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THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond Jon Crowe

Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu

Deputy Editor/ Molecular Guru @crowe_jon

Lucy Huang J. N. Lloyd

Guru Intern


Ian Wildsmith

Design Guru

FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE Leila Wildsmith Guru Opinions Daryl Ilbury Zaria Gorvett James Lloyd

Sceptic Guru @darylilbury @Zaria Gorvett Physics Guru @jbb_lloyd

Natasha Agabalyan Food Guru @SciencInformant Berit Brogaard Kristian Marlow @KAPastor Kyle Pastor Ansel Oomen Artem Cheprasov

Animal Guru

Richard Ellam Ross Harper


Simon Makin News Guru @SimonMakin Matt Linsdell

(texture #18) Flickr • Asja.

Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt


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

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at the end of an article, use it to click back to this contents page.


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Wouldn’t it be nice to create some fancy Michelin Star food at home? Food Guru Natasha dons her chef’s whites and plays with some whizzy kit. Recipes included! Watch out Heston Blumenthal.

UNREALITY BITES Are we living a little too vicariously through others? If you’re a fan of reality TV shows, opinion columnist Leila says you should take heed. Could watching reality TV shows degrade ‘real life’?


Don’t be a cone head about coning. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury shines a light on the ancient art of ear candling and finds out whether it’s a flame best snuffed out...

Things never stop at GURU HQ. Find out if you won last issue’s Ask A Guru competition, see who has joined Guru and try your hand at our new newspaper headline comp.


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THE WORLD OUTSIDE Carly has autism and for the first ten years of her life didn’t utter a word. Having communicated for the first time via her father’s laptop, experts Berit and Kristian reveals what the world looks like through Carly’s eyes.

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6 REASONS TO KISS A FROG With many amphibian populations on the path to extinction, their loss is our loss too. Zaria discusses the contributions that frogs and salamanders have made to many scientific discoveries. Maybe you really do want to kiss that frog.


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NEWTON’S APPLE “Eureka!” Physics Guru James Lloyd goes on a journey to find out whether an apple really struck Newton’s noggin. What he discovers could well rewrite the history books

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SCHRÖDINGER’S BIRD If birds drove cars, they wouldn’t argue about the GPS directions it seems. Migrating birds rarely get lost, but how they know which way to fly has remained a mystery. Until now…


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FROM WASTE TO WONDER Climate change and population growth is making drinking water an increasingly precious commodity. Ansel Oommen shows how nature is offering us a way to purify water… and eat our sewage.


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Rare, medium or well-done? Steak-lovers beware! Animal Guru and veterinary scientist Artem looks at the less palatable side of America’s favourite meal. Perhaps it’s time you went vegetarian…

Is running on hard surfaces really bad for the joints? Fitness Guru Matt Linsdell explains why you’re probably better off not bothering with those über-expensive, low impact running shoes. It’s time to stop fearing the pavement.


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THREE TIPS FOR SUCCESS Kids love steam engines. Guest writer Richard Ellam was crazy about them as a child and his fascination introduced him to Thomas Newcomen. Richard discovers how this mysterious man’s life can actually tell us a thing or two about how to succeed in life.



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Ever wondered why the way there feels longer than the way back? Or did you ever question whether your cat thinks it’s a human? Every Friday we open the Guru gates to your weird questions. Here are five of the best ‘Ask a Guru’ questions from the last two months.

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ROBOTICS MAKES A BEELINE FOR NATURE’S BLUEPRINTS That flying insect could be watching you. Ross Harper looks at the buzz behind a new Harvarddesigned robot bee. Inspired by nature, it is set to fly high.


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SPECIAL REPORT News Guru Simon Makin gets into the party spirit at a London festival… of brain experts. It sounds boring, but Simon discovers a jovial atmosphere… and magic mushrooms.


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This month’s app-themed reviews look at PressReader – a new way to read your morning newspaper – and Human Defense Viral – a game to keep you up at night.



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Contents Pages: (Summer feeling) Flickr • Alfonso Salgueiro Lora

ometimes you see a video that you just can’t help sharing. No, not the one of those YouTube videos of dogs popping balloons or animated squirrels doing backflips, but something that truly makes you stop and think. I don’t often give such viral videos or photos the time of day – but I’m pleased I didn’t ignore ‘The surprising truth about what motivates us’. It was one of the most worthwhile ten minutes I’d spent in a long time. An animated short by the RSA, the video questions what drives us out of bed in the morning. We might think that a pay rise or financial bonus would really incentivise us. But it almost certainly won’t. ‘Performance related pay’ is used the world over to inspire and drive employees. Politicians particularly love it – especially when it means cutting the salary of civil servants. But it doesn’t make us work better. Quite the opposite: money as the motivator makes us less productive. Surprising? It stunned me. Each issue we like to offer articles that give you a reason to stop and think, or to make you smile. (And preferably both.) I hope this issue is

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no exception. First out of the blocks is Leila, our opinion columnist, who argues that reality TV skews what real life is. Our Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, goes on to shine a light on the world of East Asian ‘coning’ therapy (putting a candle in your ear), while Fitness Guru Matt Linsdell stamps his authority on the ‘low-impact’ running shoe con. If food is more your thing, Natasha has got just what you need with her guide to cooking fancy Michelin Star-style food at home. In this issue you’ll discover why frogs are worth kissing, why a rare steak shouldn’t touch your lips, and you will meet Carly, the autistic child who didn’t speak for ten years. And of course we feature our usual mix of news, reviews, Ask a Guru, competitions and more... I hope this little taster will motivate you to read on. But, beyond the world of Guru, what really motivates us in everyday life? The research shows there are three things: creative freedom, a sense of purpose, and the opportunity to keep improving. Now come to think of it, it isn’t all that surprising…

Dr. Stu

Guru: Your digital science-lifestyle magazine. By you and for you. Next issue released: 1st August 2013.

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.


(un)Reality Bites

The last decade has seen a huge increase in the number of reality shows on television – and I must confess to being a bit addicted to some of them. A reality show that arguably changed the direction of television in the UK is Big Brother, which is based on an idea in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. On the off chance that this televisual phenomenon has passed you by, Big Brother features contestants that live in an isolated house under the continual gaze of TV cameras. Other reality series include the increasingly popular ‘documentaries’ of life in different parts of London: Channel 4’s Made in Chelsea, which follows a group of socially elite, affluent, twenty-somethings and documents their extravagant lifestyles; and ITV’s The Only Way Is Essex (affectionately referred to as TOWIE), which, in much the same way, records the lives of a group of friends in Essex. These British shows have been influenced largely by the culture of reality shows in America, such as The Hills on MTV, which follows the lives of a group of young adults living in Los Angeles, and Jersey Shore, which also ran on MTV and followed eight housemates as they spent their summer on New Jersey’s shoreline. The premise of these shows is one of watching people live their real lives in the public eye. As Grace Dent wrote in her Guardian article Grace Dent’s TV OD: “[these programmes] show real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way”. To me, it seems a bit like The Truman Show – the blockbuster starring Jim Carrey in which the life of the eponymous character, Truman Burbank, is a constructed, permanent reality show that is broadcast to the world. However, unlike other

reality shows, Truman is the only one who is unaware that his whole life is being broadcast, whilst his friends, family and colleagues are all in on the secret and collaborate to create this constructed reality. Perhaps the most outrageous of all of these reality shows is the forthcoming Mars One reality show, which will see contestants battling for a place to become an astronaut on a very real one-way trip to Mars. It has the potential to feature some inspiring characters, but I expect it will parade the usual collection of eccentrics, who are desperate for their lives to be broadcast to the rest of the world.

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(Old broken TV) Flickr • schmilblick, (Rocket) Flickr • mtshaw

When Reality TV gets too real

(TVBGone - 8) Flickr • oskay

GURU OPINIONS In these Reality Shows, we see raw, real life: we see break-ups and make-ups; we see friendships built up and broken down. Perhaps most importantly, we see people like us. Beneath the money, or the accents, or the fake-tan, what we really want to see is someone who is living the same kind of life as we are and we laugh at those who are different. Ultimately we are looking for people who have the same kind of problems and who struggle with the same situations. We are looking for affirmation of our lives and our lifestyles. But as I watch these shows, I ask myself what they say about a society in which people prefer to watch other people living their lives rather than getting on with living their own. I think the danger in enjoying these shows too much is that we start to ‘live’ vicariously through them, rather than making the most of our own ‘here and now’. Instead of going to parties or picnics, we stay rooted to our sofas, watching other people do these things instead. Rather than meeting new people or making new friends, we create relationships with the ‘characters’ in these shows: we feel we know and understand them. We tell ourselves that we can relate to them. We project ourselves and the people we know onto the characters on the screen – to the extent that it almost feels like we are living the same lives. Or else, we lose ourselves completely in the shows because we know we are so different from the characters presented before us: we enjoy seeing life from a completely different perspective and we forget what life looks like from our own point of view. Another issue with these programmes is that there is the potential to see our own lives as reality shows, rather than real life. There is a

dangerous blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, or even between actual reality and ‘constructed’ reality. Rather than living out an authentic version of our own lives, we find ourselves scripting conversations or constructing scenarios in our minds before they happen. We stop living spontaneous, genuine lives and become ‘characters’ of ourselves. In essence, the version of ‘reality’ these shows present risk us becoming distanced from our own reality. We lose the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality and, more worryingly, we risk losing ourselves.

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. and intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s.

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(Burnt Candle) Wikimedia • Brett Alton

Few things catch my eye in store windows nowadays. Blame it on old age and my perfunctory disregard for all things fashionable. But not so long ago I did a double take when walking past a health shop near my apartment in London. In the window was a picture of a woman lying on her side with a candle sticking out of her ear. It was an advert for a procedure they offered called coning, which they claimed could cure all manner of ills. I thought it looked rather medieval – barbaric even. That’s because it is, and modern science can prove it. Coning, sometimes called ‘ear candling’ or ‘auricular candling’ (to try and sound like a proper medical procedure), involves sticking a candle into the ear and lighting it. The ‘candle’ is really a hollow tube, usually shaped like a narrow cone, and can be made of a number of flammable materials such wax, cotton dipped in beeswax, or even newspaper soaked in paraffin. It’s sometimes scented. If the product sounds a little rudimentary, the ‘procedure’ of coning is equally so. The narrower end of the ‘candle’ is pushed through a hole in a paper or aluminium foil plate (designed to catch any burning wax), placed in the person’s ear while they’re lying on their side, and the slightly wider end (the one not in the ear) is lit. If that sounds like I’ve oversimplified coning, then here’s a video demonstration to show that I haven’t. Right now, the sceptic in you should have several obvious questions buzzing around inside your brain, including: • What on earth is coning supposed to do; • How is it supposed to do this; and, • Isn’t it, perhaps, just a little dangerous? It’s claimed coning removes excess wax, ‘toxins’ and ‘negative energy’ from the outer ear and the Eustachian tube – the canal that connects the middle ear (behind the eardrum) to the back of the throat. This, according to its proponents, helps with problems including sinusitis, earache, sore throats, feelings of imbalance, and even candida infection.

Its supposed way of working is where science wags its finger and says, “Erm, I don’t think so”. Coning advocates (‘coners’?) claim smoke spirals down the hollow, burning candle and flushes out the Eustachian tube. At the same time, the heat of the burning end of the candle creates a pressure differential – a mini vacuum – inside the ear, thereby sucking out the earwax and any impurities. Again, your sceptic brain should have several burning doubts inside it, guided by an understanding of basic school biology and physics: • How can the hollow tube encourage smoke to go down, while encouraging earwax to come up and out at the same time; • Earwax is a pretty solid, so surely it would either have to be melted in order to be sucked out (requiring sufficient heat energy to turn it to liquid), or (if remaining solid) the vacuum would have to be so powerful that it would pop the eardrum; and, • The small matter of the eardrum... How does the smoke get past the eardrum to access the middle ear and the Eustachian tube? Now that we know coning can never do what it claims to do, let’s address that other niggling question: isn’t it, perhaps, just a little dangerous? Again, let’s turn to school science to answer that one: the person having the procedure is lying on their side with the candle sticking upwards, out of the ear. When the other end is lit, the

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ABOVE: Residual candle wax found inside a burnt often alleged to be earwax and toxins, drawn out of the ear canal.

melted wax will, under the influence of gravity, naturally flow downwards towards the ear. Proponents claim the wax only melts on the outside of the candle and is therefore caught by the other piece of high technology: the paper plate through which the candle has been jammed. But remember that it’s a hollow tube, not a normal candle, so of course melted wax can still flow down the inside. This explains why those having the procedure risk severe damage to the ear. What makes the procedure even more dangerous is that coning (or ‘ear candling’) kits are sold online to be used by anyone willing to take the time to read the instructions. As a result, coning seems have developed into something of a home industry. But home candle making is one thing; DIY medical procedures with melting wax are another!

So, if it cannot work, why is it still being offered in London health shops and as online kits? Because not everyone is a sceptic, and there will always be people (unfortunately lots of them) who are sufficiently ignorant of science that they’re willing to believe anyone who dazzles them with a little magic. Throw in a little ancient mysticism (apparently the practice of coning dates back to everyone from the ancient Chinese, to the Mayans, the Aztecs, and even the people of Atlantis), and it also sucks in those who eschew modern medicine for pseudoscientific ‘new age’ practices. Of course, you may disagree. You may see the virtue of coning, and consider it neither ineffectual nor barbaric. If that is the case, you may want to try the following: boiling bleach enemas, anti-dandruff scalp sandblasting, nitro-glycerine nasal hair removal, and vaginal tar-and-feathering. Good luck with that.

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

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(Baldy...) Flickr •





‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin must be rolling in his grave. A lover of all things aquatic, we are in the midst of a crisis of amphibian decline. The extinction of each toad and frog species is more than an ecological tragedy, but rather a loss for the future of humankind. These slimy crawlers possess some incredible superpowers: the regeneration of limbs, resistance to freezing and the ability to not eat for 10 years. We are starting to exploit these gifts for tomorrow’s technology, but the clock is ticking…

BELOW: Dried Hasma. Made from the fatty tissues of frogs, and used in Traditional Chinese medicine and Central Asian desserts.

Last month, scientists announced plans to resurrect a mouth-brooding frog from extinction. This Jurassic Park-inspired endeavour coincided with ‘Save the frogs’ day which, according to an American charity, was on April the 27th. But why should anyone really care? Traditionally, these enigmatic beasts have been feared, loathed, and misunderstood. And yet they have been faithful servants of scientific and medical endeavour for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians loved amphibians so much that they worshipped not one, but two, frog-headed gods. The Greeks and Romans associated them with fertility. In ancient China, frogs were symbols of healing; records show that more than 30 species of amphibian have an

important role in traditional Chinese medicine, a therapy still used by millions of us today. In middle age Europe, a bounty was placed on salamanders, while toads were allied with the devil. But now they are coveted as pets, and as sources of food and leather – or symbols of disgust and banners of unlikely talent. Scientists have dissected, electrocuted, and levitated them – but amphibians still haven’t given up all their secrets. Now, as one third to one half of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction, they are more important than ever. If you don’t believe me, here are six reasons why you should.

Frogs tell us how brains work In 1771, our turbulent relationship with amphibians changed forever. A curious Italian doctor, Luigi Galvani, discovered that the leg of a skinned frog would twitch when he touched it with an electrically charged scalpel. He had discovered the link between electricity and the nervous system. This was the beginning of the involvement of amphibians in science. The study of the humble frog would continue to provide insight into the workings of our own biology right up to the present day – becoming one of what we now call ‘model organisms’.

Forget Dolly: frogs teach us how to clone In 1952, the northern leopard frog became the first animal to be cloned. The contents of an embryonic cell (containing the frog’s genetic information) was transferred to another empty

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Previous Page: (The Princess and the Frog) Flickr • Monkey Mash Button, (Rana pipiens) Flickr • Paul J. Morris, (DriedHasma) Wikimedia • Sjschen



ABOVE: A northern leopard frog.

egg, which went on to develop into an embryo genetically identical to its originator. In the 1960s, John Gurdon used the African clawed frog to demonstrate that every cell in our body – be it those in our ears, from our liver, or our brain – carries the same genetic information. Despite having completely different functions, each contains the instructions to make another you. What makes a liver cell different to an eye cell is how this genetic information is interpreted – how our genes are ‘expressed’. Half a century later, the African clawed frog has been transported all over the world, has been genetically modified, has had its entire genome sequenced, and has informed the fields of developmental and cell biology, toxicology and even neuroscience.

(Rana pipiens) Flickr • Paul J. Morris, (American Toad) Flickr • DaveHuth

Frog skin can heal your wounds Now, scientists are less interested in our shared biology, but in the unique adaptations that enable amphibians to kill microorganisms, survive freezing, and regenerate limbs and internal organs. A major focus of interest is amphibian skin. This versatile organ is tasked with being ‘breathable’ – literally! Many amphibians breathe through it, staying wet whilst being protected from predators and pathogens. To accomplish these feats, amphibians produce a cocktail of potent chemicals, including mucous, toxins, antimicrobials, and proteins, many of which are now being developed as pharmaceuticals. During the Vietnam War, a lack of adequate medical supplies to treat victims of napalm

burns led doctors to seek alternative local remedies. They experimented with the use of frog skins as temporary grafts for damaged skin, with some success. More recent studies with rats have confirmed the benefits of frog skin dressings, which have been found to speed up healing by encouraging the skin to produce a component of collagen, a protein found in healthy skin and scar tissue.

Frogs have the strength to kill ‘superbugs’ Amphibians may also help us confront a current medical crisis. Antibiotics, the drugs that have revolutionised healthcare, are failing. Resistance is spreading rapidly, and scientists are racing to find alternatives. However, antibiotics happen to be an amphibian speciality. Their moist skin, and their preference for damp, muddy environments, puts them in contact with a tempest of microscopic assailants. To defend themselves from infection, they have become experts in chemical warfare; the majority of their secretions are actually antibiotic proteins. Will they yield the next class of antibiotics? Recently, while testing the authenticity of an

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SIX REASONS TO KISS A FROG ancient Russian preservative – by throwing a dead Russian Brown frog into a bucket of fresh milk – scientists identified 97 chemicals with potential antibiotic or medical activity.

Try the Amazing Amphibian Adhesive! (It’s better than superglue) Another species of frog looks set to solve a different problem. For years, surgeons have been seeking a glue that will function when wet, and so can be used to join skin or other bodily tissues. The crucifix frog, a rotund, inelegant creature native to Eastern Australia, may be the answer. The frog exudes a ‘glue’ which may help deter predators or trap biting insects. Crucially, it functions in wet conditions and is a strong adhesive. Scientists are currently investigating the use of the glue in orthopaedic surgery.

been the subject of intensive research, as scientists try to understand the processes involved in the hope of replicating them in humans. It is possible that our ancestors were able to regenerate organs and tissues, and so perhaps BELOW: we could learn how to re-active these latent Two Dunn’s abilities. Early human foetuses can regenerate Salamanders. The salamander following injury, offering us a tantalising hint bottom has a tail in regeneration. that this may be possible.

Amphibians offer a panacea to trauma They may not have featured as prominently in the world of natural medicines, but newts and salamanders have a party trick all of their own: they are endowed with the power of regeneration. After amputation, salamanders immediately begin to re-grow limbs, eyes, jaws, and even internal organs, rather than forming scar tissue. This enviable repertoire has recently

It is clear that we still have a lot to learn from our slippery cousins – yet more than 120 species have been lost since the 1950s. From a utilitarian perspective, this is a great loss. Before its extinction in the 1980s, the gastric brooding frog briefly became the subject of medical interest because of its eccentric reproductive biology. Bizarrely, this species’ gut functions as a womb! In order to turn her stomach into a suitable home for her offspring, the female gastric brooding frog would deliberately halt acid production. It was hoped that the trick could give us insights into treating stomach ulcers, or helping patients to heal more quickly following stomach surgery. But...there’s nothing quite like the extinction of the subject to halt an investigation. If the frog resurrection attempts are successful, the gastric brooding frog may get a second chance. But what will we lose along with the next amphibian species? The technology to survive infections, heal wounds, or regenerate organs? The irony is, we need them as much as they need us.

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 @ZariaGorvett. An archive of her articles can be found at

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(Crucifix toad) Wikimedia • Tnarg 12345, (Dunn’s Salamanders) Flickr • Greg Schechter

Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog…





During my undergraduate physics days, there was an awful lot of stuff to learn. Quantum mechanics, relativity, particle physics – they were all subjects that I tried (and often failed) to wrap my head around. But there was one topic that we never broached: a fabled event that you could say actually kick-started modern physics. I’m talking, of course, about Isaac Newton’s famous apple. Did Newton really develop his theory of gravity after seeing a cascading Cox? Or is the whole tale just a maggot-infested myth that’s been passed down through the years? I thought it was finally the time to find out. Probably the most obvious place to start looking for evidence would be Isaac Newton’s own journals and notebooks. But, alas, I discovered that Newton never mentioned the apple in any of his writings. Instead, we must turn to a man named John Conduitt, who wrote about the incident some 60 years later. Conduitt, a politician by trade, was Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and the husband of Newton’s beloved half-niece, Catherine Barton. It is here that we find some revealing clues to the truth of the apple event.

The case for the fruity legend In his Draft account of Newton’s life at Cambridge, Conduitt describes a fresh-faced, 23-year-old Isaac Newton returning to his mother’s Lincolnshire home in 1666 – not because he missed his mum’s cooking, but because the plague had forced the University of Cambridge to shut down. There, Conduitt wrote, “whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the same power of gravity (which made an apple fall from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the Earth but must extend much farther than was usually thought.”

So Conduitt may not describe Newton taking an apple to the head, or even that the scientist actually observed the falling fruit, but he at least makes a pretty strong reference to it. Around the same time, the French philosopher Voltaire was also helping to perpetuate the fruity legend. In An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (1727), he wrote: “Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens, had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.” Voltaire probably heard the story from Catherine Barton, whom he described as Newton’s “very charming niece”, when he visited England in the 1720s. But the strongest evidence we find comes from another of Sir Isaacs’s close friends, an antiquarian called William Stukeley. In 1752, a quarter of a century after Newton’s death, Stukeley published his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life. Truth be told, it’s a rather drab and long-winded account of the scientist’s life (though we do find out what the great scientist had for breakfast: “an infusion of orange peel in boiling water”, apparently, “with bread & butter”). But there on page 15, in a beautifully handwritten script, is an anecdote that makes the mouth water more than a freshly-baked apple pie: One spring day in April 1726, Stukeley visited

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Previous Page: (Filoli Gardens - Apple Orchard) Flickr • Jill Clardy, (Whole Earth) NASA, (My Newton tree) Flickr • DailyPic

We all know the story. A young Isaac Newton is sitting in his garden when – plonk! – an apple falls onto his head. As the scientist rubs his sore scalp, an idea enters his mind: could the same force that brought the apple plummeting to the ground also explain the motion of the Moon and the planets? In that instant the theory of gravity is born! At least that’s how the story goes… But did this cranial collision ever really happen? Physics Guru James Lloyd finds out.

(Woolsthorpe Manor) Flickr • David Ireland

NEWTON’S APPLE an 83-year-old Newton in Kensington, London. Unlike today’s London district, Kensington was then situated in the countryside, so the elderly scientist had rented a house there in the hope that the fresh air would improve his declining health. The two men spent the day together, and their conversations carried on into the evening. “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank thea [sic] under the shade of some apple trees…,” recalled Stukeley. “Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. ‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself, occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways or upwards but constantly to the Earth’s centre?’” So, while drinking this cup of ‘thea’ in the dusky evening light, Sir Isaac actually recounted the falling apple story to his friend Stukeley. The famous apple! From the horse’s mouth!

A mouldy tale But can we really trust Stukeley? After all, he was a very good friend of Newton and may have been tempted to mythologise the scientist. As Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation,

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writes: “biographers, certainly in 1720, are not objective reporters running around checking facts. They are often fans of their subjects, as Stukeley was of Newton.” And why would Newton have waited 60 years before sharing the story with someone? One explanation may be that he saw a falling apple in his youth and gradually embellished the story over time. It’s easy to see why it’d be such an attractive tale: a simple visual metaphor for his “Eureka!” moment; a humorous way to explain how gravity works. And then there’s the important fact that Newton was deeply interested in religion, so the nod to the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit might have appealed to him. One thing we can be sure of is that the apple never struck Newton on the head. That detail was added by a later writer, Isaac D’Israeli, who evidently had a penchant for slapstick comedy. But that hasn’t stopped the story from entering popular consciousness. Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac Newton’s birthplace and the home he returned to in 1666, has since become something of a pilgrimage site. In the house’s garden, visible from Newton’s old bedroom window, is said to be the very apple tree that the young scientist sat under nearly 350 years ago.

BELOW: Woolsthorpe Manor.

NEWTON’S APPLE As for the apple itself, the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor produces a rare variety of cooking apple known as ‘Flower of Kent’, which has been described as mealy, sharp, and quite flavorless. So if Newton really did see one fall to the ground, he probably didn’t enjoy eating it. Ultimately, we’ll perhaps never know the full truth behind Newton’s apple. Maybe we should trust those anecdotes provided by his friends. Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. After all, Newton went on to develop his theory of gravity in the end, apple or not. One thing’s for sure though – we should be glad that it was Newton sitting under that tree. Anyone else would have required a whole barrel full of fruit…

Physics Guru’s notepad: how Newton discovered gravity Even if Newton did observe a falling apple in 1666, it’s highly unlikely that he developed his theory of gravity right there on the spot. At some point, though – and this is what fits in nicely with the apple story – he came to realise that the same force which governs the acceleration of objects towards the ground also reaches far out into space. His universal law of gravitation was published some 20 years after the alleged apple incident. In Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Newton explains that the gravitational force between two objects is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, and directly proportional to the product of their masses. In other words, if you double the distance between two objects you reduce the gravitational force by a factor of four; triple the distance and you reduce it by a factor of nine. Using this law, Newton was able to show that the orbits of the planets around the Sun – and the Moon around the Earth – can be explained by the bodies’ mutual gravitational attraction. It’s the very same effect that

ABOVE: This apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor grew up from the fallen trunk of another apple tree that existed in Newton’s day.

Links • • •

Read more here about Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation Read William Stukeley’s apple anecdote Woolsthorpe Manor

James Lloyd studied physics at university and recently finished a climate science PhD. He’s now swapped semiconductors for semicolons, writing about science and blogging at The Soft Anonymous. James enjoys music making, hill walking and trying to find the perfect flapjack. Find him on Twitter @jbb_lloyd.

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(Newton’s Apple Tree) Flickr • dexter_mixwith, (Vintage Memo Notepad) Flickr • Calsidyrose

pulls a falling apple towards the ground.





Where do these intriguing techniques come from – and where is molecular-cuisine heading? As a food-lover and scientist, I divulge how specialised techniques have gone from the lab to kitchen. White coats are essential in both…

Starter: The spin-y machine soup The most dangerous addition to the kitchen is what we scientists call a table-top centrifuge. Designed to spin at huge speeds, sometimes generating up to 13,000 times the force of gravity, it allows us geeks to separate a liquid into its different parts based on weight. For example, freshly squeezed orange juice contains sugary water and fruit bits. After spinning, heavier parts will be found at the bottom of the tube, the ‘pellet’, whilst lighter parts will remain in the top layer, the ‘supernatant’. This method is used every day around the world, for instance to isolate blood cells from whole blood and extract protein from bacteria. With an eye for advancing the cooking process, experimental chefs have seized upon this super-spin machine – to clarify a juice or broth, for example. As food fashion leans towards the refined, light and fragrant tastes often found in Asian cuisine, a centrifuge could separate out the cloudy and messy parts of a stock, while retaining those beautiful infused flavours. WARNING: I will not be providing a do-it-yourself recipe to go with this up-andcoming technique because centrifuges can be extremely dangerous. When spinning at such high speeds around their central rotor, centrifuges create huge amounts of force that, if unbalanced, can lead to devastating results (think ‘bye-bye kitchen’). A rule of utmost importance in the lab is

that a centrifuge needs to be perfectly balanced. Tubes of fluid must be placed symmetrically within the circular spinning bowl: if you place one tube containing 50ml in the centrifuge, you must place another tube of exactly equal volume (e.g. 50ml of water) on the opposite side. If you don’t, you are likely to end up with a shattered machine – or worse: super high-speed centrifuges have been known to crash through walls and ceilings. You have been warned!

Main Course: Modern day boil-ina-bag Sous-vide cooking means ‘under vacuum’ in French. The idea behind this method is to cook food (meat in particular) at a tightly regulated temperature. So if you’re keen on that perfectly medium-rare steak or tender and moist chicken, this is the one for you. A wide range of machines and bags are available for cooking sous-vide. However, cheaper solutions are also available to achieve the same temperature control: you can get similar results with a sealed jar or oven bag and a modern oven or water bath whose temperature you can control to one or two degrees. There are many benefits to cooking sous-vide. Firstly, cooking at such precise temperatures means a minute or two of over-cooking will not ruin your food – a perfect stress-beater when cooking steaks at a dinner party. Secondly, the controlled temperature means food is cooked very evenly – of particular importance when cooking chicken or pork, when it is notoriously difficult to get the balance of perfectly moist but not undercooked white meat. The meat is also cooked very evenly. This is because the vacuum-sealed meat is surrounded by the hot water from all sides. Another advantage to this method is that it’s completely consistent – once

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Previous Page: (liquid nitrogen) Flickr • ChefSteps, (Centrifuge) Public Health Image Library • CDC

Molecular gastronomy is now well known and used by chefs, whether in fine dining restaurants or quaint little bistros. It has even started to creep into our kitchens. The art of mixing science and food is on everyone’s lips: whether it’s trying out a new technique at home or indulging in experimental dining, we all want a taste of the action.


you’ve worked out your times and temperatures, you’ll get a perfectly juicy steak every time. Best of all, cooking within a vacuum seals in all of the vapours around the meat during cooking, giving you dishes that are always tasty, juicy and tender. Check out the recommended link below for recipes to try.

(Sous Vide Art) Flickr • ChefSteps

Accompaniment: Beautiful food bubbles Spherification is a less stressful technique that doesn’t require actual cooking; it is sometimes also referred to as ‘making caviar’. The process involves making little gelatinous spheres from a liquid preparation. Discovered by Unilever in the 1950s, the technique started to hit the big time in Ferran Adria’s renowned molecular gastronomy restaurant elBulli in Spain. Adding a layer of texture and intrigue (and, of course, artistic plate setting), these little beads are still all the rage in fine dining. Two main methods are used by chefs to create beautiful little spheres; the choice depends on the calcium content of the liquid. Here comes the chemistry: if the liquid contains no calcium, it is mixed with sodium alginate, a gum-like substance extracted from brown seaweed,

and then dripped drop-by-drop into calcium chloride or calcium carbonate. This technique is called Basic Spherification and has both pros and cons. On the plus side, it creates spheres with a very thin outer layer so that they dissolve beautifully in the mouth. However, the jellification process doesn’t stop when the spheres are removed from the calcium bath and washed, so they need to be sent out of the kitchen pronto if you don’t want your guests to be chewing on a gobstopper. An alternative technique, used for liquids containing calcium or with a high acid or alcohol content, is called Reverse Spherification. The liquid is first mixed with the calcium chloride and then dropped into an alginate bath. The calcium chloride causes the alginate protein strands to become cross-linked, forming a gel. Making the bead depends on how you drop this gel into the alginate water: a larger drop will create a large sphere; a small drop, a dainty little bead. It goes without saying that some dexterity is required for this one! This method gives the food blob a thicker membrane, but you are able to make beads from most any liquid and the jellification process is stopped by rinsing the beads in water.

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HOW TO DO MICHELIN STAR COOKING AT HOME (Huevas de Té Verde) Flickr • jlastras, (Untitled) Flickr • tinyurbankitchen

it in a plastic box in the fridge for later. If you’re feeling ambitious and want to try your hand at a basic spherification recipe, this recipe will give red wine a complete change in texture and taste! For the sodium alginate bath, you will need • 3 g sodium alginate • 325 ml water For the calcium chloride bath • 5 g calcium chloride • 1 litre water For the spheres, use around 200 ml of a liquid of your choice, be it wine, soy sauce or anything else that titivates your taste buds. The first step is to dissolve the sodium alginate into water until you have a powdery solution (an immersion blender is good for this). Bring the solution to the boil and then let it cool at room temperature. Next prepare the calcium chloride bath simply by dissolving the calcium chloride in the water. Now mix your chosen liquid with the sodium alginate solution at a 2:3 ratio of liquid to sodium alginate. Taking your favourite spherification tool, gently drop the liquid into the calcium chloride bath and let the beads ‘cook’ for a minute before removing them with a slotted BELOW: spoon, rinsing them in water and draining. Image courtesy of Remember to serve these immediately! Tiny Urban Kitchen.

ABOVE: Green tea after the spherification process.

Ready to try it out? Direct from the elBulli kitchen, this Mozzarella bead recipe is delectable (kindly provided by Molecular Recipes): For the Mozzarella mix, you will need • 220 g Buffalo Mozzarella • 150 g Mozzarella whey • 70 g double cream • 4 g salt For the Alginate bath • 1.5 litre water • 7.5 g sodium alginate Your first step is to prepare the alginate bath. Mix the sodium alginate with the water using a blender until the alginate is completely dissolved. Bear in mind this might take some time. Leave it in the fridge for 24 hours. For the mozzarella balls, shred the mozzarella and blend together with the whey in a blender until you obtain a grainy solution. Boil the cream and add it to the mozzarella mix and blend for another 10 seconds. Now add the salt and mix. To make your spheres, remove the alginate bath from the fridge and prepare the mozzarella mix in your preferred spherification tool (whether it’s a special spoon, syringe or pipette – see our top tips on spherification below). Carefully drop the mix into the bath, making sure the beads don’t touch so that they don’t stick together. Leave the balls in the bath for about 12 minutes and remove with a slotted spoon. Rinse with water and strain them carefully. Serve immediately with tomatoes, basil, olive oil and a generous grinding of pepper. Or you could store

Dessert: Dry ice surprise Using dry-ice and liquid nitrogen in cocktails has become quite popular of late, with the layers of smoke adding a certain mystique. But being so near liquid nitrogen can be dangerous.

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(Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream) Flickr • Charles Ulrich

HOW TO DO MICHELIN STAR COOKING AT HOME Liquid nitrogen’s main purpose is for rapid freezing: it is used to freeze samples of tissue and for storing sperm and eggs. It is also often used for cooling computers in certain settings. With a temperature of -196°C (or less), dropping an object into liquid nitrogen has the effect of freezing it instantly. Liquid nitrogen piqued the interest of forwardthinking chefs in the search for the perfect ice cream. When making ice cream, the liquid must be frozen slowly and regularly remixed during the freezing process to create an even texture. The longer the mix takes to freeze, the more ice crystals are formed and the ‘grittier’ the ice cream will be. Preparing ice cream in liquid nitrogen means a very fast freezing process – and very few ice crystals. This creates a much smoother and creamier ice cream – all for your delight. WARNING: once again, this is not one to try at home! Liquid nitrogen is treacherous: liquid nitrogen evaporates very rapidly when poured (this is what also makes the exciting smoke) – but it expands so rapidly that one litre of the solution can create up to 700 litres of gas. This could deplete the level of oxygen in a room very quickly – with potentially fatal results. Most labs will keep their stock in insulated containers stored in rooms with specialised ventilation and alarms in case of a spill. But if you happen to be trained and have regulated access to liquid nitrogen (or know someone who does), why not try this gorgeous ‘Berrylicious’ ice cream recipe in between some centrifuge experiments! You will need: • 5 or more litres of liquid nitrogen • Gloves and goggles • A plastic or stainless steel salad bowl • 950ml whipping cream • 425ml ‘Half and Half’(half light cream and half milk) • 350g sugar • 500g of mashed mixed berries • 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

Mix the whipping cream, the ‘half and half’ and the sugar using a wire whisk until the sugar has dissolved. Put your gloves and goggles on and pour a small amount of liquid nitrogen into the bowl containing the mixed cream and sugar. Continue to stir while adding more liquid nitrogen slowly. As soon as the base starts to thicken, add the mashed berries and stir vigorously. When the ice cream becomes too thick for the whisk, use a wooden spoon. Once it becomes too hard, remove the spoon and simply pour the remaining liquid nitrogen on to the ice cream. Wait for all the liquid nitrogen to boil off before serving.

Extra information For everything and anything you may need to become the best molecular gastronomy chef, check out the Molecular Recipes store online! They also have lots of handy information: 10 tips to create a perfect sphere An introduction to sous vide cooking Sous-vide supreme has some great suggestions for the perfect sous-vide cooking times! A video showing the ‘secret to ultrasmooth Ice Cream’ with liquid nitrogen

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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A NEW GURU OF TODAY AND TOMORROW We are delighted to welcome some new members to the Guru team. Regular readers will recognise Simon Makin, our writer and news correspondent. He has graduated to the ranks of ‘Guru’ and is now our official News Guru. Find out more about his love of curry in our online interview. We also say hello to our intern, Lucy Huang – a molecular biology graduate from Skidmore College, New York. She’s sticking around with us for three months before going full steam into a science writing career. If you are interested in getting involved with the world’s only crowd-sourced science-lifestyle mag email us at

@GURUSWAG! We also wanted to congratulate our five winners from the ‘Ask a Guru’ competition – check out their questions on page 54. As promised, the contest winners will be getting a copy of the mighty-fine book Bio-Punk. We loved answering your questions, so keep them coming! For the next issue, we are offering 10 free copies of the app Faker$ Gold by developer Heliceum. Priced at $3.99/£2.49 in iTunes, it’s a chuckle-tastic entertainment app for creating amusing faux magazine, newspaper and movie posters. We’ve had great fun putting our faces onto ‘Rolling Stoon’ and ‘Newsgeek’ magazine…

To get a copy, all you have to do is pick one of the following real newspaper headlines and fill in the missing blank. Bonus points for ones that make us laugh most… Oregon man changes name to I was paralysed by a Man eats Patient gets Mother finds

to beat breathalyser instead of gown in fridge

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BELOW: Carly Fleischmann.

At the age of 10, Carly Fleischmann typed a simple message on her father’s laptop, “Help. Teeth hurt.” Such a message wouldn’t normally be impressive if written by a 10 year old, but for Carly it was different – she has autism. Until that day, Carly was thought to be severely mentally handicapped. Regularly throwing temper tantrums, she would thrash her arms and slam them on the table. So the sudden message startled her parents. Before those typed words, they had no idea that Carly could hear or understand anyone. But in that instant it became apparent that she may have silently understood everything said about her, and her handicap, in the preceding years. And it turned out that she had. While Carly’s sudden communication seems remarkable, she isn’t unique. In fact, a new theory of autism now predicts that all autists are much like Carly.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder characterized by regimented behaviour, a preoccupation with small details, and deficiencies or delays in social and communication skills. In typical cases, symptoms of autism gradually appear at the age of six months and continue to progress until the age of two or three, at which point the condition remains relatively stable. A lack of reliable statistics means that the exact number of children with autism is unknown, although the best data indicates that it may affect up to 1 in 88 individuals. And since the 1980s the number of children diagnosed with autism has steadily increased, but this simply may be the result of doctors being better able to spot the condition. It’s far from being a one-size-fits-all condition: the severity of autism varies greatly among individuals, although there are some tell-tale signs. The most common symptoms include communication difficulties: infants are often slow to start babbling, make unusual gestures and respond less than other children. At age two or three, autistic children usually show a lack of interest in communicating with others. Autists are often said to lack the intuition to tell what another person is feeling, or is implying from their words – which can sometimes lead to trouble: autists are often are unable to recognize when their actions might be taken as offensive.

Over and over and over and over again…

In addition to communication issues, autists are likely to exhibit repetitive behaviour such as hand flapping or rocking, resistance to change, compulsions and ritualistic behaviours. For example, an autistic person may show interest only in one specific topic, such as a television show or a specific toy or game. Although none of these behaviours is specific to ASD, they are far more common in children with the disorder.

The difficult path to debunk the myths Many researchers have spent their entire careers struggling to find the root cause of autism. Genetics play a significant role, but other factors are also thought to be involved – and understanding how these factors interact

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(Basement Series: Sadness) Flickr • Jeffrey

THE WORLD OUTSIDE to cause autism is extraordinarily complex. Some researchers think that the development of autism is due to an abnormality in the way nerve cells send messages to each other – a dysfunction in the small gaps (synapses) between them. However, many researchers now believe that the role of genetic factors has been overestimated. Instead, we are now seeing a fresh wave of research into the effects of ‘environmental factors’ – medications, lifestyle factors, pollution, diet, etc. Perhaps the biggest misconception has been that childhood vaccinations are linked to autism. This belief is mainly the result of a now defunct and discredited study originally published in a 1998 issue of the medical journal The Lancet. Its author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of inventing patient data to support his conclusion of a definitive link between autism and childhood vaccines. Even today, research continues to be published showing no link between vaccinations and autism (most recently, one such article appeared in The Journal of Pediatrics). But there have been other misconceptions too. Popular in the 1950s, the ‘refrigerator mother theory’ claimed that autism was the result of ‘emotionally frigid’ parenting on the part of the mother. This type of parenting was thought to result in a child who suffered from guilt and self-doubt, leading to repetitive behaviour, self-isolation and speech difficulties. Offensive and stigmatising, the wholly false ‘refrigerator mother theory’ is thankfully now consigned to the history books. The present consensus among researchers is that genes are the most important factor in the cause of autism: up to 90 percent of the risk for developing autism is due to genetic factors. For a long time it was thought that the disorder may be the result of an ‘autism’ gene, but it is now believed that a combination of causes interact to produce autistic traits – that autism occurs when a developing baby with a genetic weakness for autism suffers some kind of ‘environmental insult’ before or after birth. Quite what this insult might be, no one knows – and neither do we know which genes lead to the genetic weakness.

An Intense New World Based on laboratory experiments with rats, neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram

have proposed an entirely new theory, known as the ‘Intense World Theory’, which may radically shake up the way we look at autism. This theory holds that the brains of autistic individuals are ‘hyper-connected’ and ‘hyperexcitable’. Rather than suffering from a deficit in perceptual abilities, the theory suggests that autists experience the world so vividly that it becomes painfully intense – so painful that they take refuge by turning inward and avoiding interaction with the outside world.

The ‘Intense World Theory’ emerged out of studies investigating the link between autism and the anti-epilepsy medicine valproic acid. Valproic acid has been used to treat bipolar disorder, migraine headaches and schizophrenia, but taking it during pregnancy can lead to autism and birth defects in the child. Similar effects can be seen in other animals. Rats, for example, demonstrate decreased social interactions, increased repetitive behaviour, enhanced anxiety, hyperactivity, and altered pain sensation – the same symptoms that are found in autistic humans. Valproic acid given before birth also causes damage to particular areas of the brain (the brainstem and cerebellum)–and this pattern of damage is also similar in rats. Given these similarities, Markram and Markram believe that rats offer a particularly good way of testing various theories about autism, so they performed a series of experiments using rats to explore the ‘Intense World Theory’. Studying their brains, Markram and Markram found that certain networks of brain cells in the valproic-acid treated rats were much more sensitive – they had much more brain activity – than normal. The researchers also found the brain cells in autistic rats to have notably

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It might seem counterintuitive that brain areas experiencing a loss of neurons can have excess activity. One possible explanation involves the types of nerve cells that are affected: many brain cells have an inhibitory, or ‘braking’, effect on the rest of the brain. The cerebellum (a region at the back of the head needed for co-ordination) has a high concentration of these ‘inhibitory’ nerve cells. So it wouldn’t be surprising that a loss of this type of brain cell – an easing up of the brakes – would make for an increase in brain activity overall. The remaining, unharmed, brain cells of the autistic brain would therefore form more connections with one another – perhaps increasing the ability to focus and pay attention to details. But this degree of intensity probably also leads to a ‘system overload’ and the anxiety that autists experience. “Autists see, hear, feel, think and remember too much, too deep and process information too completely,” said Henry Markram in a recent interview with Wrong Planet, an online autism community.

“You don’t know what it feels like to be me” Autistic individuals develop strategies to actively avoid the intense pain of perceptual

experience. If that doesn’t work, they resort to repetitive movements or radical behaviour. For example, children with autism often react to new sights, sounds and sensations with temper tantrums or extreme panic. Reports from autists who learn to communicate appear to support this theory. Dr. Temple Grandin, a famous animal scientist and autist, has spoken about the intense perceptual experience that makes it difficult to connect with the world outside her mind. “Socialization is almost impossible if a person gets overwhelmed with noise that hurts their ears, whether this is at work or in a restaurant. For some, it may sound like being inside the speaker at a rock concert,” she remarks. Grandin developed the ability to communicate only after years of rigorous practice during which she learned to actively tune out the intense perceptual experiences in order to focus on communicating with others. Carly, who suddenly communicated with her dad at the age of 10, expresses similar discomfort, albeit of a more disturbing nature. “You don’t know what it feels like to be me, when you can’t sit still because your legs feel like they are on fire, or it feels like a hundred ants are crawling up your arms,” she writes. Carly says that people like her engage in repetitive behaviour and throw tantrums because it soothes the intense pain felt from sights and sounds. It’s a way of turning the mind inward, away from the painful outside.

Rain Man: the autistic genius A further advantage of the ‘Intense World Theory’ is that it can explain why at least 10% of people with autism also have ‘savant syndrome’ – intellectual talents that are far beyond normal. The syndrome entered the public consciousness after Barry Levinson’s 1988 movie Rain Man, in which narcissistic yuppie Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) learns that he has an autistic, savant brother (played by Dustin Hoffman). Savant skills usually encompass a narrow range of abilities, most typically in music, art, calendar calculation, mathematics or spatial skills. For example, famous savant Daniel Tammet is able to multiply numbers of up to five digits faster than they can be typed into a calculator. Although most cases of savant syndrome develop at a young age, the condition may be acquired in other ways. For example, one subject,

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(Hello) Flickr • Sarah Fleming

more connections: their brains were ‘hyperconnected’. Consequently, the flow of information throughout the brain was enhanced, possibly explaining why the autistic rats were much better at discriminating between apertures of different sizes (similar to an autistic human’s ability to focus on fine detail). Finally, they discovered that the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for fear processing, had a tendency to form new connections, which may explain the intense fear the autistic rats developed.

THE WORLD OUTSIDE Jason Padgett, developed savant-like artistic and mathematical skills after sustaining a head injury from a brutal assault. Another acquired savant, Derek Amato, gained the ability to play the piano after a dive into the shallow end of a swimming pool led to a severe concussion. (You can read about these individuals in Issues 10 and 11 of Guru Magazine.) Individuals who become savants after brain injury also tend to acquire autistic traits. For example, Jason became obsessed with mathematical formulas, suffering from extreme anxiety whenever performing non-mathematical tasks, and Derek has a strong urge to play the piano for several hours at a time each day. If autism is the result of a brain lacking in connections or processing power, then it is difficult to explain why many individuals afflicted with the condition develop amazing abilities and why people who acquire savant syndrome later in life tend to acquire autistic traits. Emphasising ‘hyperconnectivity’ rather than deficiencies in brain processing, the ‘Intense World Theory’ goes a long way to explain the extreme intellectual abilities of such autistic savants.

(binaural-beat-digital-drug) Flickr • digitalbob8

What the future holds How could the ‘Intense World Theory’ influence our treatment of and care for those with autism? For one thing, it would mean that autism isn’t thought of as being caused by a deficit. Rather than lacking in ability, autists simply have too much to interpret. The problem with the autistic brain is that certain regions may develop too quickly, going on to dominate other regions – which can make rehabilitation very difficult.

To counteract this problem, we might use medicines to suppress the brain activity arising from all of the extra connections. It seems nonsensical to treat a lack of communication in autism with a drug that limits the brain’s activity, but this counterintuitive approach works with other disorders: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – a condition where children find it hard to concentrate and stay still – is treated with a stimulant, amphetamine. It is thought that amphetamine (the same drug as in ‘speed’, albeit at a very low dose) increases the activity of the control centers of the brain. The result: children with ADHD calm down and focus. But reducing excess brain activity may not be the best way to deal with autism. One interesting prediction of the ‘Intense World Theory’ is that, like savants, all autists have an ability to perform difficult intellectual tasks with incredible ease – even if they can’t communicate it. Savantism is also believed to be the result of a hyperconnected brain. So autists who are not diagnosed with savant syndrome likely still share many of the exceptional abilities of savants. Assuming that people with autism learn to utilise their brains’ hyperreactivity, they may develop exceptional talents later in life. According to Markram, if the autist’s exposure to her surroundings is controlled after birth, “It’s possible to be a genius.”

References: • •

Markram, H., & Markram, K. (2013). Interview: Henry and Kamila Markram about The Intense World Theory for Autism. J. S. Holman (Interviewer), Markram, K., & Markram, H. (2010). The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 4. Berit Brogaard, DMSci, PhD is Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy 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 directs the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research, a laboratory focused on synesthesia, savant syndrome and autism.

Kristian Marlow is a graduate student, member of the Center for Neurodynamics and member of the Brogaard lab. 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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Previous Page: (Birds) Flickr • D B, (Robin) Flickr • Jyrki Salmi

When you hear the term ‘quantum physics’ there are a few things that might come to mind: the Large Hadron Collider, unintelligible equations and Star Trek gobbledygook. Those of us who are more au fait with the realm of teeny-tiny science will know about particles tunneling through a wall, the uncertainty principle and an ill-fated cat in a box. Animals almost certainly aren’t on anyone’s list. But that’s all about to change. Kyle Pastor explains that science’s most poorly understood specialism may have solved a one hundred year old biological mystery. Quantum science is about things that are extremely small, with quantum mechanics exploring objects at the scale of protons and electrons. Because we are talking about things at such a small scale, it is difficult to appreciate the effects of quantum mechanics (such as ‘tunneling’) in the everyday world. But this could be about to change. In the past, scientists have only been able to see quantum effects when things are very cold. But we live in a warm environment, so all the molecules that make up the world around us jiggle around so much that they wash out the details that quantum mechanics give us. However, new research has revealed that biological systems like plants and birds use these hidden quantum effects to their advantage. Birds are much bigger than an atom (and are warm and squishy), so they would seem to be among the least likely places to see quantum-ness. But this is where the European robin comes in… As many of you will know, birds are able to navigate the globe with amazing accuracy. In general, this is done by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field. For a long time it was believed that there was a small piece of magnetic material in the beak of birds that gave them the direction of the magnetic field’s ‘polarity’ – much like how a normal compass works. But it is now believed that this is not the whole story and, in fact, the small amounts of metal in the beak may often have nothing to do with navigation.

In a report published in a recent issue of Nature, researchers examined how birds in the laboratory react to changes in the magnetic field, and found these birds to in fact be blind to the magnetic polarity (which way is North or South). They determined this by using magnetic fields set up at different strengths and different angles, which showed that birds sensed the ‘inclination’ – or angle – of the magnetic field compared to the horizontal instead of sensing the polarity. If you take a compass and hold it flat, its needle will tell you the direction of magnetic North. The compass is showing you the polarity of the magnetic field. Take that same compass and flip it 90 degrees sideways. The direction the needle now shows is called the angle dip or inclination of the magnetic field. In the Northern Hemisphere it points down, and in the south it points up (see image on the next page). This, of course, is very useful for navigation. Now, back to our robin. With the passing of the seasons, the robin uses the Earth’s magnetic field to find its way between Africa and Northern Europe in a search for the best weather. The robin’s ‘inclination compass’, which it uses to navigate these journeys, has been discovered not in the beak but in the eye. The scientists found that the bird lost its magnetic sense when flying in the dark – meaning that the magnetic sense must need light to activate it, and so must

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be somewhere in the eye. This finding makes perfect sense: it is probably giving robins the ability to actually see the Earth’s magnetic field. Now that’s an incredible ability to have.

A BIRD’S MAGNETIC INCLINATION COMPASS How a bird ‘sees’ the Earth’s magnetic field to know where it is in the world. A Bird at the North Pole: Inclination compass points vertically down.

A Bird in the Northern Hemisphere: Inclination compass points down.

A Bird at the Equator: Inclination compass is horizontal.

Earth’s Magnetic Inclination.

A Bird in the Southern Hemisphere: Inclination compass points up. A Bird at the South Pole: Inclination compass points vertically up.

Located at the back of the eye, chemical compounds called cryptochromes respond to magnetic force by performing a quantum reaction called a ‘pair-radical reaction’. This reaction ‘measures’ the inclination of the

magnetic field from any given location. But how? Here comes the tricky stuff… Imagine you want to compare a bunch of weights on a balance beam by placing them on each side of the balance. If you do this, the balance beam will tip in the direction of the heaviest weights. By looking at how much it is tilting – by measuring the angle of the tilt – you can figure out how unbalanced it is. When light excites the cryptochrome compounds in the eye, they can exist in two states, the singlet state (S) and triplet state (T); these states are a bit like weights on opposite sides of the balance beam. If the S and T states are equal in number, we have the equivalent of a balanced beam. This is the situation if there is no magnetic field. But when the bird experiences a magnetic field with an inclination, the balance is tipped and the states ‘pile up’ on one side more than the other. The robin’s brain interprets this imbalance in S and T states as a change in the magnetic field – just like we would measure the angle of an unbalanced beam. Voilà, we have a biological quantum compass! At the moment scientists still need some more evidence to confirm that this is a quantum effect and not anything else. They plan to do this by using ‘Quantum Control’, a set of techniques that can rule out anything that may not be quantum. Put simply, they will see how the birds react in a mix of fluctuating magnetic fields. Careful analysis of what the birds do will confirm whether the quantum reactions truly are in control. It’s all pretty deep stuff, and there are some links below about quantum biology to give a bit more of an in-depth explanation. And even if it is tricky to understand, ‘Quantum Control’ is a fantastic name. It should forever be used as the name for all super-villain death machines. Or comic book heroes’ superpowers. Perhaps the title for the next Bond movie? Now who said physics was boring?

Reference: •

Neill Lambert, Yueh-Nan Chen , Yuan-Chung Cheng , Che-Ming Li , Guang-Yin Chen and Franco Nori. (2013). Quantum biology. Nature Physics. 9, 10-18.

Kyle Pastor is in graduate school completing a Masters in theoretical polymer physics. When not exploring the physics of stuff nobody cares about, he is usually writing, coding, or playing obscure games that nobody cares about. He blogs about all things interesting at

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(Compass) Flickr • Theresa Thompson





For decades, the world’s major cities have been trying to tackle the growing pollution problem – with varying levels of success. Population growth and modern farming practices have led to never-before-seen levels of sewage waste. Add to this industrial byproducts, and the resulting foulsmelling soup is chock-full of disease causing pathogens, pesticides, and organic pollutants. Needless to say, it is an environmental health crisis. Left untreated, sewage chemicals drain into the freshwater supply, poisoning it and robbing it of oxygen. Nitrogen and phosphorus – chemicals abundant in human and animal waste – trigger algal blooms that choke out aquatic wildlife, turning the water a sickly brown, red, or green. This waterway calamity is sadly the norm: the Great Lakes of North America contain one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater and yet billions of litres of untreated sewage are dumped into their waters each year. And it’s not only the ecosystem that’s at risk – contamination from sewage chemicals is harmful to health and prevents us from enjoying the Great Lakes’ beaches in safety.

Record for being some of the smallest, simplest, and fastest growing plants of the botanical world. They are natural super-filters, sucking up minerals and organic nutrients from the water, and accumulating them into their bodies. This process, called ‘bioremediation’, is not only safe, but highly effective. Central to the duckweeds’ success is their ability to grow at a rapid rate – hence their ability to consume large quantities of pollutants such as ammonia, lead, and arsenates. And they truly are greedy little eaters: they are able to double their weight in 1–2 days under ideal conditions. Additionally, the duckweed roots are home to useful bacteria and algae that further speed up the breakdown process. As the world’s third largest producer of pork, Brazil isn’t short of porcine waste. So Brazilian researchers have been testing duckweed ponds to see if they can treat its swine waste – and have witnessed some incredible results. Results recently published in Bioresource Technology put numbers to the plant’s tremendous wastebusting potential. When grown on swine wastewater, the duckweed Landoltia punctata

A little green solution But nature is providing us with an almost magical solution. A little over a centimeter long, the common duckweed, Spirodela polyrrhiza, is often found colonising ponds and lakes in a carpet of green. With a global distribution, the duckweed family claims the Guinness World

removed 98% of the total nitrogen and ammonia content, and 94% of the phosphorus. These sewage chemicals are the main agents of nutrient pollution (‘eutrophication’) – making this a truly momentous breakthrough. And if that wasn’t enough, L. punctata also improved levels of dissolved oxygen, crucial for breathing life back into such aquatic ecosystems.

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(spring smile) Flickr • linus_art

The trashcan you can eat When the duckweed plant has done its job, it is skimmed off the surface and used as a nutritious feed for livestock. A combination of ultraviolet light and ozone sterilise it, making it safe for consumption. So with irresistible benefits, the humble plant should be the perfect solution to man’s pollution. Yet duckweed implementation remains an upstream battle. “There’s always going to be a sense of disbelief when trying out a new crop. And farmers tend to be the most sceptical of people. It takes a good decade to change their opinion,” explains Paul Skillicorn, CEO of Biotechnology Research and Development, LLC. Skillicorn is a crusader for duckweed, having set up ponds in India, Bolivia, Mexico, and Bangladesh. “It’s very cost effective: duckweed produces 30 times more protein than soybeans per hectare and can be

grown vertically in trays. That’s a tremendous amount of plant mass.” That plant mass has translated into steep profits – reaped from selling the ‘green gold’ as farm feed, and for processing into ethanol, and even electricity. But duckweed isn’t only for animals. Wolffia globosa, or Asian watermeal, is common fare in Thailand and Burma, where it is called khai-nam, or ‘water eggs’ because of its oval shape. A duckweed diet is also good for you, being more nutritionally balanced than soybeans, which lack the essential amino acids lysine and methionine. As climate change continues to threaten our future, global attention has turned to those freshwater supplies that remain: clean water is predicted to soon be more important than oil as the world’s most sought-after commodity. So it is more than a little ironic, then, that the world’s biggest crises may soon be solved by one of nature’s smallest creations.

Reference: •

Mohedano, R.A., Costa, H.R., Tavares, F.A., and Filho, P.B. (2012). High nutrient removal rate from swine wastes and protein biomass production by full-scale duckweed ponds. Bioresource Technology, 112: 98–104.

Ansel Oommen is a multimedia artist, poet, and science writer with publishing credits in over six countries. A gardening fanatic, he suffers from a prolific green thumb that threatens to turn his house into a raging jungle.

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I’D LIKE MINE RARE, PLEASE LEFT: MRI scan showing multiple cysticerci within the brain.

A while back, when I wasn’t a vegetarian, I loved the taste of a bloody steak. Sure, I was warned I could contract “something” from undercooked meat, but I was never told what it would be, how it would affect me, and I certainly never bothered to find out for myself. If you’re also the type of individual who prefers their steak rare, enjoys undercooked seafood, or even chows down on raw eggs, then at the very least I hope you know that you could be leaving yourself open to some nasty animalborne diseases. And there are some deadly consequences from your dining habits. In my case, I got lucky. I think. Unless some parasite has encysted itself somewhere in my body, I have managed to avoid any major problems. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be so lucky. With this cheerful thought in mind, here are some of the nastiest food-borne illnesses you might encounter and how they can destroy your life, you’re unborn child’s, and your dinner party guest’s.

Previous Page: (taste it.) Flickr • peteSwede, (Neurocysticercosis) CDC, (10971) CDC/ Bette Jensen • Janice Haney Carr

A Brain Eating Worm: Cysticercosis Evil Agent: Taenia solium This little stinker, known as the pork tapeworm, may be contracted from eating or handling undercooked pork. The worm’s eggs have a particular liking for your muscles and brain. The consequences of its ingestion include vision loss, seizures, and death. If you’re a fan of eating undercooked pork then you’ll also be a willing victim of another nasty little worm called Trichinella spiralis. This roundworm’s larvae similarly burrow into your body, producing a condition called trichinosis, which may possibly lead to fever, muscle pain, and death. In some places around the world, upwards of a 20% prevalence rate of cysticercosis in the general population is not unheard of.

This flatworm will ultimately cause difficulty breathing, a bloody cough, and seizures if it infects the brain. While this infection is quite rare, and is more common in certain regions of Africa and Asia, imported crabs and crayfish that are contaminated have been known to infect humans outside of these regions.

Bloody Diarrhea: Salmonellosis Evil Agent: Salmonella species Lovers of raw eggs should not throw caution to the wind! Eggs infected with Salmonella affect over 142,000 Americans annually and can contaminate virtually any food you eat – although eggs are a frequent offender. Worryingly, some of the Salmonella strains are already becoming resistant to antibiotic treatment. The consequences of these bacteria include excruciating pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and death.

Help! I Can’t Breathe! Paragonimiasis Evil Agent: Paragonimus westermani While this parasite is a ‘fluke,’ it won’t be a fluke if you get it from eating undercooked seafood. Known as the lung fluke, this flatworm is found in seafood like crabs and crayfish. P. westermani will penetrate your intestines and travel to your lungs, where it will lay eggs and wreak havoc.

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I’D LIKE MINE RARE, PLEASE Schizophrenic Abortion:

I’ll have my steak well done, please So what’s the moral of the story? If the food you eat at home or in a restaurant has been properly stored, washed, and thoroughly cooked, then the chances of you getting one of these nasty bugs is minimal. However, if you’re a risktaker who doesn’t follow proper hygiene and

sanitation, doesn’t clean their food well, cook it thoroughly, or freeze it properly, then you are putting your life, and that of your dinner guests, on the line. Oh, and as a final note, if you’re a vegetarian like me and think you’re safe, you’d be wrong as well. Here’s some food for thought: vegetables are sometimes recalled due to potentially deadly bacterial contamination (including Salmonella and E. coli). These bacteria are sometimes identified to be from strains specific to the human gut. Now I wonder how they got there…

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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ABOVE: Toxoplasma gondii in a heart muscle fibre.

(966) CDC • Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr.

Toxoplasmosis Evil Agent: Toxoplasma gondii T. gondii is a parasite that may be found in undercooked lamb, pork, beef and poultry. Unpasteurised milk and the household cat are also potential sources of infection. You don’t have to eat your cat to be infected, and you certainly don’t need to give up your favorite kitty. In fact, humans in many developed nations are are far more likely to acquire Toxoplasmosis from eating contaminated food than from cats. Cats contract Toxoplasma from hunting rodents, birds, or, like you, eating contaminated food. In fact, about 45% of domestic cats in developed nations carry T. gondii. 3–10 days after infection, the cat will begin to pass Toxoplasma eggs in its feces for a period of about two weeks. Once passed, it will take at least one day for the eggs to become infective. The good news is that these Toxoplasma eggs are only excreted once in a cat’s lifetime (unless it gets problems with its immune system in later life). In some areas of the world up to 95% of people are infected by this parasite, although this number is usually far lower in highly developed nations. But if you avoid letting your cat hunt, make sure it doesn’t eat contaminated food, clean its litter box on a daily basis and keep it healthy overall, then your chances of your cat infecting you with Toxoplasma are very slim are very slim. If you do become infected, you may escape without any ill effects whatsoever. But more unlucky folk (and especially those with serious illnesses) may find Toxoplasma causing inflammation of the brain, learning disabilities in children, schizophrenia, abortion, and death.




I’m just old enough to be a child of the steam age. One of my earliest memories was watching steam trains run on the nearby railway. I was about three or four, and every Friday my mother dragged me to the local supermarket for the weekly shop. From here, I could watch these magnificent machines snort their way at the head of a long rake of dirty black coal wagons. The impression it left has stayed with me and probably explains why engineering has always been an important part of my life. As I grew older I learnt that steam trains weren’t the beginning: before them came stationary steam engines. Invented by a man more influential even than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he is someone you’ve probably never heard of. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen was to change the world forever. My fascination has taught me much about steam engines. The stationary engine was the first of a family of machines that engineers called heat engines. This family includes petrol engines, diesel engines, and jet engines – the technology now intrinsic to our everyday existence. Heat engines are so-called because they take heat energy from burning fuel and convert it into mechanical power. With this power we can generate electricity, pump water, and drive to the shops. Our modern age is the age of the heat engine. So it’s a great irony that the man who started it all never received recognition. In a world where so many are clamoring for fame and celebrity status, there is much we can learn from his life.

London, on a business trip in 1729. His grave is now lost. For such an important historical figure we know frustratingly little about him: he left no diaries, no one wrote a biography, and there are no paintings of him. We do know that his driving force was not steam power, but his religious faith. In his life he was better known as a preacher, and had a national reputation in the Baptist community as an inspirational speaker. I imagine him being a charismatic man, although possibly rather severe in his opinions for modern tastes. Because no portrait survives, we have no idea what Newcomen actually looked like. Probably none was ever made; he would have considered it a great vanity, and an indulgent expense. Whether tall or short, fat or thin, Newcomen would have been plainly, but not shabbily, dressed – in keeping with his position as a prosperous tradesman (his religious scruples would forbid bright colours!) He made his money in metal, selling iron, iron goods and other metals in great quantity across South West England. He also ran an ironmonger’s shop – the equivalent of a modern hardware store – and had the skills of a blacksmith. A multi-skilled, charming man, it is perhaps when he was selling nails and hinges that he met his most important customers – the local metal miners.

(Elsecar Newcomen engine) Flickr • Chris Allen


2: Spot the opportunity Through these business contacts, he became aware of the problems that miners faced in clearing water from their workings as they delved ever-deeper into the Earth for tin,

Tips for a world-changing inventor 1: Be humble Newcomen was humble both in his nature and intentions: he sought only to help miners, by finding an effective way to pump water out of mines. He would have been astounded – horrified even – by what his invention was to become. He lived all his life in Dartmouth, a small town in Devon, UK. He died, and was buried in

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LEFT The only Newcomen engine still on its original site at Elsecar in Yorkshire. It ran from 1795 until 1923.

THREE TIPS FOR SUCCESS copper and lead. He may well have also learned from his customers about recent attempts to make a steam-powered pump to overcome the problem, and about how this had turned out to be an embarrassing failure for its inventor, a certain Thomas Savary. Savary’s steam pump was a kind of supersized espresso machine that sought to force water out of a mine by the sheer force of steam pressure. It demanded stronger boilers and better pipes than could be made three centuries ago so it never came to anything. But Newcomen, who had a surer grasp of what was possible, chose to use steam in an altogether more subtle and roundabout way. The steam in his engine was barely greater than atmospheric pressure, and certainly no stronger than the breath of a strong man. Newcomen’s creation made use of some clever physics. It worked by letting steam be cooled and condensed, creating low pressure within a metal cylinder. Air pressure then drove a piston down into this partial vacuum. The piston, in turn, was connected by a great rocking beam to the mine pumps; the movement of the piston then powered these pumps.

The steam was generated in the boiler A. The piston P moved in a cylinder B. When the valve V was opened, the steam pushed up the piston. At the top of the stroke, the valve was closed, the valve V’ was opened, and a jet of cold water from the tank C was injected into the cylinder, thus condensing the steam and reducing the pressure under the piston. The atmospheric pressure above then pushed the piston down again.

(Newcomen6325) Wikimedia • Newton Henry Black, Harvey Nathaniel Davis

3: Don’t give up (and have useful friends) There was certainly no ‘Eureka!’ moment for Newcomen: getting his idea to work took at least ten years of hard work. But by 1712 Newcomen had finally cracked it, and had a working prototype. Heaving it 150 miles to a mine in the middle of England (a week’s journey on horseback), the steam engine was given its first trial. The mine he chose, near Dudley Castle outside Wolverhampton, was no accident. The purchaser, William Bache, just so happened to be a fellow Baptist. It certainly helps to have friends in high places. But Bache would be making an expensive plunge into the dark,

Further Reading:

friend or not: the pump probably cost about £250,000 ($390,000) in modern money. By the time Newcomen died, there were about 75 engines in Britain, and they were also at work in Sweden and France. The heat engine had begun its slow rise to ubiquity and indispensability, though it would require the work of many engineers, of the calibre of James Watt, Richard Trevethick, Charles Parsons and Rudolf Diesel, to develop its modern forms. The names of other engineers may be more familiar – but every heat engine on the planet today owes something to that simple mine pump, and one forgotten name. His name may not live on, but his legacy certainly does.

• For technical details of Newcomen’s engine, the Wikipedia entry is a good a brief guide. • Rolt, L. T. C.; Allen J. S. (1998). The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen. Ashbourne Derbs: Landmark Publishing. pp. 160. ISBN 1–901522–44-X Sadly this book is out of print, but you might get it secondhand, or via a library. Richard Ellam is fascinated by all things mechanical. He lives in Somerset, UK, and used to work as a museum curator. These days he makes hands-on exhibits and presents science shows for a living. Find more at

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Previous Page: (Bee) Flickr • Andy Hay, (Robobee) Flickr •

Robots are cool. They roll, beep, buzz – and when you ask them profound philosophical questions, their heads explode. Or so Hollywood would have you believe. But whereas fiction prides itself on the weird and wacky, the reality is that nature got it right first time. Inspired by the biology of a bee, Harvard University’s ‘RoboBee’ neatly demonstrates the value of nature’s original blueprints. Not much bigger than a pound coin or nickel, RoboBee is a triumph of microrobotics, and sports some staggeringly ingenious features borne out of its necessarily small size. Unlike other robots, RoboBees are not built, but printed. Their 3D structure (including a motor) is machine-produced onto a metal sheet and then ‘popped’ into shape, making it possible to produce swarms of the tiny machines breathtakingly quickly. RoboBee also uses some groundbreaking flying technology, making use of something called a ‘hybrid power control actuator’. This allows the tiny airfoil wings to drive the vehicle as well as steer it, unlike in conventional aircraft such as airplanes, where the turbines and rudders are separate entities. But why bother going to so much effort to mimic Mother Nature? Don’t we already have perfectly adequate solutions to the problem of flight? Well, not quite. RoboBee has more maneuverability than other similar-sized air vehicles that use propellers, and is also less likely to break (as rotating parts have a tendency to get jammed). But Harvard is not the only lab currently being guided by nature:

there are spider-bots for navigating uneven terrain, handling devices that are modeled on an elephant’s trunk, and (laughably) floating penguins that swim through the air. These machines have the potential to become as tailored to their surroundings as their biological counterparts, and could therefore have important uses – RoboBee, for example, has major implications for search and rescue. It isn’t merely about developing exciting new technologies: these bio-inspired robots can also enhance our understanding of the creatures they mimic. The better a machine is able to imitate the behavior of an animal, the more likely it is to go unnoticed by the animal itself, making it possible to better observe organisms in their natural habitat. This principle could even have implications in the military sphere: a robot that can convince an animal it is one of them is more likely to convince a radar dish of the same thing. The one thing that RoboBee still needs to be able to fly out of the lab is a power source small enough to carry onboard. Even the most compact of today’s batteries are too heavy, leaving the latest robots tethered to a fine power cable. It seems we still have a bit more to learn from Mother Nature.

Reference: •

Progress on “pico” air vehicles, R.J. Wood, B. Finio, M. Karpelson, K. Ma, N.O. PerezArancibia, P.S. Sreetharan, H. Tanaka, and J.P. Whitney, Int. J. Robotics Research, vol. 31, no. 11, pp. 1292–1302, 2012. Ross Harper recently graduated from Cambridge University having studied Biological Natural Sciences. He spent the last year running his somewhat unconventional advertising business,, 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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June/July 2013

Reporting the news you might have missed...

SPECIAL REPORT: FESTIVAL OF NEUROSCIENCE 2013 The Barbican in London, UK is a vast, multi-faceted arts and entertainment centre. The largest building of its type in London, it is known for being at the cutting edge of the performing arts. I didn’t expect neuroscience to fit in well at the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, but I was proved wrong when the British Neuroscience Association’s 2013 Festival of Neuroscience was held there in April. Nearly 2000 scientists attended this major conference, which included one of the most... well...engaging public engagement programmes ever seen at a scientific meeting. Wonder: Art & Science on the Brain was a series of events put together in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust to celebrate the relationship between the arts and neuroscience. It kicked off well in advance of the festival, with a programme of mind-related films and other events beginning in March. Highlights during the festival itself included British celebrity Ruby Wax, who recently embarked on a neuroscience master’s degree, speaking about her experience of depression, and Marcus du Sautoy and DJ James Holden presenting an audiovisual performance lecture exploring consciousness.

There was also a brain-themed street fair, with stalls, interactive games, and demos ranging from body illusions to knitting your own neuron.

The biggest news to come out of the festival was former UK government advisor David Nutt‘s announcement that “insane” laws are delaying a trial he plans to conduct to explore the use of psilocybin – the active ingredient of magic mushrooms – to treat depression. Predictably, a furore erupted in the British press about using illegal drugs for research. But consider this: psilocybin and certain other illegal drugs are heavily regulated ‘schedule 1’ substances because they are judged to have no beneficial uses. But how

on earth are we to know whether they have any medical use when the necessary research is made almost impossible by the existing regulations? Heroin, on the other hand, is ‘schedule 2’ because it has known medical uses, and so research into its effects is easy. It’s a funny old world. What’s genuinely interesting about this story though (politics aside) is the science behind the prediction that psilocybin might be beneficial in the treatment of depression. There are good reasons for thinking this: psilocybin – or rather the substance the body breaks it down into, psilocin – acts on


Scientists, artists, and the general public mingled in the Barbican’s foyers and stairways throughout the four day event, making the festival feel less distanced from the everyday world than other conferences, and more like an integral part of the wider public fascination with neuroscience. With any luck, one day all major conferences will look like this.

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(StreetFair) BNA • Atif Saghir


IN THEAPPLE NEWS NEWTON’S the serotonin chemical systems in the brain, just like antidepressants do. A lack of serotonin can be a factor in depression – but psilocin tackles this by ‘mimicking’ serotonin’s effects when it binds to a type of serotonin receptor called 5-HT-2a.


A surprising discovery when substances like psilocybin were first studied was that they reduce activity in the brain, rather than increasing it, and the greater this reduction, the greater the psychedelic effects. One of the areas where activity is reduced the most is the anterior cingulate cortex, and Professor Nutt was struck by the fact that many other depression treatments, such as deep brain stimulation, antidepressants, and meditation, also switch off these areas. These minute receptors are mainly found in the two most important brain regions for tying together different brain functions like memory, movement, and perception (the anterior cingulate cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex). These are part of what neuroscientists call the ‘default mode network’: brain regions that fire when we’re not doing anything in particular other than reflecting or remembering. Activity in different parts of this network is usually synchronised, but this breaks down in people taking magic mushrooms. In Researchers have discovered how the link between the levels of stress hormones a foetus is exposed to in the womb and the development of mood disorders like anxiety and depression in later life, might be controlled in the body. We’ve known for some time that a foetus’ experiences in the womb can have long-lasting effects on physical and mental health. This so-called ‘foetal programming’ is partly due to naturally produced stress hormones in the mother (called glucocorticoids). The most important stress hormone is cortisol, which can stunt growth, alter the timing of tissue growth, and have various other long-lasting effects. Stress or emotional trauma in an expectant

other words, the experience of a ‘trip’ might have something to do with disrupting the brain’s ability to tie together all its different functions. This ‘default’ network is widely believed to be used when being introspective, and depression is often associated with obsessively ruminating about our failings or misfortunes. So it makes sense that a drug that interferes with this network might affect depression. When all this is added to many anecdotal accounts of self-treatment, it makes a compelling case for studying psilocybin as a treatment for severe depression. There is also evidence it might be one of the only effective treatments for one of the most painful conditions there is – cluster headaches. And whether laws and regulations are updated to make it easier or not, Professor Nutt is pressing ahead.

(babyg @ 12 weeks 2) Flickr • dangoodwin, (David Nutt) BNA • Atif Saghir


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mother increases her cortisol levels, potentially harming the developing baby. Professor Megan Holmes revealed at the conference

ABOVE: David Nutt at the posttalk press conference.

that, together with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, she has discovered a way the foetal brain protects itself against stress hormones before they can cause harm. They have found an enzyme in the placenta and in foetal brains (called 11β-HSD2) that appears to act as a protective barrier. By breeding mice lacking 11β-HSD2, Holmes saw that foetuses exposed to high levels of stress hormones were particularly vulnerable to reduced growth and

(mouse) mood disorders. Without this enzyme, the mother’s placenta was smaller and didn’t transport nutrients efficiently. Professor Holmes thinks this finding may offer clues for developing medications to protect foetuses from the effects of maternal stress. She hopes she may even be able to uncover drugs that could reverse these mood disorder effects. Her research continues.

Not only do your neurons know what you’re going to do before you do, but neuroscientists now think they might even be able to alter your decisions before you are aware of having made them. Adding fuel to the age-old debate about whether we truly have free will, Gabriel Kreiman of Harvard Medical School told attendees at the festival that he is finding out more about how our will, or ‘volition’, is controlled within the brain. Kreiman and his colleagues have previously shown that monitoring the brain activity of people asked to perform a simple physical task enables the scientists to predict when participants are going to move before they become aware of deciding to act.

In these studies, they had access to epilepsy patients who had electrodes implanted to help


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(Gabriel Kreiman) & (Lecture) BNA • Atif Saghir


BELOW: Gabriel Kreiman at the posttalk press conference.


locate where their seizures started from. Using these sensors, Kreiman and colleagues were able to record the activity of over 1,000 brain cells in two areas known as the frontal and temporal lobes (at the front and side of the head). Putting the patients in front of a computer, they asked them to click the mouse and remember the reading on a clock whenever they decided to. Before moving their hand – and just before the patients were aware of deciding to click – groups of brain cells gradually increased their activity. These ‘getting ready’ signals were seen in brain regions believed to be responsible for preparing movements (the supplementary motor area), and one of the brain’s reward and attention areas (the anterior cingulate cortex). In another experiment they were able to predict which hand people chose to use. Other stories included the news that the first drug ever specifically designed to treat learning problems in Down’s syndrome is being studied in a clinical trial; problem gambling has been linked to impulsivity and dopamine; the cycle of the heart affects the way we process fear, and the legal party drug ‘Benzo Fury’ may have addictive stimulant-like properties as well as hallucinogenic effects. The first of these revelations was presented during a session on ‘Drugs and Society’, which explored the ethics of erasing memories and the use of so-called ‘smart’ drugs. This was one of the most fascinating sessions of the conference, showing that neuroscience is on the verge of being able to manipulate specific memories, with potential applications for treating PTSD and drug addiction. The implications of this, and other issues like the use of smart drugs to help pass exams, are in pressing need of discussion: the science isn’t going to wait for society to catch up.

(neurons) Flickr MikeBlogs, (Ruby Wax) BNA • Atif Saghir


These rather mysterious results tally with a similar experiment that used brain imaging and found decisions could be predicted as much as ten seconds before conscious awareness. The scientist behind that work also presented findings at the festival, which showed that we can now predict abstract decisions, such as whether to add or subtract. Kreiman believes these results may mean that neurons’ activity builds up until a threshold is reached, when the decision enters awareness and an action is taken. He is now working out ways to watch this in real time to find out whether it is possible to change a decision before it is acted on and also whether there is a ‘point of no return’. He cautioned: “We’re not saying we can make predictions about what you’re going to have for lunch tomorrow or who you’re going to marry in five years – we’re making very specific small claims about a very simple decision.” But he then added: “Our actions and will are totally dictated by ensembles of neurons (brain cells) and the problem of free will can ultimately be understood as the firing of neurons.” One delegate I spotted eagerly taking her seat with notepad and pen was aspiring neuroscientist Ruby Wax – a sight that provided me with an inspiring reminder of how adversity can sometimes stimulate some of the better qualities of human nature – such as curiosity and a hunger for understanding.

Simon Makin is an auditory researcher turned science journalist. Originally from Liverpool, he has a degree in electronics, a Masters in speech and hearing sciences, and a PhD in auditory perception. He worked as a post-doc in the psychology deptartment at Reading University for several years, before recently taking the leap into journalism. Tweets as @SimonMakin. Blogs as Heisenberg’s Hamster.

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iPad, iPhone and Android app

PRESSREADER Developer: NewspaperDirect Price: Free (iTunes), (Google Play) Rating: As an iPad owner, I love the convenience of technology. But as someone whose dream home blueprint includes an enormous library, I find digital versions of books quite depressing. There is something irreplaceable about the feel of a printed book, magazine or newspaper in my hands. On this basis, I should hate the PressReader app, the mobile reader and store for the world’s most popular newspapers. Turning the pages of a daily through this iPad app should break my heart, but it doesn’t – it’s just too darned convenient. First of all, when you subscribe to a paper, it is automatically delivered to your iPad or tablet every morning. Gone is the need to prance down the end of the driveway in your pyjamas to retrieve a copy of your favourite newspaper. And instead of having the awful black toner residue on your hands and having to fight with 50 pages of thin pieces of recycled paper, you can actually spend your time reading the news. PressReader allows readers to enjoy the same layout of a printed newspaper with pages that are essentially digital replicas of the original. Individual articles can be read in ‘Smartflow’, where text is formatted to fit neatly in the mobile screen – an easier alternative to scrolling and zooming each time you want to read a section. There are some other nice features, such as the ‘on-demand audio’ which will read the paper to you – a particularly useful option when you are on the treadmill and getting dizzy from trying to read the jiggling paper. Even though PressReader offers 2,300 different newspapers from 97 countries, this does not include all newspapers that have their own app: there is no New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. I did, however, find the local newspaper from my college town of

Saratoga Springs, NY. Localised offering are a bonus: I can get a copy of the New York Times almost anywhere, but where else can I get a copy of the Saratogian? While the app is good overall for those who just want to read the paper, it does no justice to my favorite section of any paper, the entertainment section. The images of the comics and crosswords in some newspapers were so poor that I simply couldn’t read the captions. In terms of usability, everything is fairly straightforward but I have some gripes with ‘sharing’. The app’s description page boasts that you can share article clips on Facebook or twitter and save clippings to apps such as Evernote and Instapaper. I expected to highlight the text and tap an option to share the clipping. Instead you are required to tap and hold on the desired section until the options appear. I would have preferred a less fiddly, more intuitive process, closer to how information is transferred in apps designed by Apple. Single issues can be purchased for $.99 (£0.69) or unlimited monthly downloads for $29.95 (£19.45), which represents good value, given the selection on offer. While PressReader is not going to replace printed newspapers for everyone, the expansive catalogue, ease of reading, and clean interface will win many converts.

Lucy Huang has a degree in molecular biology from Skidmore College and is Guru’s first official intern. When she isn’t interning for Guru, she is busy rehearsing for dance performances and making cups of tea at David’s Tea shop in New York City.

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iPad and iPhone app

HUMAN DEFENSE VIRAL Developer: Heliceum Price: Free (optional in-app purchases) (iTunes), Rating: I am not a gamer. 2007 was the year that I stopped gaming for personal reasons (I’m an addict). So I’ve missed a lot of what’s happened in the gaming world of recent years. I do, however, own an iPad, and I’ve tried Angry Birds, so you’re not reading the words of someone totally out of touch. So with that confession over, here’s what I made of Heliceum’s medical-themed game: First off, the name ‘Human Defense Viral’ sucks. My dyslexia keeps me from detecting small spelling errors, but my spell checker confirms that ‘defense’ is incorrect. Oh, it’s the American spelling! I’ll have to get over that, but I’m not going to get over the fact that ‘Human Defense Viral’ doesn’t work as a title – it just doesn’t ‘pop’. It certainly wasn’t the thing that inspired me to stay awake in bed until 1:37am playing the same level wide-eyed until repeated punches to my thigh (from my lady) told me I should call it a night. No, the name didn’t do that for me – the gameplay did... Like most games of the 21st century that I’ve played, the Human Defense Viral starts with an annoying introductory tutorial, although it does get you into the action quickly. In no time you will be killing goofylooking cartoon viruses as they slowly march through a body you have to protect. The object of the game is to keep a patient alive and replete with nutrients. You build different types of bodily ‘defenses’ to kill the varied

viruses, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. As the game progresses, the challenges become increasingly complex and demanding. Eventually, different types of weapons are unlocked to kill the ever-growing waves of viruses. You pay for your viral ‘defense’ structures with the same nutrients needed to keep the heart beating, so it becomes a balancing act: how many harmful viruses do you allow to pass into the body in order to fuel the heart, and how much do spend to build and upgrade the ‘defenses’? Something about this reminded me of the sci-fi strategy game StarCraft, but perhaps I’m just showing my age. The background music is fairly monotonous, but it changes with your patient’s health – and it does a good job of highlighting if you’re heading for a flat line. If the patient dies, you fail the round. It does get addictive – very addictive. I found myself fixatedly killing viral invaders in my attempts to save the human. Soon I would lose complete track of time and how often I had repeated the same level until succeeding. ‘Human Defense Viral’ is certainly entertaining and engrossing – but, for me, something is missing: learning. I am the sort of person who wants to learn something about viruses and the real ‘defenses’ that humans put up to fight them. This game is pure fantasy and fun – but there’s no element of learning. Or if there is it was lost me. I suggest you play this game and see for yourself. Just don’t blame me when one hour turns into five.

Matt Linsdell is a certified personal trainer and has a degree in Environmental Science. He calls himself an ‘evidence-based trainer’, because training is a field which is littered with well-disguised pseudoscience – his emphasis is always on teaching the biology behind exercise. He lives at the edge of the beautiful and expansive Gatineau Park in Quebec and works across the water in Ottawa, Ontario. If he’s not out walking his two pit bulls, you’ll find him doing press ups with insanely large weights on his back. Follow Matt on Twitter at @smartfitmatt.

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Previous Page: (Hit the Road, Jack) Flickr • Daniel Parks, (drifting like a feather) Flickr • amira_a, (Foot Right x-ray 002 - no info) Flickr • Eric Schmuttenmaer

WALKING ON AIR In the Northern Hemisphere days are getting longer. The air is feeling warmer and the snow has melted – so I can actually see the black surface of my driveway. This must mean it is time to do some outdoor running. When the snow melts a bit more (I live near Ottawa), I’ll be able to run on the vast network of trails right outside my house. As a personal trainer I often hear runners espousing the virtues of softer surfaces underfoot. Trail running is known for being good for you because the ground is softer than the hard pavement. I’m told it will be less likely to get an injury on those nice soft surfaces. Conversely, I also hear of the evils of the asphalt, with its hard, unrelenting character, damaging the joints. Runner after runner adamantly swears how gentle trail running is on the body compared to man’s ‘evil’ pavement creation. Good sense or nonsense? It sure sounds like the naturalistic fallacy to me (if you consider groomed hiking trails to be natural, that is). Let us explore these ideas together. And by ‘together’, I really mean that you just read what I write and assume I’m 100% correct…(!)

A running myth? Concrete doesn’t offer much give compared to the earth that trees and shrubs grow in. So, it is logical to believe that the impact of a runner’s foot repeatedly hitting a hard surface will result in higher stresses to be absorbed by the body compared to the same runner’s foot striking softer materials. To some degree this is true, but evolution considered this long before Nike did. When we (of the genus Homo) rose up from quadrapedal movement to bipedal walking, our feet underwent selection pressures that made them better at dealing with stresses from all kinds of surfaces – hard and soft. Firstly, take look at your heel. It is big and wide. This shape is good at absorbing and distributing the forces that assault your body when the heel strikes the ground. Also, if you look at the bones of the human foot from a side view (see X-ray photo) you can see that when the heel and front foot touch the ground, the middle of the foot stays suspended. For the mechanical types amongst you, this feature might remind you of a leaf spring. The curved shape dissipates some of the forces acting on the body during running – in the same way a car suspension does. There is also extra shock absorption from muscles and tendons in the ankle and leg. Add to all of this the protective nature of a running shoe

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(to guard you from sharp rocks, hypodermic needles, searing hot surfaces or numbingly cold ground) and you’ve got a match made on Earth. Thanks to our big brains for developing trainers, we have a readily available technology in an array of sizes and colours that allows over-fed organisms to aimlessly perambulate in an attempt to keep their hearts pumping. Life is good. So shoes and the structure of our foot make concerns about the density of a running surface mostly moot. I’m sure someone could design a study to find a measurable difference in the total force subjected to the body over a large distance, but that wouldn’t apply to normal people out for some aerobic exercise. We can examine that evidence when it arises. For the running surface to make a real difference, you will need to be running huge distances day-after-day.

Running in the woods So is there a benefit to running on trails? Well, yes. But it isn’t because of the soft-ish forest floor. It is literally because of changing directions. Woodland trails tend to meander left

and right and the pitch goes up and down. Sometimes there are puddles or logs to jump over. These combined movements result in spreading out of the wear on the ankle, knee, and hip joints. At least it does in theory – although I’ve yet to find any research to confirm it. I don’t know that any exists, so for now let’s just consider it in a critical way by comparing trail running to treadmill running. On the treadmill you can change the speed of the belt and the pitch of the entire machine. And that’s about it, until you switch the thing off or fall over and get whipped off the back. We are able to compare treadmill running stresses to occupational repetitive strain injuries. For example, consider a laboratory technician who micro-pipettes hundreds and hundreds of samples every day. Each little click is no big deal to the hand and wrist, but over time it can cripple the extremities. Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) and Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD) are overuse injuries that can cause endless suffering to people who work in labs, at computers, or who swing a hammer day in and day out. In contrast, trail running, while still repetitive, introduces more variety. Sideways movements seem to spread out the muscle and joint wear by requiring the runner to rotate at the hips slightly and change the angle of the foot. The runner struggles through muddy sections, up and down undulating trails. Each little change helps to add to the variety that can help prevent an overuse injury. But it won’t prevent it altogether: excessive training, even on trails, will result in an injury just like any other excessive amount will. My hope, Guru Readers, is that my opinions make sense and that you will agree. Now I’m off to the trails to use what natural selection has so kindly supplied me, plus an expensive shoe to cover it. And I won’t worry that I have to run on the street to get to where the squishy trail begins. My only concerns are for bears. There are hungry bears in them there hills and I really hope they don’t get me.

Matt Linsdell is a certified personal trainer and has a degree in Environmental Science. He calls himself an ‘evidence-based trainer’, because training is a field which is littered with well-disguised pseudoscience – his emphasis is always on teaching the biology behind exercise. He lives at the edge of the beautiful and expansive Gatineau Park in Quebec and works across the water in Ottawa, Ontario. If he’s not out walking his two pit bulls, you’ll find him doing press ups with insanely large weights on his back. Follow Matt on Twitter at @smartfitmatt.

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(Run!) Flickr • Steve Garner


ASK A GURU Every Friday our team of Gurus accept your

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and find you the answer. If we can’t, then we’ll

Why does the way there feel longer than the way back?

(Tunnel) Flickr • Dushan Hanuska

Asked by Hannah Tucker Time ticks steadily on – but our minds don’t. When we get nervous, scared or anxious, the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered: adrenaline surges around the body, heart rate increases and pupils dilate. Your body primes itself for action – and so does your brain. The brain ‘fires’ more rapidly, helping you to make decisions very quickly. And as your brain shifts up a gear, time consequently appears to slow down. If you’ve ever jumped off a cliff into the sea (don’t do it), it probably felt like the fall lasted several seconds. In reality it was probably less than one. Likewise, when you’re travelling somewhere, you are probably feeling ever-so-slightly more anxious than how you feel on the way home. It may be the excitement of going to a nice hotel, or the worry of getting lost. These heightened anxiety levels will make time feel as if is passing more slowly. However, there is another reason related to our horribly fallible memory: everyone’s memory is subject to a psychological phenomenon called ‘telescoping’. When did you last see your Great Aunt Daphne? Was

it a couple of days, a few weeks, or a couple of months? It is probably longer ago than it feels. This ‘telescoping effect’ means your most recent memories will nearly always feel as though they happened more recently than they did. So, as you sit in the departure lounge considering how long it took to travel from home to the airport, it will feel as if you arrived at check-in much sooner than you did. The memory of setting off from home will not be ‘telescoped’ as much – giving the overall effect that the travelling time was longer than it was.

Answered by Dr Stu (Science Guru)

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Rabbits eat grass and have hard poo; horses and cows have sloppy poo. Why? Asked by Laura Young While the rabbit, cow, and horse all have distinctly different digestive systems, the rabbit differs because it is required to ‘digest’ its food twice – they eat, poop, eat the poop and poop again. This is known as coprophagia. The first round of poo is very wet. But after they digest the food for the second time, it is dry – so they poo out pellets. Cows and horses do not have to eat their poo because they have other means of breaking down vegetation. Cows have very large, multiple-chambered stomachs that contain bacteria to help them break down the plant parts first time. The horse and the rabbit both have fermenting bacteria in their hindgut to help digest the fibre (cellulose) from plant matter. But because the rabbit’s

intestinal tract is much shorter than that of the horse, it does not absorb nutrients as efficiently in one trip and thus needs to re-digest its food for a second time.

Answered by Lucy Huang

If the World Wars hadn’t happened, would today’s technology be less advanced?

(Cow) Flickr • J P

Asked by Dave Gray Almost certainly, but not entirely because of why most people think. Without doubt the technology developed before, during and just after these two wars was astounding to say the least. Automatic weapons, tanks, and the Manhattan Project are just three of many obvious examples.   However, there are more important advancements that came about because of these wars. The first advance was the use of computers, which came into existence during World War II and were used to break down and decipher information, processing  intelligence  to help streamline the focus of both sides in the war.  While the computers of this era would hardly be recognized today – massive, blocklike, expensive and inefficient – they still managed to revolutionise the world.   Computers immediately had an impact, crunching large numbers and playing a major role at the UK’s Bletchley Park in cracking

the Enigma machine  used by the Nazis. Computer technology also became a fixture in our collective imagination, and would fuel dreams, visions, stories and the rapid advancements that accompanied this enchantment.   We wished ourselves into  Moore’s Law  (that computer processors have consistently doubled in power every 18 months). The second and more direct implication for technological advancement was the ensuing Cold War between the USA and the USSR.   The Second World War showed that the side with the bigger guns – or in this case, bombs – would rule the day. After the war, two clear ideological camps were established.  The race to outdo the other caused rapid advancement in the sciences.   We became the masters of the world around us, and in our mastery possessed the power to annihilate the very world we had tamed.

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ASK A GURU So, a very clear race towards prominence  was established, technology boomed like never before, and we ran technological miles where we used to amble –

blasted off as if a rocket when we used to drift in the wind. A longer answer is available online.

Answered by Daniel Hall

Does my cat think it is a human? Does he understand that I am a different species? (As he clearly understands that dogs are NOT cats).

(Enigma Machine) Flickr • Tim Gage, (In the mirror) Flickr • Catalin Munteanu

Asked by Julie Grob Animals have a wide arsenal of tools in order to help them distinguish their own kind from others: visual, auditory, and olfactory (smell) cues. This includes your cat, which is definitely glad it is not a slobbery dog or inferior human. That being said, one problem with respect to species recognition that may arise is called improper ‘imprinting’.  ‘Critical period’ imprinting is thought to be a stage in the early life of many animals (birds especially) – a stage historically regarded as 1–2 days after birth – when they learn what ‘kind’ they are or what ‘group’ they belong to. For example, a baby duck that sees only you during the first few days of life will not only think that you are its ‘mother’ but may also try to attract you sexually once fully mature.  Some animals undergo much longer, more flexible, and relatively less pronounced spans of ‘sensitive period’ imprinting; this includes dogs, cats, and humans. However, despite this, improperly imprinted animals

will often readily mingle with animals of their own kind as well, and may even learn to more fully adapt to their own kind over time through additional environmental stimuli. This begs the question of whether or not they truly think they are a different species or not. So far, the research on this specific point is inconclusive and scarce.

Answered by Artem Cheprasov (Animal Guru)

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What are the long-term effects of constant thumb use for texting, etc? In today’s gadget-centred world, the thumb has been called into action more than ever before. Gone are the days when the thumb’s main purpose was to grip tools; it is now vital for modern day communication. Whether you’re relaxing at home playing on a games console or out and about sending texts from your phone, your thumbs are being worked harder than ever. So does this increased thumb use have any knock-on effects? For the average person, your thumb is able to cope with the daily burden of digital tasks. However, extremes of thumb use are becoming much more commonplace, especially due to the constant need to provide new tweets and update statuses via our now-ubiquitous smartphones – all of which has led to the development of conditions such as ‘Blackberry thumb’ and ‘gamer’s thumb’. These are repetitive strain injuries: the thumb and sometimes the surrounding areas become painful and slightly swollen. This is

normally due to the tendons of the thumb muscles becoming inflamed as many small areas of damage accumulate. Though painful, your thumbs should go back to normal if you give them a couple days off. There’s nothing to suggest that texting will cause long-term conditions such as arthritis. (Twitter is for Grandmas too.) But if you were to develop arthritis then you’d probably notice it in your thumbs first as they get so much use. But, providing you don’t go over the top, your thumbs will probably remain capable to handle the challenges the electronic world throws at them.

Answer by James Crewdson

Sponsored Editorial Do you remember the T-shirts that could change colour? I never owned one, but temperature-sensitive clothing was all the rage in the early 1990s. Put one on, press your hand against it (or simply hang it on the radiator) and watch the colour change! But it wasn’t long before the novelty wore off – roughly around the time when everyone realised that their sweaty armpits suddenly became very visible... I am still impressed by colour-changing materials, although I’ve always been baffled by why they work. A great man to ask how they work would be Hendrik Ball, owner of Grand Illusions. A TV producer by trade, he now runs an online shop selling science curiosities and has an infectious passion for using science to amuse and enthral. Hendrik also curates a ‘toy museum’ (“We don’t do dolls!”) that boasts a vast collection of over 20,000 unusual playthings. You can see many of these in action on Hendrik’s YouTube channel (which has an incredible 40,000 subscribers and over 10 million views).

Grand Illusions is delightfully quirky and eccentric, and certainly not just for kids. Which brings me back to those chameleon-esque T-shirts. I’ve done my homework and discovered that colourchanging materials work thanks to some pretty crazy chemistry: the molecules of ‘thermochromic’ substances change their shape and arrangement at about 27°C. And I was delighted to discover Grand Illusions have some colour-changing offerings – which are far trendier than a T-Shirt. For the Guru reader who likes something just a little different, Grand Illusions is well worth checking out.


(Future Texting) Flickr • Dan Zen

Asked by Steve Dewar

DEPARTURE LOUNGE We are thrilled by this idea: free access to information is at the heart of Guru Magazine. But at the end of the day, facts aren’t everything, and most of us don’t find research papers a riveting read. Our mission at Guru continues: publishing articles and content that is genuinely engaging, and entertaining. We also love to offer a scientific slant, but a reliable one. We hope you’ve enjoyed issue 12 and, as always, would love to hear what you think of what we do. Feel free to send us an email at and follow us on twitter (@GuruMag) and Facebook. If you want ensure the future of the magazine, a great way to continue to support our mission is by joining the Readers Panel! Please help us out by participating in the Panel surveys; the future of the magazine depends on it.

Issue 13 released 1st August 2013!


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In February of this year, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the United States passed an open access policy for scientific articles. This means that all data from federally funded research will be free to the public twelve months after it has been published. For the first time in modern history, the latest discoveries and breakthroughs won’t be hidden behind a paywall. No longer will we have to shell out the price of four novels to get a copy of an article we’re interested in.

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Guru Magazine Issue 12  
Guru Magazine Issue 12  

The Curious Incident... Meet Carly, the autistic girl who didn't speak for 10 years, until one day she picked up her father's laptop. Scienc...