Guru Magazine Issue Six

Page 1

ISSN 2048-2590


ISSUE 6 • JUNE 2012


SCIENCE Serious superheroes!



ARRIVALS LOUNGE WELCOME TO GURU! We’re delighted to have you with us because we’re in celebratory mood: you’re looking at our first birthday issue! We’re thrilled to have hit this milestone – and Guru is only going to get bigger and better from this point on. Regular readers will know that we’re nothing if not diverse, but we’ve really outdone ourselves this time round. So what’s in store this issue? As eyes turn to the Summer Olympics in London, our new Fitness Guru (never one to resist a bit of controversy) refutes the need for stretching before exercising and our Food Guru explores the breakfast eating habits of champions past and present. Also, our Physics Guru turns to scientific research to find the ultimate superhero whilst guest writer John Ankers considers an unlikely cure for cancer. The Media Guru lifts the lid on his dirty little secret – and explains why you should embrace it too. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.


But that’s just the icing on the cake. Dig in, and let the celebration begin! 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.


GURU 06 • June 2012 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2012 Guru Magazine Ltd. Guru Magazine Ltd. is a company registered in England & Wales. Company no. 7683000 • This work is licenced under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this licence, click the link above or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California 94105, USA. Advertising & letters Press & marketing enquiries The opinions expressed herein are of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Guru Magazine Ltd. Text and picture material is sent at the owner’s risk. Cover images: Dave Gray; Flickr • Alosh Bennett; Flickr • cliff1066™ Follow Guru on Twitter •


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John Ankers

Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu

Guest contributor @JohnnyAnkers

Dave Gray Daryl Ilbury Kim Lacey Matthew Lindsell


Stuart Farrimond

Natasha Agabalyan Food Guru @sciencinformant

James Lloyd

Illustrator @iamdavegray Sceptic Guru @darylilbury Mind Guru @kimlacey Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt Physics Guru @jbb_lloyd

Jon Crowe Sub-editor / Molecular Guru @crowe_jon

Kathryn Lougheed

Ben Veal Marketing & PR / Media Guru @benvealpr

Yaroslav Makarov Guest Contributor @JessMcArrow

Sarah Joy Graphic design / Design Guru @ranpanda

David Smith

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

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.

@GURUMAG News and titbits from Guru – it’s our BIRTHDAY! Plus competitions with books and e-vouchers up for grabs! Get in. #STUFF

SUPERHERO SCIENCE Superheroes. Pfff. Their powers are so... unscientific. Physics Guru James Lloyd rustles up some superheroes using the latest research discoveries! With illustrations by Dave Gray. #FOOD

AN ATHLETE’S DIET Food Guru Natasha Agabalyan looks at the breakfasts of champions throughout the ages. #GENETICS

Image: Flickr • Brett Jordan

THE HOBBY GENETICIST Guest contributor David Smith meets the folk who ponder the double helix as they sip their double espressos. #FITNESS

OLYMPIANS DON’T STRETCH Fitness Guru Matthew Lindsell has some advice for us, before we crunch those abs... #MIND

REMEMBER THAT? Mind Guru Kim Lacey has a challenge for you! #SCIENCE


All together now: “Dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner Batman”.




Media Guru Ben Veal tackles some common misconceptions about Pro Wrestling. Featuring exclusive interviews with wrestlers Samoa Joe and Doug Williams!

Guest contributor Kathryn Lougheed discovers that the contents of your cat’s litter box could reveal the future for treating Alzheimer’s.






Snap, crackle, pop. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury feels the heat as he turns his sceptical eye on spontaneous human combustion.

PART ONE. Guest contributor Yaroslav Makarov reports on his time in Japan following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and its continued effect on everyday life.


WAS I BORN AN ADDICT? Molecular Guru Jon Crowe looks for the truth about the so-called “addiction gene”.







Science Guru Dr Stu reviews The Geek Manifesto and interviews its author, Times journalist Mark Henderson. Also reviewed – Bernard de Fontenelle’s A Discovery of New Worlds (and win a copy on page 4!).

Guest contributor John Ankers explores how firework displays could point the way to a cure for cancer.


A gadget store run by gadget lovers. We’ve a selection of great gifts, toys, gadgets and gizmos: some useful, some just fun, some both!

@GURUMAG (subject: @GURUMAG)

Did we mention that it’s our


Look at those faces. You’d be smiling too if you’d just published your first birthday issue! We’re truly delighted to have hit our first major milestone, and you’d best believe us when we say that this is just the first step in a long, and rather wonderful, journey. The vision of Guru Magazine from the start has been to provide an opportunity for the best writers, photographers and artists to showcase their work – and one year on, we’re now bringing you issue after issue jam-packed with content from our Gurus all around the world. In honour of the big day, we had ourselves a little early birthday shindig; whilst the cake may not have risen, we hope you’ll agree that this issue has more than risen to the occasion! (Sorry about that – we’ll work on our jokes over the next twelve months...)


A gadget store run by gadget lovers. (subject: @GURUMAG)

We’ve a selection of great gifts, toys, gadgets and gizmos: some useful, some just fun, some both!


We love to hear what you think about the magazine, as well as your suggestions for future topics that you’d like us to write about – so be sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

DISCOVER SOME NEW WORLDS! On page 46 of this issue we‘ve reviewed the enchanting and poetic book A Discovery of New Worlds by Bernard Fontenelle. We have three copies to give away – and all you need to do is answer the question below: Who was the first person to show the world that the Earth rotates around the Sun? a Albert Einstein b Nicolaus Copernicus the review of c Charles Darwin this book!

Tweet us with your burning science question @GuruMag using the hashtag #AskGuru. One of the Guru team will give you the answer. And if we don’t know the answer, we’ll tell you a joke instead to make up for the disappointment...



See page 46

HOW TO ENTER THE COMPETITIONS E-mail your answers to before the closing date: Saturday 30th June at midnight (GMT). Winners will be picked at random and announced in the next issue of Guru.

WIN A £15 E-VOUCHER! To celebrate Guru’s first birthday, we’re offering one lucky reader a £15 e-Voucher from the lovely folks at Funky Gadgets, to spend on a variety of fun gadgets, gizmos and gifts! To be in with a chance of winning, just answer the following: How many writers have contributed to Guru since we launched on 1st June 2011? a 8 b 12 c 20 d 28



the review of this book! ge 44

See pa Guru ran an online competition to win one of three copies of brand new book The Geek Manifesto. We hid four different cartoon characters on the Guru website, author Mark Henderson’s site and publisher Transworld Digital’s blog. The more characters you found, the greater your chances of winning! The winners chosen by the Guru computer were Sam Moore, Tianxin Tang and Elisha Parish. Congratulations! Read our review of The Geek Manifesto and an exclusive interview with its author, Mark Henderson, on page 44 of this issue.

Guru reserves the right to edit letters / comments



Everyone loves a good Hollywood ending. There’s nothing quite as pleasing as seeing a masked hero finally dispatch an evil villain. But aren’t flying men with super-strengths a bit passé? Physics Guru James Lloyd certainly thinks the world has moved on, and it’s time for something new… Science and superheroes have a surprisingly intimate history. Pick any of the well-known protagonists from the Marvel or DC comic books and the chances are you’ll be able to trace their history back to science. Spider-Man, for instance, came into existence when geeky high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider during a science demonstration. Some superheroes were even fullyfledged scientists before freak accidents gave them

their powers – Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) are two examples. The X-Men, whose superpowers developed from mutations, were undoubtedly inspired by the theory of evolution. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the real world is going to start growing claws out of their hands, but mutations are known to play an important role in natural selection – where a random mutation, if beneficial, can


SUPERHERO SCIENCE eventually become a new characteristic of a species. Even Superman – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” – is not quite as unscientific as you might think. In 2007, a mineral was discovered that closely matches the chemical composition of Kryptonite as described in the 2006 film Superman Returns (sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide). The real mineral, however, is white, powdery and harmless – quite unlike the green, radioactive material

that blights Superman throughout his adventures. Clearly, then, there’s a fair amount of science in the world of superheroes. But what type of superhero, I wonder, would be born from today’s cuttingedge scientific research? I decided to browse through some of the recent science news stories and create three science-inspired superheroes of my own. This trio probably won’t be gracing a Marvel comic or Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but I hope you’ll take them into your heart anyway.

The superhero: Neutrinoman Behold! Neutrinoman – the only human who can communicate by firing neutrinos out of his belly button! A superpower granted to him by the Gods of Particle Physics on Mount Hadron, these incredible, invisible particles travel through every material in the universe, allowing Neutrinoman to contact his base at any point during his life-saving, death-defying, underwear-scorching missions. Nowhere is too remote for Neutrinoman. A submarine deep underwater? Neutrinoman uses his superpower to communicate with his support team on dry land. A space station on the far side of a distant planet? Neutrinoman sends a message to say that he’s just made friends with an alien. Hiking through the deepest, darkest rainforest? Neutrinoman contacts his base to say he’ll be home in time for tea. Long live Neutrinoman and his neutrino-powered navel! N.B. Contrary to popular belief, neither Neutrinoman nor his particles travel faster than the speed of light. The Science: Physicists recently sent the first ever message using a beam of neutrinos. Researchers at the Fermilab facility near Chicago performed this feat by converting their message – a rather uninspired ‘neutrino’ – into binary code (the 1s and 0s used by computers). This code was then sent using a kind of neutrino Morse code, with the 1s

corresponding to a pulse of neutrinos and the 0s corresponding to no neutrinos. Finally, the neutrino beam was detected at the underground MINERvA detector about 1 km away, where the message was deciphered. This is evidently quite a complicated procedure, so why go to the trouble of sending a message using neutrinos? Because neutrinos are chargeless, virtually massless particles, they are able to penetrate huge distances through matter. This gives them an advantage over the electromagnetic waves that we currently use to communicate, which lose their intensity as they penetrate obstacles such as mountains and oceans. But there’s one big problem with this technology. Because neutrinos rarely interact with matter, they’re

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SUPERHERO SCIENCE also extremely difficult to detect: the detector used in this experiment registers only one in every ten billion neutrinos sent. This means that the household neutrinophone is likely to

remain within the realms of fiction for the time being, unless you have the space and money to build a vast neutrino detector underneath your back garden.

The superhero: Cornerwoman Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Cornerwoman! OK, so she may not have the most impressive moniker, but what Cornerwoman lacks in name she makes up for with her unique ability of looking around corners. Prowling the gloomy alleyways of London, Cornerwoman is always one step ahead of her adversaries, getting them in her sights long before they’ve spotted her. Look out – here comes the evil Jack the Kipper, Cornerwoman’s sworn nemesis! Cornerwoman presses herself against the nearest wall and uses her finely tuned superpower to spy on her arch enemy. The man-fish hybrid approaches rapidly, his protruding lips contorted into a twisted grin, his bulbous eyes glowing under the fluorescent streetlights. Suddenly, in one graceful move, Cornerwoman swivels to face her unsuspecting foe. BANG! KAPOW! SHAZAM! Jack the Kipper is floored, face down in a puddle of his own slimy blood – a fishy corpse on Camden’s grimy streets. He didn’t see that one coming. The Science: A team of scientists in the US recently showed that even regular humans can look around corners. The researchers first placed a mannequin behind a corner, hiding it from the view of a camera. Then, they fired a laser pulse at a plain wall angled toward the mannequin. The light particles (‘photons’) from the laser hit the second wall, scattering them in all directions. Some of these photons bounced toward the hidden mannequin. A few of these photons then bounced off the mannequin, back the way they came, around the corner, and eventually into the camera. So far, so unremarkable, you may be thinking. But the key to this

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experiment was the camera, which had an incredible time resolution of just 2 picoseconds. That’s two millionths of a millionth of a second – the time it takes light to travel 0.6 mm. This meant that the total distance travelled by each photon (from the laser to the mannequin to the camera) could be measured with sub-millimetre accuracy. By angling the laser through 60 different positions, and feeding all this information into a computer algorithm, the scientists were able to reconstruct a precise 3D image of the mannequin – even though it was completely out of sight of the camera! This technology could have a number of useful applications. Surgeons, for example, could use it to help them ‘see’ around awkwardly-shaped organs when performing an endoscopy (looking inside the body using a tiny camera); or search and rescue teams could use it to locate trapped survivors in an emergency situation.

SUPERHERO SCIENCE The superhero: Camouflage Kid Camouflage Kid is a master of disguise. Dressed in a bodysuit of black rubber, Camouflage Kid often attracts suspicious glances around his hometown. But, as soon as there’s an emergency, his suit instantly changes to match his surroundings and our superhero becomes invisible. Today, Camouflage Kid is a tree. He’s been called to some woods in the north of Scotland, and he’s expertly blended himself in with the pale bark of the birch trees that surround him. Standing stock-still, Camouflage Kid waits for a drugs gang who are said to use these woods as a storage place for their special hash-haggis. However, five hours in the pouring rain reveals only a handful of squirrels, a sad-looking deer, and a bedraggled badger. Dejected, Camouflage Kid trundles home and does what he always does when he’s had a bad day. He sits on the sofa, replicates the furniture’s floral pattern, and mischievously waits for his girlfriend to arrive back from work. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but it makes her jump every time. The Science: A material that changes its texture at the flick of a switch is the recent invention of a group of engineers in the US. The material, created by researchers at

Duke University, is made up of several different layers. A layer of silicone rubber is bonded onto a more rigid material known as the substrate. The bottom surface of this substrate is coated with a thin layer of metal, whilst the top surface of the rubber is coated with a salt solution. When a voltage is applied between the top and bottom surfaces of this material combination, an electric field develops in the rubber layer, causing a compressive force that creates surface patterns – first creases, and then craters as the voltage is increased. Once the voltage is turned off, the rubber returns to its original, flat state. Aside from camouflage, this technology could be used to construct waterrepellant surfaces, or shoes with a tunable grip. On a more fanciful note, it may one day be possible to create gloves whose fingerprints can be changed on demand – a very useful accessory for any aspiring spy. However, the material developed by these engineers doesn’t change colour, so it’ll still be a while before Camouflage Kid’s bodysuit hits the shops.

Links • • • •

Stancil, D. et al. (2012) Demonstration of Communication Using Neutrinos. Submitted to Modern Physics Letters A. Velten, A. et al. (2012) Recovering three-dimensional shape around a corner using ultrafast time-of-flight imaging. Nature Communications, 3(745). How to see around corners: the video! Wang, Q. et al. (2012) Dynamic Electrostatic Lithography: Multiscale On-Demand Patterning on Large-Area Curved Surfaces. Advanced Materials, volume 24, issue 15, pp. 1947–1951 James Lloyd studied physics at university and recently finished a climate science PhD. He’s now swapped semiconductors for semicolons, writing about science and blogging at The Soft Anonymous. James enjoys music making, hill walking and trying to find the perfect flapjack. Find him on Twitter @jbb_lloyd.

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AN ATHLETE’S DIET WHAT THEY USED TO EAT AND WHAT THEY EAT NOW Sports nutrition is big business. What an athlete eats is seen as crucial to their training. How would an ancient Olympian’s diet line up with today’s?



The first Olympiad was held in 776 BC when there was only one event: the stadion (footrace). Even then, protein was seen as essential – some ancient texts report an Olympic runner who won several competitions on a meat-only diet.

Evidence has shown that protein is indeed an essential part of an athlete’s diet, and eating regimens are as strict as the training itself. Usain Bolt, the reigning 100m champion, maintains a strategic balancing act of 60% protein, 30% carbohydrate and 10% fat.

Athletes were often from wealthy families who could afford meat, and had a diet based on cheese and fruit. One tip was to eat dried figs and avoid bread the night before a competition.

Usain Bolt eats around 196g of protein per day, which equates to over half a kilogram of chicken breasts a day! Apparently one of Bolt’s favourite foods are yams (sweet potatoes) – a good source of carbohydrate and vitamins A and C.

A big difference between then and now is alcohol consumption. Completely forbidden nowadays, the Greeks were encouraged to drink wine both before and after a race in an attempt to soothe sore muscles.


We’ve come a long way since the early Olympics and the modern event now features over 25 different sports. Every athlete eats differently according to the specific requirements of their sport. This is illustrated by the shockingly massive diet of the multiple-goldmedallist swimmer Michael Phelps. His diet contains a huge 10,000 kilocalories (five times a man’s normal amount) to support his daily five hours’ training. It’s not for the faint-hearted... Breakfast: 3 fried egg sandwiches; cheese; tomatoes; lettuce; fried onions; mayonnaise; 3 chocolate-chip pancakes; 5-egg omelette; 3 sugar-coated slices of French toast; bowl of grits; 2 cups of coffee Lunch: ½kg (≈1lb) of enriched pasta; 2 large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise on white bread; energy drinks Dinner: ½kg of pasta with carbonara sauce; large pizza; energy drinks References • • • •

Usain Bolt’s diet ( Michael Phelps’ diet (BBC News) Diets of Athletes at the Ancient Olympics ( Diet of athletes in ancient Olympics ( Natasha Agabalyan 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.

Images: (Michael Phelps) Flickr • Cliff1066™; (coffee) sxc • victorward / Ivan Freaner; (pasta) sxc • Alve / Mathias Alvebring ; (pizza) sxc • lockstockb / Hotel in Eastbourne




Image: Flickr • scottfeldstein / Scott Feldstein; (DNA) Wikimedia Commons



THE HOBBY GENETICIST If you think being a scientist is all test tubes and no social life, think again. These days just about anyone can call themselves a scientist – and all from the comfort of their own home, as guest contributor David Smith discovered on one trip to his local coffee shop... I know it’s bad coffee shop etiquette, but I keep peeking at the laptop screen of the young woman beside me. I see long stretches of the letters A, T, G and C and a large colorful image mapping out what I know to be lots of different genes. She’s definitely a geneticist. “Sorry to disturb you,” I say, tilting my own laptop screen towards her, revealing a diagram showing all the genes found in a jellyfish, “but it looks like we’re both working on similar things.” Soon I’m telling her about my research on jellyfish genomes – the ‘library’ of genes carried by a typical jellyfish – and she’s describing to me her work on the genetics of salmon. I ask her if she’s a PhD student. She laughs and says, “I’m actually interning as an investment analyst.”

An unusual pastime She explains how a few years ago a friend introduced her to the world of bioinformatics – the use of computer technology to explore and analyze genetic information. The friend taught her some basic bioinformatics skills and showed her how to download DNA sequences from the Internet. “Ever since, I’ve been piecing together DNA sequences in my spare time – trying to find the pieces to make up whole genomes and then seeing what I can learn from the results. I have no formal biology training, but I’ve learned the basics through a few textbooks I ordered online. It’s a weird hobby, but a great way to unwind from work.” She’s not alone. Across the world, ‘hobby geneticists’ are exploring the

huge number of DNA sequences that are freely available on websites like GenBank and EMBL-Bank. These online gene stores contain everything from the human genome to the smallpox genome, as well as some pretty ancient DNA sequences from the woolly mammoth and our own ancestors, Neanderthal man. A search of GenBank using the keyword “dog” reveals more than 200,000 entries, including complete genome sequences of the North American coyote, gray wolf, and domestic dog. These sequences can be downloaded in minutes by anyone connected to the Internet. I ask my new acquaintance at the coffee shop how she makes sense of her DNA sequences. She recites a long and impressive list of computer programs, many of which I use in my own research. “I’ve tried lots of free programs,” she says. “Some are great, but you need to have a grasp of computer programming to be able to use them. Last Christmas, I convinced my parents to buy me an all-in-one bioinformatics suite that’s easier to use without the specialist knowhow. I argued that it was comparable to the price of an Xbox or an iPad. I showed them some of the cool things that I could do with the program, like figuring out how honeybees had evolved or looking at the sex chromosomes in frogs. They couldn’t believe that DNA sequences from all these different species were on the Internet, for everyone to explore.”

The next generation The number of DNA sequences stored in websites like GenBank is growing exponentially. In the year 2000, GenBank contained around one million DNA entries. Now it boasts more than 150 million. This rapid increase is thanks to recent advancements in DNA sequencing technologies (often called “nextgeneration” techniques), which have made the gathering of DNA sequences cheap, easy, and fast.

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THE HOBBY GENETICIST So where does all this data come from? When scientists publish in academic journals they are required to hand over all of the DNA data reported in their articles in online sequence repositories. As well as handing over the complete ‘jigsaws’ – the genes and genome sequences that they’ve pieced together - many scientists submit the raw data that come directly from next-generation sequencing machines: millions of short, unassembled DNA sequences – the individual jigsaw pieces themselves. The raw data is in a special section of GenBank called the Sequence Read Archive; they are great for both researchers and hobby geneticists alike because they often contain information that was ignored or overlooked by the original researcher. For example, the data obtained from sequencing the DNA found in a sample of green alga could also contain DNA sequences from the different viruses and bacteria that live around them A hobby geneticist could use these new data to assemble previously unknown viral and bacterial genomes.

Fishing for fun

Image: Flickr • Shaury Nash

My hobby geneticist friend tells me how she is piecing together the

genomes of Atlantic salmon and the sea lice that parasitize them. She got the idea from watching a documentary on British Columbia’s salmon fishery. “One part of the movie showed how biologists are using DNA sequences to study the impact of sea lice on the salmon farming industry,” she says. “I found DNA sequences for both salmon and their sea lice parasites on the internet, and now I’m testing to see if the two species have swapped any DNA.” I ask her if she plans to publish any of her work. “I mostly do this for my own enjoyment,” she explains. “But I did email some of my findings to a professor at the University of British Columbia who has been very helpful and encouraging. He’s even asked if he could use some of my results in a paper that he’s writing. If it works out, I’ll have a scientific publication to my name – not that it will help me much in the world of investment banking!” After saying goodbye, I return to my work on jellyfish genomes. But soon I’m distracted by a nagging image: an army of hobby geneticists descending upon my hard-earned data – all of which I sent to GenBank last week! I wonder whether somebody, somewhere has already found the solution I’m looking for...

David Smith is a Killam Postdoctoral Scholar in the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). He studies “extreme” genomes and why they got that way, and can be found online at

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Image: Flickr • chimothy27 / Mark Evans


Image: Flickr • Tobyotter / Tony Alter

OLYMPIANS DON’T STRETCH Sports teachers and personal trainers have been telling you for years – ‘stretch or you’ll pull a muscle!’ So intuitive is the idea that few dispute it. Enter Matt Linsdell, our new Fitness Guru: a self-professed ‘evidencebased’ personal trainer who dares to challenge health orthodoxies. Most of the time he doesn’t bother stretching, and here is why you shouldn’t either… As you watch the Olympic Games this summer, odds are you won’t see any of the athletes stretching. You might expect to see Usain Bolt standing by the starting blocks before the 100 meter sprint with hands on hips in a semi lunge – but I bet you won’t. Or perhaps you’ll see an athlete with one arm crossed over the other waiting for the opportunity to toss a discus? That’s not going to happen. You won’t even see a swimmer sitting on the ground with feet bottoms pressed against one another before entering the pool. So why won’t today’s top athletes – who are at the pinnacle of physical fitness – not bother to stretch their muscles? The world’s greatest ever sports men and women should surely be giving themselves every opportunity to perform at their best. And that is precisely why they are NOT stretching. I’ll cut to the chase and answer a few questions about what stretching can and can’t do: • Does stretching prevent injury? NO • Does stretching prevent muscle soreness? NO • Does stretching warm you up? NO • Does stretching increase flexibility? YES Surprised? Now for some more detail…

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Myth 1: Stretching prevents injuries There is no good evidence in the scientific literature to show stretching your muscles protects against getting injured. Quite the contrary. Stretching actually causes small amounts of damage – although this in itself is no big deal. On any given day it’s probably a good thing: muscle damage actually leads to strength gains – providing you allow adequate healing time. But these gains are relatively small and the body’s adaptation peaks fairly quickly. If you are an inactive person and you start going to a normal yoga class (basically stretching) you might notice an increase in strength. But the increase won’t keep progressing and will probably peak after a month or two. So our Olympic contenders, who need to perform at their absolute best, know that any muscle damage is only going to detract from their performance.

Myth 2: Stretching prevents soreness Muscle soreness is caused by the body’s immune response to muscle damage after sustained training. It’s the way muscles heal and repair. Stretching hasn’t been shown to do anything whatsoever for your immune system – or the rate of muscle recovery. Sure, it might distract you from the pain of sore muscles, but the effect will be fleeting and it certainly doesn’t speed up healing. It just feels nice.

OLYMPIANS DON’T STRETCH Myth 3: Stretching is a warm up It’s probably important to define terms here. Whipping your legs around like John Cleese at the ministry of silly walks is not stretching. Some people would call that ‘dynamic stretching’. That’s just semantics. The sort of movements that qualify as an exercise are those that cause repeated muscle contraction. This, in turn, increases the temperature of the muscle and prepares you for your chosen activity. Static stretching will not do this. In the words of the ever poignant Paul Ingraham (from

“You simply cannot ‘warm up’ your muscles by stretching them: that’s like trying to cook a steak by pulling on it.” Stretching does make you more flexible Thank goodness there is something positive that stretching can do! Stretching improves flexibility, although the mechanism by which this happens is not clear. Prolonged and intense static stretching has been shown to increase the flexibility of joints. This is thought to be because stretching desensitises you from the discomfort of moving your limbs outside their normal range. The question I pose to you if you are going to stretch is – why? What are you going to do with that extra flexibility? More importantly, is it healthy? No one can answer with any degree of certainty whether hyper-mobile joints equate to a healthier person. And simply being able to kick someone in the face doesn’t really count as a good reason to increase your flexibility! I would however suggest that, before you embark on a mission to increase your flexibility, you make sure you know the reason. If you reach your

goal of suppleness, then just make certain you use your skill for good, not evil! I’m sure you can now see why Olympians won’t be stretching before a big event (and possibly not even after). Some of them do use stretching as an essential part of their training regime, gymnasts being the obvious example. A number of other athletes also stretch to increase flexibility and so improve their performance: hurdlers, swimmers, divers, and the ones with the long skinny swords. You are welcome to disagree with my view, but please ask yourself, “why?” It’s likely you’ve had someone in authority instruct you to stretch, and then spent years thinking about how beneficial it is. Just keep in mind what I’ve written is not just my opinion: it is based on current scientific knowledge borne out of carefully conducted experiments. I won’t disagree that stretching feels good. So if you like doing it, carry on. Just don’t hurt yourself.

References •

Herbert, R. D. & Gabriel, M. (2002) Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. BMJ; 325:468 Shrier, I. (1999) Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine; 9(4):221-7 Pope, R.P.; Herbert, R.D.; Kirwan, J. D.; Graham, B. J. (2000) A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lowerlimb injury. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; 32(2):271-7

Matthew Lindsell has a degree in Environmental Science and is a certified personal trainer. He calls himself an evidence-based trainer, as training is a field littered with well-disguised psuedoscience. He owns a small exercise facility in Ottawa, Ontario where the emphasis is on teaching the biology behind the exercise – you find can out more at smartfit-ca and follow him on Twitter at @ smartfitmatt.

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Read the following words and try to memorise them: Sour Candy Sugar

Bitter Good Taste

This simple task might seem familiar to you if you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology course. Its purpose is to demonstrate the malleability of memory and how

our brains unconsciously fill in missing blanks. This remembering test is called DRM (pronounced “Dream”), named after the test’s original creators: Deese, Roediger and McDermott. DRM is a list of words with a common theme that each participant [that’s you!] is required to remember for a short time. Now, look away and write down as many words as you can remember before reading the next page.

Images: The Noun Project / public domain

A few issues back, Mind Guru Kim Lacey explained how easily our memories can be manipulated by others. Now, she frightens us once more by showing just how often we invent memories ourselves. Be warned: you might never trust yourself again...

REMEMBER THAT? Was sweet in the list? Most people would say yes – but it wasn’t! Typically, when most people are asked to recall as many words as they can, they will remember most of them. Bizarrely, most participants will also add an extra word. ‘Sweet’ is called the critical lure, and is the word that relates to all the others. This same test has been replicated dozens of times, with various word combinations, always with the same results. These experiments demonstrate just how likely your mind is to invent extra new memories. How does this happen? Fake recall is the result of ‘borrowing’ memories from past experiences to ‘fill in the blanks’ – in this case, having previously related ‘sugar’, ‘candy’ and ‘good’ to the notion of sweetness. The DRM idea is critical to understanding that new memories are continuously made in our own minds. Stable, unchanging memories are almost impossible. Critically, this has huge implications in real-life settings for example, when an eyewitness is being asked to recall a crime. In 1989 Eileen Franklin testified

against her father for murdering her sister. Based on her vivid memories, he was found guilty. It was only after a retrial in 1996 when Eileen was shown to have described false memories that he was released. The results from the DRM tests present us with a disturbing reality: we can never truly trust our memory. But consider all the good, uplifting memories you have. Even if they weren’t 100% accurate, would you change them? I certainly wouldn’t.

References •

Hicks, J. L.; Marsh, R. L. (2001) False Recognition Occurs More Frequently During Source Identification Than During OldNew Recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 27.2: 375383. Print. (PDF download) Lampinen, J. M.; Meier, C. R.; Arnal, J. D.; Leding, J. K. (2005) Compelling Untruths: Content Borrowing and Vivid False Memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Association Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 31.5.: 954–963. Print.

With a PhD from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim Lacey from Detroit, USA 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.

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Image: Flickr • erokism; Gene Hunt / Mikey; Ismas; mediafury / Dana Deskiewicz; Nick Saltmarsh; Tama Leaver; YvesConsentino; celesteh / Charles Hutchins; Lord Jim / Stefan Kloo; Joybot / Sarah Joy





Have you ever had an impromptu Facebook session when you should have been working? Or have you experienced a lapse of concentration and ended up driving a little bit too fast? Your poor attention span could be due to a brain parasite egging you on to take unhelpful and risk-taking behaviours. Unsettling as it sounds, you could be home to a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), an uninvited guest that may be subtly messing with your mind.

Pick of the pets A recent poll by Hunch took a lighthearted look at the differences between ‘cat people’ and ‘dog people’. It was discovered that people with cats tend to be more introverted, liberal, and ironic than dog owners. Friends of felines also prefer the Beatle George Harrison over Paul McCartney, and are 11% more likely to describe themselves as fashion-challenged than their canine-crazy counterparts (possibly as a result of all that cat hair – it gets everywhere). Taken together, it suggests that personality traits play their part in deciding which pets we pick. Or do they? Could the opposite be true – could owning a cat change the way your brain works?

Scaredy-rats T. gondii (full name: ‘Toxoplasma Gondii’) is a microbe that can infect a number of species, humans included. Infection rates are as high as 70% in certain populations thanks, in part, to our love of undercooked meat. But the parasite is more than a little choosy

when it comes to getting in the mood for sex: T. gondii insists on being within the intestinal system of a cat when reproducing (how romantic). In order to get there, it makes good use of one of the least appreciated species in the world, the rat. Rats tend to eat anything they can get claws on, and frequently pick up a T. gondii infection by eating something contaminated with cat dung. When ingested, T. gondii has cleared the first hurdle: it’s now safely inside the rat. Getting from rat to cat (where T. gondii longs to be), however, takes a bit of cunning – and some mind manipulation. The parasite’s big problem is that rats are quite wily and avoid anything that they don’t much like the look of, including traps, poison and cats. (As anyone who’s had an epic battle against rodent squatters will tell you, this makes rats extremely hard to get rid of). In short, they seem to have an innate fear of anything new. So T. gondii has evolved mechanisms to alter the behaviour of an infected rodent, turning these normally fearful creatures into emboldened risktakers with a suicidal attraction to the smell of cat urine (let’s not dwell on that). Sniffing around a cat’s toilet, the unfortunate rodent practically presents itself on a dinner plate and quickly becomes a lunch for a hungry cat. And the cycle is complete: T. gondii is back inside a feline, and ready to experience a bit of intestinal loving.

Mind games There is also evidence that T. gondii affects human behaviour too. Like rats, if we put anything in our mouth that has touched cat poo, we may become infected. It has been reported that infected people display slower reaction times, differences in attention span, and an increase in the ratio of male to female babies born. ‘Hang on,’ I hear you say, ‘what does the sex

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Image: Dreamstime • Vasyl Helevachuk

What links mind-altering parasites, rat mazes, and sartorially-challenged cat owners – and what have they all to do with treating diseases of the brain? Guest contributor Kathryn Lougheed discovers the answer.


Toxoplasma gondii. Image: Flickr • Pulmonary Pathology / Yale Rosen

of your baby have to do with a mindaltering parasite?’ Well, it appears that mothers experience miscarriages with boys at a slightly higher rate than with girls (a male embryo can sometimes be recognised as foreign by the mother’s immune system – causing the foetus to be rejected). But T. gondii suppresses the mother’s immune system, reducing this risk of male miscarriage. Given its effects on normal brain function, it’s not too big a leap to suppose that T. gondii infection may play a role in disorders of the brain too. And, sure enough, a link has been suggested between T. gondii infection and conditions including schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. But these studies have one problem – what if they get the cause and effect the wrong way round? It may be possible that T. gondii infection causes Alzheimer’s, or, equally, patients who already have Alzheimer’s simply tend to spend more time indoors with pet cats.

Friendly parasites A recent study by Dr Jung of Seoul National University and his team explored whether the increase in T. gondii infection associated with

Alzheimer’s is, in fact, a red herring and whether T. gondii may perversely be a good thing for Alzheimer’s sufferers. I’ve already mentioned how T. gondii can play around with a mother-to-be’s immune system. It seems particularly adept at suppressing brain inflammation – and such inflammation is central to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. So could T. gondii actually be slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s? To test this theory, Dr Jung and his team bred rats that suffered a rodent equivalent of Alzheimer’s and forced them to swim around in pools of opaque water looking for an invisible platform hidden beneath the surface. This wasn’t some kind of rodent torture, but a way to test how quickly rats learn and remember. Amazingly, they found that the parasite-infected rats had a much better memory than their uninfected cousins – and their brains showed less inflammation and degeneration. It’s too early to say whether T. gondii can have the same effect in humans as in rats, but it opens the door to a better understanding of brain disorders and the development of new treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Perhaps mind-altering parasites aren’t all bad after all, or maybe that’s my T. gondii speaking...

References •

Jung B-K, Pyo K-H, Shin KY, Hwang YS, Lim H, et al. (2012) Toxoplasma gondii Infection in the Brain Inhibits Neuronal Degeneration and Learning and Memory Impairments in a Murine Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33312. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033312

Kathryn Lougheed is a research scientist at Imperial College London, working on the lung disease tuberculosis. She has an unhealthy interest in bacteria, blogging about research of the single-celled variety at in addition to running a popular science website for kids at, answering such important questions as ‘Why do papercuts hurt so much?’.

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DARYL ILBURY • SCEPTIC GURU Image: Flickr • redeye^ / Paul Chaloner

BURN, BABY, BURN! Here at Guru, we have a burning passion for straight-talking science. And there’s no one more straight-talking than our Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury. Join him as he explores the world of spontaneous human combustion, and discovers there’s some truth in the old adage ‘if you can’t stand the heat, keep away from the fire...’ “With the fire burning in his loins, Eduardo grasped Elizabeth, and passionately crushed himself against her heaving bosom”. This may sound like a line from a trashy romance novel – and that’s possibly because it is. Of course, it’s purely metaphorical: if Eduardo’s loins were indeed ablaze, I doubt he’d have anything remotely passionate on his mind. The only vaguely scientific explanation for the burning sensation in Eduardo’s loins is something a shot of penicillin could have sorted out. Enough said. A burning sensation in the body is nothing new. It’s simply a way we describe a localised area of pain or discomfort – ‘heartburn’ being a classic example (even if it’s nowhere near the heart). However, the idea that the human body can somehow just burst into flame is nonsense. Of course, this doesn’t stop people peddling it as real – and there’s

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even a term that disciples of the mysterious and unexplained use to describe it: spontaneous human combustion, or SHC. It sounds scientific, but it isn’t. History is dotted with stories that have been held up by believers as evidence of SHC. As recently as 2010, a 76-year-old Irishman called Michael Faherty was found burned to death under what were termed ‘mysterious circumstances’. In fact, the coroner, Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, could find no adequate explanation for his death. However, the fact that his burned body was found next to an open fire may hold some clues…

SHC: all smoke and mirrors? When was the last time you were watching Strictly Come Dancing and your beloved Aunt Milly suddenly burst into flames, leaving a nasty burn mark on your faux leather sofa? Can you ever remember standing in a supermarket queue with a cabbage in your hand only to watch smoke start to rise from the shop assistant’s ears before seeing her doused with water by a passing colleague? Exactly. Incidences of supposed SHC invariably involve elderly people living alone – people more likely to suffer heart attacks or display absentminded behaviour, like sitting too close to heat sources. They are also more likely to be immobile due to ill health and therefore be unable to escape should their clothes catch fire. All it takes in such cases is a heart attack, a dropped cigarette, or a nylon nightgown too close to an electric heater, and a person can burn to death. Such deaths are normally termed ‘unsolved deaths by fire’, even if no obvious cause can be found. It’s worth pausing to reflect on what this means: even if it had been

BURN, BABY, BURN! destroyed in the ensuing blaze and was never found, an external cause is always considered the most likely. That’s because an internal cause is virtually unimaginable. And yet the idea that someone can spontaneously burst into flame because of a fire that started from inside them is a central element to SHC


Money to

Image: sxc • surely / EMiN OZKAN

The reason why spontaneous combustion doesn’t happen can be explained using an experiment that was part of my repertoire when I used to present science shows – lighting a banknote and watching it burn, without it actually burning. Such an experiment can be done by soaking a banknote in a mixture of clear alcohol and water and then lighting it (don’t try this at home, kids). It is the alcohol that burns, not the money – the reason being that the money, kept cool by the water, doesn’t get hot enough to burn. The human body, as any student of biology will tell you, is mainly made of water, so it could never get hot enough to just start burning. This doesn’t mean the human body can’t be burnt –

cremation really happens, after all. It just means that very high external temperatures are needed to raise the body temperature enough for it to start burning – and this explains why a crematorium needs to operate at between 870 and 1000 degrees Celsius.

Wax attack This is where our story gets a little icky (or should I say ‘wicky’). Once a body starts burning, it provides its own fuel: human fat. Human fat contains a large amount of energy by virtue of it containing long hydrocarbon chains (chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms sprouting from them). As a result, it burns like the wax of a candle. Should someone start burning, their fat can melt and seep into their clothing, which then acts like a candlewick (morbidly enough, it’s a phenomenon called ‘the wick effect’). So, should someone start burning from the outside, nature will keep them ablaze. (Well what were you expecting from a story about spontaneous combustion? Pictures of puppies and butterflies?) However, wherever science is ignored, pseudoscience abounds. And so it is that accounts of spontaneous human combustion still get enthusiastically bandied about on websites dedicated to the paranormal – my personal favourite being Defenceless village incinerated by UFOs. If, you wish to delve further into these stories in the pursuit of dismissing pseudoscience (why else?!), perhaps you should read Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion, by Larry E. Arnold, the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost expert on exploding people”. He used to be a bus driver, so I guess he knows what he’s talking about.

Daryl Ilbury is a multi-award winning broadcaster and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He 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.

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Was I born an addict?


WAS I BORN AN ADDICT? Addictions devastate lives. Families are torn apart and lives ruined. Why is it that some people have a fondness for a tipple that turns into dependency? Molecular Guru Jon Crowe offers some sobering insights into whether your genes predetermine whether you will become an addict... Many of us think nothing of savouring a glass of wine after a long day in the office. After all, the label ‘demon drink’ is just a scare tactic, right? Well, no. Almost 4% of all deaths worldwide – that’s around 6000 a day – are attributed to alcohol, and it’s a direct factor in the onset of 60 types of disease. In fact now, more than ever, we should be alert to the allure of alcohol: past experience has shown that alcohol abuse increases during an economic downturn. But how much choice does someone addicted to alcohol really have? The chances of you descending into dependency could be written in your genes.

Illustration on previous page: Random Panda. Cocktails, beer & wine glass icons by the Noun Project. Wine bottle icon by Henry Blas / Noun Project. Martini icon by AIGA. Shot glass icon by MapBox.

It’s a twin thing Twins aren’t just one of nature’s curiosities – they also give us a handy way of exploring whether alcohol addiction is a result of our genes. Twins come in two flavours – nonidentical, and identical. The genes of non-identical twins (like my brother and I, as it happens) are no more alike than those of any two siblings. On the other hand, identical twins have exactly the same genes. If a pair of identical twins are raised in the same conditions (and the non-identical twins likewise) but both identical twins go on to become addicts more often than non-identical twins, we can conclude that the tendency towards addiction is driven by genes. This is true for alcoholism: research has shown that two identical twins are more likely to develop alcohol addiction than two twins who are not

identical. Their addictive tendencies are influenced, at least in part, by their similar genes. But this raises another question: why are our genes responsible for driving us to drink?

Flushing out the demon drink Our genes influence our susceptibility to alcoholism by affecting how our bodies cope with that pint of beer or shot of vodka. Alcohol is a poison and is broken down within our body, step-by-step, into other chemicals (see infographic). The first step in this removal process is the production of the chemical acetaldehyde, which is also toxic. If this chemical builds up too much, we experience ‘flushing’ – an unpleasant reddening of the face, neck, and shoulders. So unpleasant is the experience that anyone who feels it is less likely to want to drink to excess. These people are less likely to become addicts: they simply can’t stomach it. Are you such a person? It depends on your DNA. Several of our genes control how our bodies remove alcohol – but some versions of these genes aren’t as good as others at doing their job. ‘Flushing’ genes are versions that program the body to be very quick to break alcohol into acetaldehyde or to be very poor at getting rid of it once formed; both situations lead to the build-up of acetaldehyde in the body. These gene variants are found particularly in those from East Asia, for example, who rarely exhibit alcoholism. On the flip side, individuals whose bodies are slow to convert alcohol into acetaldehyde or are particularly adept at removing it show a higher risk of becoming alcoholics. In these cases, the acetaldehyde doesn’t accumulate to very high levels at all, so they don’t feel the same adverse effects, and so can drink more (with predictable consequences). So is it possible to pinpoint the precise genes, and so find out who is likely to succumb to alcoholism?

Hunting genome-wide

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Infographic by Jon Crowe / Random Panda. Icons (wine glass; skull-and-crossbones) by The Noun Project


In June 2000, the Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair, and President of the USA, Bill Clinton, jointly announced the completion of the draft sequence of the human genome – the collection of genes that make us uniquely human. This new age of genome sequencing has offered us a seemingly elegant way of pinpointing the genetic basis of things like addiction. This method, called ‘genome-wide association’ (GWA), has been revolutionary in revealing new secrets hidden in our DNA. It’s a bit like counting cars... Imagine that you are in a police patrol car, counting the number of cars exceeding the speed limit. You count 100 speeding cars and 100 cars travelling within the speed limit, and

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note the colour of each. When you compare the colours of the two groups of car, you find that many more of the speeding cars are red compared to those travelling within the speed limit. So you deduce that a red car colour is associated with a likelihood of speeding. Genome-wide association studies do the same kind of thing as the police officer on patrol: they gather data from hundreds of individuals with or without a particular characteristic (like addiction to alcohol), and then compare the genes within the two groups of individuals. If a particular gene occurs more often in one group than the other, we can deduce that this gene has a role in determining the characteristic being studied.

WAS I BORN AN ADDICT? Pointing the finger

Find out more •

The WHO’s global status report on alcohol and health: “a comprehensive perspective on the global, regional and country consumption of alcohol, patterns of drinking, health consequences and policy responses in Member States” How Genes Influence Behavior: an engaging book that does what it says in the title, explaining how our genes affect how we behave.

Image: © Ben Veal

Genome-wide association studies have shown that specific genes are more commonly found in those with addictions. But they have also shown that we can’t simply pinpoint one gene and say ‘this gene determines this behaviour’. Instead, different genes increase the risk of addiction in different ways. Some may affect the way a chemical is broken down by the body; others may influence how a chemical interacts with our nervous system. And, in fact, the risk of alcoholism might even be affected by genes that control our sense of taste. Some people have tongues with taste receptors that make alcoholic drinks taste really bitter; not surprisingly, these people are very unlikely ever to drink enough to get addicted. Ten years after the human genome was first sequenced, it’s pretty clear that solving the puzzle of our genes

is more complicated than the most cryptic of crosswords. Were you born an addict? Your genes will almost certainly have had a hand in the answer – but if you ever read a headline proclaiming the discovery of the Addiction Gene, you’ll know that it’s nothing more than a bit of tabloid sensationalism...

A textbook editor based in Oxford, UK, Jon Crowe publishes other peoples’ writing by day but expresses his own fascination for science when the day is done. A biochemistry graduate and lapsed musician, he’s currently testing the hypothesis ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ by trying to learn the bass guitar. He blogs at chemicalgecko. and you can find him on Twitter @crowe_jon.

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Image: Flickr • kelp1966 / Simon ‘Kelp’ Keeping


GETTING OUR WIRES CROSSED What do lab scientists and firework displays have in common? Not much – or so you would have thought. Guest contributor John Ankers reveals how airborne pyrotechnics share some surprising similarities with the researchers on the hunt for a cure to cancer... If your first fireworks display was anything like mine, it was a flurry of baked potatoes, mittens and hushed conversation – hundreds of faces looking up, waiting for colours to burst and scatter across the sky. Cell biologists, on the other hand, are generally to be found gazing down (through the lenses of microscopes, that is). Yet some surprising similarities do exist. Out of sight of the up-turned faces at a fireworks display is mass of tangled wiring – wiring that keeps each rocket firing on time, in sequence, and, crucially, upwards. And in the world of the cell, biologists have found tangled wiring of their own.

Life inside a monk’s cell You’d be forgiven for thinking that Robert Hooke must have pictured himself walking through the echoing halls of a monastery when, in 1665, he first described seeing a series of “bare rooms, or monks’ cells”. He was, in fact, staring down a microscope at a piece of cork. In the 350 years since, the picture of life inside cells has changed totally: gone are uniformity, silence, and bareness. Instead, we understand cells to be full of life, movement, and danger. What remains from Hooke’s time is an age-old sense of exploration - of wanting to get in, to wander around, and to marvel at the cell’s own fireworks display. If we were to step inside any one of our 100 trillion(-ish) cells, we’d witness thousands of grand events firing off around us (certainly enough to rival the record 66,326 fireworks fired one night in Portugal in 2006). Every few

Image courtesy of Swedlow Lab, University of Dundee (with thanks to Wilma Woudenberg)

seconds, we’d see the darkness of a heart cell lit up by electrical impulses. We might see a shower of proteins passing overhead as they shuttle into and out of the storehouse of our DNA, the nucleus, switching our genes on and off to help our bodies fight infection, or to repair cellular damage. Then, the star attraction: after 24 hours, and against a background of volatile chemical reactions, we’d see our cell split in two – preluded by a cascade of proteins moving, changing, disappearing and reappearing, overlapping and colliding. It might seem like chaos – yet it’s all perfectly orchestrated. But just how does the cell do it? It seems the answer may lie in the cell’s internal wiring.

Roman candles and firecrackers inside us Inside the cell, the coordination of so many life-changing processes requires much work behind the scenes. Proteins, like millions of tiny machine parts, are wired together into huge networks to fire up different cellular processes. This wiring, like that used to launch fireworks, is interconnected to allow certain things to ‘go off’ together – so cells will quite happily produce energy and grow at the same time. Other events are triggered in a precise sequence: a cell grows in a series of carefully-controlled stages,

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with each stage sending a ‘ready’ signal to the next before it can happen. Although they might only dream of wandering around the cell, scientists can now watch some of these events from above, using some pyrotechnics of their own. Fluorescent proteins from jellyfish (which, due to the variety of colours available and the unique sense of humour that science sometimes breeds, are named after fruit) can be added to growing human cells. When viewed through a microscope a cell might glow orange shortly after it divides, or plum-purple when it’s stressed, or even banana-yellow when treated with a particular drugs. Each fruitful flash of light can be measured, telling us more about how our wiring works – and, crucially, why sometimes it doesn’t.

Cancer: when the wiring goes wrong Cells, like fireworks displays (and metaphors), run the perpetual risk of breaking down. But if a cell experiences the equivalent of a rocket exploding before it leaves the ground, or a Catherine wheel spinning out of control, it runs the risk of becoming a cancer. A protein called p53 is vital to our cells as it is wired to sensors that detect the age of a cell. Should the sensors signal to p53 that the cell has replicated enough, the growth of the aged cell is stopped. But a faulty gene or exposure to certain types of radiation (such as UV light) can change the wiring between p53 and its sensors,

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causing p53 to mis-fire, and allowing growth to proceed unchecked – long after the cell should have died. When this happens, the cell may become a tumour. In an ideal world we could correct any faulty wiring associated with proteins like p53 with drugs. But the reality isn’t that simple: p53 is just one of hundreds of proteins wired together to control cell division. Chemotherapies designed to target p53 in cancerous cell division may also rip apart the wiring inside normally dividing cells in hair follicles, reproductive organs or bone marrow – dealing a blow to the immune system at the same time.

A model answer There is one solution, however, that has parallels behind the scenes of an actual fireworks display. Huge fireworks spectaculars are far too expensive to test before the event, so dry runs are performed using computer models. Likewise, the wiring in a cell is “modelled” using connected pieces of mathematical code, allowing a computer to simulate all the connections, tangles and knock-on effects in all the wiring at once. In the biology lab, a Systems Biologist can use similar models to do virtual experiments that might be unfeasible or too unsafe to carry out in real life – such as cutting a cancerous cell’s wiring in several places at once to stop a specific faulty process whilst allowing others to fire into life. Our view of life inside cells

Top three images courtesy of John Ankers, Dave Spiller, Mike White, University of Liverpool and University of Manchester. Bottom image courtesy of Swedlow Lab, University of Dundee (with thanks to Wilma Woudenberg)


Image: Flickr • keepingmealive / Noshin R


has changed greatly since Robert Hooke first observed his ‘monks’ cells’ in a piece of cork. While we continue to huddle together eagerly on New Year’s Eve (or Guru’s birthday celebrations! – Ed) to witness stunning displays made possible by a mass of intricate wiring, so biologists, physicists and mathematicians are joining forces for the world’s most complex cellular re-wiring job – and maybe it’s the thought of what might happen next that keeps us staring up (or down) into the dark.

Find out more •

Time-lapse videos from John Anker and Mike White’s laboratory

References •

Andrews, P. D.; Swedlow, J. R. et al. (2003) Mitotic mechanics: the auroras come into view. Current Opinion in Cell Biology, 15(6): 672-83. Ashall, L.; White, M. R. H. et al. (2009) Pulsatile stimulation determines timing and specificity of NF-κB-dependent transcription. Science, 324: 242-246. Batchelor, E.; Lahav, G. et al. (2009) Nature Reviews: Cancer 9: 371-377. doi :10.1038/nrc2604 Sakaue-Sawano, A.; Miyoshi, H. et al. (2008) Visualizing spatiotemporal dynamics of multicellular cell-cycle progression. Cell, 132: 487-498

Doctor John Ankers is a researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology. He’s normally found in a dark room using time-lapse fluorescence microscopy to look at the inner workings of cancer cells. Or sleeping. He won the BSCB Science Writing Prize in 2011 and currently writes freelance for the MRC’s Biomedical Picture of the Day. He blogs at toomanylivewires and you can follow him on Twitter @JohnnyAnkers.

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THE SCIENCE OF WRESTLING Regular readers of Guru will know Ben Veal as our Media Guru. But you might be surprised to learn that when he’s not handling press queries or tweeting, he’s an avid follower of professional wrestling. In this whistlestop tour, Ben explores the world’s most misunderstood sport and interviews two of the world’s biggest wrestling stars... I’ll come straight out with it: I’ve been a wrestling fan for over 20 years now. That’s a long time, but I’m not ashamed. For all these years I have fended off jibes, comments and criticism from friends and peers alike who are still bemused that I have never “grown out of it”. It is a curious occurrence, and something that just doesn’t happen with most other sports; you can be an enthusiastic fan of soccer, basketball, or boxing without having to explain yourself. Equally, you can be an aficionado of the theatre, ballet or techno music without your motives being called into question. But wrestling, for whatever reason, is more akin to having tattoos or enjoying comic books in your thirties – people just have to know why. Over the next couple of pages, I will cover just a few of the many reasons why professional wrestling is so appealing to so many. More than that, I will briefly explain something of the art and science behind wrestling. I will talk to a couple of the very best wrestlers in the industry today and, by the end, you’ll be able to make your own mind up about it. Sound fair? Then let’s get ready to rumble...

With wrestling, the audience is king

‘Professional’ wrestling – at least in the way that we think of it today – isn’t new: it has roots stretching back more than a hundred years when it was a spectacle within travelling carnivals that roamed the United

States. Of course, wrestling as a sport – in the form of Greco-Roman wrestling – predates this by thousands of years and is an event still practiced (in modern form) at Olympic level to this day. But it was the carnivals that truly involved the audience, arguably for the first time: established characters would ‘work’ the crowd to elicit a reaction. One of the greatest showmen in the early days – the 1940s and 50s – was the charismatic and effeminate ‘Gorgeous’ George Wagner. He worked the crowds into a frenzy, using theatrical movements and cowardly tactics against his opponents – and by doing so got customers to dip into their pockets to return time and again in the hope of seeing him get his final comeuppance. The true skill - which George had perfected – is being able to read a crowd and trigger a reaction by pre-empting their desires and tailoring the bout accordingly. Two recent masters of this art were Hulk Hogan and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who both transcended the wrestling world and made it into the mainstream media, with the latter now one of Hollywood’s biggest prospects. That you’ll probably have heard of them both even if you know nothing about wrestling just goes to show the impact they’ve had. That’s because, like many of wrestling’s biggest names, they are both masterful exponents of reading audience reactions and adapting their act accordingly. It is that element of ‘adaption’ that for me makes wrestling so much more interesting than other forms of sport or entertainment. Unlike baseball, football or rugby, wrestling is tailored to the live reactions of the audience – in fact, wrestlers’ characters and careers can be made or broken by audience feedback. And because the outcome of wrestling fights is predetermined (yes, that’s right – they know who is going to win beforehand), there is the capacity to

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truly satisfy audiences each and every night. Ask yourself this: how many times have you sat through ninety minutes of a dull soccer match, only to see it limp towards a nil-nil draw? Or watched two boxing heavyweights slowly slug it out in the ring, only for the winner to be determined by a points decision? In professional wrestling you know that, one way or another, there will be something to talk about at the end of the match. All of which leads us nicely on to...

Why the bad guy wins What sort of person would choose to watch two fullygrown men kicking each other in the groin? There are many logical reasons why office-workers, teachers and lawyers do so: experiments have shown that hostility and aggression within a sport make it particularly appealing. If you were in any doubt, just count the number of television replays that are aired after a hockey fight. Some commentators also believe that wrestling fans enjoy the fairytale battle of good vs. evil. Wresters are invariably ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’; escaping into this make-believe world seems to offer fans a momentary diversion from the confusion of real life. Although pro-wrestling hasn’t received much attention from scientists, they have explored the levels of viewer enjoyment for different sporting events. Like a good movie, a match with unfolding levels of suspense ranks highest for entertainment value. ‘Scripted’ pro-wrestling is rarely dull and consistently delivers more dramatic tension than ‘normal’ sports. It also seems that we love watching some hearty confrontation. When opponents ‘hate’ each other (and, boy, do the commentators let us know!) psychologists have identified that spectator enjoyment increases. But ‘sports entertainment’ is never going to be for everyone: in one study, 139 male and female volunteers from Mid-West America were invited to watch 20 minutes of baseball, boxing, figure skating and pro-wrestling. When asked which video they most wanted to continue watching, wrestling came out bottom. Figure skating more popular than professional wresting? I certainly wouldn’t be the one to tell a wrestling fan that.

References • • •

Westerman, D.; Tamborini, R. (2010) Scriptedness and Televised Sports: Violent Consumption and Viewer Enjoyment. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29(3), 321-337 A Night With The Narcissist and the Nasty Boys: Interpreting the World Wrestling Federation. (2000) Qualitative Inquiry, 6(4), 526-545.

It’s predetermined: but that’s no bad thing

“But what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice.” Roland Barthes, Mythologies The days of talking about wrestling matches as legitimate fights are long gone. Everyone knows that the outcome of a wrestling match is decided in advance, and that wrestling ‘champions’ are not necessarily made by blood, sweat and tears (although those elements do play a part), but rather by the click of a promoter’s pen. But what most naysayers don’t consider is just how much skill goes into creating a great wrestling bout. A common misconception is that matches are fully scripted, and that the athletes in the ring are merely performing a choreographed routine like you’d see at the ballet. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality – which after 20 years as a fan still blows me away – is that veteran wrestlers only know a couple of things before heading to the ring to face their opponent: who is going to win, how they are going to do it and how long they have in the ‘squared circle’ to tell their story. They may have planned out one or two big moves – or ‘spots’ – in advance, but that’s it: for the next 15, 20 or 30 minutes, all of the action is called on the fly between the wrestlers competing. Say what you will, but it’s an incredible skill.

Campbell, J. (1996) Professional Wrestling: Why the Bad Guy Wins. The Journal of American Culture, 19(2), 127-132

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This former TNA World Heavyweight Champion’s hardhitting style has earned Samoa Joe plaudits from fans around the world, and an international reputation as one of the very best in the business today. Not intimidated (well, maybe a little), we asked him a few questions:

Englishman Doug Williams has wrestled all over the world – from Europe to Japan to the US – and is now a major international star for TNA’s Impact Wrestling. We asked him about what people think of what he does for a living:


Guru: Why did you decide to become a wrestler in the first place? Samoa Joe: It was an odd set of circumstances. I’d called a gym wanting to work out – I’d done judo for a long time, and I called in and ju-jitsu was kind of a hot thing at the time. The trainer at the gym [encouraged me to] try the pro wrestling school there; I did and it was fun and I took to it. It started out as a ‘wacky hobby’ that I didn’t think much of, and I wasn’t aspiring to much at the time. But within the span of a couple of years, I found myself in Japan working full-time, and I then realised: this is a great living, this is a lot of fun, and I enjoy what I’m doing. So I became a pro wrestler. G: How do you respond to criticism aimed at the sport? SJ: Obviously during the ‘Attitude era’ [regarded as the industry’s most popular period, when in the late 1990s, anti-heroes such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock reigned supreme] and even now we have pushed the borders on controversial topics and we do all kinds of things that the general populus may not like... but you’d be hard pressed to watch most TV nowadays and not find the same thing. Is [wrestling] the greatest moral compass and example of how to live your life? Absolutely not, because we solve almost everything through violence! But at the same time, if you’re looking at it that seriously, then I think you’re missing the plot. Read the full interview at the Guru website


Guru: How do people meeting you for the first time react when they discover you’re a professional wrestler? Doug Williams: Most people are fascinated when they discover what I do, and ask me lots of questions about it. I think that’s partly because I’m a regular guy doing this. The mainstream media’s perception of wrestling is that there is a set idea of what a wrestler looks like – for example, Hulk Hogan probably gets the most media attention – but really, there’s no such thing as a standard look. G: Wrestling tends to come under a lot of criticism in the mainstream media. As a professional wrestler who has spent years honing his craft, does that frustrate you? DW: Less so nowadays than before, to be honest – opinions have definitely shifted in the last decade. 10 or 15 years ago, the media was obsessed with pushing the idea that wrestlers were ‘conning’ people and revealing the ‘secrets’ behind wrestling. Thankfully, that obsession has now passed and it’s all out there – everyone knows that the focus of wrestling is on entertaining people and on suspending disbelief. Professional wrestling, done well, is all about getting people emotionally involved and hooked into a story – much like the movies. Read the full interview


It’s less fake than people think

As a wrestling fan, the one comment I have to steel myself against is: “Why do you watch that, when it’s all fake?” And this is the single biggest misnomer about wrestling: although bouts may be predetermined and the wrestlers try to avoid injuring their opponents, there’s nothing fake about the dangers involved. Injuries and accidents are frequent in the sport – only in March, 21-year-old Jesse Sorenson suffered a C-1 vertebrae fracture with spinal cord oedema during a TNA Impact Wrestling match. For a time it looked like he would never walk again. Professional wrestlers are highlytrained and skilled athletes who have spent years honing their craft in order to make it look as real as possible. A good wrestling match – one that allows you to suspend your disbelief and get drawn into the action – is a testament to that hard work and dedication. You should never get drawn into thinking that what they’re doing isn’t real, or dangerous.

Would you be a wrestling fan? Although this is only a whistlestop tour of the world of professional wrestling, I hope that, if nothing else, it’s given you with some food for thought. Of course, there is a lot more to wrestling than colourful costumes, big entrances and even bigger hair. In my opinion, wrestling has it all: athleticism and hard-hitting action combined with the same gripping storylines and character progression that make soap operas so appealing to millions. Wrestling will probably always be on the fringes of popular culture, and will remain misunderstood. It will always

The terror of The Takedown A career in wrestling requires a strong constitution. Injuries are rare – a testament to the skill and athleticism of the fighters. But when they do occur they can be catastrophic. The ‘takedown’ manoeuvre (slamming your opponent onto the mat) is the most dangerous: it accounts for the majority of all serious injuries. In fact, there were 27 broken necks, 11 cases of quadriplegia and one death as a result of wrestling between 1981 and 1999 in the USA. •

Boden, B. P.; Lin, W.; Young, M; Mueller, F. O. (2002) Catastrophic injuries in wrestlers. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 30(6), 791-5.

divide opinion, draw criticism, and will forever be the butt of jokes - and wrestling fans will continue to have to justify their passion. But there’s one thing that it will never be, and that is dull. To me and so many others around the globe, there really is no greater art-form on the planet. And now that I’ve uttered that sentence so openly – let the mocking commence...

Find out more •

TNA Impact Wrestling is one of the world’s biggest wrestling companies, with an international fanbase and an extensive roster of wrestling talent

Ben Veal is a PR and Digital Marketing professional based in Wiltshire, UK. Ben studied Film at university, and in his attempts to escape from the real world spends most of his free time with his head buried inside a book whilst listening to obscure – and often terrible – bands. In his spare time, he also runs, a news site dedicated to the world of professional wrestling. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenVealPR.

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Image: Flickr • Bob Jagendorf


Summer 2012 is celebratory for many reasons – us Brits are looking forward to both the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, whilst Argentina, the Bahamas, Belarus, Belgium, Burundi, Canada, Colombia, Comoros, Croatia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, France, Greenland, Iceland, Kiribati, Liberia, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Mongolia, Mozambique, the Philippines, Peru, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Rwanda, Samoa, the Seychelles, Slovenia, the Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sweden, Tonga, the United States, Vanuatu and Venezuela all celebrate their national days in June and July. And you don’t have to look far on Flickr to find some amazing firework photography...



Image: Flickr • raneko / osaMu




ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM? In March 2011, the world looked on in horror as Japan reeled from three interlinked disasters. An 8.9 magnitude offshore earthquake – the largest in Japan’s history - triggered a huge 23 foot tsunami, killing tens of thousands. These natural disasters were but a prelude to an altogether more terrifying one In the first of two articles, guest contributor Yaroslav Makarov gives a firsthand account of the legacy of Fukushima and the price Japan is having to pay. Last year’s nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi power station reawakened memories of Chernobyl and made nuclear energy the focus of global discussion. Some countries, like Germany, saw Fukushima as the last straw and proposed a phase-out of all nuclear power plants. Others, like Poland and Iran, are still dreaming of a bright nuclear future. Which side should we take in this argument? Are we ready to give up the atom and replace it with a safer, cheaper, carbon-free energy source? Or are we forever stuck with nuclear power and the legacy of Chernobyl and Fukushima? Answers may soon come from Japan, my own country, a nation that has shown a spectacular U-turn from being the world’s third biggest nuclear energy consumer to one with a nuclear capacity of almost zero.

fallout from Fukushima hadn’t been enough - several reactors were closed for urgent check-ups. Japan started experiencing huge shortages of electrical power. Around 30 percent of the country’s electricity needs had been provided by the atom and the sudden closure of several endangered power plants put Japan’s entire infrastructure in jeopardy. In response, the government quickly ordered national businesses to reduce energy use by at least 15 percent. Production facilities drastically cut working hours. Japanese office managers – known traditionally for their culture of over-work – didn’t stay an extra minute at their workplace. The usually bright Tokyo night skyline became dimmer as offices emptied and lights switched off. Almost everywhere you could spot measures being taken to ensure energy stability – even escalators at train stations operated at half speed to make a small, but important, difference.

The summer without electricity The Japanese media christened the summer of 2011 “the summer without electricity”. I remember it as “the summer without air conditioning”. Those who live in hot climates know that air conditioners consume almost one-third of a household’s energy in the hottest months. So the easiest way to help our country was to switch

Shutdown It was a bumpy ride. Before Fukushima, nobody here in Japan realised just how dependent on atomic power the country had become. This dependence was immediately exposed after March 2011’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami when the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant literally burst into existence. Soon and as if the huge damage inflicted by the quake, tsunami and nuclear A concrete pump at one of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Image: Wikimedia Commons • Jorge Rodriguez

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Image: Flickr • tokyofoodcast


them off. The most effective way to help – yes – but, with average summer temperatures in Tokyo topping 88°F, it is not the most pleasant. The summer passed, but the energy outlook was far from improving – quite the opposite. With the Fukushima crisis already thought of as equivalent to Chernobyl, the idea that a nuclear incident of such scale could happen in as high-profile a country as Japan raised doubts about nuclear energy itself. Antinuclear activists the world over led protest movements calling for a phase-out of all nuclear power plants. Unthinkable in Japan before Fukushima, atomophobes’ dreams came true – and it only took fourteen months.

A lone survivor For the Japanese nuclear industry, the Fukushima crisis was a tipping point. Japanese laws require every nuclear reactor to shut down for regular inspection every 13 months. After passing this test and receiving permission from local authorities, the operator may restart its reactor. It had always been a formal, routine procedure. But after Fukushima…

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well, it is not difficult to imagine the burden of responsibility felt by local authorities when everyone in your town is too scared to look in the direction of a nearby nuclear plant. In the year after the nuclear crisis just one Japanese reactor secured permission to return to operation. At the same time, dozens of others remained offline, this number increasing as new reactors closed for their annual check-ups. The central government tried to save its power plants from complete paralysis and proposed more sophisticated stress-tests - but even these failed to convince local authorities who were becoming increasingly supportive of rising antinuclear sentiment within Japanese society. By the beginning of 2012, a nuclear industry that had previously boasted 54 commercial reactors had almost vanished. And on May 5th, the one lone reactor that had remained in operation – the one lucky enough to have restarted after Fukushima – was shut down for routine maintenance, leaving Japan without nuclear power for the first time since 1970.

ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM? Economic woes and a downward spiral The sudden hiatus in nuclear power output caused seismic shifts in the Japanese economy. This economic damage stemmed from energy suppliers who had no option but to find ways to replace the energy lost post-Fukushima. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of Fukushima Daiichi and Tokyo’s main energy provider, boosted the output of its thermal power stations, installing around 300 extra generators. Between April and December 2011, TEPCO’s spending on gas – needed to fuel these thermal plants – rose 140% compared to the same period in 2010, a cost totalling USD19.1 billion. By the end of the 2012 financial year, this figure is expected to reach USD36.5bn. Faced with spiralling costs, TEPCO was left with no option but to raise electricity charges. At first, only business users were affected; for many of them, especially the small and middle-scale manufacturers, rate

hikes meant a large decrease in profits and even the threat of bankruptcy. Yet higher energy prices did not save the industrial sector from electricity shortages: thermal power plants simply couldn’t provide the same amount of energy as their nuclear predecessors. Under such harsh conditions some companies closed outlets or moved them, even abroad. In the coming months, TEPCO’s ordinary household clients will see a 10% hike in their electricity charges. According to one estimate, this move alone will increase the annual energy bill of the Tokyo region by 3.6 billion dollars. The Japanese government is still trying to persuade the local authorities in several prefectures to give the green light for reactors to restart. So far, the prospects are dim. The road to recovery will be a long one. But a solution does exist. However, most people might not like it...

To be continued in Guru issue 7

Yaroslav Makarov is a news reporter based in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a self-education enthusiast and enjoys researching the philosophy of the mind. He blogs at along with his colleagues (in Russian) and may be once in a while reached via Twitter @JessMcArrow.


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GuREVIEWS The Geek Manifesto

community of passionate science-lovers and critical thinkers gave Singh the backing and financial support he needed to defend himself in court. Singh eventually won.

Author: Mark Henderson Publisher: Bantam Press Price: 18.99GBP (hardback RRP); 17.01GBP (Kindle RRP) Rating: ●●●●● Available from Amazon UK

Nine punchy chapters explore how the media, politics, justice and even the green movement are rife with anti-science propaganda. Using facts and real-life examples to good effect, Henderson frightens us with statistics: 86 percent of physics teachers don’t have a physics degree; only one of the UK’s 650 MPs has a science background; and GBP19 million (USD30m) was spent on useless ‘bomb detection’ dowsing rods in Iraq – at the cost of lives.

If you think of yourself as a rational, logical person, chances are you’re a geek. At least as far as Mark Henderson, writer of The Geek Manifesto, is concerned. In this, his second book, Henderson shows our world to be a place where quackery and pseudo-science trump fact. Faced with this stark reality, ‘geeks’ are the everyday people prepared to take a stand in the name of reason. Blogs and social media are housing a growing movement of rational thinkers, ‘skeptics’ and scientists who, together, have brought about change; Henderson uses this book to set the agenda, urging citizens to collaborate and make their voices heard.

Review by Dr Stu

A science correspondent for The Times newspaper for ten years, Henderson knows a thing or two about politics and the media. The book isn’t short of examples of decisionmakers choosing votes over evidence: government funding for placebo medicines, groundless MMR vaccine scares, and Simon Singh’s legal battle against the British Chiropractic Association. Comforting reading this certainly isn’t. The much-publicised Simon Singh libel case opens the book and sets the tone for what is to follow. The 2008 legal battle is one of the most prominent demonstrations of ‘geek power’. Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for writing a newspaper article criticising their advertising claims. Despite being wholly correct, Singh faced almost certain bankruptcy or imprisonment – until, as Henderson argues, the geeks stepped in. A

The GuReview rating system


Yet despite his depressing outlook, Henderson insists all is not lost. He explains how ‘the scientific method’ is the greatest tool that humanity has at its disposal, and demonstrates how the process of using evidence to prove or disprove an idea is so simple even a ten year old could do it. The scientific method, he argues, is the ultimate weapon in a geek’s arsenal. The Geek Manifesto is a book written with conviction. Opting for the all-embracing term ‘geek’ over ‘rationalist’, ‘skeptic’ or ‘scientist’, it is squarely aimed at non-academics. The message is compelling and unsettling, the writing fluid, and the arguments consistent. It’s not written as a crowd-pleaser and not everyone will agree with everything Henderson puts forward (particularly green activists, ‘pro-lifers’ and members of the Republican Tea Party). In fact, I would be surprised if there wasn’t something in there to challenge at least one of anyone’s long-held beliefs. Above all, The Geek Manifesto promotes honesty: if you disagree with abortion on moral grounds that’s fine – but don’t claim to have scientific evidence to support you if you don’t. Written with a UK audience in mind, it is difficult to read The Geek Manifesto and not be stirred: by chapter five I wanted to swap my PC for a placard. The book concludes with the short ‘manifesto’ alluded to in the title, setting out some practical suggestions for making a difference – without a sandwich-board in sight. The Geek Manifesto is long overdue and represents an impassioned call to action. If you care about science or politics, you’d be a fool not to read it.



Image courtesy of Transworld Publishers


MARK HENDERSON Guru: Mark, could you tell us what the book is about and who it is written for? Mark Henderson: The Geek Manifesto really tries to draw together two different themes. The first is the alarming extent to which science so often goes missing in action in public life. Just one of our 650 Members of Parliament (MP) is a scientist, and only a few dozen more have any real record of engaging constructively with science, and it shows in public policy. With few ministers who really grasp what science is about, or understand how it works in practice, governments let science down with poor funding and bad regulation, such as the immigration cap. They also mishandle evidence and scientific advice and, perhaps most seriously of all, they fail to appreciate how the experimental methods of science could prove useful in addressing unanswered questions in education or crime policy. Then there’s the ‘rise of the geeks’ – the way in which people who really care about science are starting to become more confident, and more prominent in popular culture. I’m thinking about things like the success of Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Robin Ince. My argument in The Geek Manifesto is that we need to make this confidence more political, so there’s a political cost to mishandling science. Only then will things really start to change. The book is obviously for people who get worked up about this in the same way that I do, but I also hope it’ll appeal to people with an interest in improving politics and government. I really hope politicians and civil servants will read it, and that it encourages some of them to think a little differently about the world. G: What prompted you to write the book? It’s been stewing for a while. It grew out of a lot of my reporting for The Times, really – issues such as the immigration cap, the spending review, the sacking of David Nutt. And the rise of the geeks that I mentioned earlier. It struck me that there’s a real opportunity to start doing things differently, and to put science on the political map. G: Why call it The Geek Manifesto? Why not ‘skeptic’, ‘rationalist’ or ‘scientist’ manifesto? MH: I love the word ‘geek’. It’s one of those reclaimed words, which started out as an insult but has become a badge of honour. Curiously, it also seemed more inclusive than the other terms you suggest. I think all those groups are geeks, but so too are all sorts of other people who simply have a broad affinity for science.

G: Your book focuses on how politicians, judges and the media ignore the voice of reason – either through choice or ignorance. Is there anything we can to be be more informed, even if decisionmakers aren’t? MH: I’d actually turn this question around. What I think is really important is that we make it our business to create a stink if politicians or judges are making bad decisions because they’re badly informed. Politicians let down science not, for the most part, because they are anti-science. They’re just indifferent to it – they haven’t thought about it. In other words, they’re ignorant in the non-pejorative sense – they just don’t know. And they ignore it because they can – they know there’s no political cost. We have to create a cost by reminding them that a lot of people care about this stuff – and they vote. G: The book carries a powerful message. If there was one person in the world who you’d want to read it, who would that be? MH: I think I’ll stick to the UK just for now, so it has to be the Prime Minister. With a political will there at the centre, there’s really no reason a lot of this couldn’t improve quite quickly. But I’d love every MP to read it. There was a great campaign through Pledgebank a couple of years back to recruit people to send The God Delusion to every MP. It would be great if someone started something similar for The Geek Manifesto. G: After the book is released, will you be doing anything to ‘rally the troops’ of Geeks? MH: Certainly. But what’s important is to grasp the opportunities when they arise, and we don’t really know what those will be just yet! But when evidence is abused, I’ll be blogging about it...


Review by Dr Stu

A Discovery of New Worlds


New Worlds, brought lofty academic ideas down to earth. Although Fontenelle was famous in his Author: Bernard de Fontenelle copy of a time, his writing had little impact (translated by Aphra Behn) book! is th on the English-speaking world. Publisher: Hesperus Press See page 4 The Guru team most certainly had Price: 9.00GBP (paperback RRP) never heard of him. But what he Rating: ●●●● accomplished in 120 pages within this Available from Amazon UK little-known text should be envy of Shakespeare and many a modern-day writer. science aren’t A Discovery of New Worlds is a short, normally things five-chapter book, told as a story. that mix. The OldOpening in the gardens of a French English language château, an unnamed gentleman has may be good a chance meeting with the lady of the for conveying manor – Madam the Marquise. Unable emotion, but you to resist talking to this beautiful wouldn’t want maiden, the leading man tries his it in a science hand with a chat-up line. Remarking book. So it was on the beauty of the moon and the quite a surprise night-sky, he goes on to enthrall her to receive a with his sharp intellect (if only it were repackaged that easy these days!). and rebranded Meeting in secret over five consecutive 17th century nights, a relationship blooms as he book about regales her with vivid and enchanting astronomy at Guru HQ – and an even imagery about the heavens. In doing bigger surprise to discover it was a so, he reveals truths about the moon, remarkably good read... the planets, and the darkest depths The Middle Ages were times of plague, of the cosmos. He describes how feudal fighting and famine – but art, the planets are like ships floating music and scholarly thought would through space; how the Earth would soon sweep through Europe as 15th appear if viewed from the Moon; and century savagery gave way to the what alien life might be like on other Renaissance. As the Bard was crafting planets. Each of her doubts – mirroring the world’s greatest dramas, the the misconceptions of the day – are greatest scientific revolution known skilfully and eloquently explained. to man was taking place. Much to the Written almost entirely as a flirtatious ire of the Church, astronomers proved conversation between this duo, the that the Earth was not at the centre of writing has a depth and poetry rarely God’s creation – the stars, not lights in found in today’s non-fiction. And a heavenly dome, but distant celestial although over three hundred years bodies. Splintering religious dogma, old, most of the explanations still hold these discoveries forever transformed true today – a remarkable testament how we see our place in the Universe to the minds of the time, given their – though, at the time, they would primitive technology. have seemed ludicrous to the average A Discovery of New Worlds is a Ernald or Eustace in the street. How delightful, timeless little gem. Given could they make sense of it all? What the book’s age and language, it will was needed was a popular science never have mass appeal. But for those book – something for everyman. interested in going off-piste and trying Enter French writer, poet and something a little more prosaic, it philosopher Bernard de Fontenelle. won’t disappoint. His 17th century book, A Discovery of

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Image: Flickr • John O’Nolan

DEPARTURE LOUNGE CHEERS! Phew! We told you that this issue was jam-packed, didn’t we? We’re particularly proud of this, our birthday issue, and proud of reaching our first major landmark as a magazine. It takes a lot of time and effort to make it happen, so a huge THANK YOU to all our contributors for their ongoing dedication to the vision of Guru. It’s our hope that Guru will remain free – but for that to happen, we need your help. If you enjoy reading Guru, please help us: tell your friends about us, support the advertisers on our website and perhaps make a small donation to help keep Guru going. As they say, every little helps... And remember, we’re much more than a magazine: the Guru website is always being updated with new web-exclusive content and opinion pieces, so keep checking back – and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter! We’ll see you again for issue 7, out on Wednesday 1st August. But before then, we’ve got some long overdue sunbathing to do...


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ISSUE 6 • JUNE 2012 G U R U M AG A Z I N E . O R G

It’s our first birthday issue! A huge Guru thank you to all our contributors and readers! Image: Flickr • Yogma / Greg Ma

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