrated that a good book is, well, ageless.



I’m sure I’m not the only Brit who feels immense pride at the success of Harry Potter – not just the books, but also the films. Its worldwide popularity has shown the globe not only that we British know how to do fiction, but also that we can make a pretty good film when we put our minds to it. The cinematic franchise has had its fair share of detractors (and not completely without reason) but no one can deny its commercial success.


Our view of technology is challenged

Possibly my favourite part of Harry Potter is the idea of Muggles. These are ordinary, non-magical folk like you and I (presuming, of course, that no wizards are reading this). One class taught at Hogwarts is Muggle Studies, with wizards looking on at human advancements such as television and cars with both humour and interest – so quaint

are these inventions compared to what they are capable of when using magic. I love the fact that no matter how advanced we feel we have become, with our iPads and Skyping, Harry Potter’s world puts it into rather harsh perspective – mocking human advancement with the sheer simplicity of magic. Rowling astutely also only refers to well-established technological inventions (e.g. the television), therefore ensuring that the books do not quickly age. This aspect of the series reminds us that no matter how far we advance, there’s always room for improvement. After all, who needs a car when one can travel by Floo Powder? Why send a stronglyworded letter to your local Council when you can send a Howler? And why wait weeks to repair a broken bone when you could have a quick sip of Skele-Gro?

It makes us happy and more connected!


No, I’m not getting soft – one of the reasons the series has been so successful is not just that it taps into core emotions, but that we gladly allow it to: Back in the 70s, theorists Blumer and

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Harry Potter fulfils four key needs in the audience: •

It provides information and a framework in which to view our world, through its clear representation of good vs evil. It aids a sense of personal identity through our association with certain characters. It provides integration and social interaction by allowing us to engage as part

of a community (of like-minded fans) and to share experiences with them. It also provides some darn fine entertainment!

Harry Potter – nostalgia and escapism As I grow older, I have fond nostalgia for magical creations from my childhood and for that period of wonderful escapism in my life. Harry Potter has provided this for a large portion of my adult life and it is with a tinge of sadness that there are no more books or films to look forward to. Of course, I know that there are many people that would never consider picking up a Harry Potter book and will be rejoicing now that the final film has hit the big screen.

However, there’s no denying the influence that JK Rowling’s magical world has had. Without Harry Potter, it is unlikely that it would be so acceptable for adults to read children’s books in public - which could have meant no Twilight, and (more importantly) no RPattz – and what a sorry world that would be! Tell us what you think at

Image: Wikimedia • Scarce

Katz coined what is known as the Uses and Gratifications Theory, which assumes that the audience is not passive, but rather is actively involved in selecting media which fulfils certain roles in their lives.

Robert Patterson (aka RPattz) of Twilight – and briefly Harry Potter – fame.

Image: Flickr • nasikabatrachus

Did You Know? 2001‘s The Philosophers Stone wasn’t the first time that a character named Harry Potter had graced the silver screen... A character named Harry Potter Jr appeared in Troll, a little-known fantasy/horror film from 1986.

Ben Veal works in PR and lives in Wiltshire, UK. He studied Film at university and still spends an unhealthy amount of time in front of a screen. You can read Ben’s blog at, and, of course, follow his tweets at @BenVealPR.

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BEN GOOD • TECHNOLOGY GURU Illustrations by Dave Gray •

“I was born in Huntington Beach, California… about 19 years ago” Michelle said to me, matter-of-factly. Going on to describe her childhood as “horrible”, she told me how her “mom hates [her]”. One could be forgiven for sympathising with her, except for one key fact she chose to hide. Michelle is actually a computer program... Michelle, aka Cleverbot, is an invention of the British software developer Rollo Carpenter. It has been designed to convincingly mimic human conversation; one of the most difficult and controversial challenges in artificial intelligence research.

“At some stage... we should have to expect the machines to take control.” Alan Turing

There are several ways in which programmers have gone about trying to conquer this goal and pass the Turing Test. Some have created computers that have preprogrammed sensible responses to questions asked of them. Others rely on previous conversations and have a more fluid and unpredictable way of ‘talking’. For a programmer, it is a fine line to tread: if a computer is too irreverent, its cover is blown:

The pursuit of this goal is heavily influenced by the work of famed mathematician Alan Turing. He devised the Turing Test – a way to gauge artificial intelligence (AI). In this he proposed that true robotic intelligence would only occur when a human is unable to tell whether they are having a conversation with another human or a computer pretending to be a human.

Computer Program Elbot completely misjudges a conversation

From this conversation, could you tell who was human?

However, the spontaneity of human nature does require these computer programs to be able to do the unexpected. One of the early conversational computers tricked people into thinking it was human due to its ability to make common human spelling mistakes!

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The Man who fell in love with a Computer Program In 2006, psychology expert Robert Epstein (below right) had just been through a difficult divorce. Like many of us, he decided to find love through an online dating website. He quickly hit it off with a Russian woman, Evona. She had an attractive photo and they had a lot in common. Sending emails back and forth, their relationship started to blossom. But slowly it started to dawn on Robert that something wasn’t quite right. Although her English was poor, Evona had an odd style of writing and avoided answering any direct questions. She clammed up completely when he offered to come and visit her in Russia and then Robert worked it out. Despite a background in giving out relationship advice – he had been completely duped... Evona wasn’t real at all, but a computer program designed to write intelligent sounding emails! It’s thought that mischievous computer programmers have generated hundreds of artificial ‘people’ that now roam chatrooms and dating sites. With names, photographs and intelligent sounding conversation, would you be able to spot a fake?

Embarrassing: Dr Epstein – deceived by a computer program is famous for giving advice on successful relationships! Image:

ARE YOU BEING DECEIVED? ‘Michelle’ (Cleverbot) uses an interesting tactic that tries to convincingly walk that fine line. According to Carpenter it is essentially a “giant feedback loop”. Cleverbot monitors the human responses to questions and then applies those answers to similar questions when asked at a later date. Because Cleverbot is now online, it has been consuming the human chatter of the internet. This has led to the slightly bizarre situation where ‘Michelle’ seems to have developed a homogenised personality of everyone who has spoken to it! It now has the personality of the average internet user – often showing a very sarcastic sense of humour and a mean streak:

“[The Turing Test] is an established goal that will be seen as globally meaningful when passed,” said Carpenter, who has been creating talking programmes for almost 20 years. However, he does admit that beating the Turing Test is not the be-all and end-all of AI research, adding: “Personally, I do not believe it will mean a machine is ‘actually intelligent’ at the time it is passed”. Contrary to Carpenter’s view, many see the Turing Test as pointless. According to Marek Sergot, a Professor of Computational Logic at Imperial College London, “The Turing Test is not treated seriously except by a small band of enthusiasts... no one pays any attention to the test.”

Passing the Turing Test: when someone can’t tell if they’re talking to a computer or a real person.

If a computer could trick a human – so what?

Professor Sergot argues that the Turing test is only of interest to a very niche group. He feels the biggest development in AI in the past quarter century is the “formulisation of reasoning patterns”. This area of computing looks for mathematical rules for how we interact socially, devise laws and make ethical decisions.

Not everyone agrees that this technology is a valuable area of research. The Turing test has become a highly debated topic amongst the AI community:

Whilst sci-fi literature and Hollywood have been questioning robotic ethics for years, Sergot disagrees with how this is being portrayed: “Asimov’s laws are rubbish.” (Asimov’s laws

CleverBot gets a bit cheeky!

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ARE YOU BEING DECEIVED? feature heavily in the 2004 movie I, Robot starring Will Smith). He accuses the media of being fixated with blockbuster narratives for computer technology. Even the University of Edinburgh received a freedom of information request from a newspaper hoping to find out “what the university was doing to ensure that its computers weren’t going to rebel”!

CleverBot has the last word Whilst the Turing Test may be up for debate, it does seem that CleverBot is both popular and able to fool a proportion of the human populace. It has over 120,000 ‘conversations’ a day online. In fact, over 500 people each day are still talking to the computer after 200 interactions! Many are convinced that it is not a computer:

“It pairs you with a random person and then switches you to another one, who was having a similar conversation... to stop people from figuring out the hoax.” CleverBot Internet User Where next for artificial intelligence? While Professor Sergot plans to continue researching the computation of logic, Carpenter is planning on integrating CleverBot with the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Whether the Turing test is of value or not, CleverBot doesn’t seem to mind. When I asked CleverBot for its opinion on the issue, it simply responded:

“I am Turing”! Tell us what you think at

Ben Good is interested in understanding the way in which we as individuals interact with the latest technological developments. Studying for an MSc in Science Communication, Ben regularly blogs about topics ranging from GM crops to the science of getting drunk at the B Good Science Blog, and tweets at @bengood.

Image: Ian Petticrew •

More links: why not converse with a computer yourself? •

Chat with CleverBot online or the online animated Joan!

Find Chatbots from all over the world at

See if the Award-winning JabberWacky can convince you that it’s human!

Alan Turing: World War II code-breaker and the godfather of artificial intelligence.

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Images: Random Panda; Dreamstime; Fridge magnets by fczuardi at Flickr. “Help yourself to a Guru” photo by Guerilla Futures / Jason Tester at Flickr

The Vending Machine with the Golden Touch



Lies, Damned Lies


We’ve all heard the rules: ‘don’t eat before bed’, ‘bread is evil’, a ‘slow metabolism’ means that you’re doomed – the list is practically endless. If you want to be able to tell the dietary meat from the useless gristle, here’s the truth behind the five lies you might tell yourself about dieting or losing weight...


“If I skip a meal regularly, I’ll lose weight.”

You gain weight by eating more than you need; by that logic skipping meals is a quick and easy diet technique, right? Wrong. Skipping meals regularly can actually make you put on weight! For a start it will make you a lot hungrier later on, so when you do

Feeling chubby around the midriff? Given that every year nearly half a trillion dollars are spent trying to lose weight, lots of us must. How much of this weight-loss advice is actually any good? Guru gets all healthy as Camila Ruz sets out on a bit of myth-busting... eat you’re more likely to eat more. Also, when deprived of food regularly our bodies go into ‘starvation mode’. In order to get you through this ‘famine’, your body slows down your metabolism, making it harder to burn off calories. In this state, the body burns your muscle in an effort to save precious fat stores. Even worse, any extra calories that the body can get will be more quickly turned into fat.

Illustration: Random Panda • using elements from The Noun Project


“Carbs are bad for me!”

Poor old carbohydrates get a hard time. We’ve all heard of the Atkin’s diet: no bread, no cereal and no potatoes – no joy. However, not all ‘carbs’ are bad; your body needs them to make glucose, the fuel your cells need to survive. Things like whole grains, beans and vegetables are all sources of good carbohydrates as well being rich in vitamins and fibre. It’s only the certain carbohydratefilled foods, like those from refined white bread, which can make you put on weight – these are the ones you need to watch out for.


“Eating late will make me put on weight.”

Here’s the theory: food you eat in the evening will be turned into fat because you won’t be doing enough exercise in the night to burn it off. Science says otherwise. At a study at the Dunn Nutrition Centre in Cambridge, researchers compared volunteers fed with a large lunch and a small dinner with those fed with a small lunch and a big dinner. The people who had a large meal in the evening didn’t store any more fat than the other group. The time you eat is unlikely to make a difference to losing weight – but how much you eat will...

“Being 4 overweight means I have a slow metabolism.” Au contraire! Don’t believe this one because in reality the opposite is true: your metabolism increases as your weight does. The bigger you are, the more energy is needed to keep you going. Sadly, all those tricks you may have heard for speeding up metabolism (drinking coffee, eating chillies and taking cold baths) aren’t likely to have much of an effect in the long run.

“If I stick to low-fat food, I’ll lose weight.”


Unfortunately that belief is not quite right either. Some of the low-fat ready meals are almost as calorierich as their full-fat equivalents, as they are filled with sugar, salt and other ingredients to add flavour. In many cases you might as well have the steak! Portion sizes also have an effect. Eating a huge plate of low fat foods can often be as bad as a smaller plate of fattier food. Even fruit salads can be calorie-rich if they’re large.

So, is there a trick to weight loss? In the end it comes down to the simple principle of not eating more than you need. Increasing your activity and regulating what you eat are the two best ways of doing this. With a few exceptions, the ultimate goal of dieting is to be the shape and weight you want for life. To be the weight you want, you need to do more than just change what you eat, you should change your lifestyle in a way that you can keep going. Let’s face it; it’s a lot easier to keep doing something you like than something which feels like a chore.

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Taking up a sport you’ve always wanted could make a difference, even if it’s just taking some time to kick a ball in

the park or going for a quick swim. Eating healthy food that tastes good, with lots of variety, is also key. The secret of dieting isn’t following a list of rules but finding a healthy balance. This way it won’t just be a diet you can live with – but one you can really enjoy!

Tell us what you think at Camila Ruz trained as a zoologist and describes herself as a travel jinx – everywhere she goes, earthquakes and hurricanes seem to follow! When she isn’t off working at Buin Zoo in Chile, she is a keen blogger and studies Science Communication at Imperial College London. You can follow her adventures on Twitter at @CamilaRuzR.

An Unexpected Consequence of a Fad Diet... I woke up with just the tip of my nose bright red and very itchy. I was trying to slim down for a wedding. So I was on my third day of eating just homemade minestrone soup for every meal – lots and lots of tomatoes. I know Doc, not smart. I lost 5lbs but now I have to go to the wedding looking like Rudolph! Not a good trade-off.

Image: • bury-osiol

Losing weight doesn’t happen overnight and nor should it: drastic diets aren’t good for your body and are nearly impossible to maintain (see the side for an example!).

A comment left by Imrock on Dr Stu’s Blog

Links to all the serious science stuff

Image: Flickr • Logan Brumm Photography & Design

One reason why you shouldn’t skip meals – and one more. Carbs aren’t really bad for you... One article at the Canadian Medical Association Journal and one at the Harvard School of Public Health. It’s ok to eat in the evening... according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Why being overweight doesn’t mean you have a slow metabolism.

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Illustration: Random Panda • using elements from The Noun Project


Kim Lacey, from Detroit, USA, is interested in anything our minds do; how we remember, think, and how our minds play tricks on us. With a PhD in English from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim knows a thing or two about memory studies, digital media and digital humanities. She also has a serious addiction to combo plates at restaurants. You can read about Kim at or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.


Daryl Ilbury is a multi-award winning broadcaster and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has been in commercial breakfast radio for over 20 years, and has a passion for science that has burned since he was a child. You can see an archive of his work on his website or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.


Michele Banks is a painter and collage artist based in Washington DC. Her science-themed work is in the permanent collection of Children’s National Medical Center and DC City Hall, and was recently exhibited at NIH. She sells her work online at and tweets at @artologica.


Ben Good is interested in understanding the way in which we as individuals interact with the latest technological developments. Studying for an MSc in Science Communication, Ben regularly blogs about topics ranging from GM crops to the science of getting drunk at the B Good Science Blog, and tweets at @bengood.


James Lloyd has spent the last three-and-a-half years getting his head around climate models, studying for a PhD in meteorology at Reading University. When not being sciencey, James enjoys bashing the drums, memorising French verbs, and marvelling at the genius of Portal 2. He has his own blog at


Sarah Joy is the graphic designer responsible for the wonderful layout of Guru magazine. She loves Hong Kong, comics and is renowned for an amazing selection of fine teas and making great cake. Check out Sarah’s illustration and design blog at and follow her on Twitter at @RanPanda.


Ben Veal works in PR and lives in Wiltshire, UK. He studied Film at university and still spends an unhealthy amount of time in front of a screen. You can read Ben’s blog at, and, of course, follow his tweets at @BenVealPR.


Dr Stu originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing. He drinks too much coffee, eats ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit. You can check out his blog at and on Twitter at @realdoctorstu.



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Is seeing really believing? Image: Flickr • Biscarotte


Making a memory seems to happen automatically – you experience something and later something else triggers a recollection of that event. Voilà – memory made! But hold on a second, I hear you say, it can’t be that easy! You’d be quite right; because in reality it is frighteningly easy to make ‘fake memories’. One of the most interesting (and disturbing) ways false memories can be made is by memory implantation. I’m not referring to creepy films with aliens using mindcontrolling techniques on earthlings: memory implantation (making false memories) can happen to anyone, and it happens because we actually allow it. We easily trick ourselves into believing in something that never

Image: © Dr Kimberley Wade, all rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission

Our Mind Guru, Dr Kim Lacey, asks “how do you make a memory?” It sounds simple, but she shows us that the reality is quite different. Get ready to question those memories you hold dear. Welcome to the frightening world of ‘memory implantation’: you just might never trust yourself again…

How could you ever forget a hot-air balloon ride? The process of doctoring a photo: original photo provided by family confederate (left) and doctored photo (right).

really happened. What’s more, memory implantation is the sort of thing you can easily do with your friends with a photo and a computer (although they might not be your friends afterwards)...

A picture is worth a thousand lies Psychologist Kimberley Wade published a famous experiment called A Picture is Worth a Thousand Lies. Dr Wade and her colleagues showed twenty volunteers manipulated photos in which they themselves had been superimposed. Wade had previously asked the subjects to provide several childhood photos from ‘moderately significant events’ like birthday parties or family holidays. The researchers then scanned, cropped, and digitally inserted one of the photos into another image, creating a composite image of the person

on a hot air balloon ride as a child (image above). After creating this photograph, they interviewed the subjects three times over a span of several weeks. During each interview, “subjects thought about a photograph showing them on a hot air balloon ride and tried to recall the event by using guided-imagery exercises”. Remarkably, even though the photo was doctored and the subject never participated in a hot air balloon ride, all the participants said something like,

“Well, it’s a photograph, so it must have happened!” Dr Wade and her team proved that we tend to believe that photographs represent something that happened in our lives even if the event was a fake! Because of her dramatic conclusion, the research team identified three new

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IS SEEING REALLY BELIEVING? Your checklist: fake memory making Corrupt some ‘Authoritative Evidence’. First, the photo is largely accepted as trustworthy evidence that something actually happened – people would often say, “it’s a photo, so it must be true”.


Keep Suggesting. Secondly, the doctored photograph ‘planted the seed’ of a false memory. Over the course of the interviews, each subject searched their memories and by doing this they created a false memory. In just three meetings, they realised they had ‘forgotten’ the hot air balloon ride. In other words, they made themselves believe it actually happened!


3 Use a Photo. Finally, Dr Wade says that photographs require less effort to build a memory around, “subjects are less likely to resist the accuracy of the photograph”. It seems we just can’t resist a good photo!

Memory: who’s in control? This experiment is so fascinating because we tend to believe that we have control over our memory – how could we possibly forget a hot air balloon

ride? Dr Wade says, “people tend to think of photographs as frozen moments in time, place faith in them, and see them as reliable representations of the past.” The photograph took the place of each individual’s authority over their own memory; even though the volunteers did not experience the hot air balloon ride, the photograph ‘proved’ that they had. Rather than trusting their own memories of their own pasts, the photograph superseded most subjects’ doubts. What is most interesting about these results is neither the photograph nor the false memory was real. So it must be that the subjects’ memories were manipulated by their own doing! This memory manipulation occurred within the individual with some slight prompting from the photograph.

Making memories Other psychologists have done similar things to show that false memory is a result of ‘personalized re-constructions’ of events. Professor Mazzoni from Hull University likens making memories to “the activity of a paleontologist, who reconstructs the skeleton of a dinosaur ‘out of a few bone chips’”. By looking at

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Image: Flickr • Jeff Kubina

possibilities for the creation of memories.

Bone collecting and memories: We form memories like a fossil-hunter reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton.

the doctored hot air balloon photograph, the subjects believed that they actually participated in the event. The image was one “bone chip” that aided in the reconstruction of the full skeleton. This one piece was enough to visually construct the whole, even on false premises – Mazzoni calls this “imagination inflation”. So, can we trust our own memories? I would certainly say so. But if you believe Professor Mazzoni’s claim that “memory errors are the rule, rather than the exception”, then you might want to be a little more cautious the next time you look at those hot air balloon ride photos from that ‘unforgettable’ family outing… Tell us what you think at

IS SEEING REALLY BELIEVING? Kim Lacey, from Detroit, USA, is interested in anything our minds do; how we remember, think, and how our minds play tricks on us. With a PhD in English from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim knows a thing or two about memory studies, digital media and digital humanities. She also has a serious addiction to combo plates at restaurants. You can read about Kim at or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.

References •

Mazzoni, Giuliana. “Naturally Occurring and Suggestion-Dependent Memory Distortions: The Convergence of Disparate Research Traditions.” European Psychologist. 7.1 (March 2002): 17-30. Print.

Wade, Kimberley A., Maryanne Garry, J. Don Read, and D. Stephen Lindsay. “A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies: Using False Photographs to Create False Childhood Memories.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 9.3 (2002): 597-603. Print.

Image: Flickr • Helga Birna Jónasdóttir

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Don’t believe all the hype – cooking the perfect dish is more than art: just ask Heston Blumenthal. Lab Scientist and budding chef Natasha Agabalyan takes some time away from her test tubes to share some of the secrets of the culinary trade. This month, she shows us how to make the most meatytasting Shepherd’s Pie you’ve ever had... Molecular Gastronomy started in 1992 when physicist Nicholas Kurti and chemist Hervé This decided to apply their expertise to their favourite hobby – fine dining. They birthed a new discipline that can now teach us the science behind what we eat and why we like it. It opens an exciting (and mouth-watering) door on what is in our food and how to cook in new and exciting ways. The original Molecular Gastronomy scientists worked on five main objectives:

Investigating culinary and gastronomical proverbs

Exploring new recipes

Introducing new tools, ingredients and methods in the kitchen

Inventing new dishes

Helping the public understand the contribution of science to society

Thankfully, these have been narrowed down to three simple objectives: social, artistic and technical (phew!).

Umami – never heard of it? The Japanese concept of umami (旨味) has only recently been acknowledged in the Western world as a new taste sense (‘savoury’ flavour). It is meant to describe the taste of meat, cheese and mushrooms and has always been accepted in Japan. Before 1996, Westerners thought these flavours were simply considered a sensation mix of other tastes. Umami can be added to foods artificially with a refined white powder: monosodium glutamate (or MSG). Check the packet – it’s probably in your favourite savoury snacks! The main substance that causes the savoury flavour umami has its own taste receptor and is called a carboxylate anion of glutamic acid – so now you know...

Now get your apron on and try out this Heston-inspired Guru recipe!

Image: Flickr • avlxyz



MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY: PART ONE Super-charge your Shepherd’s Pie! Adding umami-rich ingredients (like mushrooms and soy sauce) to your favourite dishes fires up the umami taste buds and can give your dishes an extra flavourful kick. Try this simple variation on the traditional shepherd’s pie.

Ingredients: Serves 4 • umami-rich ingredients in bold

1 tbsp oil 1 large onion, chopped 2-3 medium carrots, diced 350g chopped mushrooms 500g pack minced lamb 2 tbsp tomato purée Worcestershire sauce Dash of Tabasco sauce (optional) Tablespoon of Marmite (optional)

Red wine Freshly chopped thyme 500ml beef stock 900g potatoes, cut into chunks 85g butter 3 tbsp milk Parmesan cheese

Method: Fry off some onions, garlic, meat, diced carrots, and mushrooms. Add some fresh thyme, pouring off any excess fat. Liberally splash in some red wine and let it simmer for a few minutes. Umami-fest: Now add a good dollop of Worchester sauce and tomato puree/ketchup. Add 5-10 drops of Thai fish sauce. Adventurous types can try adding Tabasco and marmite as well... Pour over the stock and simmer for 30-40 minutes, uncovering half-way through.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180ºC (fan 160ºC / gas mark 4) and make the mashed potatoes. Boil potatoes in salted water for 10-15 minutes, drain then mash, adding milk, butter (unless you’re on a diet) and a decent helping of parmesan cheese. Put the mince into an ovenproof dish, top with the mash and ruffle with a fork. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is starting to colour and the mince is bubbling through at the edges. Serve...

Natasha Agabaiyan is on her way to becoming a Doctor of Cell Biology in Brighton, UK. In between drinking far too much coffee and blogging at The Science Informant, she has a love of finding out interesting tit-bits from all aspects of life.

Interesting websites • • • •

Get a full list of umami-rich ingredients to add extra flavour to your savoury dishes! Hervé This’ blog Some great recipes and tips at Molecular Recipes Worldwide famous restaurants: Alex, Alinea, ElBulli and The Fat Duck

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Illustrations: Random Panda

Preparation: 15 mins • Cooking: 1 hour


Painting Biology:

Café Au Lait Brain © Michele Banks

Love & Death


If you thought artists were ethereal types who don’t understand the world around them, then think again – Michele Banks positively lays that myth to rest. Our Art Guru is a professional painter working out of Washington DC. Attracting a global audience with unique pieces that portray a beautiful microscopic world, she explains the inspiration behind her work… Anyone who has ever looked through a microscope can tell you that the world looks a lot different at high magnification than it does to the naked eye. Water which appears calm and clear may reveal a vast variety of microorganisms fighting for survival or dominance, while a tiny shred of leaf discloses architecture worthy of a skyscraper. This largely unseen universe provides material not only for scientific research, but for art, including my own. In previous centuries, before the development of microscopic photography, biologists or “naturalists” had little choice but to paint or draw what they saw under the microscope. Although many produced beautiful and accurate images, a few early scientists stand out as artists, most notably Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934). Haeckel, a German zoologist who named thousands of new species during his career, was an accomplished painter whose masterwork, Kunstformen der Natur (‘Artforms of Nature’), is still extremely popular, as evidenced by the many t-shirts adorned by his images of radiolarians (image top right). Cajal, a Spanish physician and scientist, produced some of the first detailed images of brain cells, in ink drawings of stunning complexity and haunting beauty (image bottom right). Today, artists intrigued by microbiology have it a lot easier: the development of new microscope technologies (e.g. scanning-electron and confocal microscopes), along with major advances in photography have made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to find clear, detailed images of virtually anything you can point a lens at.

A Radiolorian design: ever had a T-shirt like this? One of Cajal’s early ink drawings of brain cells

Art Exploring the Human Condition Of course, the point of art is not to provide educational illustrations, but to explore aspects of the human condition. In much of my biologybased work, these explorations take simple form: what makes us go – thought, desire, the pumping of our hearts – and what makes us stop – illness and death. Above images:Wikimedia Commons

Title image: Circular Cell Division © Michele Banks

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Love © Michele Banks

Abdominal Aorta (detail) © Michele Banks

The “love” paintings (image above) focus on the cells that are involved in attraction and desire – the skin, eyes, and ears, the brain and the circulatory system. I’m very proud of my blood vessels, especially my abdominal aorta (image left)... (OK, that’s not technically a cell – too bad!)


...and Death

Cell Division 10 © Michele Banks

Mini Blue Mitosis © Michele Banks

For the “death” paintings (image above), I depicted three microscopic killers – bacteria, viruses and cancer. The cancer piece really hit home, because I lost both my parents to pancreatic cancer over the last decade and I had never approached it in my art before. Of course I also included some mitosis paintings (image right), because cell division underlies the whole process of life and death.


One of the mechanisms that make all living beings go is the process of mitosis, or cell division, and it is a major focus in my paintings. In truth, I was actually painting dividing cells before I even knew I was doing it! When I was starting out with watercolor, I fell in love with the wet-in-wet technique, which is just what it sounds like – painting a background color and then adding more color while the first one is still wet. The amazing thing about this is that adding the second color produces fractal patterns (image above) – the same branching, jagged patterns that appear everywhere in nature, from coastlines to tree branches to blood vessels. When people first saw my wet-in-wet work at exhibitions, they kept mentioning how much it looked like cells under a microscope. So I found some images of cells in mitosis, and discovered that they did indeed bear a striking

Love & Death I started selling my work online in 2010, which connected me to a whole new audience and provided a creative shot in the arm. A bunch of biologists bought my work, and some of them suggested new subjects, like bacteria or blood cells. One buyer pointed me toward “brainbows” – a series of images of mouse brain cells dyed in bright colors. I loved them, and the images inspired me to begin painting brain cells. Latte Brain (detail) © Michele Banks

A classical fractal pattern

resemblance to what I was doing! As I painted more, I got better at it – for example, I came up with a way to use the natural transparency of watercolor to mimic the gel-like appearance of cytoplasm, which allowed me to show the process of mitosis in greater detail.

I was offered a small exhibition at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in early 2011, so I used the opportunity to develop the major themes in my work. I decided to divide my paintings into two groups – love and death. While painting these pictures, I learned a lot of anatomy and biology. I looked up microscopic photographs in books and on the web and did many practice paintings, trying to get the balance right between accuracy and artistry. Not all my artwork is serious life-and-death stuff. Lately, I’ve been painting Coffee-Stain Brains (see title image and detail below) – crosssections of brains imprinted with rings from paper coffee cups and a nod to another one of the forces that

Petri Dishes 1 © Michele Banks


make us go (according to most of the scientists I know, coffee also powers many scientific breakthroughs)! I pay tribute to the work of biologists with my series of petri-dish collages, highlighting the contrast between the simple, almost disappearing lab glassware and the

myriad life forms that grow inside it. Michele will be showcasing a selection of her work at Montgomery College in Maryland, USA in January 2012. You can view more of her paintings and collages at

Discover More • • •

Santiago Ramón y Cajal Ernst Haeckel More photos of Michele’s work on her Flickr page

Tell us what you think at

Michele Banks is a painter and collage artist based in Washington DC. Her science-themed work is in the permanent collection of Children’s National Medical Center and DC City Hall, and was recently exhibited at NIH. She sells her work online at and tweets @artologica.

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Do Snakes Cause


DARYL ILBURY • SCEPTIC GURU Image: Flickr • Jaymis

Our Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, has a habit of making people question themselves. In this issue, Daryl takes us back to his South African roots and explores the peculiar tribal belief that snakes cause rainbows. Daryl challenges us to question if this is very different to the things we believe today. Could you have the makings of a sceptic? Take Daryl’s test and find out just how informed you really are... Zululand is a rural, largely povertystricken region of KwaZulu-Natal on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. There is a community who live there who believe a rainbow is formed whenever a snake swims across the river. It’s a bizarre notion, but strangely it can tell us a lot about ourselves.

of mouth by the community’s leaders. •

Thirdly, it is part of their culture not to question the authority of the leaders.

And here’s the kicker – if you challenge them on the logic of snakes and rainbows, they present what seems a reasonable argument: “How can you disprove that swimming snakes make rainbows if you can’t account for the whereabouts of all the snakes all the time?” Of course, your sensible counterargument would be: “Because we can re-create the effect of a rainbow over and over again with just light and water and not by encouraging a snake to swim across a body of water!” Would you reply in this way? If this is how you think, then you have the seed of a “sceptic” taking root in your reasoning.

Why are we so easily fooled?

So, how is it possible that modernday people can believe swimming snakes make rainbows? There are several reasons: •

Firstly, as a rural community in a developing country they have only a basic education (if any).

Secondly, such beliefs are part of their culture: an ancestral ‘wisdom’ passed down over hundreds of years through word

How is it possible that even people who live in ‘developed countries’, who have a good education (and who have been exposed to the joys of science) believe in such scientifically unproven rubbish as astrology, numerology and homeopathy? There are several reasons (and these may sound a little familiar): •

It is part of our culture.

Take Daryl’s Are You a Sceptic? Test! Can you call yourself a fully-grown sceptic? Here’s a quick test to see if you qualify. In the following list of pseudoscience (areas of so-called ‘knowledge’ that claim to be scientific, but in fact aren’t). See if you can spot one branch of recognised scientific study: Astrology Telepathy Homeopathy

Image: Flickr • ⚡napshot 19

Dianetics Biorhythm Precognition

Numerology Phrenology Telekinesis

(You’ll have to wait until the next page for the answer...)

DO SNAKES CAUSE RAINBOWS? Daryl’s Are You a Sceptic? Test: how did you get on? Answer: They are of course all forms of ‘pseudoscience’ – fakes that present themselves as the real thing supposedly with all the conventions of scientific research (complete with impressive, science-sounding names) but fail miserably when confronted with the rigours of proper scientific enquiry. If you answered ‘homeopathy’, then you fell into the trap - so don’t be expecting a Christmas lunch invite from Ben Goldacre!

It as an ancestral ‘wisdom’ passed down over hundreds of years through various forms including word of mouth by so-called leaders.

It is part of our culture not to question the authority of leaders.

Image: Flickr • the Italian voice

Many of these pseudoscientific lines of thought have their historical roots in pre-scientific thinking but have remained in our culture because they are attractive: They weave wonderful stories that capture our imagination (“…you’re going to meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger…”) But because they are non-scientific, are therefore malleable; these ancient beliefs can be shaped and wielded by charlatans who often then use them to lead people in dangerous directions. What about the new psuedosciences that continually work their way into our world? What about the laughable fads like The Secret or the more sinister movements like Intelligent Design? Why is it that seemingly rational people get drawn into their vortex - like birds being sucked into an airplane engine?

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne: useful self-help or deceptive false hope?

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Because people don’t examine what is before them and despite being blessed with an incredibly developed brain they don’t think critically. These people believe unquestioningly anything that’s dressed up like science, and they are attracted to confident and charismatic people who tell them that something works.

Science doesn’t have all the answers But how is it possible, you may ask, that in this so-called ‘knowledge era’ of great scientific thinking and rapid technological development, there is still fertile ground for the growth of pseudoscience? Because science doesn’t know everything. If it did, in the words of my favourite comedian and fellow sceptic Dara Ó Briain – “it would stop”! Pseudoscience will continually point to the absence of knowledge as an invitation to be creative with the truth. It’s a little like finding a dropped pen at a crime scene and so arresting any accountant selected randomly from the phone book. Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon Haunted World,

Scientists are used to struggling with Nature, who may surrender her secrets reluctantly but who fights fair. What Sagan means is that in the vastness of the natural world, there’s still a lot we don’t know. However, if we examine the evidence methodically and, importantly, critically, we will get to understand it. If we cut corners or misrepresent it, we will pay dearly.

What is a Sceptic? Could this be you? A Sceptic (or Skeptic) is someone who has a questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions & beliefs stated as facts. (Source: Wikipedia)

DO SNAKES CAUSE RAINBOWS? The Solution? Sceptic Superheroes! If all of science were an ocean; what we currently know would be a single lifeboat. Albeit small, it would be wonderfully equipped. Pseudoscience would be floating flotsam that desperate, unthinking people cling to. It would be brightly coloured but dangerous (with hidden sharp edges). Unfortunately, there’d also be a lot of it. Some people believe that swimming snakes create rainbows.

Others believe that the sole reason for the random position of stars millions of light years away is to help them win the Lotto (that’s astrology). Many people think crystals have magic powers. What they need is sceptical superheroes to save them from the evils of pseudoscience! Could this be you? If so, bookmark Guru and keep an eye on this column. Get ready to find yourself a phone booth to change in and suit up! Tell us what you think at

Daryl Ilbury is a multi-award winning broadcaster and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has been in commercial breakfast radio for over 20 years, and has a passion for science that has burned since he was a child. Daryl enjoys upending social convention that ignores or downplays the critical importance of science. You can see an archive of his work on his website or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.

Links •

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark at

The Committee for Skeptical Enquiry (USA)

The Association for Skeptical Enquiry (UK)

Image: Flickr • JD Hancock

Could you be a sceptic superhero?

PA G E 4 1 • A U G U S T 2 0 1 1 • I S S U E 1 • G U R U

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THE GURU GUIDE TO ENJOYING THE BRITISH SUMMER Stay in and watch Bargain Hunt until the sun comes out

Is the temperature > 16ºC? No




Is it raining? Reds

Is the sun behind a cloud?


The sun is nowhere to be seen



Can you work outside? Yes

No Who won?


Are you at work?



Can you see the sun? Yes

Has Bargain Hunt finished?

Go outside


Are you at the seaside? Yes


Do you have a Frisbee®? Get a Frisbee®


Can you get to the seaside? Yes


Go to the seaside

Stay where you are

Yes Throw Frisbee®

Are you having fun? Call some friends over

How about a supermarket?



Is there a corner shop nearby?





Can you hear an ice cream van? No

You are successfully enjoying the summer! GOOD SHOW!

Yes Moan about it

Get ice cream

GIVE UP on ice-cream and SUMMER

Now are you having fun? Yes




Are you moaning about it?

(until next year) © 2011 Random Panda

THE RANDOM IMAGE Image: Flickr • asterion1


Every issue, we pick a photograph that makes us smile. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this image reminds us of what the summer should be like – even if it is raining! If you have a great picture you’d like to share, why not email it to us at – we may even feature it in the next issue.


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Image: Flickr • Robert S. Donovan

Until next time...


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