Guru Magazine Issue Eight

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ISSN 2048-2590




THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond

Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu

Jon Crowe Sub-editor / Molecular Guru @crowe_jon Ben Veal

Marketing & PR / Media Guru @benvealpr

J. N. Lloyd


Ian Wildsmith

Design Guru

FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE Leila Wildsmith Guru Opinions Kyle Pastor Contributor @KAPastor Natasha Agabalyan Food Guru @SciencInformant Josh Howgego

Guest Contributor @benchtwentyone

Autumn Sartain

Guest Contributor

James Lloyd

Physics Guru @jbb_lloyd

Yaroslav Makarov Guest Contributor @JessMcArrow Daryl Ilbury

Sceptic Guru @darylilbury

Kim Lacey

Mind Guru @kimlacey

Jackie Ratner


Matt Linsdell

Guest Contributor

Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt

GURU 08 • October 2012 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2012 Guru Magazine Ltd. Guru Magazine Ltd. is a company registered in England & Wales. Company no. 7683000 • This work is licenced under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this licence, click the link above or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California 94105, USA. Advertising & letters Press & marketing enquiries The opinions expressed herein are of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Guru Magazine Ltd. Text and picture material is sent at the owner’s risk. Cover images: (Walking Man) Flickr • Jonathan Kos-Read Follow Guru on Twitter •

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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.

#WELLCOME! SOMETHING TO CHEER ABOUT! Guru Magazine receives Wellcome Trust backing. The Guru Magazine App is on the way… Great news! The internationally-renowned Wellcome Trust has just awarded Guru Magazine one year’s financial backing. A charitable foundation dedicated to supporting the best science-related initiatives, The Wellcome Trust will be helping to make Guru even more interactive and accessible. A few months ago, we got in touch with the Wellcome Trust to tell them about Guru Magazine, and to explain our ethos of delivering a new blend of accessible science, technology, health, food and environmental content. We were delighted when they said they liked what they saw – and thrilled when they offered us a grant to help us take the magazine to the next level. So right now, thanks to their kind grant, mobile app developers Realistic Digital are beavering away to create a brand new Guru App for smartphones and tablets. Come December, you will have a fantastic new Guru reading experience. Not a bad Christmas present!

The Guru App – what’s in store: The new Guru app will let you download and read current and past issues of Guru Magazine on your mobile device. iPhone and iPad users will be able to get it from the Apple Newsstand, where it will be one of the very few free periodicals. And Android owners won’t miss out: they will be able to download the free Guru app through Google Play. But there’s more… As well as automatically downloading an issue as soon as it is released, there will be built-in social media tools, news feeds, opportunities to discuss articles and a few surprise interactive features. Guru is here for you, the reader. Good times are ahead, so we hope you join us on this exciting journey as Guru continues to grow and evolve. In the meantime, we extend a huge thanks to all the contributors who have gladly shared their work and have made Guru the crowd-sourced gem it is today.

Want to shape the future of Guru? If you are a Guru reader, we urgently need you to take part in our Readers’ Panel. You will be able to give us unhindered feedback on anything Gururelated (and perhaps get a few sneak-previews of forthcoming competitions and features). To take part, all you need to do is read Guru and complete a simple survey three times over the next twelve months.

Thanks for reading Guru – and enjoy this issue!

BELOW: Stu and Ben meet the team at Realistic Digital.

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(Turtle) Wikimedia • Thierry Caro (Train) Flickr • localjapantimes


ARRIVALS LOUNGE We all love a good story. My wife recently read ‘The Red Tent’, a book recommended by a close friend. A New York Times bestseller, it tells the story of Dinah, a Biblical character, and her loves and struggles. The well-regarded author and Jewish scholar, Anita Diamant, certainly tells a good tale. However, the novel’s centrepiece, the ‘red tent’ – a place where ‘unclean’ women are segregated from Jewish men – is her fictional creation. A powerful narrative device, with feminist undertones, the notion of a ‘red tent’ would certainly put many a theist’s nose out of joint. Religion and faith often stir controversy – an issue made all the more apparent following the recent release of an amateur ‘anti-Islam’ video in the USA. In the West, the sciences often clash with religious belief. In this issue, chemist Josh Howgego – himself a Christian – dares to tackle this prickly area as he explains how he can reconcile his faith with his career. Meanwhile Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury explores why some devotees see religious icons in

cloths, stone walls and slices of toast. There’s plenty of less controversial but hopefully no less compelling content in this issue. Take guest writer Autumn Sartain, who tells the fascinating story of how one lost turtle could help save an endangered species, or Physics Guru James Lloyds Halloween themed Frankenstein unearthing. We love offering you a unique mix of topics: from food to fitness, to technology, to the latest scientific breakthroughs. Our ethos is to always embrace diversity of opinion, and to explore the complexity of life in an entertaining and non-patronising way. Thanks to our behindthe-scenes experts, we endeavour not to sacrifice accuracy on the altar of easy reading. It’s a tough balancing act, and we are always keen to hear how you think we can make things better. I sincerely hope you enjoy and savour Guru Magazine’s distinctive blend. There are some exciting times ahead.

Dr. Stu

COMPETITION WINNERS The winner of last issue’s picture puzzle brainteaser is Colin Parker. You bag yourself a £15 ($25) e-voucher from Many congrats, you clever bean! For those of you who are still scratching your heads, the answers were: A: Hitting below the belt B: Shop until you drop C: Credibility gap D: Bigger and better E: Up to no good We have a very humorous competition coming up in the next few days. Keep a watchful eye on our Facebook page or Twitter stream to find out more…


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and complete. But far from separating and distancing audiences from art, the concept of ‘unfinished’ art, or art-in-progress, has invited them into a dialogue with the piece. Those viewing the unfinished artwork can fill in the gaps and spaces with their own ideas and interpretations; they have the opportunity to predict or suggest the ending to a story, or to imagine their own version of the finished product. In short, art has become a collaborative process. Nowhere is this collaboration more in evidence than in online stories and fan fiction, which are created by groups of people (usually unknown to each other), each adding a new idea to a developing story. The Collabowriters is a crowd-sourced project that lets anyone submit the next 140-character sentence to a story – with sentences being voted on by other users. Collaborative art has been seen most explicitly in the recent ‘invisible’ art exhibition at London’s Hayward gallery. Describing itself as “the best exhibition you’ll never see”, it features empty frames, plinths and blank film reels. With no visible input from the artists, viewers must

(Paints in Box) Flickr • ahisgett

All art takes time to produce. Even rough sketches, micro-fiction and haikus take time to construct, albeit less than sculpting a bronze statue. But is the true art in the process or the end-product? New technology and enterprises are increasingly blurring the boundaries. As an art fan and avid reader, I find myself both intrigued and preoccupied by this dilemma. Historically, art has always been seen as a product: museums display fine sculptures; galleries exhibit paintings; and no novelist would dare show anyone their work until it had been redrafted and edited several times. Put simply, ‘art’ has never been considered art until it is finished. However, an increased emphasis on the process of creating art has been seen in recent years. For example, ‘Writer’s Workshops’ have multiplied – encouraging writers to share their on-going work so they can benefit from feedback and criticism. New DVDs are expected to have ‘Bonus Features’, which include ‘blooper reels’, interviews with the director and, most significantly, the ‘making of’ featurettes. We have witnessed an increase in TV programmes that show a piece of fine art being created. Then there are the home improvement, craft, and cooking shows (all relatively modern TV genres), which take this one step further by showing viewers how to construct their own versions of a particular art form. The mystery of the artist’s craft is slowly being revealed and being made visible to all. The emphasis in each of these methods has been to ‘expose’ the process of art – art in progress – rather than keeping it hidden until it is ‘perfect’

(Typist) Flickr • starmanseries

Art: is it the Product or the Process that matters?

GURU OPINIONS make their own meaning. The gallery’s Director, Ralph Rugoff, explains that this interactive exposition “leaves so much to your imagination (...) it’s sort of like the power of radio compared to television – in great radio drama you’re inventing characters in your head.” Art, in this extreme form, is a process not-yetbegun, but which gains meaning through the input of the audience. It has a meaning which will differ from person to person, as each viewer imagines a different product. Of course, there are people who reject this new movement. Some will see it as a waste of time, as there is no ‘product’ to see. They want the ‘artists’ to create the art and its meaning. They want to be passive viewers of products rather than active contributors to the process. So the question remains: is art a product or a process? For me, it has to be both. I paint, draw and write because I love the process. I relish inventing new places and people with my paintbrush; I like seeing my ideas on paper; I can lose myself for hours in a process that lets me order my thoughts. But despite all the benefits – whether painting, drawing or writing – I am keenly aware of a desire to finish an end product. I am always looking forward to having a finished piece – something I have carefully composed and lovingly crafted, which I can ‘present’ to others. From the moment I decide that something is ‘finished’, however, something odd happens. My adventure turns into sadness. Something that has been dynamic and active has been turned into a still-life artefact to scrutinise. There is still enjoyment in reading my work or looking through my sketchbook (or, if I was musical, replaying a composition), but it is a different, passive kind of enjoyment. And so, as soon as I have finished, I feel a longing to begin the process again – to create again, and enter once more into the artistic process of fashioning another ‘product’. Like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg, art will always be both a process and a product. You can’t have one without the other, and I wouldn’t want to.

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. and intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s. PA G E 8 • O C T O B E R 2 0 1 2 • I S S U E 8 • G U R U

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!



Amazing breakthroughs happen all the time. Yet most people have little or no access to them. Being a graduate student, I have always had access to any article from any journal and I dare say anyone interested in new advancements will think of me as quite spoiled. It’s a sad fact that the chances are you need to pay a ridiculous amount of money to view a scientific article. In each issue of Guru I will highlight some amazing recent articles that are relevant to everyday life, summing up the results and hopefully offering an insight into why researchers do what they do – and where it will lead us.

(Petri Dish) Flickr • i-saint Previous Page: (Physarum Polycephalum) Flickr • frankenstoen

SLIME SMARTER THAN THE SHARPEST MINDS Both biology and society heavily depend on transporting stuff (food, information, electricity) from point A to point B. Any system that transports things around is known as a network. There are countless examples of networks: our circulatory system, the internet, highways and rail networks. We all know what it’s like when a network fails – just think of the last time you were stuck in a traffic jam. Physarum polycephalum is a single-celled slime mold that is very intelligent and, incredibly, may show us a way to resolve future traffic jam angst forever. These slimes can do things like solve mazes, control robots, and even create an efficient network to transport food around the cell. In this research paper, published in the prestigious Science journal, the authors try to see if this singlecelled mold is smarter than an army of engineers. Basically, the Japanese research team wanted to see if a food network made by the mold matched the current railway network found in the Greater Tokyo area. They knew that the mold connects food sources by tubes – in much the same way that railways connect cities. So they placed some food sources where cities should be and let our slimy little friend go to work.

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LEFT: A time series of the mold growing out from Tokyo (initial yellow glob). Eventually, after about one day, the mold produces a network that connects all of the food treats. The pictures don’t do it full justice, so follow the video link to see the network emerge in all its glory!

The next logical question the team wanted to answer was whether the slime should be hailed as the next urban engineering Einstein. To test this out, they measured the efficiency, total cost and robustness of the network in comparison to the Tokyo rail network. The result? The slime network has almost the same properties as the Tokyo rail system. To get a grasp on how ridiculously awesome that is, think of it this way: The Tokyo rail system has been built up over the last century by a collective group of humans who have brains that know exactly where cities are and where people need to get to. The slime mold is a single cell, has no brain, has no idea where the food sources are, but yet takes only 26 hours to produce an equivalent network. You can now tell your engineer friends that a single-celled organism can do a better job than them. Once the authors knew that the slime is great at making networks they took a look at how it did it. The slime mold moves food from one place to another with a series of tubes that, if unused, will start to deteriorate and disappear, but get bigger and stronger if used (they love the gym). When they ran a computer simulation of the slime’s technique they found that


the network produced was even better than expected; it made more efficient, robust, and cost effective networks than both the Tokyo network and the biological slime mold. To sum up, these researchers found some super-smart mold, put some food in a pattern and watched it grow. From this, they were able to develop a simple computer model that puts years of engineering to shame. The applications of this research are fairly clear as we need efficient networks in practically every area of life. Just imagine how cool it would be to say that your city’s subway system was designed by a single-celled slime.

LEFT: Computer simulation of slime mold terrorizing Tokyo. The researchers were said to laugh evilly throughout the simulations.

References and Links:

Kyle Pastor, 24, Canadian (Eh!), is pursuing his MSc in theoretical polymer physics at McMaster University. When not spending most of his time programming the statistics of spaghetti, he enjoys finding interesting or offbeat science articles. He is a self-described “theoretical philanthropist” – in that if he had money, he might donate it. Open the door into his brain on twitter @KAPastor.

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(Bullet Train) Flickr • OiMax

Tero, A, 2010. Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design. Science, [Online]. 327, 439-442 . Available at: [Accessed 24 September 2012]. Physarum Wiki:





Chewing on the shoulders of giants You might be forgiven for thinking that chewing gum originated in the U.S. This may be true of the branded gum we know of today, but we have been masticating for much much longer: the ancient Greeks had their ‘mastiche’ from the mastic tree; the Mayans their ‘chicle’ from the sap of the Sapodilla tree, and the Native Americans chomped the resin of spruce trees. It is from this last resin that the first American chewing gums were made. Early settlers adopted the locals’ custom and, in 1848, the first commercial chewing gum was sold under the name ‘The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum by John Curtis’. Hopefully the gum wasn’t as hard to get your teeth round as the name! A paraffin wax alternative was introduced in the 1950s and was quickly surpassed by modern day gum made of chicle from Mexico – giving the gum a smoother and softer finish.

Step-by-Step: Making Gum the modern way Like certain soft drinks, the precise recipe of branded gum is a closely guarded secret, and is kept under lock and key. However, all gums are made in pretty much the same way. The process begins with making the foul-tasting gum base.

Step 1: Making a gum base As you chew gum, you probably notice that it doesn’t break up into pieces like everything else you chew. It is the gum base that gives it these basic properties. Today’s factories only use synthetic ingredients, yet – remarkably – it is still classified as a ‘food stuff’. The ingredient list is frightening: Elastomers - to provide elasticity Resins – to bind the gum together Waxes – to act as a softening agent Emulsifiers – to keep the gum moist Filler – to add texture Antioxidants – to extent shelf-life Fats (of course!) – to increase the plasticity of the gum Step 2: Add flavour If gum is to become even remotely palatable, adding flavour is crucial. After the gum base has been prepared, heated thoroughly until it becomes a syrupy mix, filtered and clarified lots of times, the flavouring ingredients can finally be added. All the sweet things go in first: powdered sugar, whose particle size dictates the flexibility of the gum; and corn syrup, which keeps the gum hydrated and easier to chew. Sugar-free alternatives include aspartame, sorbitol and malitol. The mix is allowed to cool on belts and blasted with cool air. Your flavour can be anything you like, be it raspberry, apple or watermelon. Cajun chicken anyone? These are either natural extracts or artificial equivalents. Oddly enough, you can even buy ‘bubble gum’ flavour. Step 3: Add chewiness Now we have a gum that won’t break apart

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(Bottles) Flickr • Yaisog Bonegnasher Previous Page: (Gum wall) Wikimedia • Penubag

Ever wondered where gum came from? What is it made of? What’s the main difference between chewing gum and bubble gum? And is there such a thing as environmentally friendly gum? With Halloween sweets filling the stores (and our mouths), Food Guru Natasha Agabalyan tells us all we’ll ever need know about the world’s favourite alternative – and how to make your own!

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when you chew it, and also tastes of something, the final step is to make the chewing experience pleasant. Once the mix is cooled, it is kneaded by machines called extruders to make the gum as smooth as possible. Giant rollers then flatten it to the correct thickness (thinnest for stick gum, thick for candy gum). The gum is then rested in an air-conditioned room for a minimum of 48 hours before the ultimate step: cutting and packaging.

CHEW IT OVER next big thing to go ‘green’, with chewing gum manufacturers clamouring to get a piece of the ethical shopping movement. Chewing gum never biodegrades and its tenacity for sticking to the ground makes it the bane of litter-pickers. Wrigley’s Research and Development team are now focusing their attentions on creating a ‘less sticky’ gum and have been looking for collaborators to find a solution. It seems they have struck gold by forging a partnership with the company Revolymer, who have created a gum base that is made entirely of synthetic polymers, which will degrade over two to three months in drains, and less than two years on road surfaces. Other groups are also working on biodegradable alternatives - for example, one gum is being made from cereal proteins. Interestingly, the Chicza Rainforest Gum Initiative has created an “Organic Rainforest Gum” made from chicle, which would degrade over four to six weeks on pavements. Maybe the Mayans had it right from the start!

(Gum stick) Wikimedia • Lusheeta (Shoe) Flickr • mahalie

Chewing gum vs. bubble gum Unlike chewing gum, bubble gum is a relative newcomer to the chewing-for-fun scene. It was created in 1928 by Walter Diemer, an accountant, while he was entertaining himself by experimenting with gum recipes at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company in Philadelphia. He happened upon one recipe that was less sticky but more stretchy. The accidental discovery was seized upon by Fleer, and it went on to become Dubble Bubble – the world’s first bubble gum. It only came in pink, because it happened to be the only dye Deimer had to hand! Bubble gum is now made by having a lesser proportion of gum base – 15% compared to the 25% present in chewing gum.

Enviro-gum Much research today goes into searching for environmentally-friendly alternatives to products we already know and love. Gum is the

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Links: Make your own gum kit How to blow a bubble with chewing gum


Inspired to make your very own flavour of gum? You can make it at home in under an hour. Before you begin, you will have to buy or make some gum base. 135g gum base 150g powdered sugar 3 tablespoons corn syrup 1 teaspoon glycerine 1/2 teaspoon citric acid 5 drops flavouring

1. Place the gum base, citric acid, corn syrup, glycerine and flavouring into a microwaveable dish. 2. Heat in a microwave on high for 1 minute. 3. Remove and stir to make sure it has all melted (re-heat in 30 seconds until the gum base is gooey). 4. Remove 1 tbsp of the powdered sugar and set aside. 5. Pour half the remaining sugar onto your work surface and make a well in the middle. 6. Pour the melted gum mix in the middle. 7. Begin kneading the gum base and sugar together as you would bread dough. 8. Add powdered sugar when the dough gets sticky. 9. Continue with the rest of the sugar until you have a smooth, stiff dough (around 15 minutes). Make sure all the sugar is incorporated! 10. Roll out your gum with a rolling pin and cut into strips with scissors. 11. Dust with the previously removed tablespoon of powdered sugar and store in a plastic bag or wrap each individual piece in wax paper.

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

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What do Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Marie Curie and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? The answer? Atheism. Many of the greatest and brightest minds believe there is no God. Evidence for an omnipresent being is lacking, and outspoken non-believers like Richard Dawkins eagerly evangelise that science has killed God. Few serious scientists profess a faith today but Chemist Josh Howgego argues why faith is not necessarily intellectual suicide… In January this year the first half of an FA cup quarter final was drawing to a close. With the scores tied at 1-1, it was starting to get interesting. Bolton Wanderers were playing Tottenham Hotspur for a place in the semifinals of England’s most important football contest. The crowd were excited - frantic almost - and cheering. Amidst the excitement, someone suddenly noticed a young midfielder quietly slump to the ground. Fabrice Muamba, a 23 year old born in Zaire, had just suffered a heart attack. TV footage showed that members of the crowd started to pray. Paramedics and an off-duty consultant cardiologist from the crowd dashed onto the pitch, desperate to save the young

man’s life. People stooped to their knees, crying out to some existential force for help. It wasn’t long before the whole country was joining in. In the following days The Sun newspaper ran the headline “God is in control” and the subheading “Praying for Muamba”. One month later, a team of Christians landed themselves in hot water for offering to pray for shoppers in the city of Bath. The team, working on a ministry they call ‘Healing on the Streets’ engaged shoppers in conversation, explaining that they believed God could heal their illnesses through prayer. The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) were not impressed by their claims – especially those on their website – and ruled they were not allowed to claim that God can heal physically – unless they had evidence. Such claims could give people “false hope” said the Authority. The ASA later revoked their judgement, ultimately deciding that, because the matter related to a belief system, it was outside of their remit after all. However, asking for evidence isn’t such an unreasonable request on the face of it; ultimately, evidence is the best way of making decisions about reliability. When it comes to God, real evidence is hard to come by. Only a few studies have ever explored the issue. However, some clinical trials - the same sort of rigorous tests that are used to discern whether a new drug is safe for use in humans or not - have been performed to explore the possible impact of religious intercession on health. One such investigation looked at 1,200 patients having heart bypass surgery in six different US hospitals. The researchers split these people roughly into thirds: the first two groups were informed that they might receive intercessory prayer: one group did, the other did not. The final third were told truthfully that they would be prayed for. Christians started their prayers the night before surgery – the names of the patients having been faxed to local prayer groups – and continued each evening for the following fourteen days. The results were unexpected: the group who were prayed for, and knew who about it, fared worse than the other patients, suffering more post-operative complications. Yet there have been four other, smaller studies of the effects of intercessory prayer for heart surgery: Two found prayer had no effect; two found that it was beneficial. Overall, these results make it difficult to infer anything at all about God.

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(Hands) Flickr • Pink Sherbet Photography


(Sickbay) Flickr • ShelleyC28 Next Page: (Earth and Space Station) NASA

GOD AND THE LOCH NESS MONSTER Except that prayer does not always work. Given that believers consider God to be all-seeing and all-knowing, it is impossible to feasibly come up with a scientific experiment that can really take account of him (or her). Normally, all factors are controlled in experiments – but that’s not so easy when you’re dealing with an omnipresent being. The experimenters can’t, for example, rule out that someone prayed, ‘Please God, look after everyone in the hospital down my road.’ Neither can they, of course, tell whether God might choose to ignore or uphold the requests. These kinds of detail are a common headache for researchers – and the fact that you can never prove a negative in science is well understood. It is not possible to say scientifically, for example, that there are no orange swans on Earth. So far, we haven’t seen any – so it’s very unlikely – but there might still be some, hidden discretely away on some untrodden and unknown Amazonian track. However the ‘you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, so you lose’ attitude sometimes found among the faithful is naïve. Understandably,

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such arguments frustrate atheists and sceptics. Because of the ‘improvable negative’ rule in science, it is not possible to unequivocally prove that the Loch Ness Monster is a fraud nor that we are actually all ruled over in secret by a Giant Spaghetti Monster in space. We cannot go around assuming that God or the Spaghetti Monster are real just because we can’t prove they don’t exist – to do so would be intolerable. The burden of proof is surely on God, to prove to us that he exists, argue sceptics. I am a God-believer, and the following thought experiment should illuminate how it may not be so easy for God to prove that he exists. Let us imagine that we are God, a supernatural, super-powerful being who can do pretty much whatever he (or she) wants. As God, we want to prove to an atheist that we exist, but how to do it? God could appear to the person in question as a vision or spirit, but it would be pretty hard to actually ‘prove’ that the vision is not a hallucination or other artefact. In short, supernatural events aren’t great subject matter for letters to Nature, not being particularly reproducible and all. Now let us consider the Spaghetti Monster and

GOD AND THE LOCH NESS MONSTER the Loch Ness Monster again; could either of these be proven to exist? Clearly the Loch Ness variety of monster falls within the realms of science – it would be possible to prove it existed if it was caught and observed. But the Spaghetti Monster is in the same class as God; that is, by its definition it is hard to observe scientifically. And, in fact, it would almost be acceptable (although a little controversial) to say that the Spaghetti Monster is God.

Whether a creator God looks like a man or a noodle is simply not relevant. God is defined by his believers to be transcendent, outside of time and space, and so science is simply not equipped to answer questions about his existence. Perhaps it is time more of us accepted that.

References •

Benson, H., 2006. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients. Am. Heart. J., 151, pp. 933-942.T

Guru is not affiliated with any religious or political organisation. Guest contributors are invited to give their opinions on matters relating to life, science, philosophy or society. Views expressed in Guru do not necessarily reflect those of Guru Magazine. If you want to have your say – just get in touch!


In the late nineteenth century, science was on a roll gobbling up unanswered questions and gleaning profound new insights. Some Christians were a little nervous, but pointed to all the things that science still couldn’t explain – ‘the gaps’ – as the places where God was holding the reins. Embarrassingly, the gaps kept getting smaller as science kept marching forward. Henry Drummond, an evangelist, chastised his audience, saying they had relegated their deity to a ‘God of the gaps’ status. Today, the God of the gaps arguments – “well science can’t explain everything you know” – feels rather tired, as so many unexplained questions have fallen to science over the years.

The anthropic principle

It’s interesting that our universe seems to have just the right conditions for the formation of complex and beautiful things like solar systems, planets and life. If many of the scientific constants (for example, the strength of gravity) were even just slightly different, the world around us would look very different – and we probably wouldn’t be here at all. If the strong nuclear force – the force that holds protons and neutrons together in an atom – were just very marginally stronger, then all the hydrogen in the universe would have been converted to helium long, long ago. Water would not exist, and the universe would have evolved in a drastically different direction.

Theists have traditionally seen this as evidence (of sorts) that things have been set up by God to work out in favour of life. On the other hand, say many scientists, since we happen to be here to observe the universe, things couldn’t be any other way.

The Multiverse hypothesis

What makes the anthropic principle seem even less convincing for theists is the increasingly popular multiverse theory, which posits that there are many (perhaps an infinite number of) other universes in which the physical laws and constants are different from the ones we know (try and get your head around that one!- Ed). If all possible universes exist, it suddenly becomes a lot less interesting that ours has a specific environment. In fact, it is bound to exist somewhere, since all possible universes exist. This might sound crazy. Certainly, we have no way – at least not yet – to experimentally determine whether other universes really do exist. But, intriguingly, our current understanding of quantum physics does point quite strongly to there really being ‘many worlds’ out there. But, still, we have not reached a conclusion on whether God exists. It is possible to theorise, like the Cambridge philosopher Keith Ward does, that the multiple universes could simply exist ‘in the mind of God’.

Josh Howgego is a science writer based in Bristol. A recent graduate from a PhD in chemistry Josh enjoys writing, running and (losing) games of squash. Josh is a Christian and does, very much, believe in God.

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In May 2009, Dr. Hart watched helplessly as the points appearing on her screen showed a turtle move far inland after reaching Cuba. It was a young hawksbill, tagged in Dry Tortugas National Park, presumably traveling to Cuba on one of her first nesting attempts. Soon after transmitting points from the beach, the tracks led to a small village and remained there for over a month – much longer than any sea turtle would willingly be on land. To confirm the untimely fate of this turtle, Dr. Hart called on a Cuban colleague with WWFCanada. Her colleague traveled to the fishing village from which the satellite tag was still transmitting, and successfully located the fishermen who had the turtle’s tag in their possession. Sadly, hawksbills have a long history of being harvested throughout the Caribbean, with major declines in their numbers before the 1900s when they were killed for their beautiful shell. Harvesting of marine turtles was eventually made illegal in Cuba in 2008. However, when the major fishery operations were finally shut down – long after subsistence turtle fishing was banned in 1961 – much of the damage had already been done. Historic declines and ongoing modern threats now mean hawksbills are

considered Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Dr. Hart has not been the first person to use a satellite transmitter to uncover possible harvesting. In 2007, researcher Charlotte Girard tracked a loggerhead turtle from western Florida to Cuba, where its last two months of transmissions came from a coastal town. In 2011, a study led by Christopher Sasso tracked a loggerhead from the east coast of Florida; four months later this turtle transmitted from well inland in Cuba. Since 2007, Dr. Kristen Hart has been at the forefront of sea turtle research; as a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey she has studied sea turtle populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico, including in the Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Parks in Florida. Placing satellite tags on loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles in different locations and different life stages, she has helped uncover their precise patterns of movement and nesting. More recently, she has broadened her scope to include the Alabama coastline and the US Virgin Islands. In conservation circles it has been long known that, to help a species survive extinction, you must know where it lives and what it needs while there. However, despite increasing concern among conservationists, these basic details are still poorly understood for the five threatened or endangered species of sea turtle living in US waters. Recent research, published

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(Green Turtle) Kaare Iverson Previous Page: (Hawksbill turtle) Wikimedia • Thierry Caro


BELOW: A green turtle returns to the sea at sunrise after nesting and being equipped with a satellite tag.

In-water photographs were taken under NMFS Permit No. 13307-02 and land-based photographs under Marine Turtle Permit No. 176.

(Dr. Hart & Hawksbill Turtle) Kaare Iverson

HUNTING THE TURTLE HUNTERS in the scientific journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, has gone some way to rectify this. In this study, Dr. Hart satellite-tracked a population of hawksbill turtles in Dry Tortugas National Park. To her surprise, this technique provided far more detail than anyone had expected. The satellite transmitters used in Dr. Hart’s work were glued directly onto a turtle’s back with a special marine epoxy. Once attached, they transmitted locations to an overhead satellite whenever the turtle surfaced. These locations were sent to a central computer server where the research team could view and scrutinise the turtles’ movements. With a keen eye for analysis, Dr. Hart’s team has identified previously unknown migration routes as well as inter-nesting (the time between nesting events within a nesting season) and foraging areas (the habitat used in the nonnesting season). Such information will be vital for the planning and management of protected areas if the sea turtles are to be saved from extinction. It is important to note that Cuba is not the only guilty party in sea turtle harvesting. The initial decline of hawksbills began in the distant past – stemming from demand from multiple countries (including those in North America, Asia and Europe). Today, the species faces a myriad of other dangers: oil spills, bright and disorienting beach lighting, pollution, trash and the consistent degradation of their coral habitat. All such threats occur across the globe. Encouragingly, Cuba has recently made many moves toward the conservation of sea turtles, including the implementation of community outreach and conservation programs, and the creation of new marine parks. Sea turtle conservation efforts can be challenging because many threats facing the species exist at-sea or under the jurisdiction of different countries. Studying movement patterns of marine animals is also inherently more difficult than their land-based counterparts. However, satellite-tracking offers a tool to overcome these obstacles. With these tags, important oceanic foraging grounds will hopefully be

identified and conserved and, as seen here, lead researchers and conservationists to areas of illegal harvesting. Conservation is only possible when the need is known, and only when we understand the need can we confront the issue. While previous tracking results may have suggested that harvesting is happening, in this instance the tag led researchers to the people who had actually carried out the harvesting. Poignantly, this provided a unique opportunity in turtle conservation. As Dr. Hart’s Cuban colleague said after he retrieved the tag and discussed the endangered status of the hawksbill with the fishermen, “Maybe... maybe they will think about releasing the next hawksbill they catch.”

Links: To freely view the movements of Dr. Hart’s tracked turtles, as well as many other tracking projects, visit

Reference •

Hart KM, Sartain AR, Fujisaki I, Pratt HL Jr, Morley D, Feeley MW (2012) Home range, habitat-use, and migrations of hawksbill turtles tracked from Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida, USA. Marine Ecology Progress Series 457:193207.

Autumn Sartain is a wildlife biologist in Florida, USA focusing on sea turtle research. She has recently been enjoying writing to communicate her research to the general public, having been in the world of science since 2004. She also loves travelling and rock climbing, and is in the process of becoming a yoga teacher. You can see her very new writing website, which she plans on making more interesting soon, at

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ABOVE: Dr. Hart holds a young hawksbill sea turtle.



Despite otherwise seeming freshfaced and well groomed, Jesse’s eyes look tired. Having recently returned from a series of book launches, he explains to me that travelling has taken its toll. Yet, for a man who stirs up antagonism wherever he treads, I find him immediately warm and likeable. Jesse has recently crafted a career out of writing books that educate, inspire and antagonize. But it wasn’t always this way. Like many a popularscience book writer, he has emerged from the world of lab research. I ask him why he made the switch. “After ten years of working with primates, I’d had enough,” Jesse says. “I didn’t like the way the animals in labs were treated – as I’m sure you can imagine. It just gets to you after a while.”

It was during this work as a research primatologist that Jesse found his passion for writing about evolutionary science. He sought to explain and discuss the human condition from an evolutionary perspective: how our behaviours, beliefs and thoughts result from our primitive ancestors. Writing on blogs in his lunch breaks and evenings, Jesse’s work eventually culminated in his first book, The Belief Instinct (UK: The God Instinct), the inspiration for which came from conversations with his mother. “My mother was unwell and dying,” Jesse explains. “I had flown back to be with her and we spent a lot of time talking about death and what happens afterwards. I think it was because of my work with primates that I wondered what it was that gives humans the capacity to consider an afterlife.” For a God-fearer, The Belief Instinct challenges the notion that humanity is the ‘pinnacle of creation’. In it, Jesse asserts that chimps live without the “crippling, inhibiting psychological sense of others watching, observing, and critically evaluating them.” Attracting plaudits and critics in equal measure, it was listed as one of the top 25 books of 2011 by the American Library Association. An evangelist for level-headed thinking about topics most wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, Jesse has now turned his attention to matters of a more intimate nature. “I had said everything I wanted to say about God,” Jesse says. “Basically, I think I just got bored writing about it.” And so, for the past three years, Jesse has written about sex, sexuality, suicide and the G U R U • I S S U E 8 • O C T O B E R 2 0 1 2 • PA G E 2 3

(Jesse Bering) Juan C. Quiles (The Belief Instinct) W. W. Norton & Company


GURU MEETS JESSE BERRING anatomy of people’s ‘private parts’ – all in the name of explaining science. Having been brought up in conservative midWest Idaho, Jesse confesses that his sexuality was repressed for many years. “If someone asked me when I was 16 or 17 if I was homosexual I would have lied,” he says. Indeed, he admits that his present fascination with social taboos is probably an over-compensation for his childhood. Yet Jesse does not come across as a missionary who writes for effect – his agenda is to encourage scientific thought and discussion amongst everyday people. “There has been a lot of research on sexual behaviours, but much of it is hidden away in obscure journals”, he says. And he notes that even the research that isn’t destined for obscurity fares little better. “The research that is reported in the mainstream media is generally reported very badly.” Jesse frequently makes enemies thanks to his choice of topics. “I don’t write from a moral point of view, but there are always some people who misunderstand my writing.” And yet for all his controversy, Jesse’s work continues to attract critical acclaim; he is a regular contributor in Scientific American, Slate magazine and (more recently) Das Magazin.

Taking a more light-hearted tack, I ask Jesse which three people (historical or living) he would invite to a dinner party. His choices are intriguing: philosopher Jean-Paul Satre, novelist Vladimir Nabokov and funnyman actor Stephen Fry – all personalities known for their alternative, counter-cultural approach. A meal with a Marxist and a Russian who advocated the Vietnam War sounds like a recipe for disaster. Perhaps this contradiction reflects Jesse’s personality – a man torn between his rationality and his own humanity. At least Stephen Fry could crack a few jokes to ease the tension. In the hour or so I spent chatting with Jesse I found it difficult not to admire what he has already accomplished. The way he strives to make challenging concepts engaging to the masses is an approach close to my heart. ‘Out of the box’ thinking underpins the Guru ethos, even if his methods are somewhat different. Jesse treads where others daren’t and – even in today’s increasingly liberal culture – he is pushing the boundaries. His writing will certainly not be for everyone (and is for the adult audience only). Is the world ready for him yet? Only time will tell. •


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WHY IS THE PENIS SHAPED LIKE THAT? Author: Jesse Bering Publisher: Doubleday Price: £18.99 (Hardcover RRP) Rating:

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why Is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, selfgratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not. Why Is The Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it does spend some time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?). But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them. In the hands of someone else, such topics might The GuReview rating system


feel nothing short of trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on them is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal. There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree: “Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.” Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style. It’s this style that holds Why Is The Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. Although the essays are grouped into themes, however, there is no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this does mean that the book can be dipped into at any time. Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is The Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again!



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THE SIXTH TASTE SENSATION Why is it that some of us can’t resist a chocolate muffin, whilst others remain blissfully indifferent? It might be because you were born that way. Molecular Guru Jon Crowe examines some cutting edge research that explores why our favourite foods taste so great. You might never look at that cookie in the same way again… I rarely feel sorry for cats. They do, after all, spend two-thirds of their lives curled up asleep. But there is one reason I pity them: they will never get the same joy from a slice of chocolate cake that I do. Why? Because they can’t taste sweetness. Our ability to taste stems from special receptors found in the taste buds on the surface of our tongues. Humans have at least five different taste receptors – distinguishing between salt, sweet, sour, bitter and savoury (umami). But cats, and other meat-eaters, are missing the sweet receptors; their diets lack anything sugary and so they’ve simply evolved without a sweet taste. And, in my view, their world is gastronomically impoverished as a result.

it. And food manufacturers know only too well that high-fat foods taste – and sell – better. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the science behind our love of fatty foods began to emerge, with researchers in Australia first proposing a sixth taste – ‘fatty’. A study from the US earlier this year found the same thing: some people are better than others at judging the ‘fattiness’ of a food, based on taste alone (and not on the basis of visual cues - seeing something shimmering in a sea of grease, for example).

Do you have the Sixth Sense? The ability to taste ‘fatty’ (or not) could be down to your genes: many of the people in the US study who were able to pick out something as fatty had high levels of a particular protein (called CD36) in their bodies. This discovery could have profound implications for managing obesity: an individual’s genes could influence their ability to taste fat – which, in turn, could influence how much they crave fatty foods. Studies of rats and mice suggest it’s a link worth exploring: rodents who don’t have a working CD36 gene (and so can’t produce the CD36 protein) show less of a preference for fatty foods – and are also less able to digest it. There may even be taste receptors that allow us to taste whether something is ‘fizzy’ or not. Our taste cells feature a particular receptor that, when blocked, will make a carbonated drink taste flat, even if feels bubbly on the surface of the tongue.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that we know all there is to know about taste. But you’d be wrong. After years of thinking that we had just five basic taste sensations, at least one more completely different flavour is jostling for recognition. Since time immemorial, chefs have added extra flavour to traditional dishes with a splash of cream, knowing that diners will love

In evolutionary terms, our sense of taste has helped us to survive. Our umami and sweet taste receptors help us to detect foods that are rich in nutrients and so power our continued existence; our bitter taste receptors help us to avoid substances that carry the threat of being toxic –safeguarding our existence in a different way. Oddly, though, researchers are finding that our tongues aren’t the only parts of our body that have the ability to taste. They have also found the same taste receptors that appear on our tongues in some surprising alternative locations – including our gut and airways. It sounds odd, but there are several ways they also help our continual striving for survival: Sweet receptors in our gut appear to help our bodies to detect sugars, and influence the levels of the hormone insulin our bodies produce as a

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(Cat) Flickr • Sukanto Debnath Previous Page: (Tounge) Flickr • stuartpilbrow

A taste for survival

THE SIXTH TASTE SENSATION result. (Insulin plays a vital role in making sure our blood sugar levels stay within safe limits.) And, incredibly, there are bitter receptors lurking in our airways to prevent us from breathing in toxic substances: if they do detect something bitter, they force us to cough - a good thing if the substance we’re inhaling would do untold damage if it got deep into the lungs.

‘That food sounds great!’ – crunchy chips taste better

Further reading: •

‘Fatty’ as the sixth sense: –

The Australian study

T h e US study

A collection of articles on taste

The impact of sound on taste

(Left Ear, Mouth) Flickr • jemsweb (Left Eye) Flickr • wetwebwork

(Right Ear) Flickr • Dr Stephen Dann (Right Eye) Flickr • neuroticcamel

(Nose) Flickr • Jeremie63

More often than not, though, the joy of mealtime munchings doesn’t rest with taste alone; we can only appreciate the flavour of food when we combine taste with smell. If we hold our nose, it helps us swallow something unpalatable – we can tell if it is sweet, bitter or sour, but not what it really tastes like. It is only when we let go of our nose and let the aromas flood in that the flavours start to burst out in all their glory (or not, as the case may be). But it seems that smell isn’t the only sense that can partner with taste to send us into a frenzy of flavour. Taste can even be modified by what we hear! A team led by researchers at the University of Oxford have shown how the sound of a crunch can make crisps (potato chips) taste fresher; they have also found how hearing low brass sounds while we eat make

things taste bitterer, while hearing high-pitched sounds on the piano or on bells makes things taste sweeter. With a cat’s astute sense of smell and hearing, one wonders whether eating is more pleasurable for our four-legged after all. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that chocolate contains the chemical, theobromine, which is highly poisonous to cats, so it’s probably just as well they can’t appreciate sweetness. Which means more for me – and I can live with that.

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

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(Lecture Hall) Flickr • Shaylor Previous Page: (Lecture) Flickr • _dChris

THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION IS HERE With just a camera, a sheet of paper and a couple of marker pens, a Stanford Professor, Sebastian Thrun, and Google’s Director of Research, Peter Norvig, changed the face of education forever. In October 2011, they offered a free online class in Artificial Intelligence by filming their lectures and putting them online. Their teaching about state-of-art techniques in computer science became globally accessible in an instant – and without students needing to pay huge sums of money. The course drew over 160,000 students from all over the world – far exceeding even their expectations. Enthused by this success, the AI teaching team declared this the beginning of a global education revolution, and it wasn’t long before many followed them. As an inveterate education addict, I was one of those who dived straight into this new learning environment and it didn’t take long to realise that something big was happening. “I cannot teach at Stanford anymore,” confessed Sebastian Thrun during his talk at the DLD

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conference in January 2012. Before this, he was among the most successful professors at Stanford. His classes on ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ attracted around 200 students every term, compared to the typical 20-30 for other courses. But as he taught the physical class alongside the online version in the fall of 2011 something strange happened: after two or three weeks his normally lively classroom at Stanford fell empty. No one had dropped the course; the students had simply moved to the online version. It came as quite a shock for an esteemed university professor to discover his students “preferred him on video”. This, however, was far from being a negative: it soon became clear that people watching online actually appreciated his effort much more than his ‘real life’ students at Stanford. Of the tens of thousands of students who occupied Thrun’s virtual classroom community, even the smallest of countries were represented. There were far more students than the whole Stanford campus could ever welcome. But perhaps most crucially, the percentage of students with an overall perfect score for the online course was consistently higher than in the real Stanford classroom – despite everyone taking the same assignments and exams. The impact had been felt. Upon finishing the AI class, Sebastian Thrun gave up his tenure at Stanford and moved on to launch his own university – on the web.

An explosion in free learning Graduates of the AI class wanted more – and fortunately there was no shortage of creative people able to fulfill their desires. In early 2012, two separate teams created new educational platforms. Sebastian Thrun and colleague David Stavens founded the online university Udacity. At the same time, two of Thrun’s former Stanford colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, formed another educational initiative under the name Coursera. Initially, around a dozen courses – mostly in computer science – appeared. Like the original AI class, these courses were available to everyone – and again were free. As I write this, both platforms now offer more than a hundred courses on topics ranging from fundamental science to finance and humanities. Udacity students may enjoy introductions to computer science, statistics, and physics, and advanced courses on topics such as software testing and programming a self-driving car. More than half a million students are enrolled in total – a truly amazing achievement.

16 North American and European universities, including Ivy League giants like Princeton and Penn. And the field is likely to become even busier in the near future: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has partnered with Harvard and Berkeley to launch edX, which will feature online versions of courses from all three institutions. Other major colleges will probably introduce similar platforms very soon. We are indeed living in the time of Thrun and Norvig’s education revolution. So, what is so great about all this? Weren’t educational materials available on the web before? Well, yes, they were. You may be familiar with the MIT OpenCourseware and Open Yale projects. And even the teaching approach of Udacity and Coursera is quite similar to the one previously established by the now-famous Khan Academy. But before the AI class it was hard to imagine that any top-level university would ever present its class on the Internet for everyone – and I mean everyone. So far, the age of online students has varied from 12 to 80, and they include people of all nationalities and backgrounds. The AI class even included participants living in war zones in Afghanistan, who watched course videos when they could manage to get an Internet connection and when their area wasn’t under mortar attack.

Pick your course. Pick your style. Unlike Udacity, Coursera doesn’t prepare its own courses but offers a platform for major universities to present their lectures to a wider audience. Coursera now boasts 121 classes from

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(AI Hand) Flickr • University of Salford (Lesson) Flickr • Phil and Pam


THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION IS HERE push and, believe me, it’s enough to get you to master anything. It just takes some of your own effort.

A better future for everyone

Perhaps the biggest impact of these online courses is a psychological one: they seem to give their participants a previously unimaginable chance to change something in their lives. It doesn’t matter if you have three children and no time or money to study at a university, nor if you simply can’t get proper education in your country at all. Now there is always an option to learn something new, to achieve something, to enrich your knowledge. More importantly, there are people on the Internet who are willing to help you – not only with teaching, but with finding better jobs. For instance, Udacity has opened a online job-listing section for their students. Those companies who already take the Udacity certificate of accomplishment seriously (and the list is increasing) can browse the resumés listed and pick people they are interested in. Speaking personally, my participation in several courses throughout this year has proven one very important and empowering lesson. I have learnt that the only person whose effort can actually educate you – who can widen your theoretical knowledge and practical skills – is you. You may remember your college mates saying things like “Why are we taking this course? It doesn’t really teach us anything”. Some people just sit and wait for somebody to get them educated. This is the totally wrong approach. It is very important to understand that the best thing you can receive from an educator is a gentle push in the right direction. These online courses provide you with just that

Find out more: •

Sebastian Thrun at DLD, January 2012

Peter Norvig at TED, June 2012

Daphne Koller at TED, June 2012




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 along with his colleagues (in Russian) and may be once in a while reached via Twitter @JessMcArrow.

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(Notebook) Flickr • Arkangel (Network Background) Flickr • Marc_Smith

Is it time to join the revolution?

The online community who shares these principles has an enormous power. It was fun to discover that chatting with fellow students in the course forums could sometimes be abundantly more fruitful than watching the lectures alone. You can use the forums to ask any question, knowing that you’ll receive an immediate answer: with classmates living in every time zone, there is always someone browsing the forum at the same time as you. If you enroll on a course, then don’t be surprised when the collective intelligence comes up with a correct and comprehensive answer to your question – however difficult it is. In 1973, Daniel Bell predicted that the society of the post-industrial future would be a society of knowledge. In contrast, sceptics describe the current Internet-era as a society of bias. In my view, these advances get us closer to a better society where the freedom of education is established globally at the same level as a basic human right. Very soon I can imagine everyone having to join the global classroom simply to avoid finding themselves left behind the millions who have already discovered these new possibilities. I can’t wait.





(Shelley) Wikimedia • Reginald Easton PREVIOUS PAGE: (Monster) Flickr • twm1340

When it comes to horror stories, Frankenstein is probably the most famous of them all. Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has sent shivers of fear through generations of readers, inspired countless adaptations, and has become the gold standard for tales of terror and suspense. It’s a story that becomes even more unsettling, though, when you realise it was inspired by twitching corpses, violent volcanoes and disturbing nightmares, as James Lloyd discovers… Mary Shelley’s famous novel barely needs an introduction. Its protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is fiction’s original ‘mad’ scientist, dedicating himself to chemistry at university so that he can learn how to create life out of inanimate matter. The being he cooks up, however, is repulsive: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, … his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Disgusted, Dr Frankenstein deserts his horrible creation – but the monster will come to haunt him for the rest of his life. First, it murders Frankenstein’s little brother; then, when the scientist refuses to create a female companion for it, it kills his closest friend and beloved wife too. Distraught, Frankenstein vows to take revenge and pursue his monster until one of them is dead. (Spoiler alert! – Ed) But the scientist fails in his mission and, after months of pursuit, he dies from pneumonia near the North Pole. When Mary Shelley began to write her spinechilling story, she was just 18 years old and without a novel to her name. So what inspired her nightmarish tale? In an introduction to the book’s third edition in 1831, Shelley finally explained how she “came to think of and to dilate upon such a hideous idea”. As it turns out, the true story behind Frankenstein is even more intriguing than the novel itself, involving electrified frogs, reanimated corpses, and a rather strange summer holiday…

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LEFT: Miniature portratit of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton. (1857)

A Swiss holiday horror Our story begins in the summer of 1816 on the grassy banks of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Here, Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) has rented a holiday home with her lover and future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Their poet friend, Lord Byron, is also staying nearby at the Villa Diodati with his physician John Polidori. At first, the party while away the hours boating on the lake and wandering along its shore. But the halcyon summer days don’t last for long. “It proved a wet, ungenial summer,” remembers Mary Shelley in 1831, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” In fact, 1816 was to become known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’, partly the result of an eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora the previous year, which spewed out colossal amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, lowering temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere. Stuck inside the Villa Diodati, the group had to find new ways to keep themselves amused. They began by reading blood-curdling German ghost stories to each other, but then Lord Byron had a better idea: “We will each write a ghost story,” he announced. So the holidaymakers each set about writing the most frightening nightmare that they could muster. “I busied myself to think of a story,” wrote Mary Shelley, “…to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” But the young woman had trouble thinking up a suitably terrible tale. Luckily, however, inspiration wasn’t too far away…


BELOW: The Metallic arc used by Luigi Galvani in his experiments.

Galvani and his electric frogs On those long summer evenings, Mary Shelley was often privy to the discussions between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. One night, their conversation turned to “the nature of the principle of life”. This was one of the hot topics of the time: many people during the 18th and 19th centuries speculated that there was some kind of mysterious ‘vital force’ flowing through living things that distinguished the living from the dead. In the late 18th century, a few decades before Mary Shelley wrote her celebrated novel, one scientist thought he’d found it. His name was Luigi Galvani. It was on an otherwise typical day at Italy’s University of Bologna that Galvani, an eminent physicist and physician, noticed something very unusual whilst experimenting on a dead frog. If he touched the exposed nerves of the frog with a scalpel at the same time as a spark was created by a nearby electrostatic machine, the frog’s legs twitched and contracted as if alive – a phenomenon that came to be known as ‘galvanism’. Excited by his discovery, Galvani spent the next decade carrying out experiments on dissected frogs. He found that he could make the frogs’ legs twitch simply by connecting the leg muscles to the nerves via an arc, which usually consisted of two different metals. Because there was no external electricity source, Galvani concluded that there must be an electrical fluid inside the frog. In 1791, he announced to the world that he’d discovered animal electricity, sending ripples of excitement through the scientific community. Had this Italian scientist found the famous, long-searched-for vital force – the source of life itself?

But Galvani faced staunch opposition from Alessandro Volta, a young and brilliant physicist at the University of Pavia. Volta believed that the frogs’ legs were simply reacting to external

electricity generated by the contact between the frog and the two-metal arc that Galvani used in his experiments. Taking inspiration from this concept, Volta used two different metals to develop his famous voltaic pile – the world’s first battery – in 1800 and showed that an electric current could be produced without the need for any animal tissue. Many scientists saw this as a major blow to Galvani’s theory, and the animal electricity debate became somewhat overshadowed by Volta’s revolutionary new invention. Nevertheless, a handful of determined scientists continued to defend galvanism. Chief among these was Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who carried out a series of experiments worthy of Dr Frankenstein himself...

The real-life Frankenstein? While Galvani had mainly worked on frogs, Aldini decided to up the ante, experimenting on birds, lambs, horses, oxen, and pretty much any other animal he could get his hands on. In one experiment, he used a voltaic pile to demonstrate galvanism on a decapitated dog’s head. “The most frightful convulsions were produced,” reported one observer. “The mouth opened, the teeth gnashed, the eyes rolled in their orbits; and, if the imagination had not been restrained by reason and reflection, one might have almost believed that the animal was restored to life…” Aldini’s most notorious demonstration, though, took place on January 17th 1803 at London’s Royal College of Surgeons. There, in front of a crowd of wide-eyed spectators, Aldini carried out his experiments on the fresh, lifeless corpse of George Forster, a 26-year-old man who had just been hanged at Newgate Prison for drowning his wife and child in Paddington Canal.

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(Arc), (Pile) Science Museum, London

Right: Alessandro Volta’s Voltaic Pile.

FRANKENSTEIN electricity, even if it’s not a special ‘vital force’. Today, we know that electric pulses – ‘action potentials’ – allow nerve cells to communicate and muscles to contract. So time has vindicated these Italian scientists. They may have got some things wrong, but they were the first to discover and develop the idea of bioelectricity.

Taking up two conducting rods, both connected to a voltaic pile, Aldini applied one to the dead man’s mouth and one to the ear. “The jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver,” reported the Newgate Calendar, a record of executions at the prison. “…the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened.” But Aldini’s pièce de résistance came when he moved one of the rods to the man’s rectum. The corpse began to convulse violently as if coming back to life, perhaps seeking vengeance for its untimely death. “The right hand was raised and clenched,” noted the Newgate Calendar, “and the legs and thighs were set in motion.” One of the observers was apparently so alarmed that he died of fright soon afterwards. These were certainly gruesome, outrageous experiments, but Aldini wasn’t attempting to create a Frankenstein-esque monster – he was simply trying to defend his late uncle’s theory and demonstrate the potential medical applications of galvanism (albeit in a very dramatic way). In the end, Aldini and Galvani weren’t too far off the mark: scientists have since proved the existence of a kind of animal

Mary Shelley was familiar with Galvani’s work, and probably Aldini’s too. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” she wrote, remembering back to the conversations between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. “Galvanism had given token of such things”. On that Swiss summer’s eve in 1816, the discussions about galvanism and the nature of life lasted until the early hours of the morning. When Mary Shelley finally went to bed that night, she closed her eyes, but she couldn’t get to sleep. Her mind racing, she slipped into a reverie – a “waking dream” – inspired by the evening’s discussions: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” The night’s conversations had clearly sent Mary Shelley’s imagination into overdrive. “The idea so possessed my mind,” she wrote, “that a thrill of fear ran through me.” The next morning, she announced to her friends that she’d finally thought up a story and hastily jotted down the outline of her spooky dream. Initially only a short tale, her lover encouraged her to turn it into a novel, and, in January 1818, the first edition of Frankenstein was published. By the time of the novel’s publication, Giovanni Aldini was a distinguished scientist, knight of the Napoleonic Order of the Iron Crown and councillor of state at Milan. It’s not known if Aldini read – or even knew about – Mary Shelley’s novel. But, if he did, it would undoubtedly have conjured up some unsettling memories of George Forster’s grotesque reanimated corpse.

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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(Electricity) Flickr • jurvetson

Mary Shelley’s living nightmare




GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE CLOUDS The English language is filled with phrases that encourage us to trust our eyes: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’, ‘the camera never lies’, and ‘what you see is what you get’. But do such assertions hold true under scrutiny? Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury doesn’t think so, and looks into the times when perception is not reality. Summer in England is the best time to prove that what we perceive is not always reality. Warm moist air, heated by the sun, rises then condenses, forming bursts of ripe, Cumulus clouds that drift across the sky slowly enough for us to make out what they are: rabbits, geese, Madonna on stage, even your hairy neighbour. That’s right: summer in England is the best time for cloud shape spotting. This may sound somewhat whimsical, but it’s a perfect explanation of something that fascinates some and throws others into fits of frenzy. If you’re looking for proof of the former, all you need to do is go online and type “images of Virgin Mary on eBay” into Google. Chances are that, sooner or later, you’ll find someone selling something that is supposed to be infused with the Virgin Mary’s image. And, if you’re looking for evidence of the latter, simply type in “crowds flock to image of Mary”, and you’ll come across stories such as that of the so-called “Virgin Mary Tree”. These are examples of cloud shape spotting gone a little awry - and science has an answer for it. It’s actually quite normal to look for some measure of meaning in random patterns in nature. It’s a simple combination of biology and psychology, with a dash of philosophy.

(Mars Faces) NASA Previous Page: (Clouds) Flickr • Tobyotter

Vision is not be sniffed at We are genetically primed to recognise others by their facial features. In fact, newborn babies recognise their mothers’ faces, even though their newly-formed vision is still developing. The reason for this is evolutionary: mothers are the baby’s source of nutrition. As we grow, the combination of our highlyevolved eyes and brain equips us with the capacity to identify subtle variations in the myriad

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different facial features of fellow human beings. This is a good thing; without it we’d have to recognise each other in the same way as most other mammals – through a sense of smell. Imagine the ramifications of that at a cocktail party! Psychologists become intrigued when these complex visual capabilities are extended into seeing things that don’t really exist. In fact, they have a term for the perception of significant patterns in random visual or audio stimuli: pareidolia. Cloud shape spotting is an excellent example of visual pareidolia, as is seeing, say, the outline of an old woman’s face in the swirls of a marble-tiled floor. Examples of audio pareidolia include perceptions of voices in a record played backwards, or patterns of sounds in random TV static. There’s nothing wrong with it – unless, of course, you think it’s real.

There’s something about Mary Things go up a notch when there’s the perception of something meaningful in these patterns – when the face in the marble is perceived to be that of the Virgin Mary or the voice in the record played backwards seems to say, “Satan loves chewy fruit pastilles.” Psychologists have a term for this heightened perception of meaning in random stimuli as well: apophenia. But why are there often perceptions of religious imagery in random patterns? There are three possible explanations: •

A combination of coincidental random patterning and wishful thinking; • The evidence of priming; • It’s a miracle! The first point is quite logical: given the infinite number of patterns that can be found in both nature and in man-made objects – be they the






Mother Teresa seen on a cinnamon bun in Nashville, Tennessee in late 1996 - and which the press predictably nicknamed ‘The NunBun’. It was stolen in 2005 on – wait for it – Christmas Day. A cross of reflected sunlight often seen on the silver dome of the Fernsehturm TV tower in Berlin, and referred to




Reagan in his famous “tear down this wall” speech as a sign of a religious endorsement for the collapse of Communism. It also has a nickname: ‘The Pope’s Re-

venge’. The image of an angel in the window of a carpet store in Porterville, California. It only appears at night, when crowds flock to see it - and are a bit of a nuisance when they do.

Buddha in a beehive atop a Buddhist temple in Rochester, Minnesota. An elder believes its purpose is to tell everyone to seek peace in their lives.

The second possible explanation is a demonstration of human folly and nature: we are open to suggestion and the influence of others. (Sales people rely on this very human trait, as do magicians, politicians and religious leaders.) As social animals, we also feel uncomfortable to be left out of the pack. As a consequence, if someone points to a smudge of black paint on a window and says that it looks like a religious figure, we are more likely to see it too, and even show someone else. The third possible explanation is a moot one, because events claimed to be ‘miracles’ rely on human perception (as per the previous two points). Besides, they have a nasty habit of happening in a manner in which they can never be scientifically proven. Philosophically, the tendency to see familiar images in random patterns is simply an extension of being human. The famous Scottish philosopher David Hume said: “There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or goodwill to every thing that hurts or pleases us.” So the next time summer finds you gazing upwards at the clouds, marvel at your mind’s capacity to see shapes and faces in the wonders of nature. Just know they’re not real. Daryl Ilbury is a multi-award winning broadcaster and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a passion for science that has burned since he was a child. You can see an archive of his work on his website or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.

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(Buddha) (Angel) NBC News • 22nd Septemeber 2012


(NunBun) (Tower) Wikimedia • Workhorse.investor


swirls of tree bark or the folds of dough in a sticky bun – it is inevitable that they will occasionally throw up patterns that may, indeed, look like the shape of a religious figure. All is needed is a strong belief for it to be so.





Being an oil baron used to be one of the most sure-fire ways to get rich quick. In a world where automobiles were rapidly replacing carriages, fuel was (and still is) a precious commodity. But imagine a substance even more important than fuel. Something every human and animal needs. Something all activity on Earth would quickly come to a grinding halt without. Such a vital material would surely be the most precious commodity imaginable, and whoever owned it would be the richest person alive. This substance isn’t the stuff of fantasies. It does exist. But it doesn’t represent the path to untold riches. In fact, it is available freeof-charge in most places and nobody has ever made a significant profit from it. It is, of course, fresh and potable water. We can often take water for granted, forgetting

just how essential for all life on Earth it is. It is the ‘blue’ on our Blue Marble; but in a dystopian future, it might not be as readily available as it is for many of us today. Fresh water is rapidly disappearing in many regions of the world, and some enterprising individuals have bought up access – realising that the next big gold rush is approaching.

Weighing up where the water is – NASA-style How can we tell that freshwater is disappearing? This is the question that bothers both environmentalists and eagle-eyed economists. In tomorrow’s world, water is power. The solution lies within one of the simplest laws of physics: the fact that anything with mass – anything that weighs something – imparts a gravitational pull. Bigger objects exert more of a ‘pull’ on objects nearby than smaller ones, and this relationship is one way that scientists can measure how much freshwater is being lost from around the globe on an annual basis. Around a decade ago, NASA and the German Aerospace Center launched a joint project called the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment, or GRACE. The experiment features two satellites that orbit the Earth, one trailing the other by 220 km. As they move, the satellites’ orbits are sensitive to the minute changes in Earth’s gravitational field caused by objects such as glaciers, ice caps, and underground aquifers. By looking for differences in how the satellites behave when passing over the same object at different points in time, scientists have been able to deduce whether the mass of the object being passed over is changing – whether a glacier is getting smaller (and lighter), or whether an underground aquifer is drying up. And, so far, GRACE has yielded both good and bad news. The good news is that the depletion of freshwater isn’t happening as rapidly as was predicted before GRACE went live. Melting ice caused sea levels to rise 1.5 mm rise a year from 2003 to 2010 – about half as much as anticipated. To give some perspective, this is about 24 times slower than the amount your fingernails would grow in the same amount of time. Although comparatively small, it is still enough water to cover all of the United States to a depth of 50 cm every year. The bad news is that, although freshwater

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(Sink) Flickr • pepemczolz Previous Page: (Ground) Wikimedia • Tomas Castelazo, (Water Drop) Flickr • AZRainman

For those of who have endured another typical British summer, the phrase ‘water, water everywhere’ will resonate more strongly than ever. But while Europe gets deluged, large swathes of the USA are facing their worst drought conditions for years. As far as water supplies go, we live in a world in turmoil. And it may be water, not oil, over which future wars are waged. Guest contributor Jackie Ratner lifts the lid on NASA’s new water-spying technology – and a satellite network that could dictate the politics of the future.

(Maps) NASA/Trent Schindler and Matt Rodell, (Nile Delta) NASA

THE GRAVITY OF THE LOOMING WATER CRISIS loss is less than predicted, it is still a very real problem. Many areas of the world are finding their freshwater becoming rapidly depleted due to increasing population growth, growing production rates, and the limited or complete lack of replenishment of water reservoirs. India is a particularly graphic example, where aquifers beneath the country are losing as much as one

sources worldwide are shared between multiple nations, making it nearly impossible to establish a consistent regulatory framework internationally because of the delicate relationships involved. Despite the difficulties, some steps have been taken. In 1970, the International Law Commission began work on a water-use ‘code of conduct’. It was a torrid process, and took until 1997 to be voted on by UN member nations. Even then, it failed to receive sufficient ratifications to become official. The unofficial and catchily-titled ‘Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses’ is an important step in the right direction, and the International Court of Justice began to refine this Convention in 2008. Enforcement is another issue: there are very few international bodies able to create international laws and even fewer capable of enforcing it. Without an impassive organisation to police the situation, there is very little to stop different countries from violating treaties, ‘stealing’ underground water, and allowing conflicts to descend into violent altercations.

The Water Wars

ABOVE: Groundwater storage variance in India between 2002 and 2008, relative to the mean for the period. These deviations from the mean are expressed as the height of an equivalent layer of water, ranging from -12 cm (deep red) to 12 cm (dark blue).

foot (one-third of a metre) of water per year.

Who owns the water anyway? Most countries are recognising the need to regulate freshwater use – but there are a myriad of issues that make this far from simple. For starters, reaching inter-country agreements on shared water resources is often problematic from a political point of view: consider that glacier water is shared by India and Pakistan, two countries with a tempestuous history. Or that Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories all stake a claim in the Jordan River Basin. Over 500 freshwater

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But how can water use be feasibly divided between countries? Two sensible ways have been put forward. Firstly, water could be divided hydrographically: by considering where the water originates and how much of it lies within geographical boundaries. Alternatively, water could be divided chronologically, based on who has been using it the longest. The third way, ‘extreme sovereignty’, is generally considered to be unreasonable. This idea here is that waters that originate within the boundaries of a particular state are legally owned by that state, regardless of where the water eventually ends up. Imagine the Nile, which has long been associated with Egypt, being controlled and owned by Burundi (one of the possible headwater locations). Or consider the conflict that would arise if the origin of the Nile were

BELOW: Satellite image of the Nile Delta.

THE GRAVITY OF THE LOOMING WATER CRISIS considered to be Lake Victoria, bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Beware the barons Sometimes, the cost of maintaining and securing water infrastructure is so high that it becomes unrealistic for a government to continue to provide it as a public service. In this case, water can become privatised – as was the case with Britain in the late 1980s. Such privatisation on a wider scale may give birth to ‘water barons’ – monopolies that are taking control of drinking water across countries and even continents. Three ‘barons’ are already responsible for privatisation in much of the world. The French company Suez (of Suez Canal fame) purchased United Water in 1999, thus becoming the owner of most water facilities for cities east of the Mississippi River in the USA. Another French company called Vivendi has a presence in many developing nations in South America and around the Indian Ocean. Finally,

and bought out the Thames Water Company in Britain. Privatisation of water infrastructure in Britain is still controversial. Although prices have increased, the quality and consistency of the service provided has improved. Perhaps more importantly, it is the concept of privatisation that scares many people. The notion that a few individuals could monopolise and exploit something that no one can live without is a future few people want. Scientific advancements can offer new and exciting opportunities for humanity. Great leaps forward in technology now give us the ability to map freshwater loss and its movements across countries and continents. Unfortunately, our scientific understanding has surpassed our ability to develop social and political solutions to deal with a very real problem. Certainly, a little bit of grace is needed.


RWE of Germany also has stakes in the USA

NASA News and Features “NASA Satellites Unlock Secret to Northern India’s Vanishing Water”

NASA Earth Observatory Features “Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment”

New York Times article: “Groundwater depletion is detected from space”

Wolf, Aaron T. Criteria for equitable allocations: the heart of international water conflict, Natural Resources Forum 23 (1999) 3-30

Africa: U.S. Response to Future Water Crisis Takes Shape

The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water

Jacob, T., Wahr, J., Pfeffer, W. T. & Swenson, S. Recent contributions of glaciers and ice caps to sea level rise. Nature 482, 514–518 (2012).

Jackie Ratner is a native New Yorker with a penchant for pretty shoes and Googling into the wee hours of the morning. She’s also reading for a DPhil in volcanic hazards at Oxford, aiming to turn scientific research into real disaster contingency plans. She’s not on Twitter, but say hi if you see her in the street!

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A good novel can be an immersive experience of characters, emotions and new worlds. Mind Guru Kim Lacey is a self-confessed reading addict and loves a good tale that can transport her to a far off land. But as a teacher and budding writer, she wonders how it is possible for a string of sentences to have such a powerful effect, and asks whether you can ever read too much. You’re almost certainly reading these words without even thinking about how you’re making sense of them. I mean, if you were consciously concentrating on the process of reading, you’d likely neglect what you were actually trying to read. The process of reading, it seems, is something of a mystery. Inkblots or pixels somehow translate into meaning – but why do they make sense, and not just end up being one confusing Rorschach test?

weren’t originally prepared to absorb language through vision. Instead, they evolved for hunting and gathering. Dehaene calls this conundrum the “reading paradox.” His explanation for this theory is that reading was ‘invented’ by ancient scribes due to the brain’s incredible capacity to change and rewire (as opposed to being hard-wired, like a computer microchip). This phenomenon is called plasticity. This plasticity, he says, has allowed our brains to ‘learn’ how to read because of our overwhelming desire to read and communicate using visual cues. Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi offers quite a different perspective of how reading arose. He reminds us that reading isn’t technically a new thing—heck, as hunter-gatherers, we were attuned to read nature by following footprints, animal scents, and other environmental patterns long before any alphabet was created. Changizi argues that the trick behind written language is that the visual signs used by humans developed from those we saw nature – and writing has simply tapped into this trick.

Peeking inside the reader’s mind Many have argued that reading is not something that Homo sapiens as a species was ever ‘designed’ to do, and yet we have evolved into a deeply literate species. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene notes that we invented writing a ‘mere’ 5,400 years ago—next to nothing in evolutionary terms. Being able to write certainly wasn’t the relaxing pastime it can be today. Instead, reading and writing developed as ways of communicating information and to act as memory aids. What is incredible is how reading and writing developed in the first place, when our brains

As time has passed, we’ve used our visual adeptness for other, more widely useful tools— namely reading and transmitting knowledge.

From understanding to experiencing I spent the majority of July sucked into Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad mystery series, and let me tell you that any book I’ve tried since hasn’t had a fair shake in the light of such brilliant writing. For me, as I’m sure for many of my fellow readers, an amazing thing happens as my eyes gaze across the typed words. I feel emotions and ‘see’ the characters. Let me pose you book worms this question: do you ever

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Previous Page: (Books) Flickr • brewbooks (Kindle & Train) Flickr • Annie Mole (Rorschachs) Flickr •_Gavroche_

LEFT: The Rorshach Test used by psychologists: what do you see in these images?

THE LIFE OF A BOOK WORM finish a book and get a ‘reading hangover’ – the feeling that no matter how many times you try to begin another book, you can’t – because it just can’t possibly be as good as the one you’ve just read? That’s how I felt after finishing Tana French’s novels. It left me wondering: how can we be left with such realistic attachments to fictional characters - and entire worlds - from nothing more than a string of letters? The answer might come from the words of cognitive scientist Keith Oatley. He notes that when we open a book and absorb the words on a page, we are not merely book-reading, but mind-reading. And when we start mind-reading, we put our own concerns and worries on hold and adopt those of the fictionalised world. In doing so, we employ empathy to imagine what the characters might be feeling in whatever situation they find themselves in. We plug in our own emotions to picture ourselves as one of these fictional characters, and project our past experiences into the make-believe world to inform our understanding of the situation. In other words, we think about how we would feel in the same situation – and that’s what invokes the feelings and emotions that well up as we read.

(Facewriting) Flickr • emiliokuffer, basykes

How much reading is too much? Finally, the concern of many bookworms is whether too much reading can affect our ability to think independently. As a writer, I’m always seeking out advice from other writers so I can see how they approach their work (or maybe I’m just stalling for time). One of the most wellworn morsels of advice for any aspiring writer is to “read often and read widely.” It’s sometimes frightening to think that such voracious reading might lead to some serious authoring offenses. Surely reading might cause a conflict with one’s ability to write convincingly? (Probably that depends on which authors you read! – Ed) Every few years, there is a high-profile plagiarism scandal. The popular science writer Jonah Lehrer recently came under fire for fabricating quotes about legendary folk singer Bob Dylan. Often the offence is blatant (as Lehrer later admitted). But sometimes the

writer has read so much he doesn’t realise he’s accidentally incorporated someone else’s work into his own writing. My students approach me with this problem all the time: they realize they’ve written something they’ve read before and can’t find it again to credit their source – and so own up for fear of getting busted for dishonesty. I always say that the solution is to sift through the old books and go hunting for those elusive quotes. One of the beauties of reading is we can always re-read things as many times as we want! Find those memorable gems. Savour and enjoy them. Better yet, take notes and bookmark along the way. So keep reading, readers. Heck, re-read your old issues of Guru. You never know what treasures you’ll find!

References •

Changizi, M. (2009), The vision revolution: how the latest research overturns everything we thought we knew about human vision. BenBella Books Inc., Dallas, TX. Dehaene, S. (2009), Reading in the brain: the new science of how we read. Penguin Books, New York. Oatley, K. (2011), “Narrative empathy: empathy is critical in fiction, in history, and in life.” Psychology today, 4 August 2012.

With a PhD from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim Lacey from Detroit, USA knows a thing or two about memory studies, digital media and digital humanities. She also has a serious addiction to combo plates at restaurants. You can read about Kim at or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.

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(Ants) Flcikr • the bridge Previous Page: (Muscle) Flickr • mrflip

WHAT’S STOPPING YOU HAVING THE ULTIMATE PHYSIQUE? When I was a kid I always had to be in bed by 9pm, while adults got to stay up late and watch TV. But even adults were flagging by the time the sci-fi movies came on at 2am. To spare my developing young mind from sleep deprivation, my Dad would tape these little gems to VHS so I could enjoy them later. I remember one particularly frightening movie called Them - a 1954 low-budget, black and white classic about atomic bomb testing in New Mexico. The gist of the plot? Ants mutate into giant ants. And I don’t mean ants as long as your foot; I mean ants bigger than a house. Fast forward to 1999 and I’m sitting in my invertebrate zoology class, talking about arthropods. If you never took an invertebrate zoology course, I’ll briefly explain: Arthrapoda is a phylum in the Animal Kingdom that contains many different species, such as scorpions, spiders, trilobites, and... ants. In fact, all insects

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belong to this phylum. A distinguishing feature of these creatures is that they all have an exoskeleton. Remember them being mentioned in high school? There are three types of skeleton that I know of: endoskeletons, exoskeletons and hydrostatic skeletons. We humans have an internal skeleton surrounded by muscles – an endoskeleton. The muscles are anchored to our bones and drive their movement. In contrast, most invertebrates have exoskeletons: their skeletons are on the outside, and the muscles are on the inside. These muscles are attached to the inside of the exoskeleton and pull on it to flex the limbs. If you are curious, the third type – the hydrostatic skeleton – is a mushy skeleton that uses liquid to maintain it shape and structure. Leeches and earthworms have these. But what does any of this have to do with health and fitness? Back in the classroom, my invertebrate zoology teacher was explaining how big a terrestrial arthropod can get before an exoskeleton ceases to function. On a small scale, these skeletons work great on land. But as the creature gets

larger the physics involved doesn’t seem to keep up and exoskeleton muscles simply can’t pull on the bones with enough power. This is (one reason) why the ants in Them could never really have happened. Which is a big relief. (I was carrying that anxiety around for way too long.) We do however see large arthropods that live in water: the water provides extra support, giving the exoskeleton much-needed reinforcement and allowing the limbs to function at larger scales. Google ‘Japanese spider crab’ and you’ll see what I mean. (I can’t do it anymore. They freak me out.) But what about human muscles? Is there a limit to how big they can get? The answer, my dear readers, is yes. Like insect muscles, human muscles also have a physiological limit. If muscles go beyond that limit they cease to work well. Consider the muscles that make up your biceps. They are made BELOW: Muscle fibres up of lots of long muscle cells, each of which is running from top to also known as a fibre. You and I were born with bottom. The cross a specific number of fibres in our biceps. Maybe stripes are caused by the regular you have more than me, maybe you have less arrangement of - but the number will never change once you actin and myosin proteins, which reach puberty. Of course, we can change the slide past each size of our biceps through weight training, but other when a muscle contraction we can’t make any more actual fibres. A person takes place, born with lots of fibres in their biceps will have shortening the fibre. a greater potential to get bigger biceps than someone born with fewer.

There is also a maximum size to which the fibres can grow: 100 microns (or micrometers) thick. To give you a comparison, a normal human hair is about 40 microns thick. The lower limit of a muscle is 10 microns, below this the fibre degrades – a phenomenon called sacropenia. Our predetermined number of muscle fibres accounts for the very obvious muscle size differences we see in the population. Two people doing the same training might have very different results because of the number of fibres they have to train with. And the number of fibres you have in your biceps does not necessarily reflect the number you will have in your quadriceps or pectorals, and so forth. There are other factors determining the size (and so strength) of a muscle too, such as the type of fibres present and the amount of fluid in the muscle. (See below for links to my online articles for more.) So don’t beat yourself up if some of your muscles are not as big as you want them to be. It might just be the way you were born. Blame your parents, not your trainer.

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 pseudoscience. 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

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(Weightlifter) Flcikr • greg westfall. (Fibres) Wikimedia



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