#SCEPTICISM #TECH #FOOD #MIND #MEDIA #ART #SCIE
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Do we have too much choice? ALSO TASTING GM FOOD JAPAN WITHOUT POWER CURIOUS PATCHWORK QUILTS INSIDE A SERIAL KILLER’S MIND
SMELLING LOVE • SPORTS HYDRATION • AND MUCH MORE!
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ARRIVALS LOUNGE GURU OPINIONS As a vegetarian, choosing from a restaurant menu should be fairly easy. But not for columnist Leila Wildsmith, who argues that our yearning for ever-more choice needs to stop. #SCEPTICISM
CONSEGRITY® An alternative medical therapy that encourages self-awareness sounds like a great idea. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury lifts the lid on a faith healing cult, whose consequences have been far from healthy. #MEDIA
BEING FRANK ABOUT FRANKENFOODS Put a fork in it you cynics! Evolution Guru Charlie Harvey loves to eat genetically modified food. He explains why we should all get stuck into a hearty GM meal. #TECHNOLOGY
ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM? Japan is considered one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. But Japanese news reporter Yaroslav Makarov describes how tough life has become since the Fukushima reactor disaster. #MIND
CRIMINAL MINDS What would it take to steal $100 million of diamonds from the world’s most secure safe? What are serial killers really like as people? Mind Guru Kim Lacey finds out. #PHILOSOPHY
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY? Philosophers are an odd bunch. Josh Howgego has an encounter with leading thinker and philosopher Professor James Ladyman. Apparently science doesn’t have all the answers – and never will. #PHYSICS
READING BETWEEN THE LINES What you decide today could impact the health of your children. Molecular Guru Jon Crowe decrypts the hidden genetic code that records your eating habits and lifestyle choices and replays them via the genes of future generations. #ART
PARTICLES, CELLS AND STITCHES Art Guru Michele Banks meets the artisans that are breathing new life into an ancient craft. Fusing physics and biology into patchwork creations, she showcases some beautiful pieces you’ll want to wrap yourself up in. #NATURE
CHILLED OUT! David Smith studies pond scum for a living. Hardly the coolest job in the world, you may think, but he reveals some of the mind-blowing things his green little friends can do. #BIOLOGY
WHO DO YOU STINK YOU ARE? Unless something really stinks, we tend not to think about what we sniff. It’s time to give those nostrils a bit more respect as Kat Lougheed shows you how to communicate with your ‘eau de body’.
Peoww! Physics Guru James Lloyd gets up close with gun crime and investigates cutting-edge techniques that are letting the FBI find out whodunnit – with audio recordings!
Competition with e-vouchers up for grabs.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO RE-HYDRATE Ever heard anyone tell you to ‘drink before you get thirsty’? Fitness Guru and gym owner Matt Linsdell explains why this piece of exercise advice is a load of old bunkum.
GURU SWAG @GURUMAG News and titbits from Guru.
THE RANDOM IMAGE DEPARTURES
(Radiation Suit) Flickr • Surian Soosay
Twitter has a lot to answer for. Critics contend that social networking corrupts normal relationships and alters the way we think. Guest writer Chloe McDonagh looks at the evidence.
(Where Stars Are Born) NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI), and P. Puxley (National Science Foundation)
ARRIVALS LOUNGE WELCOME TO GURU! Decisions, decisions. Sometimes life can be filled with a bewildering barrage of choices. This issue of Guru explores a range of dilemmas that many of us face daily – what we eat, what medicine we take and what we believe. Evolution Guru Charlie Harvey sticks his fork into GM foods and explains why he thinks we should have them on our dinner plate. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury reports on a bizarre alternative medical treatment, Consegrity (no, we hadn’t heard of it either). Yaroslav Makarov, our correspondent from Japan, considers how the Fukushima disaster is forever changing how we see nuclear power – and whether green energy is the solution. Elsewhere, our beloved Gurus cover everything from serial killers to quiltmaking – and we’ve upped the amount of opinion in this issue. We’re sure you’ll enjoy what we’ve got in store.
GURU 07 • August 2012 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2012 Guru Magazine Ltd. Guru Magazine Ltd. is a company registered in England & Wales. Company no. 7683000 • gurumagazine.org 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 email@example.com Press & marketing enquiries firstname.lastname@example.org 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: (Signpost) Flickr • Matt Kieffer Follow Guru on Twitter •
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THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond realdoctorstu.com
Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu
Jon Crowe Sub-editor / Molecular Guru chemicalgecko.blogspot.com @crowe_jon Ben Veal benvealpr.com
Marketing & PR / Media Guru @benvealpr
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FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE Leila Wildsmith Guru Opinions www.writingonthewall0612.blogspot.co.uk Daryl Ilbury www.darylilbury.com Chloe McDonagh
Sceptic Guru @darylilbury Guest Contributor
Charlie Harvey Evolution Guru charles-harvey.co.uk @charlesharvey Yaroslav Makarov Guest Contributor tokyo-hatsu.livejournal.com @JessMcArrow Kim Lacey kimberlylacey.com
Mind Guru @kimlacey
Josh Howgego benchtwentyone.wordpress.com
James Lloyd thesoftanonymous.com Matt Linsdell smart-fit.ca
Michele Banks artologica.etsy.com
Guest Contributor @benchtwentyone Physics Guru @jbb_lloyd Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt Art Guru @artologica
David Smith protistlab.com
Kathryn Lougheed germzoo.blogspot.com
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.
am not very good with decisions. Just ask anyone who has waited for me to ‘eny-meeny-miny-moe’ my way through a restaurant menu, or who has made themselves a cup of tea while waiting for me to make my move in a board game. As a child, I never really ‘got’ the game ‘Would you rather…’, in which alternate scenarios are presented and each person has to choose which they’d prefer. I spent ages mentally weighing up the pros and cons of each decision without ever arriving at a satisfactory answer. As an adult, I still struggle. After a quick online search I discovered an entire website dedicated to the ‘Would you rather...’ game: http://www. wouldyouprefer.co.uk. The first question that was generated:
Would you rather have tiny monkey paws growing out of your ears, or have to eat monkey once a week for the rest of your life? As a vegetarian, I don’t fancy adding monkey to my weekly menu. But then the thought of having monkey paws growing out of my ears horrifies me. You see my dilemma. Where there is choice, I panic. Choice gives us freedom, and a sense of power and autonomy. We have more choice than any other society in history. But is there a point
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at which too much choice and freedom become undesirable? We live in a society filled with endless choices, each more tantalising than the last. Apparently, we make an average of 35,000 choices every day, many of which we don’t even notice. There are over 600 UK cable channels; there are nearly 50 varieties of Kellogg’s cereals; and Starbucks offer their customers an astonishing 87,000 varieties of drink. This is choice in the extreme. If we are dissatisfied with anything in life (our shampoo, our coffee, our phone contracts, our bank accounts, our car insurance, our electricity supplier etc.), we can choose to change it. We can shop around to find a better, cheaper alternative. With all of this choice we ought to be satisfied. After all, the common notion is that choice empowers us. But is that really true? To return to the topic of food, we can decide what, when and where we want to eat. Supermarkets are open 24/7; takeout food is delivered at every hour of the day; restaurants offer us food from around the globe and will suit any dietary requirement. Take my neighbourhood, for example: there are four Indian, three Italian, and two Chinese restaurants, two Fish and Chip shops, three Kebab takeaways and several British pubs – all within easy walking distance from my home. But even when we’ve decided on a restaurant, there’s still the problem of the menu... It seems the more choice we have, the less we want it. Despite giving us the chance to experience more, the great irony is that more options give us more opportunities to get it wrong. If I order one thing on the menu then I miss out on the others I could have opted for. Short of ordering several dishes every time I eat
(Startbucks) Flickr • Jerine Lay
Too Much Choice?
GURU OPINIONS out, each decision I make is a decision not to have something. So, far from offering me freedom and liberation, too much choice forces me to worry about what I am missing out on. What if I choose the wrong dish? What if I don’t like my meal and I’m stuck with it? I’m sure I’m not the first to have suffered dessert-envy: the feeling that, despite careful decision-making, you always wish you’d picked the same dessert as the person next to you. This, too, is undoubtedly a symptom of having too much choice. After all, if everyone at the table ordered the same dessert, there would be nothing to envy. The 21st century now offers an exponentially greater number of options and alternatives. From modes of transport, to where and when we work; from where and when we shop, to how and when we pay for it all; from how we dress, to how we style our hair; from how and when we communicate, to the different technologies that we use to communicate. Sometimes then, too much choice is bad: we all need to have boundaries. In response to a Starbucks Facebook page entitled: “There are 87,000 different drink combinations. How many have you tried?” one Facebook user wrote “Not enough. Too many favourites. No time to try new drinks.” It’s as if we don’t want too much choice, because it limits our ability to enjoy what we know we like. We are bombarded by choice to such an extent that some psychologists have suggested that it is clinically ‘bad’ for us. It appears that too much choice leads to heightened fatigue and makes us less productive. The emotional and mental strain of weighing up different options often reduces our ability to stay focused on one task. All of this raises questions: Is it better for us to have more choice? Does the effort of having to decide cause us too much stress? Do we sometimes want to be given a choice simply to be able to refuse it? Do we really need all this choice? I, of course, can’t decide.
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!
Leila Wildsmith is an English teacher in a Secondary school and, in her spare time, loves writing and reading a wide variety of different books. She occasionally blogs about writing at www.writingonthewall0612. blogspot.co.uk and intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s.
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A SAD AND TRAGIC CAUTIONARY TALE
DARYL ILBURY • SCEPTIC GURU
*Epitaph taken from first line on Conesigrty Website.
CONSEGRITY® Few things can be more important to human health and wellbeing than the continued search for new and improved therapies to treat illness. Yet, many people’s heads are turned not by the latest scientific advances – those that offer real promise of successful treatments – but by pseudo-scientific make-believe. Join Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury as he tells a fantastic tale dressed up as reality. Ours is a sad and tragic tale, replete with folly, deceit and a blatant disregard of the laws of science. We encounter both sickness and (perhaps inevitably) death along the way. It is also a cautionary tale – yet one that millions will continue to ignore, to their peril. I will call this tale “consegrity”, for that is its name. If you look for the meaning of ‘consegrity’ online you’ll be directed to the Free Medical Dictionary, which reads: Noun: a therapeutic modality in which energetic blockages, whether physical, mental, or spiritual in origin, are removed from the cells and connective tissues so that they can return to their innate ability to withstand tension and stress. The fact it’s in a medical dictionary of sorts and that nothing sounds particularly wrong
Previous Page: (Sky),(Grass),(Tombstone) Flickr •Anna, Mirry, SophieG
“CONsciousness awareness, and tenSEGRITY of the body”
with the explanation – might suggest to the average person that it must work. However, just because nothing sounds wrong with it doesn’t mean everything is right with it. In fact, it’s so horribly wrong, it’s highly dangerous.
A web of hope and lies Of course, it’s easy to dismiss an argument such as this one as a brutal rebuttal of alternative ‘therapy’. But if you scratch at the surface of consegrity, you’ll soon unpick the threads of hope and lies that held it all together (note the past tense).
So let’s do some unpicking. But first, a little context. Science is healthy because it depends on healthy scepticism and constructive dispute. For every scientist looking to present their research there is a legion of other scientists ready to challenge them. It’s not so much because of disagreement, but because such probing is necessary to ensure findings are robust enough to be called ‘science’. Science, like any other discipline, also has its fair share of rogues – people who, for various reasons, hover at the very edge of the discipline’s circle. Like religion, science has its extremists – and, like religion, these extremists are the drivers of subversive actions. Now let’s call in the main actors of this story. The concept of consegrity was the creation of Mary Lynch, a retired orthopedic surgeon, and Debra Harrison, a massage therapist. They chose the term because, in their words, it “‘encapsulates’ CONsciousness awareness, and tenSEGRITY of the body”. The term ‘tensegrity’ is more familiar to students of engineering as a way of describing the tensional integrity of a material (basically, the way tension gives something structural stability). In Mary Lynch’s own words, consegrity was: “a non-contact approach to wellness that touches the heart of all aspects of Self: Mind, Body and Spirit. It supports the ability of the individual to clear, clean, organize and reorganize electromagnetic, vibrational systems, allowing the body to heal itself.” It was so ‘non-contact’ it could even be done over the phone.
Grandiosity and deception Our tale continues. Lynch and Harrison found much favour in their idea, for two reasons: • Most people aspire to more than their lot; and, unfortunately, • Far too many people are gullible. We all like to believe that we are more than just carbon-based life forms scuttling around on a small planet circling only one of billions of stars in only one of billions of galaxies. We like to believe we are more important than that. We
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Consegrity: What you get in CONTINUED PAGE TITLE a typical session So what would a typical session of consegrity entail? This is hard to describe because it’s shrouded in obscurity. One source says: “During a session, the consegrity practitioner facilitates the healing process by using an energetic tracking system. The practitioner utilises the system to engage the client on an energetic level. The client’s inherent wisdom is guiding the practitioner throughout the session. The client does not participate on a verbal/conscious level and need only relax in a comfortable position. A session is 50 minutes duration.” (Emphasis mine) However, Mary Lynch once said in an interview that a session only lasted 15 minutes and that the ‘energy tracking system’ could be used over the phone, which, one would assume, would require the client ‘participating on a verbal level’ . She also said: “In a consegrity session, the client declares, for example, ‘My back has hurt for 44 years, I have chronic headaches, and I want to leave my wife.’” The session then begins. So, in essence, consegrity involved the client being in a comfortable position, with eyes closed, while the practitioner was in the same room…or not, and with the client talking…or not. Lynch claimed it worked wonders, saying “Someone can come in and say, ‘I want to be able to run faster’. I have 70-year old runners now who run faster than they did when they were 20. It’s amazing.” Amazing indeed, and nice to know if your gran ever wants to compete in the Olympics.
like to believe that there are loftier ambitions for us – a higher purpose – or that there is more to life than what we see around us. But instead of looking outwards into physical space, many people embark on a hopeful search of the metaphysical – that which transcends the physical laws of nature. They simply need someone to come along with a compelling story to tap into that hope, and they will believe it – even though it can never be proven. Lynch and Harrison knew this, and soon consegrity became Consegrity®. The two players started appearing at alternative health conventions, and people were drawn towards their apparent non-invasive intervention that supposedly provided a complete health solution. And the money started rolling in.
The con becomes unstuck But there was one serious flaw to Consegrity®: it was presented as scientific when in fact it was imaginary. Lynch and Harrison claimed that sickness occurs because of some kind of
CONSEGRITY® ‘negative energy’ that ‘locks’ DNA and prevents cellular repair. Furthermore they claimed that Consegrity® could treat everything from headaches and allergies to diabetes, HIV and cancer. The result was inevitable: fierce adherents of Consegrity® started becoming seriously ill (ironically also including Lynch and Harrison themselves) – but not before their business started unravelling as people started asking uncomfortable questions about their claims. Debra Harrison was the first to die – in 2005 – of complications from diabetes, having refused medical treatment for years despite repeated pleas from her family. Shortly before Harrison’s death, Mary Lynch transferred their business and property dealings – and the associated high debts – into Harrison’s name. Harrison’s family sued Lynch, who lost the rights to the name Consegrity®. So she simply continued peddling her approach under the name Consilience Energy Mirrors. But science wasn’t finished with Mary Lynch. She died on 31 March 2012 of septic shock from a toe infection she refused to treat with antibiotics. The true tragedy, though, is that consegrity didn’t die with her. Consegrity® may be dead, but the belief in it is still out there (although interest is dwindling) being peddled to people who don’t know any better, by people who should.
The moral of the story The only hope now is that people see consegrity for what it is: a tragic cautionary tale, rather than a genuine therapeutic approach. It gathers a following because it epitomises many socalled ‘alternative therapies’ that are sold as scientific, but are anything but. The evidence is in the language: references to a mystical ‘energy’ in the body; to spiritual ‘forces’ or ‘electromagnetic vibrational forces’; and to the concept of a Mind-Body-Spirit amalgam. Such language and such concepts lie at the very centre of so many pseudo-scientific ‘therapies’. They may be popular, but as we now know, they can also be lethal.
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 www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.
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SOCIAL NETWORKING: IS IT CHANGING THE WAY OUR MIND WORKS?
CHLOE MCDONAGH • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
It is completely true that we’re making more and more use of social networks – and not only websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Most video games now have online features that let gamers contact each another mid-combat/ match/race. So, maybe if we’re constantly drawn into these virtual worlds, we can lose some contact with reality. But equally it could be argued that a person with an obsessive behaviour related to one of any number of things is socially detached in a similar way. So why all the recent fuss about social media? I can understand social networks can be misused - by ‘trolling’ or ‘happy slapping’; these kinds of behaviour can have a negative impact on a person’s life and, quite possibly, on their state of mind. I can also understand how violent video games might have a negative impact on a person’s mind. I’m sure anyone who has played such games for prolonged periods would say they have felt drawn into the game and disconnected from reality – if only for a short time. Yet for all the speculation, we still seem to be lacking robust evidence. Baroness Susan Greenfield is a well-known neurologist who has made numerous claims regarding social networking. She claimed in 2009 that the growing “dependence on websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Second Life” has many negative effects on individuals and society as a whole and stated that “one effect, the fragmentation of our culture, is already occurring”. In 2010, she went further as to state that “the human brain is under threat from the modern world,” and that we should “wake up to the damage that the gadget-filled,
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pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century is doing to our brains”. She even declared that “today’s technology is already producing a marked shift in the way we think and behave, particularly among the young”. While she may be right, Baroness Greenfield is yet to publish conclusive evidence in a reputable scientific journal. Until that point, should we heed her sensational-sounding claims? Maybe we should. I have seen first-hand someone who was so drawn into the world of social networking that they had very few friends. All contact with other people – including friends – was via the internet. When this person was put into a social situation it triggered panic attacks.
For some, the urge to know what everyone else is doing – to be continually checking Facebook and Twitter accounts – is irresistible, in a way that goes beyond human curiosity to the point of becoming an addiction. Perhaps those who show signs of becoming withdrawn from society should start to wean themselves off using social networking sites – but then we all know that addictions (by their very definition) are hard to resist. So what evidence is there that social networking is bad for us? While Baroness Greenfield has not published her research, others have. One study has found that frequent use of social network sites is associated with behavioural changes and a detrimental effect on mental health. The results of this study indicated that the increased usage of social networking is related to a greater risk of depression. Can Twitter and
(Checking Phone) Flickr • Grant Williamson
It’s not unheard of for scientists to believe that social networking has a negative impact on our brains. In fact, since 2009 there have been researchers claiming that our brains are getting damaged from excessive exposure to such sites. But is there any substance to these claims? Could we really become drawn so far into this virtual world that we’ll all end up in a zombie-like state, unable to form relationships with people in the real world? It all seems a little far-fetched to me.
(Social Media) Wikimedia Commons • Sofiaperesoa (X-ray) Flickr • Lindsay Holmwood
I highly doubt that there will come a time when anarchy and carnage within our society has resulted from too much time spent on social networking sites or playing video games. Maybe people do spend too much of their time living in a virtual world rather than reading a book or going for a walk, but that is because of the increased availability of these virtual escapes. Every individual can make their own choice. There will always be those who are most susceptible to influence from such technologies – but if we are going to advise people not to use social media, it should be on a basis of evidence and not merely the beliefs of others. Facebook be the cause? Well, it appears that the competition that comes from individuals trying to compete with each other – to have the most ‘exciting’ profiles – adversely effects a person’s self-esteem. A further study showed that social network usage leads to a decrease in real-life community participation, decreased academic achievement and an increase in relationship problems – all markers that are indicative of potential addiction. But the evidence is conflicting: other research has shown that the use of social networking sites by people with mental health illnesses can actually help them to decrease their social isolation and enables them to develop independent living skills. A further study demonstrated how positive feedback on a social networking profile enhances an adolescent’s social self-esteem and well-being, but negative feedback leads to a decrease. This, to me, is obvious: it is human nature to seek positive reassurance from the people around us – and not receiving this will make us feel worse and may put us at risk of depression. One thing worth bearing in mind is that none of the evidence suggests that the sole act of using social media has a negative impact on a person. Instead, it is the interaction with others – and their behaviour – that seems to have the biggest effect on a person’s mental state.
Gowen, K., Deschaine, M., Gruttadara, D., and Markey, D. (2012) Young adults with mental health conditions and social network websites: seeking tools to build community. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35 (3), pp. 245250 • Kuss, D.J., and Griffiths, M.D. (2011) Online social networking and addiction – a review of the psychological literature. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8 (9), pp. 3528-3552 • Pantic, L., Damajanovic, A., Todorovic, J., Topalovic, D., Bojovic-Jpvic, D., Ristic, S., and Pantic, S. (2012) Association between online social networking and depression in high school students: behavioural physiology viewpoint. Psychiatria Danubina, 24 (1), pp. 90-93 • Valkenburg, P.M., Peter, J., and Schouten, A.P. (2006) Friend networking sites and their relationships to adolescents’ well-being and social self-esteem. Cyberpsychology & Behaviour: The impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behaviour on society, 9 (5), pp. 584-590 Read more: Susan Greenfield: Living online is changing our brains (New Scientist)
Chloe McDonagh is a recent Medical Science graduate from Brighton, UK with an interest in the brain and social media. Living by the seaside, she enjoys travelling, getting lost in a good book and getting lost in the woods.
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BEING FRANK ABOUT FRANKENFOODS STICKING A PITCHFORK INTO GM FOOD
CHARLIE HARVEY • EVOLUTION GURU
BEING FRANK ABOUT FRANKENFOODS Genetic modification sounds scary. Just hearing the term can stimulate thoughts of glow-in-the-dark animals, mutant plants growing legs, and super-intelligent yoghurts taking over the world. But is genetic modification really something to be scared about? Or is it like a dog whose bark is worse than its bite? Evolution Guru Charlie Harvey thinks it’s time we had some reasoned debate, and gives his views an airing… The GM debate has cropped up in the news once again, thanks to a wheat field in Hertfordshire (UK) that contains experimental genetically modified crops that produce aphid repellent. The phrase ‘Frankenfood’ often gets used at a
time like this – a creation that shouldn’t exist but for the crazy actions of a mad scientist, just like Frankenstein’s monster. But why do people compare GM to Frankenstein? Is this metaphor being used fairly? I’d argue that, like Frankenstein’s monster, GM technology is a story of people’s natural fear of the unknown. But it is only more research into GM, not less, can help take away that fear.
(Aphid)Flickr • Gilles San Martin
Excuse me waiter, is that a gene in my soup? Firstly, though, what is genetic modification? Well, it can be many things: removing or changing faulty genes for example. But it is now synonymous for the introduction of new genes, usually from other organisms. Rothamsted Research, the organisation that designed the
latest experiment involving wheat, found inspiration from other plants that naturally produce a chemical that scares away aphids. They pinpointed the gene that other plants used to produce the aphid-repelling chemical and used it as the blueprint for designing their own copy. The gene is first designed in the lab and is then added to the DNA of a bacterium. The bacterium, in turn, infects the plant, taking the new gene with it. The gene then mixes in with all the genes normally present in the plant – and the plant can now start to produce the new anti-aphid chemical. Genetic inspiration can come from anywhere, which is why we have jellyfish genes causing cats to glow in the dark, and the bacterium E. coli producing the human protein, insulin.
A monster is born The Frankenstein reference stemmed from this mixing of new and old genes – the cobbling together of different parts to make a new whole. Is this necessarily a bad thing though? In Frankenstein, the Doctor takes the parts of recently deceased individuals and tries to make a new, living person. A bit gruesome, yes, but his ultimate goal was to find a way of stopping death – a goal many modern scientists share. By using the label ‘Frankenstein’, the anti-GM movement implies that GM is inherently bad, just as the monster was. But the monster wasn’t created that way. Like a newborn child, he was born a blank slate, neither bad nor good. It was the monster’s terrible treatment at the hands of the people who were afraid of him that made him bad. Why were they afraid of him? Because he was an unknown quantity. They did not understand why he looked and behaved as he did – even how he could exist in the first place. In the book, the monster is chased out of villages by people wielding torches and pitchforks. And today, plans were made to use literally the same tools to remove GM crops from the landscape. GM – like the wheat being grown at Rothamsted – is not born bad, just as the monster wasn’t. There are literally countless ways that GM
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BEING FRANK ABOUT FRANKENFOODS
Cooking with caution Opponents of GM technology claim that it’s unnatural – but even that isn’t true. Genes transfer from one species to another all the time, certainly in bacteria and fungi, and possibly in corals, insects and worms. There’s nothing new or unusual about new genes making their home within an existing genome. But we need to proceed with caution. One issue is that a gene is often not simply a recipe for a single protein; it can often affect other genes (and so other proteins) in the organism to which it is added – leading to a whole cascade of unexpected changes. So, putting a gene for a new protein in wheat could have health implications for the humans eating it thanks to its knock-on effects, despite the original protein being safe. The biggest concern many have is that genetically modified plants might interbreed with their wild cousins living outside the farm: the ‘special ability’ given to the GM plant within the safe confines of a research facility could pass to the outside world where it could
disrupt entire ecosystems – something that has happened in the past. Such negative consequences could arise if, like Frankenstein’s monster, the process of science is neglected. The monster, after being badly treated, commits violent crimes. In the same way, improperly researched genetic modification can lead (and has led) to harm being caused. But none of these downsides are likely if carefully-controlled GM research is allowed to continue unhindered. Destroying research before we know what the results are can only keep us in the dark, and keep us fearful of a technology that could help feed the world.
Put the pitchforks away So is the Frankenstein metaphor a fair one? In short, yes: genetically-modified organisms have the potential to turn into Frankenstein’s monster – but only if we behave like Frankenstein himself and neglect our duty of care towards the experiments we carry out. Far from being monstrous, if we act responsibly, and with care, genetic modification has the potential to relieve suffering and starvation in places most at need. As Dr Gia Aradottir, one of the scientists working on the GM trial in Herfordshire, says, “As scientists, we know that we do not have all the answers, but that’s why we need to conduct this experiment - and that’s why, please, we ask you not to destroy it.” For the sake of our future, please put the pitchforks down.
Charlie Harvey is a writer and blogger with an unhealthy appetite for science. He was once described as “one of the most talented science writers of the last decade” by his mother. You can follow him on Twitter @charlesharvey.
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(Wheat)Flickr • Dag Terje Filip Endresen
technology can be used to help the world. Adding genes for a natural pesticide to a crop means that fewer dangerous chemicals can be used on farms. Adding genes for drought resistance can make crops grow in places that they couldn’t before. Adding genes for vitamin A in rice has meant that millions of children around the world haven’t developed debilitating diseases like xeropthalmia – a devastating condition in which the eye is unable to produce tears.
ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM? AN INSIDE VIEW OF POST-FUKUSHIMA JAPAN
YAROSLAV MAKAROV • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
BELOW: The anti-nuclear rally held at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo on 19th September 2011.
In the first part of this article, I described the pain of separation experienced by Japan as it found its principal source of power torn away. Last summer wasn’t pretty: unbearably hot living due to no air conditioning, blackouts and an economy rapidly going up in smoke. But does every nuclear-powered country have to face the same difficulties as Japan if it decides to give up the atom?
efficient ways to deliver vast amounts of energy remarkably cheaply - unlike renewable sources. Solar and wind power are still a long way from meeting the needs of big industry. Before Fukushima, Japan boasted that its growing nuclear industry and renewable energy output were helping to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. In 2010, the government claimed it was reducing “its dependence on oil through introduction of nuclear power...and development and introduction of new energy”. Yet, after Fukushima, it was a dependence on nuclear power - not oil - that the country was trying to lessen.
The answer is yes – at least if it does so with Japan’s unusual haste – 54 reactors closed down in a matter of months. But even a gradual phaseout of nuclear plants is not that easy. Nuclear energy occupies a strange position among its fellow energy sources. Despite the fear of outof-control atoms sparked by Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear energy is still one of the cleanest and most environmentally friendly ways of making electricity. It may be hard to believe, in the same way a person with a fear of flying refuses to accept that air transport is the safest mode of travel. Even if you don’t like the idea of nuclear power, the statistics don’t lie. In terms of emissions, nuclear power isn’t entirely innocent – but it is way better than gas and especially coal – which is a carbon emission nightmare. In terms of technology, the nuclear industry still provides us with one of the most
An inevitable return
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As I described earlier, the move away from the atom comes at a price. The shunning of nuclear power in favour of fossil fuel alternatives brings economic and environmental costs: a transition from paralyzed nuclear industry to gas-fuelled thermal plants in Japan has given rise to huge increases in both electricity charges and carbon emissions. The true cost rises higher still: a return to fossil fuels has forced Tokyo to give up its ambitious goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. It now seeks to reach this goal ten years later – and only if some of the currently idle nuclear reactors return to service. In short, Japan now faces little option but to return to the atom – at least partly and on temporary basis, despite the strongly negative sentiments towards it felt by society.
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ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM?
(Turbines) Flickr • Brian McNamara (Panels)Flickr • Walmart
ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM?
Rosatom. “Nowadays, the builders of nuclear power plants can mitigate against most possible threats – natural disasters, terrorist attacks and so on”. According to Kirienko, who himself visited Fukushima Daiichi plant in early April, “quite simple measures could have saved Japan from meltdown at all three crippled reactors. The only crucial mistake was to place reserve power generators just 3 meters lower than what was needed to prevent damage from a 15 meter high tsunami.” Such an opinion, coming as it does from someone representing the industry, is hardly surprising. But even this nuclear power sweetheart has to admit that ‘100% safe’ is not really possible. “The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi was a natural disaster of a very grand scale, not a man-made one. It is hard to imagine that any human built object could survive such a strike.” says Kirienko. No matter how perfect the safety measures are, incidents are going to occur.
It remains hard to suggest a better alternative to the atom – an energy source that is at once efficient, carbon-free, and affordable for both industry and homeowners alike. The cost of wind and solar energy are falling at a rapid pace as such renewable sources grow at recordbreaking rates. Yet, it remains hard to imagine the atom being completely usurped by new sources, even 20 years from now – particularly at a time when developing countries strive to join the nuclear club. The advantages the atom offers above other energy sources are obvious to emerging nations. The future – to me, at least – seems obvious: nuclear energy will remain an important, stable option for many years to come. And it must.
“quite simple measures could have saved Japan from meltdown”
Nuclear Power – can be ‘safe’
A nuclear risk worth taking
If a future with atomic power remains an inescapable truth, is there any way to make nuclear power plants safe? Apparently so. “There is a way”, says Sergey Kirienko, Director General of the Russian state atomic energy corporation
Sometimes it feels like the security of nuclear plants is the only aspect of atomic energy worth discussing – a feeling not dispelled when you look at the way the nuclear industry communicates with the public. But how can
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ABOVE: Shots of the empty control room at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
we ignore what seems to be the weakest link in nuclear energy – the fact that its safety will forever be in doubt? Huge amounts of money are going to be spent on more safety measures – measures that could one day make the atom too expensive to deal with. Yet no amount of money could ever make the atom truly and completely safe. So, are we ready to give up atom? At this point the answer seems to be ‘no’. It is clean, carbonfree (almost) and cheap. Right now, nothing
else rivals it. Can we ever ensure its safety? No – simply because we live in a world shaken by unstoppable forces. In the beginning of May, Japan shut down its last operating reactor and went completely nuclear-free. But not for long. In June the government persuaded the local authorities of Fukui prefecture to restart the Ohi power plant. But two reactors that are set to resume working on July 1st still make little difference. Tokyo needs to restart at least 12 more reactors to eliminate power shortages, but the talks with municipalities are expected to be tough and considerably long. Japan has entered as yet unexplored nonnuclear territory. What awaits us here? Perhaps we will find proof that giving up nuclear power is not an option, at least for our generation, or some new innovation will arrive and change the landscape of world energy systems. In the meantime, with the future still unexplored, we, the ordinary residents of Japan, are already in the middle of another summer without electricity – and, yes, without air conditioning too. It’s a tough experiment to participate in…
Yaroslav Makarov is a news reporter based in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a selfeducation enthusiast and enjoys researching the philosophy of the mind. He blogs at tokyo-hatsu.livejournal.com along with his colleagues (in Russian) and may be once in a while reached via Twitter @JessMcArrow.
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(Air con.) Flickr • Adrian Boliston (Control Room) Flickr • Kawamoto Takuo
ARE WE READY TO GIVE UP THE ATOM?
CRIMINAL MINDS INSIDE THE UNDERWORLD
KIM LACEY • MIND GURU
CRIMINAL MINDS What makes some brains tick a little off centre and towards the criminal? Mind Guru Kim Lacey has a look at what makes a crook. Please do not attempt these at home! Whenever I see those ‘stupid criminal’ segments on late night talk shows, I think to myself, “Did they seriously think they would get away with that?” There’s always an insignificant detail that goes overlooked or a small detour in the plan that ruins the whole shebang. Like asking a cop for directions. Let’s take a dip into the world of the criminal, look at some of their tricks, and what makes them different from a law-abiding citizen.
The tricks of the pickpocket and the diamond thief
(Test your Brain) National Geographic Foundation (Secret World of Magic) Objective Productions, Sky One
We probably think we would notice someone stealing our watch, wallet, or phone. Best not be too self-assured – an adept thief can make light work of pickpocketing several items from your person without your knowledge. According to slight of hand expert Apollo Robbins, the trick is in distraction. In the National Geographic special Brain Games, Robbins points out that our attention is diverted remarkably easily (you can watch him at work by clicking/tapping on the video links). In fact, Robbins is so good at pickpocketing items that in a matter of seconds he ‘stole’ over six goods from a bystander who had willingly volunteered to let Robbins work his magic. By focusing the victim’s attention away from the theft, Robbins shows how easy it is to take what he wishes.
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(Diamonds) Wikimedia • Mario Sarto
CRIMINAL MINDS Okay, so that’s small fry. Let’s up the ante. Even if you didn’t spot your wallet getting lifted, surely you would notice the largest diamond heist in history if it happened in front of you? Not in this case. In 2003, the largest jewel heist on record occurred in the Diamond District of Antwerp, Belgium. The crooks successfully bagged over $100 million worth of jewelry from the famous Diamond Centre. Some experts believe the thieves made off with even more – possibly over a half of a billion dollars in loot. The vault was believed to be completely impenetrable: protected by 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, a magnetic field, Doppler radar, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations. That didn’t stop these criminals. According to Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell, authors of book Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, “the bandits — members of a group of professional thieves known as The School of Turin — used cunning in lieu of violence, successfully evading security cameras, thwarting an array of electronic sensors, and penetrating a vault protected by a double-locked foot-thick steel door.” Meticulously planning for over a year, the thieves took several measures to pull off the perfect heist. They scouted the heavily secured building they were planning to rob from a nearby apartment and – audaciously – an office inside the building itself. They even had a professional locksmith on their team to help them hack the complex locks leading to the safes with the jewels. Finally, they scheduled their big day over Valentine’s Day weekend, fully knowing people would be celebrating and the normally crowded Diamond District would be less busy than usual. After the heist was finished, they met up at that nearby apartment, divvied up the goods, ate a good meal together, and took off in separate directions. However, these master thieves were caught in the end because of a small detail – one of the villains didn’t dispose of his waste properly – throwing away addressed invoices for a high tech video system with their lunch. It literally left a paper trail from that celebratory meal. The police were also able to track the type of meat wrapper back to a local shop, ultimately dooming the group.
marketplace, making any armchair detective (ahem, moi) feel like a bona fide sleuth after reading them. But there’s something to be said for the actual danger that’s behind the words on the page. Had it not been for Special Agent John Douglas, one of the founding members of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, we wouldn’t have modern day criminal profiling. The techniques for predicting the characteristics of an unknown offender have been made famous by TV shows Law & Order, CSI and Criminal Minds. Douglas dared to get up close and personal with some of America’s most dangerous serial killers to understand the minds of these dangerous individuals. Upon interviewing Charles Manson, David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”), Dennis Rader (“BTK”), Ted Bundy, and dozens of other serial killers, Douglas compiled a list of their similar personality traits. He went on to develop the first “behavioral approach to criminal-personality profiling, crime analysis, and prosecutorial strategy” and assisted in the hunt for 18 notorious serial killers. He, along with three colleagues (Special Agent Robert Ressler, Professors Ann W. Burgess and Ralph D’Agostino) published the ten most likely traits of a serial killer in 1984. In a paper delivered at the International Association of Forensic Sciences conference in Oxford, England this seminal work paved the way for modern day forensic psychology. Hopefully there’s no one you know who looks like this…
Profiling the serial killer But what about the truly wicked side of the criminal mind? True crime books flood the
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THE TEN TRAITS OF A SERIAL KILLER 1. Most are single white males 2. They tend to be smart, with a mean IQ of “bright normal” 3. Despite their intelligence, they do poorly in school, have spotty employment records, and generally end up as unskilled workers. 4. They tend to come from deeply troubled families. Typically they have been abandoned at an early age by their fathers and grow up in broken homes dominated by their mother. 5. There is a long history of psychiatric problems, criminal behaviour and alcoholism in their family. 6. As children, they suffer significant abuse – sometimes psychological, sometimes physical and oftentimes
These personality traits have become the holy grail of catching the really, really bad guys. Even though that list was compiled nearly 30 years ago, it is still the leading source for profiling
Brain Games. National Geographic Video, 2011. DVD.
Douglas, John and Olshaker, Mark. Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.
sexual. 7. Because of their resentment towards an absent or abusive father, they have great problems with a male authority figure. Because they were dominated by their mother, they develop a great hostility towards women. 8. From an early age they manifest psychiatric problems and tend to spend some time in institutions as children. 9. Because of extreme social isolation and general hatred of the world they have high rates of attempted suicide. 10. They display an abiding interest in deviant sexuality and are obsessed with voyeurism, fetishism, and violent pornography (Schechter 22-3).
serial killer personalities. But I wonder—as time goes on and we understand more about how our minds work, will the mind of the criminal develop too?
Schechter, Harold. The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.
Shelby, Scott Andrew and Greg Campbell. Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History. New York: Sterling, 2010.
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 kimberlylacey.com or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.
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WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY? THE GEEKS HAVE YET TO KILL PLATO
JOSH HOWGEGO • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY? Is science the only proper way to learn ‘the truth’ about the world and make good decisions? Guest writer Josh Howgego asks philosopher James Ladyman. When James Watson and Francis Crick worked out the famous spiral structure of DNA, it was a laborious process. Their Nobel Prize winning discovery took years of detailed measurements, careful interpretations and deliberate theorising. It was only when their theory had been rigorously tested and discussed by the world’s scientists that it became accepted as truth. Their method, ‘the scientific method’, is a beautiful thing. It is a process that can be applied to almost any question in life and appears to offer us an objective truth that we can really trust. More and more, science and philosophy are seen as complete opposites. Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins fervently argues that we should employ the scientific process when thinking about religion. In a new book, Mark Henderson, the out-going science editor of The Times, says that scientific thinking should also be much more prevalent in political decision making. He called his book The Geek Manifesto; a rallying cry for rational people everywhere to stand up and make their views known to policy makers (see Guru issue 6 for a review). Speaking at a book signing in Bristol, UK, Henderson said it was “not a book I could have written three or four years ago – there just wasn’t the appetite for it then that there is now.” But it wasn’t always this way. When we look back into history the scientific method, which we esteem so highly, is just one strand of philosophy. Now it has outgrown all others into today’s all-encompassing philosophy for life. I wanted to find out how philosophers see the dominance of the scientific method today. Is science really something that we should be using to base important decisions on, and, if so, what makes it so much better than everything else? Professor James Ladyman, specialises in understanding where science ends and philosophy begins. He has written widely on philosophy, science and ethics, and has four forthcoming textbooks. If anyone can answer
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big questions, he is the man. I arrive to find Professor Ladyman conversing animatedly with one of his students. We are in a large, comfortable room in a converted house overlooking a leafy road in the University of Bristol precinct. Ladyman quickly ushers me up to his enormous study and offers me a chair. Sitting down sideways in another one facing mine, he puts his feet up on the desk. He is not wearing any shoes. Ladyman is refreshingly unlike other people. Alongside his shoes-off approach to meetings, he sports the sort of amazing dreadlocks a white person has no right to be able to grow. And he informs me he hasn’t owned a TV set for fifteen years. “Science originated as a desire among people to set rules for how to acquire knowledge,” Ladyman tells me. “Francis Bacon, Descartes and loads of people in the 17th century; they all knew there was a crisis of knowledge because the established medieval view that everything revolved around the Earth fell apart – it was the time of the Copernican revolution.” “So people said, what we need is a method to make sure we get knowledge, not bullsh*t. And that is what we call the philosophy of science. It came before there was such a thing as ‘science’ and before philosophy was professionalised. These people called themselves ‘natural
(Plato) Flickr • Image Editor (Kant) Wikimedia • Unknown (Kuhn) Wikimedia • Unknown
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY? philosophers’.” So if this new invention, science, is the best way to get knowledge, where does that leave philosophy? Has science superseded it? Ladyman doesn’t think so, but agrees that science and the philosophy of science “overlap massively.” In fact, neither philosophy nor science can really tell us what is true; they are both merely different approaches to understanding observations of the world. But philosophy is far from useless, exhorts Ladyman. He sees philosophers as people who have been trained to think about things in a useful way: “There are lots of people who’ve done philosophy degrees – in the army, the police, the civil service – everywhere – and they’ll use how they’ve been taught to think to be good at what they do” he says. Ladyman thinks that, actually, the most helpful thing philosophy can bring to the table is to help people reason more clearly. He’s eager to give me an example, and turns to the issue of breast cancer screening: “There was this controversy recently about whether breast cancer screening had done more harm than good. And the reason was that if you were diagnosed as possibly having cancer, then that leads to all sorts of negative health outcomes: you get stressed, and all that...” he says. As with any health-screening programme, the breast cancer tests are never 100% accurate. Ladyman explains that the breast cancer screening program comes down on the side of caution: the medical establishment fears telling you that you don’t have cancer, even if there is only a small chance that you might. “They always say, ‘come back for further tests,’” says Ladyman. “It’s a bit like fishing,” he continues. “Say all you want is to catch the fish that are this big [he holds his hands a few inches apart]. If you make a net with tiny, tiny holes you catch loads that are too small, but you won’t lose any of the ones you want. If you make a net with larger holes [he stretches his hands wide apart], you don’t harm the small fry, but also there’s a chance you
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Great philosophers of science Plato sits in between two of the greatest philosophers of all time, his mentor Socrates and his student Aristotle, but may have been more important than both. Socrates never really wrote anything down, and was forced to commit suicide (by drinking the poison Hemlock) after he annoyed too many high-ranking Greek officials by lecturing them about ethics. Plato was his antithesis; writing works which were as fantastically literary as they were groundbreaking. His influence flowed into many areas, notably in politics where his most famous work, The Republic, describes how a just society should work. He also started a school, The Academy, which trained a generation of incredible Greek philosophers like Aristotle.
Immanuel Kant was a philosopher from Germany who lived more recently. He wrestled with the problem of how to get knowledge and, specifically, how to relate our experiences of the world to logical reasoning. Most philosophers of his day were united under scepticism – the belief that a fact is not a fact if there is no evidence to support it. Kant said that there are some things that are just ‘true’ independent of experience and observation – like maths. He argued that statements like 4 +7 = 11 are objectively true, and wondered if – in a similar way – there are also objective, universal moral truths.
Thomas Kuhn is perhaps the most important modern philosopher of science. He coined the term ‘paradigm’, meaning a collection of accepted views and thought patterns within a scientific discipline. Many scientific concepts have been widely accepted for years and then shown to be false. At the end of the 19th century scientists thought they essentially understood everything about physics, but in 1905 Einstein’s theory of special relativity caused a ‘paradigm shift’: a dramatic change in the way scientists think and do things. Kuhn’s work was valuable because it highlighted the need to think outside the box.
might start to miss the big fish as well.” There are two types of making breast cancer screening ‘reliable’: set the bar low and never miss a case of cancer or set the bar high and never wrongly tell someone they have cancer. These definitions of reliability are not the same thing, and when a political debate is framed in similarly loose terms, it can lead to misunderstandings and a lack of progress. “Almost always it would be really helpful if people said, ‘Hang on a minute, are we really clear what we’re talking about here?’” says Ladyman. This is the area where philosophical thought would be of immediate use. I bring up the famous quote of Richard Feynman, who said that philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. What do you think of that, I ask? “It’s basically b*llocks,” answers Ladyman. His key point is that science is not some predefined and rigid study like ornithology is, but a constantly changing a n d
developing field. “All the greatest scientists – Newton, Einstein – they all thought and worried about how to arrive at the truth; how to defend their theories, what methods they should use to generate them, to test them and so on. Now if you want to say that’s not philosophy of science, then well – fine. But that is what is studied by philosophers of science.” I’m not really any clearer about whether science is the ultimate tool for getting to the truth after spending an hour in Ladyman’s study. It all seems very complicated. But I’m pleased about that. If the geeks are to rise and head into the realms of decision making in public policy as Henderson desires, it would probably do them good to realise that science is not a magic bullet that leads to the truth without any thought. Some scientists churn out results without really thinking too much about how and why they are working. This might be okay if science is a forgotten sector of society kept in underground labs. But as scientists are emerging from their dungeons and becoming more and more engaged with society they need to think about philosophy again. In May this year anti-GM activists planned to destroy a genetically modified wheat field test at Rothamsted research institute (see Guru, page 12). They have yet to succeed, but, as GM-crops emerged into the headlines again, it is philosophical worldviews that define public opinion. Exchanges between ‘Take the Flour Back’ anti-GM campaigners, and the GM researchers showed that both groups could quote ‘evidence’ to back up their opposing opinions. It was clear then that stating ‘the science says this’ wasn’t enough to persuade either side that they were wrong. It is inconvenient, especially in times like this, that we can’t use science to say whether the protestors or the scientists are right. Perhaps philosophy can help? Ladyman spends his whole time thinking about what science really is and how it should be done. Maybe it’s time that scientists do the same, at least now and again.
Josh Howgego is studying for a PhD in chemistry at the University of Bristol. He blogs at benchtwentyone and apart from writing enjoys being married, running and (losing) squash games. Josh was awarded the 2011 Marriott science writing internship at Chemistry World.
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(Tniker) Flickr • Jens-Christian Fischer
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY?
GUNSHOT FORENSICS WHAT’S IN A BANG?
JAMES LLOYD • PHYSICS GURU
GUNSHOT FORENSICS Imagine you’re a crime scene investigator and you’ve been called to the aftermath of a shooting. There’s been a bloody gun battle between two rival gangs, and you arrive to find a bullet-ridden corpse lying in the middle of a busy street. What would be your top priority? If, like me, your gut instinct would be to get out of there as soon as possible, forensics probably isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a calmheaded pro, you’d first need to secure and isolate the crime scene. Then you’d photograph the area and maybe start making a note of incriminating evidence such as abandoned weapons or scraps of clothing. In any case, trying to locate an audio recording of the gunfight probably wouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind. However, a growing number of forensic scientists are interested in the sound of gunshots because, surprisingly, a bang isn’t just a bang. Instead, gunshots are like fingerprints: master the subtle differences between them, and you may be one step closer to solving the crime. This field of study – ‘forensic gunshot acoustics’ – is a growing area of research thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and other digital recorders making amateur recordings of gun crimes more and more common. To make
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sense of these recordings, forensic scientists must be able to identify gunshots belonging to different guns and ammunition types, and also understand how the recording location could have affected the sound. It’s a tough task, but successfully identifying the gunshots could provide answers to some crucial questions in a court of law. How many different guns were fired? Who fired first? Was the loud bang actually a gunshot, or just a car backfiring? Last year, researchers at BAE Systems and the FBI published a landmark study on gunshot forensics. In their paper, Steven Beck and colleagues explain that a gunshot is made up of two primary sounds – there’s a crack and there’s a BANG! The bang is the ‘muzzle blast’ – the sound of pressurised gases escaping as the bullet leaves the barrel of the gun. The initial sound only lasts a few milliseconds, but it’s louder than a jet engine and can reverberate for over a second. The crack is the shock wave created as the bullet breaks the sound barrier, like a miniature version of the sonic boom created by a supersonic jet. The shock wave forms a cone which trails behind the bullet, and you hear the crack when the shock wave passes by. In practice, of course, a real-life recording will probably contain other sounds. Amateur audio recordings are usually poor quality, with
GUNSHOT FORENSICS interference from voices, screams and echoes. Furthermore, the sound of the gunshot will depend on the position of the recorder relative to the shooter. To begin investigating what impact some of these effects have on the sound a gunshot makes, the scientists carried out a series of controlled experiments, using different gun types and a range of different microphone positions relative to the gun, and found a number of factors that can affect the sound of a gunshot. The sound of the muzzle blast depends on the gun make, model, and barrel length, as well as its distance from the microphone. The sound of the shock wave, on the other hand, is set by the bullet speed and size, the distance at which it passes the microphone, and the angle of the microphone relative to the gun. Each of these factors can come into play in a real-world situation to affect the way a particular gunshot sounds - and that’s without
considering the effects of interference and echoes, or the variations between the recorders themselves. But although this may all seem terribly complicated, separating the sound of a gunshot into its two main components is a promising step forward. “The important thing about our experimental setup was to show that the muzzle blast is not spherically symmetric, but is directional,” says Steven Beck. “In other words, the sound at a microphone in front of the firearm sounds different from the sound at a microphone at 90 degrees, which sounds different from a microphone behind the shooter.” There’s still some way to go before these techniques can be routinely used to help solve crimes. But, who knows, maybe forensic scientists will one day be able to piece together a gunfight with their eyes closed. CSI, eat your heart out!
Further reading: Beck SD, Nakasone H, and Marr KW (2011). Variations in recorded
acoustic gunshot waveforms generated by small firearms. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129 (4), 1748-59.
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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IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO RE-HYDRATE TALES FROM THE WATER COOLER
MATT LINSDELL • FITNESS GURU
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO RE-HYDRATE Earlier this year I was taking part in a very long spring night hike with some fun, ‘outdoorsy’ types. It was about 10 pm and the super-moon was rising and bright. We were charging down a hilly trail towards our destination. Conversation turned to talk of drinking adequate amounts of water to stay “hydrated”. Then someone said it. It was that statement we’ve heard many times before: “If you wait until you’re thirsty to drink, then it’s already too late....” I made a few jokes about “Oh well, guess I’ll just end it all here then”, pretending to run toward a cliff, but really – what is it too late for? I’ve had people tell me this nugget of ‘wisdom’ since I was a teenager. “Don’t wait until you are thirsty to start drinking”, I remember them saying. Having given this idea some real thought, and through applying some basic biology, I have made some interesting discoveries… Our blood is made up of water. Every minute four and a half pints of the stuff is pumped around the body. As we exercise, we get hot. We need to cool ourselves down to stay within an optimal operating temperature range (about 37°C / 98.6°F) and so we perspire. Perspiration, or sweating, is when water collects on our skin. What is it doing there? It is waiting to evaporate. Part of the liquid on your skin evaporates and – as it does – it cools the remaining liquid. When any liquid turns into vapour, it extracts some heat from whatever it is contact with – so the sweat takes the heat it needs from your skin. This is a very necessary process for keeping cool, especially in environments where the ambient temperature is above normal body temperatures. Like 2pm on an August afternoon in Montreal. It gets hot.
our arteries and veins to deliver nutrients to the appropriate places; oxygen molecules and sugar molecules, along with many other passengers, ride our bloodstream to their destinations. Blood also picks up excess heat in the process of flowing round the body. The body’s coolant, it can pick up excess heat and transport it to the surface of our skin where it is given off to the atmosphere. So think of your blood as a delivery system for nutrients, but also think of it as a circulating cooling system that carries heat out from the hot places deep inside your body. Is this making sense so far? I hope so; keep trying to picture it. Now imagine your blood is starting to thicken up because you haven’t had much to drink and your sweating has been robbing your blood of water. Now the red blood cells are starting to clump together and they can’t get delivered as easily. This will decrease your ability to do aerobic exercise because oxygen can’t get to where it is needed as easily. Your kidneys – if you have two – are going to be stressed out by trying to recycle as much of the water in your blood as possible because your blood-pressure is now dropping. However, your kidneys are also trying to get rid of certain waste products, which they can’t do without some water to dilute them. So your body is trying really hard to keep functioning in the face of water loss. With less water in your blood, the less heat it can carry to the skin surface. Help a body out. Drink something. But is it too late?
(Glass) Flickr • Greg Riegler
The struggle to survive the sweat But where does all that water, which forms our sweat, come from? A lot of it comes from our blood. So when we sweat the watery part of our blood starts to get less watery and so our blood becomes thicker. Like maple syrup, but not as delicious. We need this blood to flow around
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IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO RE-HYDRATE
Of course not – how can it be too late? As long as you still have the means to absorb water from your gut it is not too late to re-hydrate. You might have to slow down your running speed or take a break all together, but if you can drink and keep it in (i.e. no vomiting or diarrhoea) then you’ll start to replenish your tissues with the much-needed water. The more water there is in your blood stream, the more effectively your blood can transport heat out to the skin, and the greater the reservoir your sweating system has to draw from. So as long as you can exceed the amount of water you are losing, you’ll be replenishing your internal water supply. I used to be a veterinary nurse in Australia. Sometimes we’d see animals with snake bites. Cats will often get bitten and, depending on the type of venom, they might become mildly paralyzed before the poison wears off. But if your cat limps up to you on its front legs and then stops being able to use its front legs too, it will soon collapse and be unable to drink. If it can’t drink it will die. So getting an intravenous drip into your cat is the thing that will save your feline friend’s life. The cat will stay hydrated and the venom will dissipate in time. Cats often make a full recovery from this type of envenomation – if you can get them hooked up to an IV in time. Dogs aren’t usually so lucky. What has this got to do with sports hydration? Because if you are unable to drink, or can’t absorb water through your gut, then you too
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will require an intravenous drip to keep you alive. I almost forgot to add an important part to this explanation: Can we only replenish our internal water supply by drinking water, and how much water do we need in a day? How much to drink Under normal conditions, an average male, not exerting himself, will require about 2 litres of water a day. It doesn’t all come from drinking: 45% of the 2 litres (900 ml) comes from anything you drink. This could be tap water or bottled water. It could be lemonade, or mango juice. You get the picture: anything watery is almost all water. And drinking it counts towards your daily quota. 40% comes from food (800ml). Salad, bread, fruits, noodles, rice, and yogurt: it all has water in and your gut will absorb the watery portion just like the water you drink. This is also added to your water quota. The last 15% is going to take a little bit of chemistry to grasp. It comes from the ‘oxidation’ of food. When you eat, the food goes through various chemical changes as it passes from the gut to the inside of your cells. When it becomes ‘oxidised’, water molecules are created as a byproduct. This inadvertent ‘waste product’ is – obviously – useful to the body, so you hold on to it. The fact that these simple chemical changes contribute to your daily hydration may surprise many of you. Eight glasses a day? That’s probably overdoing it So to sum up, a normal individual will need to drink about 900ml of liquid a day (two pint-sized glasses). Most of the rest will come from food, and the last 300ml is generated in chemical cycles too confusing for me to write about here – and because I’m not that smart. Remember though, if you live in the middle of a desert and you dig holes for a living then you’re going to need more water. If you attend hot yoga classes, you’re going to need more water. If you live next to a crazy old man who keeps bees in his back yard, you’re going to need more water. I think you’re probably getting the picture of what it means to stay hydrated. Just remember, it’s never too late to rehydrate.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO RE-HYDRATE
SPORTS DRINKS WORTH A POP?
Mass marketing tricks to Sport drinks are big business. They miss The biz behind the fizz
are heavily marketed as being essential for boosting hydration and exercise performance. They are basically a mix of sugar (glucose) and water with a few added extras. They should all contain between 6 and 8 percent sugar; any higher than this (like fruit juice) and they will get absorbed more slowly. The sweet taste will also encourage you to drink more. Sweating causes you to lose body salts (sodium principally), and drinks that have 0.5 to 0.7 grams per litre of sodium are adequate to replace the salt lost through sweating. You may hear terms like hypertonic, and hypotonic:
Isotonic drinks are supposed to contain dissolved salt and sugar at concentrations approximating that of the human body. Hypertonic drink contents are supposed to be above that of the human body. And (you guessed it) hypotonic drinks should have concentrations below that of the human body. Does any of this stuff really help? It really depends on the person and the conditions. I say just drink water. It’s free and it does the trick.
Don’t fall for drinks with ‘added vitamins’ – they will probably not help you much unless you are deficient in some of the vitamins they provide. Caffeine has a diuretic effect when ingested by anyone not used to drinking caffeinated beverages, thus making you urinate more and counteracting the purpose of drinking to rehydrate. However, caffeinated beverages could potentially help endurance athletes on very long distance workouts. In fact, in years gone by some runners would drink caffeine before long distance races. Today, there is some scientific evidence that caffeine can help with performance (caffeine can cause some stored fats to get dumped into your blood stream and this should increase the amount of fuel available to keep your muscles going in theory) but the benefit is pretty small. Some sport beverages claim to be ‘super oxygenated’ and therefore provide you with more endurance. This is ridiculous for several reasons – principally you don’t absorb oxygen through your stomach! Chemically speaking, if you were to add an extra oxygen atom to water you get hydrogen peroxide (bleach) which would certainly not give you more endurance. But it might make you blonder.
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 smart-fit.ca
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READING BETWEEN THE LINES DECIPHERING THE SECRET DNA CODE
JON CROWE • MOLECULAR GURU
(Queen),(Jelly) Wikimedia • Waugsberg
READING BETWEEN THE LINES What was your grandfather doing when he was growing up? You might not know, but your life could depend on it. Recent research has uncovered a hidden code carried in your DNA, which is passed on to your children. The decisions you make today won’t only affect you, but could well be the difference between your offspring living a long life and dying young. Molecular Guru Jon Crowe investigates… Though he didn’t realize it at the time, my Grandfather’s decisions – what he ate, whether he smoked, where he lived – sent out ripples across the generations that followed him. Echoes of his decisions lie buried within my DNA like a secret code, influencing my health today and, ultimately, how long I will live. It’s the same for every one of us – male or female: the lifestyle choices we make may affect our children’s children, and beyond.
The book of life
BELOW:Worker bees attending to the Queen. RIGHT: Young Queen larvae developing on ‘queen cups’ of royal jelly.
Your DNA is like a book – a huge book the size of about 200 telephone directories. And, just like a book, it contains information stored as a sequence of letters. As you read this article, you’re making sense of it by deciphering the strings of letters that the words are composed of. Similarly, the instructions for life – spelled out by our genes – are determined by the sequence of the four letters, A, T, C and G – representing the different chemical building blocks of DNA. Like words, different genes have a different arrangement of DNA ‘letters’. They spell out different instructions for how our body should develop and function. This is why identical twins, who have identical DNA sequences, look the same; but other individuals whose genes
have different DNA sequences do not. At least that’s the theory.
The mystery of the queen bee A queen honeybee has an identical DNA sequence to her workers. So when it comes to their genes, the queen bee and her workers are identical twins. Yet she bears some remarkable differences to her workers – both in physical appearance and her maternal egg-producing behaviour. How can that be? Contrary to what had been believed for years, it turns out that genetic information isn’t just captured by the sequence of ‘letters’ making up our DNA. Beyond these letters, a second code lies hidden – a code we’re only just beginning to decipher. We have entered the age of epigenetics…
Discovering life’s hidden messages Epigenetics explores the world of extra messages that are carried in our DNA. These extra messages take the form of chemical ‘tags’ that are added to the DNA. These tags don’t alter the sequence of ‘letters’ that make up the DNA sequence, but do alter the information that’s extracted when the gene is ‘read’. It’s a bit like picking up a novel, with a story told in the author’s words, and scrawling notes over the pages that alter how the story is interpreted by the next person to read it. Our queen bee and her workers are different because the pattern of chemical tags on their DNA is different. While their genes are the same in terms of their DNA sequence, their different chemical tags mean that their genes tell different stories. As a result, the queen honeybee and her workers develop into creatures that look and behave quite differently.
Get yourself some royal jelly But why does the queen bee have special chemical tags on her genes? Amazingly, it appears to be due to what she ate while growing
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READING BETWEEN THE LINES childhood. It’s a sobering thought: the food you consume during a few months of pregnancy has the potential to affect the health of your child years into the future. And it’s not just our mothers’ feeding frenzies that can affect us. A study of a Swedish community revealed how the diet of a paternal grandfather affected the lifespan of his grandchildren: when the grandfather experienced shortages of food between the ages of nine and twelve his grandchildren lived longer, but when a grandfather lived comfortably with an abundance of food, his grandchildren’s lifespans were greatly shortened. It just goes to show that sometimes less really can mean more. up – an external factor directly acting upon her DNA. The queen is fed on large quantities of royal jelly into adulthood, while worker larvae endure more meagre offerings: a diet of pollen and nectar. These different diets are enough to change the pattern of chemical tags on their genes. This, in turn, influences the way in which the queen and worker bees’ genes are switched on and off (how they are ‘read’) – and causes them to develop into starkly different creatures. Epigenetics doesn’t just affect the queen honeybee. Mice exposed to certain chemicals during pregnancy gave birth to offspring who became obese more often than would be expected; those offspring carried a particular gene that was tagged less than usual, causing it to be switched on when it would normally be switched off – and the gene in question increases the risk of obesity when switched on. Evidence is continuing to mount, and it is revealing something quite stunning: our lifestyle and our environment can change our genes – and so can change us.
Predicting the future and saving lives
You are what your parents eat
Further reading • • •
You can read more about epigenetics in honey bees here. The story of obese mice is explained here The breast cancer story is discussed here. The impact of diet during pregnancy on childhood obesity is discussed here and the Swedish grandfather study is mentioned here.
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. blogspot.com and you can find him on Twitter @crowe_jon.
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(Mice) Wikimedia • Bigplankton
If epigenetics affects honeybees and mice, does it affect humans too? The answer is: yes. It appears that a mother’s diet during pregnancy can affect the tagging of her unborn baby’s genes – with certain tagging (caused by certain diet and exposure to pollution) increasing the risk of the unborn child becoming obese in later
Understanding the epigenetic tagging of our genes can have some incredibly positive outcomes: tagging could actually help to reduce the impact of diseases like cancer. Researchers have identified a gene that, when ‘tagged’, doubles the risk of a woman carrying that gene developing breast cancer. The tagging appears to happen up to eleven years before a tumour is diagnosed, so might act as an early warning signal if it could be spotted early enough. Something as simple as a blood test could allow women with the tagged gene to be carefully monitored – so rapid action could be taken if any signs were detected. So the story of life may be written in our genes – but it’s a story that can be edited by what life throws at us. People have long debated whether we are a product of nature or nurture; epigenetics just goes to show that it’s not just one or the other, but a tantalising mix of both.
PARTICLES, CELLS AND STITCHES QUILT-MAKING ON THE FRONTIER
MICHELE BANKS • ART GURU
PARTICLES, CELLS AND STITCHES
The Large Hadron Quilt Kate Findlay, an art teacher in Henley-onThames, England, had little experience with large-scale quilts when she was suddenly seized by inspiration four years ago. “I was readingThe Times in September 2008 and saw an article with some images of the Large Hadron Collider,” she explains. Gazing at the world’s largest high-energy particle accelerator – which had then just been completed by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – Kate says, “I was really struck by the patterns and colours in the photos and I felt quite certain I had found inspiration that would give me the starting point for a variety of works.” With CERN’s permission to use the images, she forged ahead with her newfound passion, initially using a traditional patchwork technique to recreate the look of the giant accelerator. She notes that the circle-in-square pattern of the particle detectors is a classic motif found in mathematics and art throughout history. “Painting on a canvas of a similar scale just wouldn’t have given me the textural effects I
RIGHT: Inner Eye.
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wanted to achieve,” says Findlay. And achieve results she certainly did, crafting a body of work that captured the attention of scientists and bloggers around the globe. Describing the thought process behind one of her Hadron quilts, Inner Eye, Kate says “I was struck by the likeness of the particle accelerator’s detectors to an eye and thought it a good metaphor for the work the scientists were doing - looking inward to the structure of atoms invisible to the naked eye, an exploration allied to looking through telescopes at the stars. I like the idea that the central little eye is not immediately obvious and so gives the viewer a surprise, again emphasising the two-way nature of the physics explorations at CERN.” Emboldened by both the public’s response and her increasing science fascination, Kate has branched out into other fields. She now experiments with pieces that incorporate fibre optics, LEDs and other light sources into the fabric itself, as her works explore the concepts of atomic structures and space. Atomic, an exhibit of the Hadron Collider quilts, will be on view at several sites in the UK, including the Festival of Quilts at the NEC in Birmingham from 16-19 August and the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley-on-Thames from 30 August – 4 September.
A Living Patchwork In stark contrast to Findlay’s sudden dive into particle physics, New Mexico-based textile artist Betty Busby has been using quilting for over a decade. Her spectacularly detailed pieces represent biological processes, including cell division, andthe growth of plants and other organisms. Busby uses photomicrographs of scientific images as the starting point for her work. “I check the Nikon Small World website every morning,” she says. “Although I have never actually used any of the images directly, I find that it’s a wonderful way to get my brain moving from the mundane, visible world, into the unseen one.” Betty notes that the way the colours in microscope photos are mostly artificially produced, either through chemical or lighting methods, gives her the freedom to explore “the wildest colour combinations I can think of – unhindered by expectations of realism.” One case in point: Growth Factor represents molecular processes on a large (37 x 64 inches)
(Inner Eye) Kate Findlay Previous Page: (Does the Dark Matter) Kate Findlay
Quilting is a traditional technique that has been used to create clothing and bedcovers for thousands of years. A nice, warm blanket is hardly the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about how to portray cutting-edge ideas. Yet a few innovative quilters are doing just that – capturing the frontiers of science in patchwork form.
PARTICLES, CELLS AND STITCHES
(Growth Factor) Betty Busby (Diatom II) Betty Busby
ABOVE: Growth Factor. RIGHT: Diatom II.
piece of silk (see image). Having printed the cell images on the silk in a deep-forest palette of greens and golds, she individually added the purple organelles bubbling up the centre. A more representational – but no less eyepopping – piece is her quilt Diatom II. At over 5 feet square it is, in her own words, “a very large work representing very small things”. Diatoms are microscopic algae occurring in thousands of different shapes and colours. She fondly recalls how she had a wonderful time experimenting with a wide range of techniques as she explored how to illustrate a number of them. Bubsy explained to me the lure of working on science in fabric: “The structures seen via magnification repeat themselves with wonderful organic variations. That applies to the artistic principle of variety in unity, which lends itself very well to stitching patterns.” And, who knows, perhaps make it more appealing to cuddle up with a biology or physics text on a cold evening? Then again...
Growth Factor is to be shown at the aptly named “Quilt Visions: Brainstorms” show at the Visions Art Museum in San Diego, CA, in October. Diatom II will debut at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas in November 2012 and Busby sells her creations online.
Michele Banks is a painter and collage artist based in Washington DC. Her sciencethemed work is in the permanent collection of Children’s National Medical Center and DC City Hall.She sells her work online at artologica.etsy.com and tweets at @artologica.
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CHILLED OUT! BET YOU NEVER THOUGHT POND SCUM COULD BE THIS COOL.
DAVID SMITH • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
(Coccomyxa) Tatyana Darienko (Map) Wikimedia • NASA Previous Page: (Antarctica) Flickr • Eli Duke
CHILLED OUT! If you thought that algae are just green sludge that turn swimming pools and lakes strangely murky, then think again. Pond scum expert David Smith shows there’s a cool side to algae – and they crop up in the most extreme places. When it’s my turn to answer the “What do you do?” question at dinner parties, I roll up my sleeves and say in a manly voice, “I’m a phycologist.” Puzzled expressions spread across the guests’ faces before my wife leans across the table to say, “He studies pond scum.” Eyes glaze over, and the conversation quickly moves on to more exciting topics. Algae are cooler than you think. They can turn San Francisco Bay blood red; they make the oxygen we breathe; and when you’re clumsy with chopsticks, they keep your sushi roll intact. They can be found inside other strange critters, like corals, insects, and sea slugs. They can be seen from space. When not being harvested for biofuel, they help us study the origins of sex. They are beautiful, resilient, and tough enough to kill.
An unappreciated beauty around us The coolest algae are those that live in extremely cold habitats. The ice alga Mesotaenium berggrenii, a bright green single cell, likes to sunbathe on alpine glaciers, and can be found at altitudes greater than 5,000 meters. And if you’re hiking through the Sierra Nevada and stumble across pink-coloured snow with a faint whiff of watermelon, don’t worry - you’re not hallucinating. You’ve just found a bloom of the sweet-smelling alga Chlamydomonas nivalis that is rich in a kind of chemical called a carotenoid, which gives it a vibrant colour. The Arctic and Antarctic are also teeming with algae. A satellite image taken earlier this year revealed a dense algal bloom in the waters off
ROSS ICE SHELF
Antarctica that was 200 km wide and 100 km long – not bad when we realize it was made from a single-celled species with a diameter of just 0.0001 inches.
The green alga Coccomyxa subellipsoidea is hot stuff, having recently become the first Antarctic microbe of its kind to have the entirety of its DNA sequenced. This small single-celled species, whose name is pronounced Cock-o-mix-a, lives in fresh water and likes to chill out on exposed rocks and decomposing plant material. It comes from a long line of eccentrics: some of its closest relatives have formed intimate relationships with fungi that live close to the Arctic, while others live inside the cells of shellfish and the medicinal plant Ginkgo. The specimen of Coccomyxa whose genetic code was sequenced is a particular type called C-169. It was discovered in 1959 on a rocky promontory on the isolated Ross Island, Antarctica – an island of extremes. It is surrounded by a frozen ocean, covered in glaciers, and is hammered by severe winds; it’s subjected to months of sustained darkness, it harbours an active volcano, and has an average annual temperature of -17 °C. Ross Island is a treacherous place to call home. Since being picked up by scientists over fifty years ago, C-169 has been living the good life. It lounges at 20 °C in posh laboratories, sipping nutrient-rich medium under lush UV lights. Unlike some polar algae, which will only grow in cold temperatures, Coccomyxa C-169 is quite content to trade in its parka for a Hawaiian shirt. And thanks to this, it can teach us a lot about what it takes to survive and flourish in
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ABOVE: Coccomyxa subellipsoidea.
Introducing: Super-fat! As any blue whale will testify, being able to live in cold habitats has a lot to do with fat. But, as with many things in life, it’s not always a question of how much you have – it’s what you do with it. Coccomyxa has a large number of genes that help it to chemically alter fats. It is thought that these special ‘fat altering’ powers allow Coccomyxa to make cold-tolerant molecules so that it can function at subzero temperatures. What’s more surprising about the Coccomyxa genome is what’s missing: large chunks of genetic information that are found in other green algae but not in Coccomyxa. The absence of these genes – some of which are involved in energy production – might oddly help Coccomyxa survive the cold. In species that power their existence by generating energy from sunlight (just as plants do), low temperatures have the unwanted effect of increasing the production of ‘reactive oxygen species’ – a group of chemical nasties which in high concentrations will kill any living thing. For Coccomyxa, it seems that the unique loss of certain genetic instructions might be reducing the formation of these damaging reactive oxygen species, allowing it to cope with a cold climate.
Save the world… with pond scum The Coccomyxa C-169 genome will soon have company. More polar algae are to have their genomes sequenced, including the globally important Phaeocystis antarctica, which lives in both the open ocean and in sea ice, and plays a major role in cloud formation and controlling
the world’s climate. Interestingly, the specimen of Phaeocystis being used for gene sequencing was collected close to Ross Island. As this algae’s genome sequence is unraveled, it will doubtless tell us more about how life can survive extreme environments – and could also help us understand more about what we can do about climate change. If you find this interesting and want to hear more, you’ll have to find a seat beside a phycologist at your next dinner party. There are usually a few empty ones on my side of the table. I’ll save you a spot!
Blanc G. et al. (20 coauthors). 2012. The genome of the polar eukaryotic microalga Coccomyxa subellipsoidea reveals traits of cold adaptation. Genome Biology. 13(5): R39. Morgan-Kiss RM, Priscu JC, Pocock T, Gudynaite-Savitch L, Huner NPA. 2006. Adaptation and acclimation of photosynthetic microorganisms to permanently cold environments. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. 70(1): 222–252.
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 protistlab.com.
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BELOW: Mount Erebus; the active volcano on Ross Island.
(Erebus) Wikimedia • Richard Waitt, U.S. Geological Survey
harsh environments. The findings from the Coccomyxa C-169 genome project, which were published in the journal Genome Biology, suggest that a lot of small genetic changes can make the difference between being a wimp or a superhero. At first glance, the DNA of Coccomyxa is very similar to those of green algae from more temperate climates. But closer inspection reveals extra instructions – added genes – to help some special cellular processes happen.
WHO DO YOU STINK YOU ARE? SIX THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU COULD DO WITH YOUR NOSE
KAT LOUGHEED • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
WHO DO YOU STINK YOU ARE?
Our sense of smell is probably the most underappreciated of the human senses. Who hasn’t wished they were unable to smell when their nose is pressed into a stranger’s armpit on a packed subway train, or when using a festival Portaloo? But our sense of smell isn’t all nasty niffs: there’s increasing evidence that, like animals, humans use smell as a vital social communication tool. Chemicals known as pheromones are secreted in our sweat. They have no obvious aroma but can still send sneaky messages to our brain to make us behave in certain ways - without us even realising it.
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You can sniff out your family and friends Aroma is used by many animals to differentiate between friend and foe, allowing them to defend their social group from intruders. Smell is known to reinforce pair-bonds in marmosets—a primate relative of humans. Studies found that, fathers living with their female partner had a smaller than normal testosterone surge – the hormone that drives a male ‘urge’ – in response to the smell of lady marmosets passing by. As a result, they were less likely to succumb to the feminine wiles of other females, and so more likely to remain faithful to their partner. This scent-induced monogamy has definite benefits: rearing a child is a lot of work, no matter what species you are, so it helps if the male hangs around long enough to do more than just impregnate a woman with half of an infant’s genetic material. In humans, it is possible to identify the scent of a friend more easily than that of a stranger. One experiment found that women who were ‘in love’ had a reduced ability to recognise the odour of an opposite-sex friend, supporting the idea that romantic love deflects attention away from potential new partners and encourages monogamy.
(Sweat) Flickr • sixty4coupe
There’s nothing worse than dragging yourself out of bed of a morning, flicking on the kettle to make that all-important first cuppa, reaching into the fridge and taking a deep sniff of the last dregs of milk...only to be greeted by a truly stomach-churning stench. But, as guest contributor Kathryn Lougheed discovers, our lives aren’t just defined by potent pongs. There are much more subtle scents at play. Let’s poke our noses in a little deeper...
WHO DO YOU STINK YOU ARE?
The genetics of a perfect lovechild We are drawn to partners who will beget us babies with the best possible immune system – helping to ensure our progeny live a long, infection-free existence. The cells of our immune system feature special Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) proteins, which help us to recognise threats from different viruses or bacteria. And our immune system is at its strongest when we have a diverse set of MHC genes: our immune system can then recognise as many different alien invaders as possible. There’s evidence that we prefer the smell of individuals with dissimilar MHC genes to our own. That way, we get to mix things up in a genetic sense, giving our babies the best chance of survival against all the nasty bugs they might get exposed to during their life.
(DNA) Wikimedia • Apers0n
I’m smelling randy! Smells tell to prospective mates when the time is ripe for breeding. During one study, men sniffed t-shirts worn by women in different stages of their reproductive cycle and rated the t-shirts from those women at their most fertile highest in terms of pleasantness, attractiveness, and sexiness (yes – sexy t-shirts!). Another experiment saw women have male sweat smeared on their upper lips. Although it sounds revolting, the male odours reduced tension, increased relaxation, and lifted the mood of the women. But a quick note of warning to men: attempting to force a woman to smell your armpit is highly unlikely to help in the event of an argument. Humans may be influenced by basic animal instincts, but it’s not the only factor at work.
Why it’s love at first whiff Our attraction to potential mates is a complicated process influenced by many things—body shape, symmetry of features, and (hopefully) whether we get on at a personal level. But smell plays a role. The ‘Good genes’ theory is the idea that we will be most attracted
to a partner whose genetic material is going to work well with our own to make awesome babies. It doesn’t mean that Mr or Miss Right needs genes need to be similar to ours. Quite the opposite, in fact: it helps if we can pick a mate who is genetically different from us, particularly when it comes to helping our immune system to work at its best (see sidebox).
Shock: old people don’t stink! (but middle-aged men do) We’ve all heard derogatory comments about old-aged people and their characteristic smell. A recent investigation has demonstrated that there’s actually some truth to these comments: old-aged people do have a characteristic smell only it’s not quite what you think. Volunteers had the unenviable task of sniffing t-shirts worn for several nights by people from three age-groups and rating the intensity and unpleasantness of the body odour. And the result? The old-aged group were ranked as least offensive, whereas middle-aged males were found to be smelliest. Could it be that the ‘good genes’ theory is at work again? After all, reaching old age rather than dying young suggests some ‘strong’ genes could be at work. Alternatively, it could just be a
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WHO DO YOU STINK YOU ARE? side-effect of being a middle-aged man.
There’s nothing like the smell of mother’s milk One of the strongest bonds formed in the animal kingdom is that between a mother and her child. Within a week of birth, human babies learn to recognise their mother’s unique aroma: a breastfed infant will selectively respond to the smell of their mother over that of a stranger. This response is an inbuilt, unlearnt mechanism in which a mother’s aroma can automatically stimulate a baby to feed. In addition, the smell of their mother’s milk can also calm a baby and reduce their response to pain. It’s a kind of infant mind control that has evolved to make sure a newborn can rapidly learn how to breastfeed. After all, like any of us, a baby must eat to survive – so it must learn to do so quickly.
An individual’s personal body odour depends on the bacteria they have lurking on their skin—Corynebacterium turns fats into smelly products like butyric acid (think bad BO), while Staphylococcus epidermidis can make isovaleric acid, which also happens to be present in stinky cheeses. So, while natural aromas might play a big part in our social interactions, don’t ditch the deodorant just yet...
Why bad BO smells like cheese The pheromones produced in our sweat may be odourless, but bacteria turn other components of our sweat into highly whiffy substances.
Ziegler TE, Schultz-Darken NJ, Scott JJ, Snowdon CT, Ferris CF. Neuroendocrine response to female ovulatory odors depends upon social condition in male common marmosets, Callithrix jacchus. Horm Behav. 47(1):56-64 (2005)
Olsson SB, Barnard J, Turri L. Olfaction and identification of unrelated individuals: examination of the mysteries of human odor recognition. J Chem Ecol 32(8):1635-45 (2006)
Lundström JN, Jones-Gotman M. Romantic love modulates women’s identification of men’s body odors. Horm Behav. 55(2):280-4 (2009)
Miller SL, Maner JK. Scent of a woman: men’s testosterone responses to olfactory ovulation cues. Psychol Sci. 21(2):276-83 (2010)
Preti G, Wysocki CJ, Barnhart KT, Sondheimer SJ, Leyden JJ. Male axillary extracts contain pheromones that affect pulsatile secretion of luteinizing hormone and mood in women recipients. Biol Reprod. 68(6):2107-13 (2003)
Jacob S, McClintock MK, Zelano B, Ober C. Paternally inherited HLA alleles are associated with women’s choice of male odor. Nat Genet. 30(2):175-9 (2002)
Mitro S, Gordon AR, Olsson MJ, Lundström JN. The smell of age: perception and discrimination of body odors of different ages. PLoS One. 7(5):e38110 (2012)
Porter RH, Winberg J. Unique salience of maternal breast odors for newborn infants. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 23(3):439-49 (1999)
Nishitani S, Miyamura T, Tagawa M, Sumi M, Takase R, Doi H, Moriuchi H, Shinohara K. The calming effect of a maternal breast milk odor on the human newborn infant. Neurosci Res. 63(1):66-71 (2009)
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 germzoo.blogspot.com in addition to running a popular science website for kids at ilovebacteria.com, answering such important questions as ‘Why do papercuts hurt so much?’
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(Cheese) Flickr • Smabs Sputzer
We’ve a selection of great gifts, toys, gadgets and gizmos: some useful, some just fun, some both!
Discovery of New Worlds Book Giveaway In the last issue we reviewed the charming book ‘A Discovery of New Worlds’, published by Hersperus Press, and awarded it 4/5 Guru Stars (you can read the online review here). We had three copies up for grabs to anyone who could answer the question: “Who was the first person to show the world that the Earth rotates around the Sun?” The correct answer was Nicolaus Copernicus. It was a multiple choice question and we were even heckled on our Facebook page for making it too easy. We won’t be so nice next time… The first three names out of the Guru biscuit tin were: Samantha Stevens, Kate O’Neill and Christina Michael. Congrats to the ladies!
Funky Gadgets e-Voucher Competition The friendly folks over at Funky Gadgets joined in with last issue’s first birthday celebrations by offering a £15 e-Voucher to spend in their online store. To win you had to tell us how many people had contributed to Guru Magazine in the first year. Anabel Huxley got the answer right (a total of 28 writers, artists and designers) and was first to be randomly selected by our trusty office Commodore 64.
Brain Teaser Puzzle Can you find the hidden words or phrases within these pictures? Here’s an example to get your mental cogs turning: A)
Answer: Tongue in Cheek C)
Email your answers to email@example.com for a chance to win a £15 Funky Gadgets eVoucher. One winner will be selected at random and the solutions will be in the next issue of Guru. Closing date: Friday 31st August at midnight (GMT). Good luck!
(Commodore 64) Wikimedia • Bill Bertram
A gadget store run by gadget lovers.
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THE NEW FACE OF DESIGN AT GURU Eagle-eyed readers of Guru Magazine may have noticed a few changes to the layout and design of this latest issue - that’s thanks to the handiwork of our new Design Guru, Ian Wildsmith. Ian joined the team last month and has been busy beavering away on laying out this, our seventh edition. As we like to do with all new team members, we asked Ian a few probing questions to find out what makes him tick... So Ian, you’re clearly a dab-hand at graphic design. How did you get into it in the first place? It’s something I’ve always been interested in. I grew up around computers, and from a very early age played loads of games on our BBC Master Compact –which I think could display a whopping eight colours! When I was about seven, I learned how to use some drawing software at school called ‘Clares’ Artisan’, and around the same time we also got a new PC at home. The 256 colour palette of Windows 3.1 seemed amazing at that age, and because I’d just been drawing things at school, I put my new-found skills to use at home. Eventually we got more sophisticated
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software (free with a magazine) that could manipulate photos..It was around that age that I also joined an audio recording club after school. I studied graphic products and art between the ages of 14 and 16, and started making videos at the recording club soon after. I loved doing the video stuff, so decided to do Media Production at college, and then Film Production at University. After University, I started preparing artwork for t-shirt printing, and have been developing my design skills ever since. I quite often read science-themed magazines on my break at work and was already interested in the content, so helping out with Guru seemed like the next logical step! Any weird quirks that we should know about as we begin working together? Well, I can be quite a perfectionist at times, so the thing I enjoy most about design is probably making the images look neat and tidy. The weird thing is that if you’ve done a good job, most people can’t spot all the work you’ve done. Our favourite question: if you were to host a dinner party and could have anyone there, which
THE NEW FACE OF DESIGN AT GURU
(Brushes) Flickr • Tech109
three people would you invite? Salvador Dali, Richard Feynman and Jeremy Paxman. Mainly because we all have the same birthday. And because we’re nosey, how old are you good sir? I’m somewhere between 15 and 103. We’re chuffed to bits to have Ian on board, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he brings to future issues ... but Ian’s arrival is a tad bittersweet, as we say goodbye (for a while, at least) to Design Guru and founding member Sarah Joy. Sarah is setting out on a new adventure - becoming a mother! Yes, that’s right, Sarah is taking a welldeserved break, as in just a few short months there will be a mini-Joy in the world. Guru Magazine wouldn’t be what it is today without Sarah’s skills and creativity. Eighteen months ago, we had but a concept to create a digital ‘science lifestyle’ magazine that appealed to both ladies and gentlemen equally. Thanks to Sarah, that vision has become a beautiful reality; a magazine that rivals - in design terms - any that you’ll currently find for sale on the high street, and one that has evolved and grown issue-by-issue since our pilot in June 2011. From all of us here at Guru, thank you Sarah ... and enjoy sleep-filled nights while you still can!
TWEET TWEET 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. Tweet us with your burning science question @GuruMag using the hashtag #AskGuru and we’ll try our best to give you an answer! Guru reserves the right to edit letters / comments.
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Sometimes we know exactly what we want.
(Lizards) Flickr • Derek Key
THE RANDOM IMAGE
DEPARTURE LOUNGE CHEERS! You’re nearly at the end of this issue – but the fun doesn’t have to stop here. The Guru website is regularly updated with news, extra articles and competitions. Facebook and Twitter are great ways never to miss out on anything, although if you – like Chloe – have your reservations about social media, our email subscription will mean you can steer clear of such sites but still not worry about missing an issue. Finally, if you want to get involved or have something to say then why not drop us a line? We’re entirely crowd-sourced, and so there are plenty of opportunities for writers, artists and designers to showcase their abilities. All you have to do is to choose what to do. Decisions, decisions...
(Waving) Flickr • Official U.S. Navy Imagery
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