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THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond realdoctorstu.com
Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu
Deputy Editor/ Molecular Guru @crowe_jon
J. N. Lloyd
Design Guru email@example.com
FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE Leila Wildsmith Guru Opinions www.writingonthewall0612.blogspot.co.uk Berit Brogaard Kristian Marlow Daryl Ilbury www.darylilbury.com
Sceptic Guru @darylilbury
Simon Makin Kim Lacey kimberlylacey.com
Mind Guru @kimlacey
Artem Cheprasov Lewis Pike Natasha Agabalyan Food Guru thescienceinformant.com @SciencInformant Nathan Green
Gavin Hubbard www.sciencehubb.co.uk
Zaria Gorvett zariagorvett.wordpress.com
Matt Linsdell smart-fit.ca
Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt
CONTENTS #ARRIVALS LOUNGE
Even if you think you’re au fait with current affairs, there’s always something you’ll have missed. Thankfully Simon Makin is on hand to fill in the gaps.
ONESIE UPON A TIME… It could be the oddest and most disturbing fashion fad ever to hit the high street. Columnist Leila explores what the all-in-one adult outfit – the ‘onesie’ – says about us and what it communicates to those around us.
Good sleep is one of life’s most enjoyable experiences. Getting tired when you want to stay awake is hideous. The urge to wake and sleep is like an automatic pilot – as jet lag sufferers know only too well. And sadly strong coffee only goes so far. Mind Guru Kim shines a light on our circadian rhythm and nature’s solution to controlling sleep patterns.
Everyone loves free stuff. Five copies of David Bradley’s book Deceived Wisdom were up for grabs in a comedy caption competition. In a fight of the funniest, check out the wittiest winners from this selection of quirky retro photos.
YOU’RE GETTING SLEEPY… THE DRUG-FREE ALL-NIGHTER
FROM BRAIN DAMAGE TO BEETHOVEN Some people seem have all the luck – born with talent, ability and good-looks. Derek wasn’t. At least not in the musical department – he’d never played an instrument. But following a near-fatal accident, he was transformed into a musical prodigy – faultlessly reciting piano masterpieces. Neurology experts Berit and Kristian explain what they discovered when they met Derek, and whether there is an inner genius in all of us.
WHAT YOUR FACE (DOESN’T) SAY ABOUT YOU First impressions count. We make judgments on someone’s facial appearance. Personology is the ancient ‘science of face reading’ that shows the link between facial features and personality. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury gives personology a good eyeing up and finds out what his dashingly handsome features say about him.
All those niggling questions answered. Our writers and Gurus love to get your weird and wacky questions about science/health/space/ food… Here’s some of the best. PLUS! Exclusive book giveaway for the best questions!.
BRIGHTON SCI-FEST ROUNDUP Didn’t make it to Brighton to check out ‘The Science of Sex’ or ‘Zombie Science’? We were there to witness all the gory goings-on. Find out the best and worst bits in our review roundup.
‘THEY’ KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, EAT, SHOP… Your data gets all over the place. Your personal information isn’t private – however much you wish it were. Nathan Green sifts through the stats to find out who knows your most intimate details and whether you should be bothered about it anyway.
CANCER, SNAKES AND LADDERS It’s not uncommon to compare life to a game. Researcher and writer Gavin Hubbard ponders the mystery of why some people do all the ‘wrong’ things and live to 100. It’s a bit like rolling dice, apparently.
BYE BYE BUG, FAREWELL FUNGUS Eating oranges is supposed to stop the common cold. It doesn’t help very much. From coughs to cholera, infections blight our existence. It wasn’t always that way. Thousands of years ago, we lived in an infection-free Garden of Eden. It might sound like a Biblical miracle, but Zaria Gorvett believes humanity has a good chance to beat deadly bugs once and for all.
EAT YOUR HEART OUT Chocolate, carrot, coffee… there’s little better comfort food than a good cake. Food Guru Natasha reviews a convention of slightly crazy chefs – bakers determined to create bodypart shaped baked goods. Gonad-ginger-cake anyone?
Kim and Natasha size up some fiction and factual reads. Deceived Wisdom, Bio-Punk and The Universe Explained to my Grandchildren get the Gureview treatment. (We have five copies of BioPunk: Stories from the Far Side of Research to give away – see page 28)
YOUR GENOME IN YOUR POCKET Imagine you could find out the deepest secrets of your genetics. Imagine you knew your inherent strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Imagine you could get a genetic reading with a handheld gadget. Imagine no longer. Ross Harper shows us that the future is here.
DEATH AT THE PLAYGROUND Ah, the golden days of childhood! Carefree years spent playing and having fun. However, the youngster’s favourite space – the playground – may be harbouring a threat more sinister than the schoolyard bully. Animal Guru Artem Cheprasov gives a disturbing account of how our pets may be spreading deadly worm infections to the nippers.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH He just couldn’t stop winning. We now know why. Fitness Guru Matt Linsdell uncovers how the air we breathe dictates our athletic ability – and how Lance used drugs to put himself head, shoulders and chest above the competition.
#DEPARTURE LOUNGE #PHYSICS
BATTLING CHAOS Laundry baskets, office desks, and the bottom kitchen drawer are all places that never seem to get organised. There is a higher law that governs our perpetual battle with disorder. All but the most anal of us are on the losing side. Molecular Guru Jon Crowe explains the reason.
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.
ou don’t see Jeff Goldblum much these days. But in the early 1990s I remember him hosting a documentary in which he explained an exciting, new technological advancement – the ‘information superhighway’. Fresh from fame in Jurassic Park, we viewers hung on his every word. The currency of the future would be ‘information’ instead of money, Jeff explained so convincingly. Back then, everything was ‘cyber’ and web browsing was called ‘surfing’. Nobody calls it that anymore. Expectations are often wrong. Having read both of Lance Armstrong’s books, I was an admirer believing he would ultimately be vindicated in his innocence. On page 46 our Fitness Guru Matt Linsdell examines how this master-deceiver super-charged his performance. You might expect Brighton on the south coast of the UK to be all about sun and sex. This Spring it paid host to an annual ‘Sci-Fest’ – and our correspondents Simon and Natasha went along to find out more. Not out of keeping with
its reputation, the event proved to be a rather risqué affair! (See page 29) It’s never nice to find out you’re being snooped on. Facebook and Google have come in for a lot of flak in recent times for surreptitiously harvesting our personal information through camera-mounted cars and digital data mining. Most of us see this as a bad thing, but not Nathan Green. On page 35 he questions whether Big Data is really that bad. Even long-held truths can turn out to be wrong. Deceived Wisdom, David Bradley’s brilliant new book busts all the myths and ‘wisdom’ passed down from our parents, teachers and grandparents. If you missed our Deceived Wisdom comedy caption competition, check out page 9 to have a hearty chuckle at the best entries. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury also does more myth-busting, and Food Guru Natasha Agabalyan shocks us with some stomachchurning cakes. Unlike those cakes, I hope this issue is something to be savoured. Enjoy it!
Erratum: In Issue 10’s article, “Spontaneous Giving (and Calculated Stinginess)”, we reported that the authors of a recent study in Nature were from Harvard’s Department of Psychology. In fact, the authors’ affiliations are distributed across Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Department of Mathematics, and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. GURU 11 • April/May 2013 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2013 Guru Magazine Ltd.
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Driving home from work last week, I saw something quite disturbing: a grown man walking back from the supermarket dressed in a bright green ‘onesie’. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘onesie’, it is an oversized romper suit or babygrow, consisting of tracksuit bottoms and a hooded jumper joined together and fastened with a zipper. Originally developed five years ago by three twenty-something Norwegians and called the ‘OnePiece’, it was intended to be “the ultimate chill-out wear that would be perfect for a lazy day at home” [read about the story behind OnePiece here]. Since then, they have been popularised by celebrities such as Brad Pitt and One Direction, and have become a fashion phenomenon across the globe, being worn by children, teenagers and even adults. In Britain, retailers reported a 600% rise in onesie sales in the run-up to Christmas, with one being sold every three seconds in clothes outlet New Look. With the persisting cold weather in the UK, they have become a cosy and comfortable (if unflattering) option for snuggling up on the sofa on a cold evening. But onesie-wearing is no longer being confined to the comfort of the couch: it has become popular fashion wear for everyday life. Whilst I can understand the appeal of an oversized baby-grow to keep you snug whilst at home, I strongly object to the latest craze for wearing these items in public. We wouldn’t go out in public dressed in our bedclothes, so why is a onesie acceptable? It wasn’t all that long ago that British supermarkets felt the need to publicise a dress code for shoppers, forbidding
nightwear and bare feet. Onesies have yet to become subject to such regulation. I am not the only person who is surprised by this bizarre trend: it has become known as the ‘Marmite of the fashion world’ (you either love it or hate it). The original creators of the OnePiece were also bemused when “people started wearing the OnePiece at clubs and it became a fashion and lifestyle statement”. However, what interests me is not so much the increased popularity of the onesie, but what this onesie lifestyle ‘statement’ promotes.
It’s hard to be stressed in a onesie I wonder if this recent obsession with dressing like a young child reflects a desire in many of us to return to a more childish – and easier – stage of life. In times of economic hardship and tough choices, a time when there were fewer pressures and fewer bills is infinitely more attractive.
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(Sleeping Baby) Wikimedia • Produnis, (Dummy) Flickr • p886
Onesie Upon A Time… How bizarre baby-grow fashion took over the world
(Onesie Party) Flickr • The McGee
The onesie doesn’t speak of a lazy, care-free attitude to fashion so much as a deeper, more desperate need for security. Donning a furry all-in-one, we can allow ourselves to revisit immaturity; relinquishing responsibilities and entrusting our lives to someone else – to another ‘adult’. In difficult times, the onesie acts as a metaphorical comfort blanket that can be carried around with us at all times. But better than a comfort blanket that is picked up, put down, and even lost, the onesie ‘comfort blanket’ – and the security it represents – literally surrounds the wearer. Even more significantly, we must look at the messages that onesie-culture communicates to our children: we are showing them that adulthood and ‘growing up’ is nothing more than buying a bigger size. We are creating a fantasy, Peter Pan world in which no one need ever grow up. We are feeding them a fairytale that begins, “Onesie upon a time …” and in which responsibility becomes an optional extra – one of many ‘fashion choices’, which can we put on and take off when it no longer suits us. When we put on a onesie, we take off seriousness and put on enjoyment, fun and frivolity. In her article, “How the Onesie took over the
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world” Karen Kay wrote at the end of last year: “The idea of grown men shaking off the shackles of Alpha Male suits and ties, and succumbing to the allure of these cossetting one pieces is very appealing.” She goes on to say “Women who are frazzled from juggling the demands of family and work can relax instantly by slipping one on. It just adds a sense of fun to life. It’s hard to be stressed in a onesie.” It may be hard to be stressed in a onesie, but it is also hard to be respected, admired and responsible. It is hard to give our children something to aspire to and to look up to, when all they see is a bigger version of themselves. Fairytale ‘fashion and lifestyle statements’ created by the ‘onesie culture’ should only exist within the confines of the home: when we are relaxing in front of the TV and the rest of the world is safely on the other side of the door. This imaginary culture cannot, and should not, exist in the real world, because fairytales and reality can’t coexist.
Leila Wildsmith is an English teacher in a secondary school and, in her spare time, loves writing and reading a wide variety of different books. She occasionally blogs about writing at www.writingonthewall0612.blogspot.co.uk and intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s.
@GURUSWAG In this issue, we review David Bradley’s new book Deceived Wisdom (on page 55). It’s an absolute corker, and we have five copies to give away. Over the last month we’ve been running a wit-testing caption competition through Facebook, twitter and the Guru website. The funniest entries (as measured via the Guru-chuckle-ometer) win a copy of the book:
“That’s the last time I look in this lonely hearts column for a bird with big breasts and long legs....” (Louise Allan)
Buddy never could resist leggy vegetarian models. (Michael C)
Honourable mention: “What the hell…! Bird flies into plane engine?? Must be April 1st.” (Charles Clifford)
Honourable mention: ‘Dumb pest shoots giant locus’ (Sue Pearson)
Mavis was always game after a pint of vodka and Red Bull. (Paul Burke) Honourable mention: Maureen’s career was down the pan (Michael C)
“Should I upgrade to Windows?” “No, I’m happier near the aisle.” (Rob Falconer) Honourable mention: “Excuse me, Sir. I hope you have that in airplane mode!” (James Crewdson)
“Sanka… you dead?” “Ya, mon.” (John Milleker) Honourable mentions: As usual, Disney had taken liberties with their version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Rob Falconer) “It’s true boss: this new breed of invisible husky don’t half fly!” (The Musical Brain via twitter)
Well done Louise, Michael, Rob, Paul and John! Copies of the book are on their way to you! Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on twitter so you don’t miss out on the next competition...
FROM BRAIN DAMAGE TO BEETHOVEN HOW A HEAD INJURY CREATED A MUSICAL PRODIGY
BERIT BROGAARD KRISTIAN MARLOW
“I was always around music – I just never played it,” says Derek Amato. This statement may not seem that extraordinary but, for Derek, it certainly is – at the age of 40, he awoke from a concussion as a musical genius. On October 27, 2006, Derek had gotten together with some friends for a pool party. They were playing football in the tiny back yard and, performing a macho leap, Derek jumped high over the water to catch the ball. Misjudging the depth of the pool, he crashed headfirst into the hard bottom of the shallow end.
“I didn’t lose consciousness right away,” Derek explains. “I came out of the water and immediately knew I was hurt. I thought my ears were bleeding and I couldn’t hear anything. My friends were talking, but I could only see their lips move.” Noticing that Derek was hurt, his friends dragged him out of the pool and took him to hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home early next morning to rest. “I think they sent me home just because I was being an asshole,” Derek says, laughing. “You know, when you have a head trauma, you get rather frustrated and your triggers are short. I was pretty adamant that I was okay, and I just wanted to go.” Derek slept nearly non-stop for the following four days. His mother woke him up every couple of hours to make sure he was still breathing, and put ice on his black eyes and forehead. He had a huge swelling from the bruise on the front of his head: “I looked like I’d been run over by a train,” Derek says. On the fifth day he woke up and, as if a miracle, felt completely normal. He remembered he had had an accident, but he couldn’t recall the details. He didn’t even know where he was, or what the date was. In fact, he thought he was in Arizona training for baseball. Despite feeling completely beaten up, he told his mother he was recovered and then went to his best friend Rick’s house. This visit would reveal something quite astonishing. Derek had never played the piano before. But, for some reason, Derek felt drawn to a piano he knew was upstairs. Sitting down on the piano bench, Derek started to play. His friend didn’t know what was going on. Neither did he. “I just felt this weird energy that made me want to go fumble around with it. I had no idea my hands would know where to go,” he tells us. To both Rick and Derek’s astonishment, he played like a virtuoso. “I just sat down and played intensely. It wasn’t like someone playing ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’,” Derek says with an unexpected indifference. “It was like Beethoven snuck into my bloodline. All of a sudden someone turned on a switch: I played a classically-structured piece. I kept going for six hours.”
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(Dive) Flickr • C@mera M@n
FROM BRAIN DAMAGE TO BEETHOVEN
FROM BRAIN DAMAGE TO BEETHOVEN hometown of Denver, Colorado, he withdrew from the world. “I was trying to understand what my mind was doing. I was trying to get a grip on these changes that had kind of designed a whole new person.” Since then, Derek has signed a recording contract, scored a movie soundtrack, and has even been invited to attend the 2013 Grammys. He’s been featured on television shows such as News on Fox, The Today Show, The Jeff Probst Show and the hit series Sons of Anarchy (his tattoos make him especially fitting for the show). Derek regularly travels around the country to perform at various sold-out venues, and was even called to share his gift at a TED conference in March 2013.
’It is like a tickertape in my brain’
(Tickertape) Wikimedia • Bad germ
ABOVE: An example of an early tickertape computer.
When Derek finally turned to look at Rick, his friend had tears in his eyes. “We didn’t know what to think,” Derek says. “We didn’t know if God was in the room. We didn’t know if we should have another beer! We didn’t know what the hell was going on.” The next day, he talked his mom into going to the music store. He didn’t want to tell his mom about his new gift: he wanted to show her. Arriving at the store, he sat her down next to him and, putting fingers to keyboard, played like he had done the night before. His mom started crying. “What are you doing, Derek?” she asked. “I really don’t know, Mom,” Derek replied, “I really don’t.” Before long, he was put in contact with a Los Angeles music business, who flew him out to California and put him on stage. The audience was astonished, the organizers dumbfounded – this guy really could play! This was Derek’s first flirt with stardom. Yet upon his return to his
Derek explains that, after the accident, he began to see little black and white squares moving from left to right across his visual field. “It’s like a tickertape rolling around my brain,” he says. This constant stream of musical notation drives Derek’s compulsory movement of fingers up and down the piano. His hands read each square one at a time, each a musical note corresponding to a finger position on the piano. He uses six fingers to play – the thumb, index finger and ring finger on each hand. “I don’t know why all ten don’t want to play along. I suppose it’s a comfortable position for my hands,” he says. The experience of seeing little black and white squares appears to be an unusual form of a condition called synesthesia. In its most common form (called grapheme-color synesthesia), letters and numbers become associated with specific colors, textures and personalities. Other rarer cases may lead to people experiencing ‘ping’ sounds in response to familiar faces, or even complex geometrical mental images triggered by looking at or thinking about mathematical equations. Though Derek’s case of synesthesia is rare, it is not uncommon for synesthetes to gain certain advantages. Jason Padgett, another individual we have been working with (and have written about in Issue Ten), is able to draw intricate geometrical designs by hand, on the basis of his synesthetic experiences. Many graphemecolor synesthetes have an enhanced memory of words and numbers, and some synesthetes experience months and time as located in an inner space, giving them an extraordinary memory for particular dates.
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FROM BRAIN DAMAGE TO BEETHOVEN Music reshapes the brain
Inner explosions But how can a concussion lead to extraordinary musical ability? For the moment, this remains a mystery – but our knowledge of musical processing in the brain and what happens in traumatic brain injury have given us some ideas. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can occur either as a result of a blunt force or shockwave from a blast. In both situations, the inside of the rapidly-moving skull sends shockwaves throughout the soft brain tissue. If the striking force is strong enough, it can cause the brain to ‘bounce’ off the inside of the skull, resulting in further shockwaves. These waves emanate through the brain, twisting and pulling on the connections between neurons, tearing them apart and causing damage. TBI is a particularly devastating problem for soldiers who
repeatedly sustain mortar shell attacks at closeto mid-range, many of whom report memory coordination problems years later. During a concussion, the nerve function of several brain regions become paralyzed as the brain shakes inside the head. When this happens, salt levels, which are normally carefully balanced, are disturbed: potassium atoms inside the nerve cells leak out and calcium ions surge in. These drastic molecular changes shut down the neuron’s internal energy-generating engines, causing the huge, uncontrolled release of neurotransmitter chemicals, which bombard neighboring nerve cells. This bombardment causes the affected neurons to die off, leading to scar tissue, whereas other affected neurons gradually regain normal function. Though we don’t yet fully know the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, it is possible that the uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters from dying neurons actually enhances brain activity in neighboring brain regions. We think this boost (in the musical processing areas, for example) could be permanent. Derek’s black and white blocks might be explained in a similar way, with excessive brain activity causing visual images – images that make it possible for an unschooled individual to act in ways that would not otherwise be possible. So, Derek’s musical blocks are the brain’s way of translating new thinking patterns into action.
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ABOVE: Physical force to the head causes the brain to hit the inside of the skull at several regions.
(TBI) • Copyright 2013 Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research.
Research indicates that musical ability may lie dormant in all of us, waiting to be developed through practice or, as in Derek’s case, triggered if the brain undergoes massive restructuring. Recent research looking at what happens in the brains of trained musicians and non-musicians has shown many similarities: brains of both the musically talented and musically inept fire signals in precisely the same way when hearing musical mistakes and out-of-place notes. So certain basic musical abilities appear to be innate – ‘hard-wired’ into everyone. But the brains of musicians and non-musicians differ in several important ways. Grey matter is the ‘meat’ of the brain, home to all the hardworking neurons. White matter is the space in between, mostly consisting of the wiring (axons) connecting neurons to one another. Musicians have more grey matter in the areas of the brain responsible for movement, sensation, and language processing – a difference that appears to be shaped through the right kind of musical practice. Put simply, professional musicians’ brains are shaped to allow for greater musical ability. The musically trained brain is also more efficient: brain imaging studies have shown that musical professionals actually use less of their brains to initiate complex movement. So it is likely that long-term practice changes both the structure of the brain, and the way in which it executes complex repetitive movement.
FROM BRAIN DAMAGE TO BEETHOVEN
(Derek) • Copyright 2012 Derek Amato.
ABOVE: Derek has started adding lyrics to his music. Here he performs songs from his album in New Orleans.
The cost of being a genius The many changes brought about by this newfound musical ability have come at a cost. He lost about 35 percent of his hearing from the damage to his brain and also lost the ability to dream for about seven years. He also became hypersensitive to light and sounds. “Fluorescent lighting makes me sick,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll pass out if the lighting is too strong.” He has memory problems and can’t always recall the musical pieces he has composed. But his hands usually can. He also has what appears to be a form of dyslexia. “Sometimes when I’m physically writing with a pen, or even typing, I get the letters mixed up. I’m starting to spell a word – ‘loud,’ let’s say. I’ll write ‘l’ and then I’ll put a ‘d’ and then an ‘o’ and a ‘u’. It even looks right to me, but it’s frustrating.” Derek’s sudden dyslexia could be the result of excessive electrical circuitry in the brain, brought on by his brain injury – and we asked if he would be willing to take some tests to find out. “No, I don’t know if I want to know,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to be labeled, man. The world is looking at my life. What if I have to get a real job some day?”
Despite these costs, Derek is grateful to be able to put some money away for his son and daughter. He even has a little left over for those in need. Running from film studio to film studio, recording music in between, Derek may seem flaky and swinish. But appearances can be deceptive. Derek doesn’t aim to be an avaricious Hollywood star. He is tenderhearted and philanthropic. “I want to spend the rest of my life giving. I want to feed homeless people,” Derek says in an interview with Ability Magazine’s Donna Mize. “I sleep on the streets with the homeless. I give them every last dime in my pocket. The material side of it all doesn’t matter. I haven’t had a car in five years. I don’t own a home. I float between my son’s house and staying with friends in northern Colorado. I only have a cell phone, so the kids can get me if they need me. I have nothing, and yet I have it all.”
Brogaard B, Vanni S, Silvanto J. (2012). Seeing Mathematics: Perception and Brain Activity in a Case of Acquired Synesthesia. Neurocase.
Croom AM. (2012). Music, neuroscience, and the psychology of wellbeing: a précis. Frontiers in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 2 (393).
Gaser C, Schlaug G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. The Journal of Neuroscience 23(27):9240–9245.
Koelsch S, Gunter T, Friederici AD, Schoger E. (2000). Brain indices of music processing: “nonmusicians” are musical. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(3):520– 541.
Koelsch S, Schroger E, Gunter T. (2002). Music matters: preattentive musicality of the human brain. Psychophysiology 39(1):38–48.
Krings T, Topper R, Foltys H, Erberich S, Sparing R, Willmes K, Thron A. (1999). Cortical activation patterns during complex motor tasks in piano players and control subjects: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroscience Letters 278(3):189–193.
Berit Brogaard, DMSci, PhD is Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri in St. Louis as well as the Network for Sensory Research at the University of Toronto. She is Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research, a group focused on synesthesia, savant syndrome and autism. Kristian Marlow, MA is a graduate student, member of the Center for Neurodynamics and Associate Director of the lab. Like all good academics – after a few too many glasses of wine – Berit and Kristian began writing about the fascinating cases they’ve studied for their forthcoming book The Superhuman Mind: True Tales of Extraordinary Mental Ability.
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LET’S FACE IT WHAT YOUR FACE (DOESN’T) SAY ABOUT YOU
DARYL ILBURY • SCEPTIC GURU
LET’S FACE IT NOTE FROM AUTHOR: You may, at times, find this article difficult to read. This could
either be because of the challenge of keeping your eyes on the page while vigorously shaking your head from side to side in utter disbelief, or because of the tears in your eyes from laughing incredulously. But be warned, people who believe in personology really do exist, and they take this stuff seriously
You must have heard of the phrase ‘every face tells a story’; well, personology believes this to be true. Literally. It asserts that features of the face are the physical expression of human behaviour – in other words, that you can tell someone’s personality from what their face looks like. Normally I wouldn’t give those who peddle this nonsense a moment’s thought. But because they refer to personology as the ‘science of face reading’, they’re now fair game for anyone with even a smidgen of scientific knowledge. Their claims of science mean they’ve also dropped firmly into my sights.
Previous Page: (Taped Face) Flickr • Dirigentens, (Faces) Flickr • scottks1
Let’s face it, there’s no science to personology Firstly a brief history (because the history of personology is very brief): like most forms of pseudoscience, it has no foundation in science and the people responsible for its genesis were in no way scientists. It dates back to the late 1930s when a judge from California called Edward V. Jones thought he could see a pattern between the physical appearance of those who stood before him in court and their personality. Whereas the judge may have been quite adept at cold reading*, his assumptions were in no way scientific – he didn’t do any controlled experiments and so his observations would have been riddled with confirmation bias, wishful thinking and pure self-deception. To cut a long and wholly unscientific story sideways, Judge Jones’s claims got a shot in the arm when a newspaper editor called Robert L. Whiteside asked him do a ‘reading’ of his wife. The subsequent exposure helped personology, as it became known, to take off amongst those ignorant of the fact that it was simply a resurrection of an ancient Greek practice called physiognomy, which had enjoyed an ebb and flow of interest, mainly from philosophers, throughout the course of history.
California dreaming? Today, those few who still believe in spreading the word of personology attempt to provide some measure of credence to their peddling by referring to their organisations as ‘centres’ or ‘institutes’. For example, there’s the International Center for Personology (which is one person – Naomi Tickle) in California. The International Institute of Personology in California is a small house, and the home of its two sole members, William and Janelle Burtis. And the very scientific-sounding Personology Research and Development Center, Inc. is yet another small house in Orangevale, in – yes, you guessed it – California. Its principal members may also sound familiar: they’re William and Janelle Burtis. Interestingly, the International Centre for Personology (UK & Europe) was registered in 1998 but never took off and was dissolved four years later. Now, there’s nothing illegal with registering yourself as a ‘centre’ or ‘institute’, but if it is to suggest that you are a registered professional scientific research facility then you are guilty of misrepresentation at best.
What your stiff upper lip says about you... Perhaps the best way to expose just how ridiculous personology is, is to highlight some
*If you want to fascinate your friends and scare the daylights out of your enemies, you can try your hand (and eye) at cold reading. You can find a helpful guide here G U R U • I S S U E 1 1 • A P R I L / M AY 2 0 1 3 • PA G E 1 6
of the correlations it proposes between facial characteristics Round Face and personality. And Friendly here’s where you might start finding it difficult to read Wide Jaw (you may also want Authoritative to have a quick look in the mirror first): Notice that most of the supposed perFine Hair sonality attributes Sensitive and caring are positive. The reason for this is Large Bottom Lip twofold: it helps a Generous (the bigger the subject react more lip the more generous) positively towards a reading, and allocating negative personality traits to people Small Chin with characteristic Sensitive to criticism facial features risks racial stereotyping. High Eyebrows Personology thereGood judgement but fore assumes we doesn’t like being have all been blessed touched with positive behavioural traits. What’s more, it believes High Cheekbones that the correlation Adventurous is proportionate; i.e. the larger the bottom lip, the more Square Chin generous is its wearCombative er. It’s worth testing out: punch someone in the mouth, then, as their bottom lip Coarse Hair begins to swell, ask Less sensitive than most them for money. So how is it possible that you can see the claims of personology are ridiculous, and yet others can’t? The answer lies in the fallibility of human nature. Given its ‘New Age’ image, people who may seek the advice from a
personologist are more likely to ask advice from fortune-tellers, psychics, mediums, astrologers or spiritualists. They will probably be less sceptical and so sufficiently generous with personal information to facilitate cold reading. They will more readily ignore false readings and, as a result, attribute any ‘revelations’ to the procedure and to the capabilities of the counsellor. Psychology has a term for this: ‘subjective validation’. However, if after all of this you think that I am wrong and that personology is a science, there’s an app for people like you, complete with a cute chipmunk character, lots of little pink hearts, and tips on how to find love. Good luck with that… and may the face be with you.
GUESS WHO? Can you guess the personalities of these famous people from their features? Find out who they are at the bottom of the page. A.
Daryl Ilbury is a former award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and oped columnist. He holds a degree in Clinical Psychology, a post-graduate HDE in Clinical Assessment and Counseling, and a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.
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(Lady Gaga) Flickr • Jason H. Smith
LET’S FACE IT
Guess Who Answers: A. Adolf Hitler, B. George W. Bush, C. Lady Gaga.
SWINGING 60S PUTS CHEST ABOVE BREAST
For many years, breast cancer has been the most common – and feared – disease to affect women. But times may be changing as another malignancy is beginning to take the fore: lung cancer. Research published in Annals of Oncology this February predicts that lung cancer will overtake breast cancer as the bigger killer of European women by 2015 (based on World Health Organisation mortality data). This is already true in the UK and Poland – the two EU countries with the highest lung cancer death rates. Thankfully, overall cancer deaths have fallen by 6% in
men and 4% in women since 2009, but lung cancer deaths have risen by 7% in women in that time. Breast cancer rates have been falling due to advances in early diagnosis and treatment of that disease, while the increase in lung cancer probably reflects changing cultural attitudes in the 60s and 70s, which led to more women starting to smoke at that time. However, because fewer young European women are now smoking, lung cancer rates should start to level off by around 2020.
COULD THE CANCER-KILLING PLAGUE BE A MAGIC-BULLET?
Meanwhile, scientists all over the world are busily studying what they hope might turn out to be a complete revolution in cancer treatment. Their resurgent confidence in the battle against cancer comes from an unlikely source – viral infections. The past few years has seen a surge of interest in oncolytic viruses. A virus – like those that cause the flu – reproduces by hi-jacking human cells to make copies of itself, which then go on to invade other cells, destroying more human cells in the process. Oncolytic viruses are infections that target cancer cells, giving a potential ‘viral therapy’. Naturally occurring oncolytic viruses were discovered over half a century ago, but they haven’t really done the trick – either because they were harmful, or our immune system killed them better than they killed cancer. But modern genetic engineering techniques mean that scientists are now custom-building viruses to attack cancer. They can be tweaked genetically to
target specific types of cancer cells, to be less vulnerable to the immune system, or to suppress cancer growth. The first of these to be approved for use was Oncorine in China in 2005, and a treatment derived from the Herpes simplex virus, OncoVEX GM-CSF, has also shown promise in clinical trials. Now, a genetically-engineered form of vaccinia virus (with the futuristic name JX594) has been shown to prolong the lives of people with terminal liver cancer. Of 30 patients tested, 16 on a high dose survived for 14.1 months – double that of those on a lower dose. The trial, published in Nature Medicine in February, also found both high and low doses decreased blood flow to tumours and reduced their size. As well as replicating inside and destroying cancer cells, the virus stimulated the body’s immune system to attack the cancer – providing a two-pronged assault. The only side-effects tended to be a day or two of
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(Smoking) Flick • zenera, (Cancer Bullet) Flickr • TipsTimes
flu-like symptoms, which is trivial compared to other forms of therapy. A larger follow-up study is already underway, and the virus is being tested on other types of cancer. Although that work involved injecting tumours directly, many of the same researchers have previously shown that JX-594 can be administered intravenously. In a trial published in 2011, a single infusion was shown to infect the tumours – without harming healthy tissue – of 23 people whose cancer had spread to several organs. This is crucial, not only because tumours anywhere in the body can be treated this way, but because tumours become virtually incurable by existing methods when they start spreading to other organs and tissues (something called metastasis). Viral therapy can be especially effective against such metastatic cancers, but blood-borne viruses are easily mopped up by antibodies, so avoiding the immune system until the virus has done its job is probably the biggest obstacle to developing a full-blown oncolytic cure for cancer. Metastasis is what ultimately kills most people with cancer, but scientists don’t completely understand how it happens. Epithelial tissue is one of four tissue types (the others being connective, nerve and muscle), and epithelial cells form the surface of many structures in the body, including the lungs, liver, and breasts. But epithelial cells bind together tightly in stable tissues – so researchers have been left puzzling over how their cancerous versions spread around the body. A paper published in Science this January, however, provided the best evidence yet supporting a strong theory of metastasis, namely that it involves something called “epithelial-mesenchymal transition”. Mesenchymal cells don’t bind to each other and can move more freely, so it was thought epithelial tumour cells
might become more like mesenchymal cells to enable them to enter the bloodstream and circulate. There was some support for this theory from animal studies, but researchers in the recent study tracked and genetically analysed circulating tumour cells (CTCs) in 11 women with breast cancer. They found that when the tumours were responding to chemotherapy, the proportion of CTCs with mesenchymal properties fell, but rose when therapy failed. Many had features of both epithelial and mesenchymal cells, however, suggesting the real enemy may be an intermediate cell type. The work paves the way for researchers to more easily track how cancer spreads, and could provide a range of new targets for drug developers. Other attempts to tackle this problem include using reovirus - a naturally occurring oncolytic that “piggybacks” on blood cells so as not to be attacked by the immune system, and a study which hid an engineered adenovirus inside white blood cells to deliver it to a prostate cancer in mice. Excitingly, this technique uses the immune system itself – spurred into action by chemotherapy or radiotherapy – to deliver a viral payload which “completely eradicates” tumours, but it is yet to be tested in humans. Watch this space…
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(X-ray) Wikimedia • Lange 123, (Vaccine) Flickr • AJC1
MIND THE WOMAN WHO COULD FEEL NO FEAR GETS FREAKED OUT
A woman who has been extensively studied because she was thought to be unable to experience fear has been successfully terrified in an experiment in which she inhaled carbon dioxide. The woman, known as SM, has a rare genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease, which has left a part of her brain called the amygdala severely damaged. This primitive brain structure is thought to be important for generating fear responses; SM had not shown fear since childhood, either in real-life threat situations, or in response to the scary films, spiders, snakes, etc., presented to her by previous researchers. Inhaling high levels of carbon dioxide is one way of provoking fear, as this builds up rapidly in the body when a person can’t breathe and so is detected as a suffocation threat. The researchers in this recent experiment
had previously shown that the amygdala directly detects carbon dioxide, causing fear in mice. So when they tested SM, two other patients with the condition, and 12 healthy participants by having them inhale 35% carbon dioxide (850 times that in normal air), they only expected to see fear responses in the healthy participants. But they saw almost the exact opposite. All three ‘fearless’ patients showed all the signs of panic and reported intense fear – a new experience for them! Conversely, only a few healthy participants experienced panic. The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, proves the amygdala is not essential for causing fear responses and suggests the true picture is more complicated. Other brain regions involved in bodily awareness – the brainstem and insular cortex – are now thought to be essential for the internal threat system.
Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA) announced in February that the nearest Earth-like planet could be a stone’s throw away (in astronomical terms): orbiting a red dwarf star just 13 light years away. NASA’s Kepler space telescope spots planets outside our solar system by watching for a momentary fall in a star’s brightness as a planet passes in front of it. Most of Kepler’s targets are fairly large Sunlike stars, but red dwarfs are dimmer and smaller, so an Earth-sized planet produces a bigger brightness dip, making it easier to see. These stars are also cooler, so a planet must be closer to it to be in the habitable ‘Goldilocks’ zone where liquid water is possible. A smaller, faster orbit also makes it more likely the planet will pass directly between us and the star when we are watching.
Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist. G U R U • I S S U E 1 1 • A P R I L / M AY 2 0 1 3 • PA G E 2 0
The astronomers first re-analysed all the red dwarfs in the Kepler catalog of 158,000 stars, and found most of them smaller and cooler than previously thought. This discovery led them to conclude that the planets seen ‘transiting’ in front of them were also smaller in size to cause the observed dips in brightness. They then identified 95 candidate planets orbiting red dwarfs, and calculated from this that around 90% of red dwarfs should host planets between half and four times Earth’s size. Statistically, around 15% of red dwarfs should actually host Earth-like planets – meaning around 4.5 billion such planets should be littered throughout the galaxy. That’s a lot of places to look for life. This paper was submitted to the Astrophysical Journal, although a more recent paper has reduced the estimate to habitable planets being 6.5-7 light years away from earth, using updated definitions of ‘Goldilocks’ zones.
(Fear) Flick • Ian.Kobylanski, (Planet) Flickr • jenschapter3
YOU’RE GETTING SLEEPY... THE SECRET OF A DRUG FREE ALL-NIGHTER
KIM LACEY • MIND GURU
YOU’RE GETTING SLEEPY...
Previous Page: (Sleeping) Flickr • Ed Yourdon, (Cave) Flickr • watchsmart
How and why do we get tired even when we’re not exerting much energy? Mind Guru Kim Lacey examines the mystery of circadian rhythms and how something as simple as daylight can keep us going when our eyes are getting heavy. Picture this: the sun is setting, you’re settling in for the evening, and eventually you become tired. Thinking back on your day off, you haven’t done anything particularly taxing. In fact, you’ve been lounging around the house, watching some movies and dipping into a good book. So why are you so tired – you’ve barely moved from the couch (except to go to the fridge)? Your body’s overpowering and automatic need for sleep can make little sense. The reason for this inescapable sleep-instinct lies in a cycle of changes our bodies undergo every day – a regular, natural cycle called the circadian rhythm. These changes are kept in check by surrounding light levels: we respond to the sun’s rising by waking up and its setting by getting weary. The cause of that relaxing, sleepy evening haze is triggered by a potent hormone. Discovered 50 years ago, the powerful chemical melatonin is released by a tiny gland in the brain and is responsible for the ‘heavy eye’ feeling. This substance’s effects are so potent that even strong coffee does little to curb its effects. Just ask a nightshift worker.
Going into shutdown Think about when you shut off your computer: you save the documents you’ve been working on, safely eject any drives, close down any programs, and finally give the OK to shut down the whole machine. Of course, most PCs and Macs complete most of these tasks automatically – we don’t need to take all these steps to ‘tuck in’
THE CIRCADIAN RHYTHM: WHAT HAPPENS IF WE LIVE IN A CAVE? Light is fundamental to regulating the circadian rhythm but it is only one factor that dictates when we wake and when we sleep. Remarkably, the daily ebb and flow of hormones and brain functioning mean we concentrate best late morning and run fastest late afternoon. If we were to live in a lightless cave, the body would still operate on a 24-hour cycle (although everyone is slightly different, varying between 20 and 28 hours). The body’s ‘internal clock’ beats relentlessly, the hands of time ticking away within a tiny brain region near the eyes (the suprachiasmatic nucleus). The light levels around us reset the clock – telling the body when the day begins and ends. our digital children. The same holds true for us. Melatonin release is automatic, and responds to the light levels around us. Normally, our circadian rhythm is comforting, and gives a sense of structure and familiarity to our day, undulating gently with the rise and fall of the sun. But when we travel across time zones, it inflicts jet lag. Working a night shift feels similar. These are hateful experiences, during which waking moments are a haze of total confusion: “Why am I tired when it’s still midday? And why can’t I sleep at night?” Different time zones, and light cycles different from those we’re used to, send our release of melatonin into a spin, throwing off the normally consistent beat of our circadian rhythm. (See sidebox)
Hitchcock’s sunset setting time trick Hitchcock’s 1948 movie The Rope uses some clever light-induced timeexpanding techniques. Shot entirely in front of a city backdrop, the sun sets as the movie progresses. The entire film is only 80 minutes long, but the story’s events take place over 100 minutes. Hitchcock employs some crafty tricks to circumvent this, manipulating the viewer’s perception of time. The cityscape’s sky and sunset was created from a vast cyclorama (a large curved and illuminated backing). By creating a sunset that takes place faster than real life, the movie has the convincing effect of lasting longer than it actually does. G U R U • I S S U E 1 1 • A P R I L / M AY 2 0 1 3 • PA G E 2 2
YOU’RE GETTING SLEEPY... For years it was believed that circadian rhythms were controlled through any kind of light that hits the back of the retina. Indeed, for a time, white lights were used to combat seasonal affective disorder (depression triggered at low light conditions). More recently, we have learned that only a very narrow slice of light (a blue colour) orchestrates our sleep-wake patterns. This has led to the discovery of a unique light sensor in the back of the eye (a ‘melanopsin’ photoreceptor) – whose role is to detect blue light and feed this information into the brain’s melatonin producing gland (the pineal gland), slowing up its production of melatonin. Incredibly, some people can be completely blind, yet still have functioning blue-light receptors – meaning they wake and sleep at normal times.
If we weren’t bombarded with errands, jobs, families (tsk, responsibilities!) we might suppose that locales experiencing very little daylight (‘polar nights’) would leave everyone snoozing all the time. But look at any Inuit population, and it is obvious this doesn’t happen. That said, perhaps we were never meant to live in such environments: living near the poles causes a vulnerability to depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). To combat these issues, many people have specific lighting installed in their houses, replicating the color of sunlight in order to mimic a normal day. The opposite also holds true. In areas directly north and south of the Arctic Circle, the phenomenon of ‘white nights’ or ‘midnight sun’ occurs – when the sun seems never to set – during the summer months. While a true 24 hours of daylight is limited to very specific locations, some of these places do not experience nighttime for a period. (Personally, I’d rather perpetual sunlight over darkness.) However, trying to combat sleepiness by sitting in bright areas isn’t always the solution. It will help for a time, but wattage won’t automatically keep you awake. According to a report released by Apollo Health, the combatting ‘out of phase’ circadian rhythms can be done through blue light of a specific wavelength (colour)[see sidebox]. In a sense, we’re physically resetting our clocks by tricking our bodies into thinking about sleepiness or wakefulness at the times we want, instead of the time it says so.
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(Biological Clock) Wikimedia • YassineMrabet
Living in the Arctic
YOU’RE GETTING SLEEPY...
MORE THAN MELATONIN: THE CAFFEINE EFFECT. Melatonin is not the only substance to make us sleepy. During wakefulness there is a progressive increase in the levels of adenosine – a signaling chemical in the brain.
(Coffee Beans) Flickr • saturn â™„,
In sleep-deprived animals, adenosine levels rise significantly and – oddly – injecting these animals with adenosine stimulates sleep. Interestingly, the brain stops detecting adenosine properly after caffeine intake, and thereby gives rise to reducing sleepiness.
Think about workers who work extra overnight shifts, partiers that frequently celebrate into the wee hours of the night, or those that struggle with insomnia – what’s at stake for them? The Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research has noted that situations during which individuals sleep irregularly (or even sleep very little) can have very serious long-term effects – including an increased likelihood of developing diabetes, depression, and stroke. The body is designed and evolved to go through a regular rest-wake cycle. Melatonin is intrinsic to this, and fighting against these rhythms is hazardous. It might surprise you what this research committee considers ‘sleep loss’: less than 7 hours a night. (So next time you reach for the snooze button, you might be doing your long-term health a favour!)
New solution for insomnia and a drug-free all-nighter There have been some interesting studies to show LED (light emitting diode) lighting can be used to trick our circadian rhythms, and even help us fall asleep more easily. But wait, Mind Guru – now you’re saying that light can help us become relaxed? Yes apparently so, according to Max Faxik, founder of the Lighting Science Group. LED lights, he claims “can be programmed to emit light at precise wavelengths, colors and tones.” By dimming or brightening an LED lamp, you can directly influence your circadian rhythm. Staying up cramming for that test? Turn it up! Trying to set the mood for a night at home with your sweetheart? Tweak the color of the light and you’ll change the mood…
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YOU’RE GETTING SLEEPY... Max Faxik insists the same is impossible with regular ol’ light bulbs. The pineal gland – the body’s melatonin producer – is most receptive to ‘real’ daylight, with wavelengths of light spanning the entire visible spectrum: the rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. It is sky-blue light (wavelength 460nm) that influences the pineal gland [see sidebox on
page 23]. Tungsten and energy-saving lights have a yellow hue, and don’t emit enough of this light to alter wakefulness. I certainly like the idea of having better control over when I feel sleepy or awake. Perhaps the next e-Reader will have an LED backlight, and could bring new meaning to the notion of a ‘relaxing read’.
References • • • •
Kanellos, M. (October 2011). ‘A New Use for LEDs: Mind Control’ The New York Times: Environment. ‘Circadian Rhythm Fact Sheet’. (November 2012). National Institute of General Medical Sciences. National Research Council. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006. Apollo Health. “Understanding How Wavelengths Affect Circadian Rhythms. Specific wavelengths shift circadian rhythms while others may be counter productive.” With a PhD from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim Lacey from Detroit, USA knows a thing or two about memory studies, digital media and digital humanities. She also has a serious addiction to combo plates at restaurants. You can read about Kim at kimberlylacey.com or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.
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Ever had one of those questions that really bugs
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and find you the answer. If we can’t, then we’ll
every Friday our team of Gurus will be accepting
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health, nutrition, psychology, space… or life!
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#AskAGuru on any Friday. We also accept
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questions via email.
What happens when you’re trekking to the South Pole and you go to the toilet? Does your wee freeze?
(Antarctic) Flickr • RAYANDBEE
Asked via Facebook To answer this question I spoke to Veronica Shaw, who trekked to the South Pole in 2007. She has done a fair amount of public speaking about her experiences and apparently lots of people have sub-zero toilet-related questions. She told me that, yes, your urine does indeed freeze in the Antarctic – and quickly. As it happens, though, that’s the least of your worries. “You need to go very quickly,” Veronica told me. The yellow stream starts to freeze by the time it hits the snow (a phenomenon most likely witnessed by the upright man). Men need to be very careful to avoid frostbite on their ‘manhood’. Yet despite precautions, Veronica explained that all of the men in her six-person team suffered some degree of willy-frostbite. At night time, toileting is done inside the tent and into a bottle. Urine-filled bottles are kept inside individual’s sleeping bags to prevent them freezing during the night. Defrosting a bottle of wee in the morning would
waste precious time and fuel. And it’s not just urine that needs to be kept close: environmental legislation forbids the dropping of any litter in the Antarctic. Used toilet paper must be put in a bag and carried for the duration of the journey. Veronica reassured me that it isn’t as disgusting as it sounds: at -40 degrees C things don’t smell very much.
Answered by Dr Stu (Science Guru)
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ASK A GURU
How long would it take to collect enough belly button fluff to knit a jumper? Asked by Jason Whiley via Facebook. A man made the Guinness Book of World Records for the daily collection of his own navel fluff. And I thought some people had nothing better to do. He claims that he collected an average of just over 3 milligrams of navel fluff each day for over 25 years. With that in mind, I took a very average looking (size and thickness) sweater out of my closet and it weighed exactly 500 grams. With some simple mathematics, it would take one person over 450 years’ worth of daily navel fluff collection to be able to knit that sweater. Now that you know the answer, I really hope you can sleep easier tonight. Footnote: Australian TV presenter Dr Karl conducted a belly button lint survey in 2001. Winning the IgNobel Prize, you can look at his results here.
In light of events in Russia, what causes an asteroid to explode (air-burst) in our atmosphere? Asked by Rob Owen via Facebook Since I’m Russian-American, I have a special interest in bright objects falling on Russia. A meteor or asteroid travels at exceptionally great speeds. The one that exploded over Russia was clocked in at 40,000 mph! When a meteor is travelling this fast in the relative vacuum of space, it encounters very little air resistance. However, our Earth’s atmosphere is far denser in gaseous content compared to the vacuum of space. Therefore, because the object is travelling so darned fast when it encounters our dense atmosphere, it’s akin to hitting your head against a brick wall at 60 mph – it’s likely going to crack open (nice – Ed). More specifically, since our atmosphere imparts a force, or resistance, to an object’s entry into or through it, a meteor impacting the atmosphere will begin to compress the air in front of it. This compression causes the air in front of the meteor to pressurise, and this
pressure forces the air to heat up. The hot air then heats up the meteor itself, which leads to the glow you see in the TV footage. The falling object gets so hot that anything it is made of, from rock to metal, begins to vaporise and break apart. In addition, the difference in air pressure in front of the object and behind it is sometimes so great
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(Knitting) Flickr • wickenden, (Comet) Flickr • alexeya
Answered by Artem Cheprasov (Animal Guru)
ASK A GURU that it can actually lead to an ‘air burst’: a release of energy through sound waves and shock waves. The reason why some meteors or asteroids break apart in the atmosphere higher than others has to do with
various factors, such as the meteor’s size, weight, speed, composition, and angle of entry. All of these will determine when that specific celestial object will no longer be able to resist the forces of our planet’s atmosphere, leading to its eventual disintegration.
Answered by Artem Cheprasov (Animal Guru)
Why doesn’t wood melt?
(Fire) Flickr • Matt Murf
Asked by Matthew Vincent via Facebook There are two things that you should consider. One of them is what melting actually means. Melting is when a solid transitions to a liquid. Under normal conditions, water does that at 0ºC (32ºF) but, if you look closely at the way snow ‘melts’, a relatively small amount actually turns into liquid (most estimates I am aware of say about 20%) – the rest ‘sublimates’ – goes straight from solid to gas (water vapour). Dry ice, actually frozen carbon dioxide, sublimates at room temperature and pressure, which helps it form that spooky low-lying mist that you see in films and old music videos. So, actually, melting isn’t necessarily all that common. In the case of wood, however, it doesn’t melt or sublimate in the open atmosphere. Rather, thanks to the oxygen in the atmosphere, it burns. Burning (or combustion) occurs when oxygen reacts with
something and breaks down its structure, giving off heat in the process. Unlike water (H2O) or dry ice (CO2), wood has a complex composition and is made of many different types of molecule (including cellulose, lignin and water). When wood burns it initially chars, then turns black before finally burning completely to give ash – which is often white. At the same time a lot of gases are given off, which we see as smoke. I don’t recommend trying this at home – but if you put wood in an oxygen-free atmosphere and toyed with the temperature and pressure long enough, it would theoretically be possible for you to find the conditions under which it melts. It would be a challenge though: the long molecule fibres (cellulose) greatly restrict wood’s ability to melt. And even if you did achieve it, the wood would combust as soon as it came into contact with oxygen.
Answered by Lewis Pike. Lewis studied Biomedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.
Book Giveaway! We’ve got five copies of the book Bio-Punk: stories from the far side of research to give away. Kim thought that Bio-Punk “coupled the factual and the fictional to make this collection stand out….a must read!”, awarding it 5 GURU stars. (Read her review on page 53.) To be in with a chance of bagging a copy, just send our Gurus your questions. Those who ask the best ‘Ask a Guru’ questions will scoop the book and get their answers featured in the next issue! International entries welcome. Normal competition terms and conditions apply. Closing date for competition entries: 24th May 2013. G U R U • I S S U E 1 1 • A P R I L / M AY 2 0 1 3 • PA G E 2 8
GURU GOES TO BRIGHTON SUN, SEA, SEX AND SCIENCE
NATASHA AGABALYAN SIMON MAKIN
GURU GOES TO BRIGHTON A science festival isn’t the sort of thing most of us get excited about. Though great for kids, not that many childless grown-ups would take a weekend out for science. Stow those misconceptions! This year Brighton hosted four weeks of entertainment, enlightenment and titivation for both old and young. In a city better known for fish & chips and free loving, the festival featured lashings of sex, slime and psychopaths. Correspondents Simon and Natasha went to find out if it lived up to expectations.
a heated debate on how porn affects health. It was attended by a hodgepodge of speakers and ‘professionals’ including Doctor Brooke Magnanti (author of Belle du Jour), Robert Page (author of A Lover’s Guide) and two porn performers. The finale was a fitting end, although the ‘Science of Sex’ day was rather lacking in ‘science’. The focus of the day was on the politics and ethics of sex, and would perhaps be better termed the ‘Social Science of Sex’ day. A jam-packed affair that would satisfy the philosophically inclined, but as a science-lover, I was left a little unsatisfied.
Zombie Science: Worst Case Scenario
Previous Page: (Pier) Flickr • Photo Monkey, (Lips) Flickr • Walt Stoneburner, © Zombie Science
The Science of Sex The first Saturday was a day dedicated to a grown-ups sex-ed class. With a varied array of speakers, it was something of a mixed-bag: Dr Malcolm Vandenburg enthusiastically started the day with impressive first-hand stories from the ‘clap clinic’; Dr Meg Barker, author of new book Rewriting the Rules, then offered a master-class on the development of monogamy and the today’s cultural alternatives in our conquest for a perfect love life. ‘Do I Look Gay?’ followed this philosophical event in a taboobusting discussion lead by Charlie Bauer on the gay identity. Later, Professor of Media at Middlesex University, Feona Attwood, told us of her research project into accounts of child sexualisation and the use and effects of porn. In a fiery climax to a raucous day of ethics, debate and reflection, Emily Dubberley, founder of women’s spicy sex website Cliterati, led
Think the living dead, and you think gore-filled video nasties. Brighton Sci-Fest’s headlining event, Zombie Science: Worst Case Scenario, was none of this and was decidedly family friendly! Theoretical ‘Zombiologist’ Doctor Austin gave audiences a layman’s essential guide: how to deal with a zombie outbreak. A tongue-in-cheek performance, Dr Austin teaches spectators ‘essential’ zombie-science: how an infection spreads, the genetic theory behind zombie-reanimation, and hopes for future gene therapy cures. Using the zombie outbreak as the basis of discussion, this ‘expert guide’ taught onlookers how to identify, contain and potentially eradicate the zombie disease. With crowd participation aplenty, spectators deliberated and decided their options (to run
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or to hide?), and Dr Austin delivered witty and novel solutions for how adults and children could survive this impending fictional threat. A hilarious, insightful show that even managed some real-life relevance, Zombie Science: Worst Case Scenario is a touring show and an absolute must for any would-be-survivors. (Click here for forthcoming show dates) First two reviews: Natasha Agabalyan
Festival of the Spoken Nerd Think of Festival of the Spoken Nerd as a Geek Supergroup. A trio of stand-up performers, each of whom are seasoned entertainers in their own right: Matt Parker is an ex- standup comedian and now the world’s only ‘standup mathematician’, Helen Arney is a musical comedian with a physics degree and the ‘geek songstress’ of the group, and Steve Mould is a BBC science presenter and the group’s ‘experiment guy’. They knew each other from the circuit and came together after realising they were passing the same audience between their respective solo shows during the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe. Matt suggested they combine their acts for a oneoff evening at the end of the fringe. Though that never happened, Helen suggested later that year that the group take over half of one of her comedy nights above a pub in London. That show sold out in a day and Festival of the Spoken Nerd was born. It’s gone from strength to strength ever since. Never more a supergroup than last Saturday night during the Brighton Science Festival, they were joined by guest evolutionary biology geek and BBC presenter Simon Watt, probably best known for his part in Inside Nature’s Giants. Simon was recruited for a show all about Life, Oh Life, in which they shone a comedy spotlight on what life is, where it came from, and where it might be going. It’s not just nerds sharing in-jokes with a geeky audience – it’s a group of experienced comedians exploiting the inherent wow factor of science to craft a genuinely fascinating show which also manages to be riotously funny in places. Among the delicacies served up on the night was a cookery demonstration of how to use a fire extinguisher to make ice cream, a whiz-bang demo of how super-absorbent polymers work, and Helen’s musical cautionary
tale warning us about leaving certain young physicists alone with the family pet. Simon Watt’s contribution was an anecdote describing what went down at a house party attended by a range of our evolutionary ancestors, which mixed knowledge of evolutionary history and genetics with innuendo and toilet humour. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. My personal highlight was when Matt gave us a tour of the mathematics of a zombie outbreak based on real infectious disease modelling. We learned that the situation of no zombies we currently enjoy is an “unstable equilibrium”, confirming what zombie movie fans have known for years, which is that as soon as we go from “no zombies” to “even slightly zombies”, we’re “all in a lot of trouble”. I’d love to know which journal published that paper! The show was engaging on multiple levels, pulling the audience in through participation and the disarming charm of the nerds. Yes it’s clever comedy, but never in an elitist way. It’s like a night out with some geeky pals. It was obvious everyone there had a whale of a time and I strongly recommend you catch them the next time they’re passing through your town. There’s a run of an all-new show in London this April apparently, and I might just get myself down there for a second helping. (Join the FOTSN mailing list at: http:// festivalofthespokennerd.com/ )
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© Festival of the Spoken Nerd.
GURU GOES TO BRIGHTON
GURU GOES TO BRIGHTON The Ugly Animal Society: Stand-up comedy The panda gets too much attention. Yes it’s cute, but did you know: the main reason it was chosen for the logo of the WWF is black and white equals cheaper printing costs? Biodiversity means every animal on the planet deserves our conservation efforts, and creator of The Ugly Animal Preservation Society, Simon Watt, thinks it’s time to throw the spotlight on some of nature’s less glamorous creatures. To this end he gathered together a diverse collection of geeky performers to each champion their favourite ugly, endangered animal. The audience then get to vote for which will be the mascot of their local branch at the end of the show. Simon describes it as “a stand-up comedy night with a conservation twist.” First up was Punk Science – two lads who aren’t strictly punks, although they did have a guitar, and aren’t scientists either, although they did deliver biology-based, audienceparticipation physical comedy. They chose the animal with probably the rudest name on the planet: “Pseudobiceros hancockanus”, a species of aquatic flatworm. P. hancockanus are hermaphrodites with two penises, so we were treated to a bout of live penis-fencing, courtesy of two intrepid audience members (and some props!) The species is neither endangered, nor that ugly, but scored points for digging out that fabulous name. Helen Arney the ‘geek songstress’ (from Festival of the Spoken Nerd) got across an obviously genuine love for her favourite animal
with joyful affection and charm. The axolotl is a unique creature that remains in an immature state its whole life and can regenerate almost any part of its body. Both properties I’m sure we could all learn from, in one way or another. Unfortunately, as Helen was self-defeatingly keen to point out, they’re actually really cute – in an ugly kind of way. Simon Watt, biologist, BBC presenter, and creator of the show, plumped for the Canadian blue-grey tail-dropper slug: a creature that leaves its bottom behind to escape predators. He also compered, introducing each act, and occasionally wandering off on his own hilarious stand-up tangents. The most persuasive performer of the evening was Steve Cross, who argued with the zeal of either a true believer or marketing professional, I’m not sure which. The naked mole rat is an undeniably aesthetically challenged critter, easily mimicked by gluing eyes on a dildo. It’s not endangered, but at least that means the chances of having to change all your stationary if it were to go extinct is very low. The UAPS is a completely unique evening’s entertainment, with plenty of knowledge nuggets thrown in amongst the giggles. This was only the show’s second run, but Simon hopes to take it on the road and there are shows planned in Edinburgh, Bristol and Newcastle. In Brighton the audience were swayed by Steve Cross’s fervour – and the Naked Mole Rat had its day. So what will be your town’s mascot? Read Simon’s full review online.
The Catalyst Club The Catalyst is a monthly Brighton club harking back to the debating societies and gentlemen’s clubs of yore, where three speakers each step up to a lectern for 15 minutes apiece. The venue, the Latest Music Bar, was a great spot for it, with a cosy jazz club atmosphere downstairs, and a screen relaying the action upstairs for those who couldn’t get hold of a ticket. In addition to introducing each speaker, regular MC, David Bramwell, had conscientiously dug out some appropriate stories. Apparently, in a survey of 10,000 Japanese 16–19 year-old males, 35% said they had no interest in sex. The same study in England didn’t give a percentage – it just said there was one bloke called James from Peterborough! I don’t claim to know how true this is…
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GURU GOES TO BRIGHTON Also in keeping with the theme, we were all asked to play guinea pigs for a smartphone dating app, the idea being to discover who might want to get to know you in the room you’re presently in – and to help you meet people wherever you go. But between the app being seemingly still early in development (there was ‘no gay option yet’, despite being in Brighton), and the WiFi cutting out repeatedly, I think it’s safe to say no iMatches were made on the night. Interestingly, though, the exercise did get me and two nearby girls talking to each other, proving you don’t need an app to grease the wheels of sociability – you just need beer and a talking point. The first speaker, writer and editor Vanessa Austin-Locke, talked about how, “our minds, our chemistry, our history,” lead to, and colour, extreme sexual experiences. She told the story of an interviewee referred to as “snorkel”, who had an early sexual experience on a family trip to the beach, and who now gets his rocks off in a bathtub with a dominatrix, some seaweed and a snorkel, “without so much as the touch of a hand”. She sees a connection between fetishism and post-traumatic stress disorder: both have the effect of “trapping the mind and causing it to fixate”. Next up was Prof Elaine Fox, talking about the psychology of optimism and pessimism. She’s an experimental psychologist and an expert in the area, having recently published a book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. She told us about the ancient fear and pleasure systems in the brain, which ensure that our brains automatically tune into things that are either dangerous, or good for us. These are the physical circuits that underlie how optimistic, or otherwise, we each are. She continued to explain that although there is evidence for benefits of optimism – it is not as simple as positive thinking. Bringing up the rear, as it were, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Sussex University, Zoltan Dienes, told us all about “the secret logic of sexual fantasy”. He described some categories of female fantasies such as ‘beloved’, ‘victim’, ‘dominatrix’ and ‘wild-woman’ and a school of psychoanalysis that proposed the purpose of such fantasies is to counteract anxieties. So a woman with a fear of men being weak would be turned on by a fantasy in which she was dominated or even abused – i.e. a victim fantasy. A fear of being unloved would be counteracted by a beloved fantasy, and so on. He then
described an ingenious experiment involving a device called a “vaginal photoplethysmograph”, stories about “being in the frozen peas section” at the supermarket as a “neutral condition”, and a number of other anxiety-inducing stories, in order to turn this into “a testable hypothesis”. Unfortunately, the arousal caused by each fantasy went in the opposite direction to that predicted by the theory, even though the match between each anxiety and fantasy was the same. So – it was all a bit confusing really. But as he got by far the biggest giggle count of all the speakers, no-one was really complaining. Prof Dienes also offered his own thoughts on what it might all mean in the Q&A session afterwards. All-in-all, this was an interesting and unusual Thursday night out, and one I’d recommend the next time the Catalyst Club convenes. Read Simon’s full review online.
Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma – live! Ben Goldacre is a self-proclaimed “nerd evangelist”. He’s probably best known for his Guardian column and first book, Bad Science, which managed to be belly-laugh funny as he skewered pseudoscience, quackery, and more, with compelling logic and calm, sardonic reasonableness. He’s a doctor, academic, and journalist, and you only have to listen to him speak to be convinced he cares deeply about the things he writes about. He makes as much noise about them as he can because he passionately believes somebody has to.
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GURU GOES TO BRIGHTON He was at the Brighton Science Festival on 2nd March to talk about the topic of his new book Bad Pharma. Unlike Ben’s previous writing, it is not particularly funny. There’s an occasional smirk to be had, sure, but you get the feeling it’s not trying to be funny, simply because he doesn’t think it’s a laughing matter. It is one thing when some quack is depriving a handful of idiots of their pocket money, but quite another when it is literally a matter of life and death – on an industrial scale. He lost no time driving this point home by leading with the story of lorcainide. This is one of a class of drugs widely prescribed in the 1980s to people who had suffered heart attacks, as it was thought they saved lives by suppressing irregular heart rhythms. But when a large trial was conducted to establish whether they really did reduce deaths (the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST), which published results in 1991), it turned out they actually increased the risk of death. It’s estimated the drug’s popularity may have led to what he called “a biblical death toll” – of between 100 and 150 thousand Americans. This was all down to people acting with the best intentions, according to plausible beliefs. Of course, not all ‘pharma’ is ‘bad pharma’. Drug companies have developed some of the most beneficial science mankind has ever known, saving countless lives. Ben was quick to point this out, but he doesn’t believe this gives them free license to distort evidence in ways which demonstrably harm people. Nor is he saying that all people working for drug companies are “bad, evil, people”. It’s more a case of “misaligned incentives” and a broken system. And although big pharmaceutical companies take the brunt of the attack, it’s really a critique of the whole edifice of medicine: researchers who agree to be gagged by contracts, journals
who fail to check proper methodology, editors who fail to enforce trial registers, regulators who maintain the culture of secrecy (and suffer from the same “revolving-door politics” as any other industry-related government structures). Even the doctors simply too busy to read past industry marketing – all must shoulder part of the blame for letting them get away with it. Although this is weighty, important stuff, he didn’t forget people were there, at least in part, to be entertained. Explaining statistics to a lay audience is an achievement in itself, but managing to make it funny puts Goldacre in a different league. Never talking down to the audience, he’s like a likeable, articulate nerd, explaining something to less informed but intelligent pals. Without dumbing down, he led us through understanding and realisation to shock and anger – which, of course, was the object of the exercise. You can read more about the campaign ‘All Trials Registered’, and sign the petition, on the website, or keep up to date with progress on Ben’s blog. If you want to know all the grimy details of specific companies’ bad behaviour, I recommend picking up Ben’s book. Read Simon’s full review online. Reviews (except first two): Simon Makin
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.
Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist.
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‘THEY’ KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, EAT, SHOP... TERRIBLE TRUTHS ABOUT 21ST CENTURY PRIVACY
‘THEY’ KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, EAT, SHOP... Are you being stalked by data? Do you wish that data would just leave you in peace? Are they always there waiting for you, under your bed at night, or lurking down dark alleys? Maybe you haven’t noticed it yet – but if you look closely you will see that data, like an Adele single, are everywhere you care to look. Depending on your viewpoint this could be reason to celebrate or the beginning of the end.
data hunt where should we look? Is a military satellite trained on your house taking infrared photographs right now? Ten years ago this fear was foremost in the public consciousness. Today the answer is not so fantastic but is no less remarkable. Rather than looking up, take a glance downward. When you walk, data are in your shoes. When you talk, data are on your phone. On the way to work, data are following you in the car and on the train. On holiday, ‘they’ know where you’re going and how much you paid. They know who you went with and what souvenirs you bought. Since data can be almost anything (see sidebox), They know what music you listened to and what it’s no surprise you ate. Data that they’re all know how your around us. But kids are doing why is it now at school. They that they seem so know if you’ve ubiquitous? been unwell and what with. Data Data collection is Simply put, data are pieces of can find you love certainly nothing information associated with something. and happiness. new. Indeed, data Or even more simply put, data are things I don’t exaggerate; are the bedrock of the scientific all of these are about stuff. principle – the real examples. stuff you gather The Nike+ widget It’s worth noting that the word data means to make sense of smart the world around trainers can track strictly means the plural of the singular you. Traditionally, how far and fast datum but is often used to refer to both data have been you run. iTunes cases. Personally, I couldn’t care either and Spotify know collected either on a vast, way but there will always be the pub what music you population-level quiz-type pedants who insist on strict own and listen scale, like the UK to. On-demand adherence. If I were to write “I rolled a TV national census services (a remarkable and dice to get the data” feel free to email and YouTube hugely successful the English language department of know which TV undertaking), or programmes you your nearest university directly but watch and when. as part of a tightlyplease leave me out of it. controlled trial or The UK’s health experiment. helpline NHS Direct records But in recent The most common example of data are what symptoms years there has probably measurements represented people have and been a major shift as numbers – your weight or height, for if they are out of in the source of data – a shift from example. But data can be anything. the ordinary. Our supermarkets use controlled, formal They don’t have to be quantities – like loyalty cards to data collection height or weight – but can be qualitative record what we to personal, more informal judgements or descriptions: bigger and buy, where and when. Our smart collection. So if smaller, round and flat, hit and flop. phones record we were to go on a
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What actually are data?
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where we are with GPS and who we call. Online dating websites use personality data to match potential couples. Traffic cameras record where we drive... CCTV, ATMs, credit cards, emails, Google searches, bank loans, health records and insurance. If you stop and think about all the data that are being generated every day it can send you into a spin. Data can also flip you upside-down. This new way of collecting data has turned the analysis of data on its head. Before, time was money (and money was money for that matter): people pondered long and hard before collecting data for a specific aim. Now, data are pouring in left, right and centre. Often it is only after the data warehouses have been packed to the rafters that thought is given to what actually to do with them. The recent trend of collecting torrents of data from all walks of life is often referred to as the data deluge. This name correctly suggests the huge volume of data, but also implies drowning and a struggle to cope. At the risk of sounding like a politician, all of this data has brought new challenges but also plenty of exciting opportunities. I’d prefer less data tsunamis and more, say, data feasts. In the Good Old Days, data were often impersonal because they couldn’t be traced back to individuals. You and I were just one of the faceless masses – nothing more than a bland statistic. In contrast, today’s personal data are straight from the horse’s mouth. They relate specifically to you or to me – and this makes some people decidedly uncomfortable. And, in some cases, with good reason.
Big Brother is humanity’s friend In a world where identity theft and hackers can leave us in perpetual virtual fear, it can be easy to point the finger at the swathes of data. People worry that data will be used to target specific individuals and produce bias and prejudices. They worry of being singled out, bullied and victimised. The fear is that data exploitation is the thin end of the wedge in a police state where every movement and thought is monitored – where civil liberties and personal freedoms are stamped upon in the name of control and protection. The recent hacking of high-profile sites, including Twitter, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, does nothing to abate these fears.
Yet there are plenty of up-sides. The growing field of Citizen Science is a shining example of the benefits of open data – data collected by members of the general public. The BBC Lab UK takes advantage of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit their pages to collect experimental data on things like how we react to pressure and how risk averse we are. And many monitoring projects that necessarily span a long period of time are often just not feasible without voluntary participants. For example, a bat conservation monitoring project encourages us to use a smart phone app to record bat sightings (ibat); the Open Air Laboratory is a project that encourages us to venture outdoors and collect data about our environment – about birds, flowers, butterflies, and cuddly bunnies. And there’s very little chance of any identity theft. Unless you’re a rabbit. While more data can certainly mean more opportunities for misuse and abuse, data handled correctly can revolutionise society for the better. More data of better quality allow politicians to make better decisions: better resource allocations, better use of taxes and better value for money. Data helps you and I decide where to buy the cheapest TV or send our kids to school. It promotes clarity, consistency and rational behaviour. Data lay bare basic facts and foster a system of accountability and justification. However, the true story found in the data can be misrepresented – or misinterpreted for different aims – and so everyone has to keep an eagle-eye out. The path from data to decisions is not necessarily a clear one.
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‘THEY’ KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, EAT, SHOP...
(Server Room) Flickr • Illusive Photography
‘THEY’ KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, EAT, SHOP... For example, a contentious topic that is currently being debated is that of on-line personal data collection. Recently, the French government proposed the introduction of an internet tax, a levy on the collection of personal data, recognising how much personal information is harvested from online sites like Facebook and Google. Merely using these sites provides juicy information about our preferences, identity and behaviours. Is this a fair deal? Facebook and Google use this information to give you targeted adverts. Do we, the users get a better quality of life from this? Are we really happy enough to provide our shopping habits through supermarket reward cards? Maybe people aren’t so precious about certain types of data after all. Discuss. The emergence of all this new data collection and analysis has highlighted the importance of managing personal information safely. For example, in 1997 the Caldicott report set out guidelines for handling sensitive patient data to maintain confidentiality. (To summarise the whole report – and in the immortal words of Spiderman – those with data have great power but that also brings great responsibility). We really shouldn’t be scared of collecting data but we must be wary of how it’s used. For example, when entrusting your money to a bank, careful measures have to be in place to make sure the bank doesn’t go bust or the manager doesn’t run off to Rio. But despite all the concerns about data security and abuse, it is fair to say that less isn’t more when it comes to data: more data, collected, analysed and used in the right way makes for better decisions and ultimately a better world. The deluge of data that is now collected is known as Big Data. A catchy name, yes. But unlike Big Brother, big banks or the big, bad wolf, data aren’t evil. In fact, they can be a force for good. So, big is beautiful. Welcome data into your house! But maybe hide the best china.
Dr Nathan Green is a statistician and science journalist. He was a British Science Association Media Fellow in 2011 and has his own column about statistics, the S-Word, at the Guardian newspaper. He is a chartered statistician with the Royal Statistical Society and has worked for the MOD and the NHS, saving lives in a variety of ways. He currently works at the Health Protection Agency, protecting the health and well-being of the UK population. Nathan tweets at @n8thangreen.
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CANCER, SNAKES AND LADDERS WHY SOME SMOKERS LIVE TO 100
CANCER, SNAKES AND LADDERS
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We’ve all heard the stories. Your friend’s Uncle Bob smoked 40 a day and lived to 97 in perfect health. Yet a fitness freak, who ate all the right things and never touched a cigarette, was taken by cancer at 25. There are countless similar anecdotes. Life can have a cruel sense of humour. Cancer is a lot like a game of Snakes and Ladders: cancer sits at the top of the board and the object of the game is to stay as close to the bottom as possible. But not everyone is playing with a six-sided dice. Someone born with a high genetic risk of cancer may have a 20-sided dice – and will face moving up the board at lightning speed. But someone with low predisposition may have the equivalent of a four-sided dice – with a much lower risk of having to move too far up the board on each roll. It’s the luck of the genetic draw. How often you roll depends on where you live and how you live. If you rarely roll even with a high-sided dice you could live a cancer-free life. If you have a low-sided dice but smoke, or are exposed to radon gas, you have to roll more often. Of course there’s always the possibility you’ll be lucky and roll a ‘1’ many times. It’s all about chance.
The body you have now is not the one you are born with Cancer is not like measles or mumps; it comes from within our own cells, not from some invading germ. And because of this, cancer becomes an odd lottery. Nearly every part of your body is continuously regenerating itself. The cells of the skin and liver, for example, grow continuously: individual cells die and are rapidly replaced. Normally, this cycle of life is carefully controlled in a beautiful, elaborate molecular dance within cells: genes and their products interact, switch on and off, and send messages to make cells grow, develop, or die, depending on what and where they are. With each new cell division our cells must duplicate their DNA. And every time this happens there’s a roll of the dice – a risk that an error (a mutation) will creep in while the DNA is being copied. Being unlucky – getting a mutation – is like landing on a ladder, propelling you towards the end of the board. Many errors may have no noticeable effect, and some may even be beneficial. But with each new division there’s a small chance of a cancer-causing mutation creeping in. Add to this risk the damage to your DNA caused by chemicals from the environment, such as those in tobacco smoke or in burnt food, and you can see how the rolls can begin to add up over a life time.
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Rarely will a single mutation alone be enough to cause cancer. It typically takes many errors, each of which interrupts a different part of the molecular dance. One mutation might make a cell able to grow continuously, deaf to the calls of its neighbours to stop growing. Other mutations may make matters worse, encouraging a blood vessel to grow into the uncontrollablyexpanding mass of cells, keeping them fed.
Loading your dice: discovering your risk factors So if there’s usually no single cause for cancer – no single error that will push a cell over the precipice of uncontrolled growth – how can we know which risk factors should really concern us? Enter ‘epidemiology’: the study of disease distributions in human populations. By looking at the rates of different cancers in different populations, it is possible to get clues about what causes them. For example, China has high rates of liver cancer, whereas the US has high rates of prostate and breast cancer. Knowing this lets us ask specific questions. Is it just that being Chinese makes you more likely to get liver cancer, or is it something about living in China? If you look at Chinese immigrants in the US, you see that prostate and breast cancer rates amongst Chinese immigrants go up, while liver cancer rates go down – unless they keep to a more traditional Eastern diet. This gives us the hint that there may be something in the Eastern diet or lifestyle that puts people at risk of liver cancer.
Identifying causes, or risks, in this way helps us zero in on our personal risk factors for cancer. As soon as the stats allow us to be confident about the specific risks, like smoking, then we know how we can live our lives to roll the dice less often. The analysis of how breast cancer runs in families was a pivotal step in understanding that having particular types of two genes – the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes – increases the risk of developing cancer over a woman’s lifetime by about 45-65%. But, importantly, it also led to the development of tests for these versions of the genes. We can now be on the look-out for these genes, monitoring those individuals that carry them so that we can catch the cancer – if it develops – as early as possible, minimising the risk to life. Ultimately, cancer is going to be a game of chance for the foreseeable future: the longer you play, the more likely you are to lose. We can now minimise some of the risks, but each cell that replaces itself is still a role of the dice. The good news is that we are starting to tip the odds in our favour. Our understanding of how cancer develops, spreads and grows is improving all the time. We’re better at detecting, predicting and treating those at risk than we ever have been. It’s still going to be a long battle, but we can be thankful that tomorrow’s game board will be less tricky to play than today’s.
Busting the tobacco industry This kind of approach to studying the distribution of disease was more or less pioneered by Sir William Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill who showed conclusively in 1950 that smoking causes cancer. Examining in detail the number of patients diagnosed with different types of cancer (including lung cancer) and their smoking habits, they demonstrated that smoking is associated with lung cancer. Despite their denials, this evidence ultimately proved to be the undoing of the tobacco industry.
Gavin Hubbard is a medical biochemist with over 8 years of experience in drug development and clinical trials. Now he is a freelance science writer because apparently a regular income isn’t for him anymore. He writes about any science he finds interesting or quirky, which you can find at www.sciencehubb.co.uk and you a follow him on Twitter @gavinhub.
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CANCER, SNAKES AND LADDERS
BYE BYE BUG, FAREWELL FUNGUS HOPES FOR AN INFECTION-FREE FUTURE
BYE BYE BUG, FAREWELL FUNGUS
The camel-herder from ancient North Africa had fallen victim to the first case of smallpox, an event that marked the start of a new era in human history – and the beginning of 12,000 years of terror. The age of infectious disease. In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people – the equivalent of the current population of the United States, and more casualties than in all the world wars combined. However, in 1796, Edward Jenner revolutionised our relationship with infection by developing a new technique – vaccination – which finally gave us the tools to combat at least some infectious diseases. Following numerous refinements of Jenner’s original technique, $500 million of investment, and the cooperation of more than 50 countries, the World Health Organization finally declared smallpox eradicated in 1980. It stands as one of humanity’s greatest victories. Expectation soared, and in a book called The Evolution and Eradication of Infectious Diseases, respected physician and anthropologist Aidan Cockburn made this statement: “We can look forward with confidence to a considerable degree of freedom from infectious diseases at a time not too far in the future. Indeed . . . it seems reasonable to anticipate that within some measurable time . . . all the major infections will have disappeared”. Yet, today, Cockburn’s vision remains farremoved from reality. In the years since the monumental triumph of smallpox eradication,
little further progress has been achieved. Thirty three years and six further international attempts later, no more diseases have been eradicated. A recent renewed effort to eradicate polio may have revived interest in the targeted removal of infectious threats, but the question remains: will humanity ever be free of infectious disease?
With civilisation came death Our ancestors were relatively untroubled by infections. Before the advent of intensive agriculture, the threat of infectious disease mostly came from microbes whose effects had been softened by hundreds of thousands of years of evolving in step with humans. Oh, how times change. Now new diseases emerge when existing parasites start to cause disease (they become pathogenic). New parasites – altered versions of ancient adversaries – and microorganisms from a different species turn their wrath on humanity. (Think swine flu, where a virus originally found in pigs jumped into humans.) 12,000 years ago, the advent of intensive agriculture led to the creation of the first large cities to house increasingly dense communities; prolonged contact with domesticated animals became commonplace for the first time. These developments provided perfect conditions for the acquisition and spread of infectious disease. In the years that followed, humans were inflicted not just with smallpox, but with myriad infectious diseases from domesticated animals, many of which still blight us today.
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Fade in opening credits. The setting: North Africa, Year 10,000 BC. A camel-herder contracts a virus. Blistering lesions spread from his face until his body is enveloped in a dimpled crust. He is swept by foggy malaise and high fever. The virus then invades his internal organs, one by one, until he succumbs. Cue music… cut to present day. It could just be a scene from a plague movie – but this is actually the start of a very real story. The human story. We live in a perpetual fight for survival. But where there is human ingenuity, there is hope of a better future, as Zaria Gorvett explains.
BYE BYE BUG, FAREWELL FUNGUS
BELOW: skin infected with smallpox
Just six infections account for 90% of deaths from communicable disease worldwide. Three of these have been acquired from other animal species in the last 12,000 years: tuberculosis from cattle; measles from sheep or goats; and AIDS from non-human primates. And the biggest of them all, responsible for the most death globally, acute respiratory infections, including influenza, may have been transmitted from waterfowl 4,500 years ago. But that’s not all: humans also recently acquired smallpox, pertussis, leprosy, the plague, Ebola, and the common cold – all from animals.
(Smallpox) Wikimedia • CDC/James Hicks
The challenge: making the world infection free ‘The ideal way to get rid of any infectious disease would be to shoot instantly every person who comes down with it.’ H L Mencken It isn’t easy to get rid of a disease. In order to be vulnerable to extinction, a disease should spread sluggishly, be easy to diagnose, and naturally trigger a good immune response from infected individuals. It’s also essential to have some way of treating the infection – such as a vaccine or an antibiotic – or some way of wiping out whatever is transmitting the disease-causing pathogen (like killing malaria-spreading mosquitos). But this is where eradication gets tricky. For many diseases, a suitable vaccine simply hasn’t materialised yet. For others, the vaccine may be expensive or difficult to maintain. A worldsaving vaccine would need to be stable enough to survive long journeys, and tolerant to hot environments. Ideally, recipients would also only require a single vaccination to benefit from life-long immunity, and there would be few side-effects. In reality, few such vaccines exist. To complicate matters further, some vaccinations actually pose a risk of infection.
Every year, millions of people in developing countries voluntarily infect themselves with polio by taking a vaccine. Unlike the expensive Western version, two drops contain 1,700,000 live virus particles. It is a highly effective vaccine, and only a single oral dose is required, but the usually harmless vaccine can revert to being infectious (albeit rarely). For every 750,000 recipients, one will develop paralytic poliomyelitis. In the conquest to make polio extinct, it only takes a single reversion event to set back eradication efforts by decades. Once the hurdle of developing a suitable treatment has been cleared, the main barriers that remain are social and political. Uncooperative governments, sceptical religious leaders, and scaremongering media can successfully sabotage the distribution and uptake of disease control measures. This is not to mention the obvious: money. Sometimes it costs relatively little to stop a pathogen from spreading but, when coupled with myopic government agendas, pushing a parasite to extinction is sometimes just not cost effective. Given these many hurdles, it might seem amazing that any diseases have been eradicated at all. Yet, according to the WHO, we can soon expect to be free of Guinea worm, polio, neonatal tetanus, and leprosy. And, of course, nothing in science is static: new developments in vaccine and antibiotic technology are likely to recast the list of diseases that we can realistically target for eradication. Since 10,000 BC, infectious diseases have had a remarkable influence on the course of historical events and human societies, from shaping the outcomes of wars, to repressing the progress of developing countries. Human ingenuity first transformed human societies with agriculture – and, thousands of years later, we still feel the effects of the infectious diseases that emerged. Although vast, the hurdles are not insurmountable. Science pushes the boundaries forward. A new wave of philanthropy, such as The Giving Pledge, offers us hope. One day let’s believe that human ingenuity could rid us of infectious disease once and for all.
Zaria Gorvett is an aspiring science writer with a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Science from the University of Exeter, and a Master’s in Medical Microbiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Zaria has travelled extensively, including work for conservation NGOs in Greece and Tobago. In her spare time she can be found evoking dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum or indulging her fondness for Earl Grey and dialectic. She occasionally tweets about science @Zaria Gorvett. An archive of her articles can be found at zariagorvett.wordpress.com.
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EAT YOUR HEART OUT An exhibition of edible baked body parts Rating: A very odd event took place in late 2012 in the beautiful St Bart’s Pathology Museum in London. The prestigious institute hosts a huge collection of over 5,000 anatomical specimens from all kinds of animals, fish and humans. Spanning three storeys, there are some specimens you can only find here. And, for three days only, an unusual collection of unique edible specimens joined them... Evil Cakes manager Miss Cakehead (otherwise known as Emma Thomas) organized the event: the second outing for her pop-up cake shop and baker’s fair, aptly titled ‘Eat Your Heart Out’. And the theme of this year’s event could not be a better fit for the surroundings: pathologyinspired and anatomically correct cakes! Yum! Over several days, different artists-comebakers delighted and entertained with their grotesque creations, featuring cancerous lungs (my favourite so far) from Nevie Pie Cakes, and Gillian Bell’s skin cake, a rich fruit cake covered in stitched surgical marzipan. Over twenty pastry makers added their skills to the event, selling pieces from between £2.50 ($3.80), for a blood cell cupcake, up to £350 ($540) for the fabulously gory skinless head. Talking to Miss Cakehead reveals the gruesome motivation behind this fantastical event. By
her own admission, Emma is not a particularly adept baker, but is keen to try out new things. The idea of using cake-baking as a medium for art and expression fascinated her, offering as it did the promise of pushing the boundaries of creativity. The anatomical theme grew from Miss Cakehead’s interest in all things science. A geography graduate, she handed over the reins of her East London 18+ shop to pursue a gastronomical art form to churn the stomach. But it’s all in the best possible taste: her not-forprofit cake shop now aims to raise awareness of disease and pathology. Thomas is passionate about finding ways to communicate science in a fun and innovative manner. But she’s not resting on her laurels, having already planned her next big thing: next year’s Evil Cakes extravaganza will be based around Heavy Metal music. Far less gruesome on the eyes, but certainly not on the ears! Overall, ‘Eat your hearts out’ was a fascinating and very individual exhibition. Miss Cakehead can count me in for the next event, where I will be asking to get my hands dirty with some gruesome baking! Emma’s blog: evilcakehead.com Tumbler page of all the creations: eatyourheartout2012.tumblr.com
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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TAKE A DEEP BREATH HOW LANCE ARMSTRONG DUPED THE WORLD
MATT LINSDELL • FITNESS GURU
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Your lungs are what my anatomy teacher called an ‘invagination’. Seriously. They are an organ that extends into the body with a vital purpose: to get oxygen into your blood. Oh, and by the way, fish gills are an ‘evagination’ because they extend out from the fish into the surrounding water and grab up oxygen into the fish’s blood. Same goal, different mechanism. I used to love anatomy class.
Taking a ride So when you take a breath, your lungs expand as your diaphragm pulls down and your ribs pull out. As the volume of your lungs increases, the air from the atmosphere rushes in. And what happens next? The oxygen doesn’t just sit there waiting to get exhaled – no, because within your lungs sit millions of tiny air sacs that are the gateway to your bloodstream. Oxygen uses these air sacs as a sort of turnstile to pass into your bloodstream where it hops on to red blood cells. Red blood cells carry a protein called haemoglobin, which is like a car with four seats. Each seat can hold one oxygen molecule. Because each of these proteins has four ‘seats’ we call it a tetramer (‘tetra’ is a prefix meaning four). Impress your friends with that word. One red blood cell contains 250 million haemoglobin proteins – and since each car can carry 4 oxygen molecules, one single red blood cell can hold one billion oxygen molecules. My child-mind couldn’t fathom why, but there is a simple reason why our blood carries oxygen: for tissues.
Our body is made up of many different kinds of tissues, and they all need oxygen so they can make energy to function. This energy takes the form of ATP (you can read my articles on ATP here). If tissues don’t have oxygen, the cells
can’t make energy, and if your cells can’t make energy, your tissues die. Dead brain cells that result from being strangled are probably the most obvious (and scariest) consequence of oxygen deprivation. So when do tissues need more than a normal amount of oxygen from a normal breath? When you’re exercising! Muscle is an energyhungry tissue, and so sucks up large amounts of oxygen. So it makes sense that if you are an athlete, getting more oxygen to your muscles can give you a real edge. Some of you might be thinking “so we need bigger and better lungs, right?” Not so much. You do need lungs that
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When I was a kid I used to wonder why we needed to breathe. At that time it felt that the need to breathe was so restricting: if we didn’t have lungs we could just swim under water and walk around in outer space. I thought that air merely had to inflate our lungs now and again to keep us alive. Maybe God bestowed these lung-things on us to keep us where he wanted us – on the land and under the sky. But now I’m a grown-up, and I understand a bit more. I know how lungs and blood and muscles and the brain and Lance Armstrong all tie together. If you want to know how, fearless Guru-er, then read on…
TAKE A DEEP BREATH work to get the oxygen from the atmosphere into your blood stream but the limiting factor is usually the red blood cells, not the size of your lungs. You have a finite number of red blood cells, and once all their ‘seats’ are filled up then you’re saturated. Getting more red blood cells is the solution. If you want to know how to do that, just ask Lance Armstrong. He knows. We know he knows. Oprah knows he knows. All the people he took to court know he knows. So let’s talk about what he knows.
(Blood) Flickr • Wheeler Cowperthwaite
How Lance Armstrong kept on winning Lance knows that if you have cancer, and you are going through certain types of chemotherapy, then a huge reduction in red blood cells can be a side effect. Fortunately, medical science created a miracle drug called Erythropoietin. But you and I can call it EPO. This drug will stimulate the human body to make more red blood cells (a process called erythropoiesis, hence the name of the drug) – which is a good thing if you are lacking red blood cells. But what do you think will happen if healthy people take EPO? You’ve got it… more red blood cells. And if you’re a cyclist it means you can work harder: your muscles can generate more ATP; and more ATP means your muscles can fire at a higher intensity. To tell you the truth, your body makes its own erythropoietin: it is a hormone produced naturally in the kidneys and liver. ‘Exogenous EPO’ is how we refer to the drug that athletes take to enhance aerobic performance. Picture a sample of blood in a test tube. It is red and uniform in colour. Now imagine you place that test tube in a centrifuge and spin it. (I’ve done this many times; it’s cool but a little scary because a centrifuge is such a powerful device.) When the centrifuge stops and you remove the blood sample, it is no longer a uniform red colour: it has a dark red section at the bottom and a clear liquid colour at the top. (There is a small layer in the middle but we won’t talk about what that is.) The dark red section contains all the cells clumped together; the clear liquid is the blood fluid called plasma. So now take out your ruler and measure the height of all the liquid. Then measure how much dark red there is compared to clear liquid. These two measurements give you a ratio of dark red to clear liquid – this is called your haematocrit. (Quick definition: the haematocrit is the ratio
of red blood cells to plasma in a given amount of blood, quoted as a percentage. It is often between 40% and 45% in healthy adults. If you test an athlete and he or she has 55% red blood cells then something fishy is going on.)
Cheating at sport version 2.0 Another way you can increase your red blood cell count is to just take a few pints of blood out of your body and store it – and then put it back in again before a race. After all, they are your red blood cells, so what could go wrong? Well, how about a stroke or heart attack? When you add a bunch of extra red blood cells that shouldn’t be there, the blood takes on a syrupy consistency. Sound delicious? It isn’t. Your heart can have a hard time pumping all that syrup around and things can go wrong: high-level athletes have died as a result of this practice. You can therefore imagine that taking synthetic EPO can also make your blood thicker and likewise increase your risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack. In a gruelling multi-day race like the Tour de France you tend to see a consistent drop in the cyclist’s haematocrit – edging lower and
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ABOVE: A vial of separated blood.
lower with every stage as the body becomes progressively exhausted. Exogenous EPO can help keep the levels high. We all know it is cheating, but reports of this practice have been rampant in long-distance cycling. And Lance certainly claims he wasn’t the only one.
The future: injectable oxygen It should be getting fairly clear now that the lungs aren’t really the limiting factor in getting oxygen in to the blood. But if the lungs or trachea are damaged, then oxygen can’t get into the bloodstream via the normal route very well, even if the haematocrit is perfectly healthy. Thankfully, medical science has developed a way to circumvent this problem. Welcome to the future (even if that future sounds like science fiction). Dr. John Kheir, of Children’s Hospital Boston, has invented an injectable, oxygen-rich foam. This foam can deliver oxygen directly into the red blood cells, completely bypassing the lungs. Amazing, yes? Well, it works in rabbits with blocked windpipes – so hopefully it could work in humans too. It’s not a complete
solution, though: lungs don’t just bring oxygen in; they also get carbon dioxide out. So a blocked windpipe is still a big deal. But for someone with dangerously low oxygen levels, this foam could be used in an emergency setting to help save them. It is still early days but very exciting nonetheless. “But wait!” you say, “I’ve seen oxygen-infused drinks being sold at local races. They say they can increase my performance, so isn’t this also a medical miracle that bypasses the lungs?” Well think about that for a moment. Where does liquid go when you drink it? I hope it doesn’t go to your lungs. (We’ve all had that unpleasant experience of a drink going ‘the wrong way’.) No, it goes to your stomach – and your guts don’t have any mechanism for getting that expensive oxygenated liquid into your blood stream. The intestines are made for food. These drinks could only hope to give you gas. So save your money and buy a bike instead. I hear Lance might be selling a few of his. He might be needing the cash.
Matthew Linsdell 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 smart-fit.ca
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(Blood Foam) Flickr • frostnova
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
BATTLING CHAOS WHY YOUR DESK WILL NEVER BE TIDY
JON CROWE • MOLECULAR GURU
BATTLING CHAOS It began with the sound of a tyre rim grinding on the surface of the cycle path I’d been riding along. The sudden sensation of being on a bike that was moving through treacle told me that my rear tyre had punctured. And so it was that, not for the first time of late, I found myself resenting the seeming futility of life: of having the bad luck to get the puncture; of having to spend time and effort buying and fitting a new inner tube – and of my life being enriched not one iota by the whole experience. As I trudged home that evening, wheeling the now-useless bike beside me, I reflected on the many situations we encounter that mirror this experience – when we find ourselves having to invest time and energy, only to be no further forward. Why is it that we have to invest energy merely to maintain the status quo? Why do we find ourselves running, effectively only to stand still? The answer lies in an intrinsic property of all matter; an inescapable universal truth; an order of our existence. This reality has been captured by its own law – the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It states that, in a nutshell, we are living in a perpetual downward spiral in which things just get worse. The universe, and everything in it, is gradually crumbling into a state of ever-increasing disorder. A cheery outlook on life, if ever there was one... This property of all matter – this collapse into disorder – is given a name: entropy. Things that are disordered have greater entropy than things that are relatively more organized. A glass of water, in which the molecules of water itself can move around relatively freely, is more disorganized – it has greater entropy – than a block of ice, in which the molecules of water are trapped into a neatly organised, rigid network. Anything that increases disorder (with its associated increase in entropy) is a spontaneous one, and one that happens without us having to do work to bring it about: a coffee mug dropped on the floor chaotically shatters into dozens of fragments. And there is one important corollary: a decrease in entropy – a move
towards a more organised and ordered state – requires us to do work to make it happen. This is arguably why housework feels like a chore: a living room doesn’t spontaneously tidy itself, just as mending a mug needs work. We need to invest effort to reverse the spread of disorder, and bring order to whatever degree of chaos had befallen our living space since we last made the effort to tidy up. We are essentially swimming against the natural tide of entropy, with disorder setting in the moment we take our foot off the proverbial pedal. Life’s tendency for disarray takes place everywhere – from the biggest to the very smallest situations.
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Life is...running to stand still
(Mutation) Flickr • woodleywonderworks, (Pothole) Flickr • The Tire Zoo
Nature’s building blocks When we zoom in to the molecules and cells of our bodies, we continue to see an ongoing battle with entropy: a never-ending tussle between order and disorder. Consider proteins, the molecular machines that carry out many important functions. Proteins are made in the cell from building blocks called amino acids, with amino acids being progressively joined one after another like links of sausages being extruded from a sausage-making machine. However, in the last stage of manufacture, these protein chains must be bent into specific shapes to function correctly. This folding represents an increase in order, and hence a decrease in entropy. Swimming against the tide of entropy comes at a cost: the cell must work hard to make such events happen. Remarkably, much of the food you eat every day is not for moving or exercising but to give the cells of our body the energy they need to fight against disorder.
manifestations of disorder – creep in, just as if you tried to re-type this article word-forword, letter-for-letter. Errors in biological information cannot be tolerated, though – none of us want mutated genes! So, the cell invests energy and resources to overcome them, using sophisticated proof-reading machinery to errorcheck DNA as it is copied, and repairing as many infelicities as possible before the copying process is complete. And much like making proteins, this needs energy – and is another important reason to eat.
Keep battling on...? Despite the best efforts of our cells to resist its effects, however, the Second Law still ultimately reigns supreme, and the relentless march towards disorder continues. The same is true of galaxies and stars, which ultimately break down and become ever-more chaotic. Likewise, a tarmac road will eventually lose its smoothness, develop potholes and – unless repaired – become little more than a gravel path.
Making babies Even the very continuation of life is a battle against disorder: when we give birth to the next generation, genetic information is passed from one generation to the next. In fact, every time a cell divides to replace itself, it must pass on a copy of its DNA to its progeny – and that copy must be a faithful replica of its parent. But this copying process is not immune from the eroding effects of entropy. Errors – themselves
So next time you’re faced with an office strewn with paperwork, or an inbox you’re no longer in control of, don’t just blame yourself. You are in a constant battle against one of the most basic laws of the Universe. From time to time, it may be worth asking yourself whether it’s really worth struggling against the power of entropy, or whether you shouldn’t just go with the flow...
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. You can find him on Twitter @crowe_jon.
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BIO-PUNK: STORIES FROM THE FAR SIDE OF RESEARCH Editor: Ra Page Publisher: Comma Press (UK), Carcanet Press (USA) Price: £9.99, $14.95 (e-Reader versions available) Available from Amazon (UK) (USA) Rating:
One of the reasons I enjoy reading science fiction is the pleasure I get by asking, “Could this actually be possible?” The best sci-fi walks the fine line between being pure fantasy and being eminently possible. In the newly published collection, Bio-Punk, readers don’t have to speculate on the reallife relevance of the narratives. Following each of the thirteen fictional short stories, there is a short response by a leading scientific or legal voice in that particular field. Jane Feaver’s story, ‘The Challenge’, ventures into the prickly ethical issue of human drug trials. Throughout ‘The Challenge’, the main character, Maureen, agrees to undergo a drug trial for a malaria vaccine, thus agreeing to be available for regular check-ups to ensure she is not reacting negatively to the trial. Readers learn of Maureen’s tragic life: a son killed in the military, a husband left long ago, and an existence of lonely solitude. Her motivations for enrolling on the trial are soon uncovered to be less than altruistic. After being infected by malariacarrying mosquitos, Maureen flees from the drug testers to a favorite family holiday spot. Rather than following protocol and returning for regular check-ups, we learn that Maureen’s involvement in the drug trial is a form of suicide. Allowing the malaria to take control in her tranquil retreat, the tale makes for a poignant conclusion.
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Responding to the story is Professor Sarah Gilbert, of The Jenner Institute, University of Oxford. Professor Gilbert offers interesting insights into the ethical components of human drug trials. She verifies the story’s malaria testing process before asking (and answering) some of the big questions: is human drug testing safe? Is it ethical to infect someone with a disease that could kill them? With well-informed answers, her response makes the preceding story all the more believable and engrossing. As a lover of all things that combine the arts and the sciences, I found this collection’s stories and expert responses brilliant. Another stand-out tale was Annie Kirby’s ‘Xenopus Rose-Tinted’, which was both intellectually satisfying and beautifully crafted: “…and so they stumbled on us instead, the Xenopus Rose-Tinted, with our red eyes, jazzinfused nocturne of DNA and the ability to dream one another’s dreams.” (Doesn’t that roll trippingly off the tongue!?) I’m hard pressed to find negatives, but it may be that Bio-Punk’s unique approach will not thrill everyone – the professional commentary interfering with a reader’s ability to live in the science fiction fantasy. However, I didn’t find myself wishing these responses away; rather, by the time I was a few stories in, I couldn’t wait to read the explanations that followed! It had the same appeal of watching a gripping film and then listening to the director’s commentary afterward. Bio-Punk’s coupling of the fictional with the factual makes this collection stand out as one of my new favorite art and science combos. Highly recommended – a must read!
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THE UNIVERSE EXPLAINED TO MY GRANDCHILDREN Author: Hubert Reeves Publisher: Salammbo Price: £6.00 (US available from $4.75 + shipping) Available from Amazon (UK) (USA) Rating: The title of Hubert Reeves’ new book promises much: the universe – explained! From the author of many acclaimed science books, Canadian born a s t ro p hy s i c i s t and anointed French Knight Hubert Reeves, The Universe Explained to my Grandchildren is a clever and concise window into the basics of one of the most baffling fields: astronomy and astrophysics. The book is conducte d as a conversation between Reeves and his inquisitive granddaughter. Supposedly based on conversations they have had over the course of the years, the book is divided into small, easily readable chapters. Addressing everything from the Big Bang to black holes, the book is
not surprisingly written in simple language. Reeves gives an unapologetic explanation in his prelude that his intended audience is a 14 year old – the same age as his granddaughter. Then, step by step, he reveals his fascination with our universe and the laws that set it in motion. Describing his writing as a “spiritual testament” to younger generations (his grandchildren, no doubt) it will seem that way. But I feel the book is flawed. Not by its concept: I am always a fan of making science accessible and ditching the jargon. Neither is its content unbalanced: there is a good mix of various astrophysical topics to entertain any inquisitive reader. Furthermore, Reeves’ humility on how little is still known on these subjects, and how much more we need to learn, is refreshing. But it is in the assembly of the book that something has gone wrong. The quality of the translation can be distracting (the book was originally written in French, and there are some glaring errors). But the real flaw comes in Reeves’ attempt to include too many topics in one very small volume. The book reads like the abridged version of a textbook: the reader is thrown far too quickly from one subject to the next with scant time for digesting what is covered. On balance, the book is worthwhile – the content is interesting and presented in an easy to swallow and pleasing manner. And there’s no doubt that Reeves certainly knows his stuff. But its ambitious premise may leave his target audience of young adolescents finding this a challenging read. Hopefully it will serve to give some insights to parents who, in turn, can explain the universe to their grandchildren.
Review by: Natasha Agabalyan (Food Guru) The GuReview rating system
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DECEIVED WISDOM: WHY WHAT YOU THOUGHT WAS RIGHT IS WRONG Author: David Bradley Publisher: Elliott & Thompson Limited Price: £11.99/$19.95 (Hardcover) available from Amazon (UK), (US) (also available as Kindle Edition) Rating: We’re given so much advice during our lifetime—“Do this!” “Stop doing that!” “Why?” “Because I said so!” Wait a second… “Because I said so?” That parental favourite is taken to task in David Bradley’s absorbing new book Deceived Wisdom: Why What You Thought Was Right Is Wrong. We’ve all experienced seemingly odd situations where we don’t quite understand the logic (or madness!) behind the method. That’s Bradley’s goal—he wants his readers to understand the actual details of the mundane, rather than fall into the traps of misinformation stemming from accepted wisdom. Bradley starts off simply enough. His contents page reveals a list of commonly held misconceptions including: ‘snack sized dietary deceptions’, ‘does size matter?’, and
the ‘hangover cure fail’. Each short chapter describes one of these ideas before exploring the truth behind these twisted principles. At the start of each chapter, Bradley states the deception, or the ‘myth’, he’s helping us understand. For example, he convincingly dispels the notion that, “You must switch off your mobile phone to prevent fires or explosions at petrol stations should it ring” – despite what the signs in the filling station say. Thanks to clearly marked ideas, reading this book is a joy. Deceived Wisdom is the perfect book when you have a few spare minutes and want to polish up your trivia knowledge. I’ll admit, I didn’t read it straight through; instead I jumped around, focusing of course on the myths I’ve heard and have maybe-sort-of-embarrassingly believed… Probably the smartest feature of this book lies at the end of each chapter: not merely hoping his readers will believe his word alone, Bradley includes a summary of the actual science, proving what he has discussed. And should this objectivity not be quite enough for you, Bradley adds a ‘find out more’ section, providing a website or two where readers can discover additional info. As a reader, I greatly appreciate the respect he has for the reader. It’s unusual to see this degree of openness and lack of condescension in such writing, especially ones that are grounded in ‘showing you what’s wrong with your thinking.’ Overall, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Not only is it entertaining, but it is also extremely informative, smart, and thorough. While Bradley discusses some complex topics, his clear writing makes reading about these brainteasers a breeze. If you enjoy reading Guru (and, really, who doesn’t?!), you’re sure to gobble up this one.
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YOUR GENOME IN YOUR POCKET THE DNA DILEMMA THAT FACES US ALL
YOUR GENOME IN YOUR POCKET
Boy, did that film affect me. Upon watching with twisted lips, wide eyes and an elevated heart rate, I, like many others waited for the credits with a sense of dread and despair for the future. But the reality at the time was that sequencing a human genome was just too expensive (over $10,000 per person) and impractical to be used en masse. Without any tangible impact on dayto-day life, the hype died down and the disciples of pop media occupied themselves with other impending stories of doom, leaving the science of DNA sequencing to plod along quietly in the background. But for how much longer is DNA sequencing to remain niche rather than mainstream? Researchers at Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) have made huge advances that could completely change the scale on which it is practical to carry out genome sequencing. In 2012, the company announced that it had perfected a handheld device that plugs straight into your laptop and can sequence the entire genome of a human for less than $1,000. What’s more, we can expect this machine to be available for anyone to use, perhaps as early as this year. Is it time to dust off the pitchforks, light the torches, and re-enter the debate?
Power in the palm of your hand Like most good ideas, the principle behind ONT’s new device is pretty simple. It uses nanopores – tiny holes formed by proteins that are small enough to let a minute single strand of DNA pass through. Each strand of DNA is a chain of building blocks (called ‘bases’), which act like a computer code. And every strand of DNA is made of just four of these bases: A, T, C, and G. Now here comes the clever bit. Under the right conditions, it’s possible to measure an electrical current passing through a nanopore – but the electricity varies depending on the particular DNA base passing through the nanopore at the time. So the electrical current measured when
an ‘A’ passes through the nanopore is different from the one measured when a ‘T’ (or ‘C’ or ‘G’) passes through. By measuring the varying current as a strand of DNA passes through, we can infer the exact sequence.
Why you want to know There’s no doubt that the mass sequencing and analysis of individual human genomes could have a hugely positive impact on various aspects of human life. If we knew more about the genes people carried, we might find it easier to pinpoint disease-causing genetic mutations – leading to improved treatments for illnesses like cancer, muscular dystrophy and heart disease. Personal genome sequencing could even help doctors tailor their treatment to the individual – true personalised medicine. So why isn’t everyone convinced? It’s because there are ethical issues that many can’t ignore. With social media and the Internet becoming more and more pervasive parts of our lives, privacy is under threat like never before. Our genes make us who we are – so your genome is arguably the most personal part of you.
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In 1989, the Human Genome Project set itself the target of sequencing the human genome – mapping out all of the DNA code of a human. This ambitious plan stimulated fierce ethical debate, which raged well into the 1990s, and was neatly captured in the harrowing box office hit, Gattaca.
(Gattaca) Flickr • col&tasha
YOUR GENOME IN YOUR POCKET
But after our genome has been sequenced, to whom does the information belong? Could this information be abused by politicians, identity thieves, or God forbid, advertisers? I shudder at the prospect of a future where the leaflet through my front door is no longer a discount offer for pizza, but yet another advert for ‘Miracle Hair Regrowth Formula’ because apparently I’m genetically predisposed to male pattern baldness! There is also the serious issue of genetic discrimination – addressed so adeptly in Gattaca. Imagine being refused life insurance because you’re genetically at risk of disease. Imagine being unable to pursue the career you want for similar reasons. And what about more sinister flavours of discrimination? Once we have taken the small step from mapping the human genome to its artificial alteration it becomes hard to avoid echoes of the Third Reich’s ghoulish ambition to create a (so-called) master race. It’s not to say that such atrocities would likely be committed again – but that we have just cause to fear the creation of a world where our value is based on our genetic readings.
It’s time we made tough decisions So the risks are certainly great. The challenge we face is to weigh them up – and the important thing right now is the discussion. We can’t stand in the way of progress, but as we proceed we need to ask serious questions about whether every scientific breakthrough is worth making. Through government legislation and social pressure, the global population has the power and choice to guide science. So what sort of science should we be pursuing? What risks are worth taking? Where medicine says ‘yes’ but history warns ‘no’, what is the right way for science to jump? By establishing a dialogue and making our position clear now, we improve our chances of being happier in the future. The truth is that DNA sequencing techniques will continue to be developed and become cheaper. If not here, then somewhere in the world, regardless of what the majority opinion is. Perhaps, then, we should be putting our efforts into controlling how this research is used rather than questioning whether or not it is done. At any rate, I would very much like to avoid ending up as an extra in the real-life sequel, Gattaca Part 2: When Did We Let This Happen? Boy, did that film affect me.
Ross Harper recently graduated from Cambridge University having studied Biological Natural Sciences. He spent the last year running his somewhat unconventional advertising business, BuyMyFace.com, and is now trying his hand at app development with his new company, Wriggle Ltd. Ross is living proof that you can take the boy out of the lab, but you can’t take the lab out of the boy - no matter what crazy scheme he’s currently working on, he makes sure to devote a bit of time to keeping with the latest in science news. Feel free to say ‘hi’ to Ross on Twitter (@refharper).
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DEATH AT THE PLAYGROUND WHEN DOGS STOP BEING OUR BEST FRIEND
ARTEM CHEPRASOV • ANIMAL GURU
DEATH AT THE PLAYGROUND
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Summer is virtually here! (Honest!) We’ll soon be enjoying fun in the sun at the park, beach, and playground. However, what could begin as a happy sun-filled day may end with a blinding loss of vision for you or your loved ones. Shocked? How about this then: your own dog may play a role. Your child could even die.
The cause of this mayhem is nothing more than a worm – one so small you can sometimes only see it with a microscope. This parasite (called a helminth) actually has a cute name: the roundworm. Most roundworms pick one species to call home. This host animal’s digestive tract is essentially the centre of operations for the roundworm’s needs, including feeding and reproduction. Not a pretty place to call home. In most developed nations, human roundworm infestations are uncommon. Rather, the trouble lies with roundworm infections in other creatures – dogs, cats, raccoons, or wild animals roaming the nearby woods. And if you thought living in partially digested animal food was sickening, it gets worse… Should an infective roundworm egg that has been deposited in an animal’s faeces be eaten by a human, it can hatch within our intestines and release baby roundworms called larvae (or larva, if there’s just the one). These larvae will penetrate the intestinal wall, travel to our liver, then our lungs, and from there will spread all over our body. This internal worm-infection is formally called larva migrans – referring to the migration of worm babies inside our body. The larvae can commonly spread to organs like our brain, heart, lungs, liver and eyes.
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According to Dr. Allan J. Paul, Veterinarian, Associate Dean, and Chair Professor of Parasitology and Pathobiology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, the principal cause of visceral larva migrans in the U.S. is Toxocara canis, the dog roundworm. “3-6 million people in the U.S. are infected with Toxocara larva migrans each year,” Dr. Paul says. “Between 4.6% and 23% of U.S. children have been infected with the dog roundworm, depending on geographic location. In some places in the world, such as Colombia, up to 81% of children have been infected with Toxocara canis.” If you are unfortunate enough to put soiled fingers in your mouth and consume an infective egg, it’s likely that the larvae will enter your tissues. But do not despair! If the roundworm egg isn’t human-specific – like the dog roundworm – you will usually experience no clinical signs and minimal damage: your immune system will essentially seal off (or ‘encapsulate’) the roundworm larvae that have penetrated you. This encapsulation will either kill the larvae or, more worryingly, cause them to lie dormant. And there’s the one catch, according to Dr. Paul: the larvae can lie dormant for years, springing to life and coming out to get you when your immune system is weak or busy fighting another serious disease.
Cute in name, but not in nature Roundworm infestations that affect the internal organs are called visceral larva migrans (‘viscera’ refers to our body’s organs). A special case of visceral larva migrans, when the larvae target the eye, is called ocular larva migrans. But why do larvae migrate specifically to organs like our eyes and brain? The simple answer is: we don’t know. However, the fact that only a few eggs are necessary to cause an infection may be one reason why the larvae can migrate all over your body without being detected or destroyed: there are just not enough of them to alert your body to launch an immune response big enough to kill them off.
DEATH AT THE PLAYGROUND
Invincible and Deadly – this critter isn’t kid-friendly Unlike us, children are far more likely to succumb to larva migrans. A naturally weaker immune system can be one reason why they may be unable to effectively seal off the larvae. (That’s not to say adults can’t succumb to larva migrans; they can – and do. It’s just that children seem to be more predisposed.) Another reason for the tendency of children to get the worst of a roundworm infection can be their ‘risky’ behaviors: putting objects contaminated with roundworm eggs, such as dirt, grubby hands, or toys that have been liberally rolled around in dirt, into their mouths. Unfortunately, public areas where children frequently play are often riddled with roundworm eggs. Dr. Paul explains: “Each adult canine roundworm can lay 200,000 eggs inside a dog every day! The eggs then pass in a dog’s feces and, in warm, humid weather, will develop into an infective egg in 3-4 weeks.” Dr. Paul reports one study in which about 20% of soil samples in parks and playgrounds were found to contain roundworm eggs. Not only are roundworm eggs widespread but, once in the environment, they are very resistant to destruction. In fact, there is no known chemical cleaning agent that can kill them. If that wasn’t bad enough, only a few roundworm eggs are thought necessary to cause an infection in the first place. Visceral larva migrans is most commonly seen in children aged 1-4 who have a history of eating dirt. But ocular larva migrans is most commonly seen in kids who are 7-8 years old and have no history of dirt-eating (or other risky behaviors). It may be that, in these children, the accidental ingestion of just a tiny number of roundworm eggs is enough for larva migrans to occur.
How to protect yourself against the evil worm Dogs may be man’s best friend (and I’m certainly not going to stop loving Mocha, my German Short-haired Pointer) but their poo certainly isn’t. Eradicating your garden could only feasibly be done with boiling water (heat kills worm eggs instantly) and this is far from an ideal solution. The moral of the story is simple: watch your kids at the playground. Make sure they’re not putting dirty hands, objects, or soil in their mouth. Wash and cook your food thoroughly, and make sure you wash your hands frequently. And don’t just look after yourselves: look after your pets, too. If you have a kitten or puppy, make sure they are dewormed as soon as possible. Clean up after them as soon as they do their business – don’t wait for the kitty litter or backyard soil to become infested with roundworm eggs. It may seem like a chore – but do it every day. It may help to save your vision, your child, and your life.
References: • Paul, Allan. Telephone Interview. February 1st, 2013. • Boschetti, A. (1995). Visceral Larva Migrans Induced Eosinophilic Cardiac Pseudotumor: A Cause of Sudden Death in a Child. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 40(6): 1097-9 • Gavin PJ et al. (2002) Neural larva migrans caused by the raccoon roundworm Baylisascaris procyonis. • The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. 21(10):971-5
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Artem Cheprasov moved to the U.S. when he was a little boy. So no, he is not a spy. Or is he? He finished his studies in veterinary medicine in the top 10% of his class, conducted research, and discovered a cool mathematics algorithm; but we cannot confirm this as both Washington and Moscow have refused to comment on this matter because he really is a spy or, more likely, they have no idea who he even is.
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(Round Worm) Wikimedia • Joel Mills
ABOVE: Not pleasant: an adult roundworm taken from a puppy.
Regardless of their way in, the consequences of roundworm egg ingestion can be severe. Once larva migrans does occur, the migrating larvae can cause damage to literally any part of your body. The inflammation your immune system triggers when it detects the larvae can lead to even worse consequences, including permanent vision loss. In some rare cases it can even cause death due to the destruction of the brain or heart.
DEPARTURE LOUNGE I’m not a fan, and I imagine many of you aren’t either. The conclusions Nathan therefore makes in ‘They know where you live…’ (page 35) are perhaps surprising, and no doubt controversial. Send us your thoughts (info@gurumagazine. org or via the App feedback tool). We’ll publish the best responses. There are a handful of sites offering ‘something different’, and I hope Guru Magazine continues to do the same. As I explain in our ‘Welcome to Guru’ video (watch it here), Guru exists to offer that something different. We believe ‘anyone can play’ but need your voice to make sure the Guru wagon keeps rolling in the right direction. The Readers’ Panel (click here) is a great way to do that – and you’ll be doing us (and the Wellcome Trust) a big favour by completing a few surveys. Thanks for reading. Keep on Guru-ing! Our next issue is out 3rd June 2013 – don’t miss it!
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About fifteen years ago, it was thought that the ‘information superhighway’ would create a new intellectual world – opening our eyes to new ideas, interests and social groups. But day-to-day internet use isn’t really like that. Popping something into Google invariably offers a list of ‘personalised’ results – geared toward our location and what we’ve previously read. Very useful for finding a local plumber, but highly restrictive if you want to ‘experience’ something new. Facebook and Google are pros at internet ‘personalisation’ – thanks to the wealth of personal data they harvest about us.
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Published on Apr 1, 2013
Published on Apr 1, 2013
A unique FREE bi-monthly mag for the thinking person. Entertainment, news and science - but there aren't any lab goggles in sight. Inside t...