Guru Magazine: Issue 15

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ISSN 2048-2590

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THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond Jon Crowe Ross Harper

Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu

Deputy Editor / Molecular Guru @crowe_jon Deputy Editor / Complexity Guru @refharper

DorothĂŠe Grevers

Guru Intern

Isabel Hutchison

Guru Intern

Ian Wildsmith

Design Guru


Guru Opinions

Artem Cheprasov Matt Linsdell

Animal Guru

Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt

Felice Tocchini Autumn Sartain Simon Makin News Guru @SimonMakin Shambralyn Baker Daryl Ilbury Kim Lacey Helen Knowles Steve Cook

(christmas texture) Flickr • Phantasy Photo

@sevvy09 Sceptic Guru @darylilbury Mind Guru @kimlacey


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

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


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SERIES-LY ADDICTED Avid Downton Abbey fan Leila Wildsmith explores the curious nature of our love for TV series. Could it be society’s most tolerated addiction?

Brussels sprouts – you either love them or hate them. If you hate them, you obviously haven’t tried Felice Tocchini’s fantastic Brussels sprouts recipes. Go get your apron and turn to page 21.


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FLIGHT MARS ONE IS NOW BOARDING We all know someone we’d like to ship off to Mars. And here’s your chance: Mars One is recruiting volunteers for a one-way trip to the Red Planet. Applicants send their videos to earn a place aboard. Some of them are hilarious…


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Ever wondered why reindeer are Santa’s choice of Christmas gift transportation? Nature Guru, Autumn Sartain, explains why they’re the perfect choice this Yuletide.


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Here’s a roundup of some of the news you probably missed. Ever wanted to know what your pet is really thinking? Find out how. Plus, why a good night’s sleep could give your brain a spring clean, and what the prosthetic limbs of tomorrow will feel like.

HOW TO AVOID A ‘RUFF’ HOLIDAY SEASON Santa may leave chocolates for the kids – but don’t let the pets have them. Our Animal Guru, Artem Cheprasov, reveals the hidden dangers our favourite Christmas treats present to our furry friends.



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SANTA STATS He’s looking pretty good for a guy who is over six hundred years old. But it’s not just his age-defying appearance that’s miraculous – on page 31, our Design Guru, Ian Wildsmith, shows just how much Santa has to cram in every Christmas Eve.

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’TIS THE SEASON FOR BUYING STUFF You have to admire Fitness Guru, Matt Linsdell: based in Ottawa, Canada, even temperatures of -20°C won’t stop him going out for a run. He has test driven the five top gifts to keep you (or your loved ones) in shape this winter.


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DYING TO SLEEP If you’re planning an all-nighter this New Year then sleep researcher Isabel Hutchison has some advice for you: insufficient sleep can make you ugly and a danger behind the wheel. And if you need any more convincing, then maybe learning about fatal familial insomnia will do the trick.


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TO BE, OR NOT TO BE We clear the stage for HAMLET. Not the play, but a substance that was recently discovered in human breast milk. Shambralyn Baker explains how this magic molecule could mean a novel cancer treatment and the end of the MRSA ‘super-bug’.


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WANTED: SCHRÖDINGER’S CAT. DEAD OR ALIVE. OR BOTH. Erwin Schrödinger evidently didn’t care too much about cats. But who can blame him when his attempt at a high-calibre joke went so long without appreciation. Ross Harper puts an end to the confusion and shows that physicists really need to work on their sense of humour.


CONFESSIONS OF A SOCIOPATH: A LIFE SPENT HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT Dorothée Grevers scrutinizes the autobiographical account of a real life sociopath, ‘M.E. Thomas’. The author works as a top lawyer while leading a life devoid of emotion. Find out the verdict on this book on page 49.


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WHAT TO WATCH Procrastinating doesn’t have to be a waste of time. Why not listen to a song about the elements or a rap about the Large Hadron Collider? If you’re not convinced, you can always learn how to time travel. Check out our video picks.

Jonah Lehrer was the golden boy of the writing world – until he was exposed as a cheat. Mind Guru, Kim Lacey, finds out what happens when plagiarism becomes a way of life.

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OF MIRACLES AND WONDER Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, challenges the concept of miracles as we know them. But all is not lost: the world’s true wonders are becoming more and more accessible – all you need is a microscope.


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THE DANGERS AND DELIGHTS OF SKIING Going skiing this winter? Or does the thought of altitude sickness give you cold feet? Helen Knowles explains why going too high can really bring you down – and what to do about it.


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A classic Guru staple: the answers to all your science questions by the people behind your favourite lifestyle-science magazine. This time we find out why so many things taste like chicken, what the secret of the afro hairstyle is, and why you shouldn’t grab a cat by the scruff of its neck….


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IT’S TRICKY TO ROCK A RHYME, TO ROCK A RHYME THAT’S RIGHT ON TIME, IT’S TRICKY… What makes a creative mind? Ross Harper, who loves his hip-hop, discovers that rappers may have special brains. Unwrap this article and find out how.



hat do you say to a depressed turkey? “Cheer up mate, it’s nearly Christmas!” I hate winter – the gloomy days and long nights put me in a real funk. (I really envy those of you who live in the southern hemisphere right now.) Thank goodness, then, for the holidays – the festive break that can melt even the iciest of moods! And the same can be said for this issue of Guru, where we have seasonal silliness aplenty to warm the soul, whatever the weather… Not all of us celebrate this time of year in the same way. Take the Dutch, for example. They believe that Santa – or St Nicholas – travels on a horse. Which is a ludicrous idea, says our resident wildlife expert, Autumn Sartain: on page 25 she gives eight reasons why reindeer are the perfect choice to power a flying sleigh full of presents. And our favourite flying bearded fellow crops up again on page 31, where Design Guru, Ian Wildsmith, charts his amazing abilities and proves once and for all that portly men can be superheroes. Daryl Ilbury, our Sceptic Guru, won’t be looking heavenward for anything miraculous this year. On page 43, he

discusses why miracles are (pumpkin) pie in the sky. What he has to say may get some people hot under the collar – but that’s not the only way to stay warm: Matt Linsdell, Fitness Guru, is on hand to suggest we all go for a jog. He gives a run-down of the best cold-weather Christmas gifts to help outdoorsy types stay active in sub-zero temperatures on page 17. We’ve got gifts for everyone in this issue. Celebrity chef, Felice Tocchini, brings you some creative seasonal recipes on page 21 – he bravely dares to make the most maligned of green vegetables, the Brussels sprout, taste… erm, tasty! Animal Guru, Artem Cheprasov, gives us tips on how to keep your pets safe this Christmas on page 13. Meanwhile, on page 32, sleep researcher Isabel Hutchison ponders whether an all-nighter could be worse than too much beer. When you flip to page 9, you will meet the very strange people who are trying to get a place on a one-way trip to Mars. No joke. So rest your feet up, get the fire going, and digitally unwrap this issue.

Dr. Stu

Guru Magazine Issue 15 • December 2013/January 2014 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2013 Guru Magazine Ltd.

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Guru: Your digital science-lifestyle magazine. By you and for you. Next issue released: 3rd February 2014.

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Was anyone else as excited as I was about the much-loved period drama Downton Abbey returning to our TV screens earlier this autumn? A record 10.5 million UK viewers tuned in to watch the first in the new series chronicling the ups and downs of the Grantham family and those who serve them. (Sorry, US viewers, you will have to wait until January!) America loves Downton Abbey as much as the Brits and it is currently the highest-rated PBS drama of all time. And it goes both ways: a few weeks later, the American drama series Homeland returned for its third season, pulling a crowd of 6.5 million weekly British viewers.

which began in May 1947 and ran until 1958. Each week it offered a range of TV plays with different storylines and characters, alongside classic stories adapted for TV viewers. The first American sci-fi and children’s series, Captain Video, followed soon after in 1949. In the UK, the first British sitcom series, Steptoe and Son, was broadcast from 1962 to 1965. These days, series are an expected and established element of TV viewing: it is unusual to turn on the box and see a one-off, special episode. Furthermore, these series cover all genres of programmes: from documentaries and dramas, to sci-fi and sitcoms. No matter what the style of show, the chances are it will appear as part of a series season; they are the most popular and successful forms of TV programmes, as they create familiarity, community, and stability in the viewing world. Perhaps the most enduring of all TV series is the immensely popular American sitcom Friends, which revolved around the lives and loves of six twenty-somethings living in New York. The show was so popular that it lasted for 10 years and spanned 10 seasons. Even now, nearly 20 years since its pilot show aired, 17 episodes are still being replayed every day on Comedy Central.

Let’s stay Friends for ever

On both sides of the Atlantic and across the world, these shows draw huge crowds. When it comes to TV series, we are seriously addicted. The first TV series ever broadcast in the US was a drama: Kraft Television Theatre,

It is difficult to pinpoint why Friends in particular (and series in general) are so popular. If, as Robert H. Spier suggests, “we are indeed what we watch. And we watch what we are”, we could consider our attraction to television series to be a reflection of our strongest longings. We are not very good with endings and so we want shows to continue. We like the nature of

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(026/365 - addicted) Flickr • stars alive, (downton-abbey) Flickr • lafiguradelpadre

Series-ly Addicted

GURU OPINIONS a TV series because there is a healthy balance of consistency and variety. Cast members, established characters and overarching ‘grand narratives’ stay the same, but new characters, tragedies and unexpected events add variety. This balance reflects our lifestyles – or rather reflects the lifestyles that we long for. We crave both consistency and continuity while searching for spontaneity at the same time. Put simply, we seek lives that are steady, but not boring and with a little excitement every now and then. In an established TV series we find the life we long for.

(38365 - TV Addict) Flickr • royalconstantinesociety

Like a drug We also all have an innate desire to be part of something bigger; we want our lives to have some kind of meaning. TV producers recognise this and present this back to us in the stories we watch. In the article ‘Why Today’s TV Series Are So Great’, Brian Petersen, a media and cognition researcher, states that TV series have become “narrative art” and it is this “art” that entices us. At heart, TV series are spun-out stories and we love them, just like our stereotypical prehistoric ancestors who sat around open fires, telling each other stories. But the stories can’t be the same each time: “When it comes to addict-TV we want a mash-up, not a repeat. Because yes, we do want more of the stuff we already like. But we crave novelty too. And we’re always looking for a bigger, more exhilarating rush than last time.” So says Michael Moran (writing in The Guardian). TV series have become a drug: an addictive and enjoyable escape from everyday life. But they are a bittersweet pill: we feel let down when characters or storylines change from what we were expecting, as they must in order to produce an increasingly “exhilarating rush”. We are forever disappointed by future seasons: they never quite live up to the high expectations they created. And they don’t attain the ‘novelty factor’ the first series managed – precisely because they are no longer new, but are simply rehashing a now-familiar concept. So, we are left constantly hunting for our next ‘fix’. Like with any addiction, we always want more.

All good things… Caught in the tension of wanting the same, familiar storylines as a metaphorical ‘comfort blanket’, while wanting the enjoyment and

excitement of something new, we seem incapable of deciding what we want from a TV series. And while we are still trying to work it out, the TV producers continue to make series after series of our favourite shows. When a 20th anniversary reunion show of Friends was suggested, Matt LeBlanc, who played one of the main characters, Joey, said, “Everyone identifies with those characters in their own way and everyone in their own mind imagines what has become of those characters. I just think it’s best to leave it at that.” And it is that which we struggle with when it comes to TV series: for better, for worse, as viewers or producers, we cannot simply leave it at that.

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 also intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s.

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FLIGHT MARS ONE IS NOW BOARDING It’s 2013, the global temperatures are on the rise, and the world population is steadily growing. Sometimes it can seem that the apocalypse has already begun. But why face up to our problems when we can pack our bags and move to Mars? For decades, space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have dreamed of sending humans to the Red Planet for the sake of exploration, discovery, and satisfying our curiosity. However, in an attempt to outcompete NASA and the ESA – and to satisfy the impatient masses – several independent businesses have set up their own ‘space tourism’ projects, each with their own very specific agenda. While NASA and the ESA are concerned with scientific advance, independent businesses dream of commercial success. For them, the Earth is running out of moneymaking opportunities. And Mars looks to be a pretty attractive Plan B.

One-way ticket to Mars, anyone? One of the most unconventional space tourism businesses is Mars One, a non-profit organisation that hopes to turn Mars into our future home by 2023. Their plan is ambitious to say the least, and they have attracted as much curiosity and enthusiasm as they have criticism. But what is perhaps keeping the public entertained and tuned in to this mission is Mars One’s outlandish astronaut selection strategy. The Mars One project is placing a lot of emphasis on making their interplanetary travels a worldwide, collaborative endeavour. Not only have they contacted companies, university professors, scientists, and a bunch of other people of interest from all over the world to help set up this mission, they also plan to select the humans who will be moving to Mars via democratic procedures. To gather international interest, they have opened the selection process to anyone. The only minimum requirement for entry is that you can record a video of yourself. The killer twist, however, is that the successful applicants will be making a one-way trip to Mars – with no possibility of ever getting back to Earth. Once the astronauts have been selected, trained, prepped, and rocketed off to Mars, the plan is to create a reality TV show (yes, seriously) of

the whole thing… which the rest of us boring, unadventurous terrestrial humans will be able to watch in envy (or pity – Ed).

Astronaut auditions are open! In April 2013, Mars One began recruiting astronauts. Citizens of the world applied to become one of the first four humans to land and settle on Mars. After filling in an application form, creating a public profile on their website, and (of course) paying an application fee, applicants were asked to upload a 30 second video outlining why they want to go and their sense of humour (no joke) – with the aim of convincing others that they are the right person for the job. By the deadline at the end of August, no less than 200,000 people had applied for a one-way ticket to Mars. Interestingly, although Mars One is a Dutch organization, when it came to the nationalities of applicants, the top three countries were the USA (24%), India (10%), and China (6%), respectively. Out of the top 10 countries, only 3 were European – the UK (4%), Russia (4%), and Spain (2%).

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ABOVE: The last launch of the 30 year Space Shuttle program, on 8th July 2011.


5 OF THE MOST RIDICULOUS MARS ONE APPLICATION VIDEOS The applicant videos diverge from deadpan, serious and monotone to the downright kooky. The latter make for some hilarious watching. Here are five of the funniest: 5. Christopher (28) from the US decided the best way to get a place on board was to show off his sense of humor… by letting his dog lick his face. It’s a bit confusing as we’re not really sure whether it’s the dog or Christopher who needs a one-way trip to Mars. 4. Julian (24) from Argentina is “already practicing” being in space and went all out with what resembles the inside of a homemade spaceship and a matching outfit. 3. Nicole (27) from the US is convinced that she is the best candidate because she likes arguments and eating in front of the camera. She also has a parakeet that sits on her shoulder, and demonstrates a unique ability to not talk about anything particularly relevant. 2. John (31) from the US sees great opportunities for the porn industry in the Mars One program: space sex. He insightfully points out that it is a “totally untapped market”. Indeed, along with his desire to be published in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “fattest guy on Mars” (not sure if “World” includes other planets…), we think he could be the perfect person to spice up Mars One’s reality TV show. 1. Efe (31) from Turkey thinks that going to Mars will be “a very cost-effective solution” to his unemployment. In his own words, “If the situation comes to … needing to eat a fallen comrade, then I’m your guy!” Thank goodness for that.

Estimated journey time: 7 months. Length of stay: eternity. In contrast to some of the applicants (who seem almost intentionally ludicrous), the people behind Mars One are very serious about the mission. So far, however, the program has been widely criticised. Space flight is tricky enough on its own, but there is another hindrance that’s perhaps even more pressing: money. The truth is, the brains behind Mars One are still negotiating with their suppliers and carrying out their own research. As such, they haven’t

yet managed to give a detailed estimate of how much money they’ll need for the mission. Currently, they’ve estimated a total cost of approximately $6 billion for the first group of astronauts, but outsiders have commented that this number is far too low to truly reflect all the costs involved. Another point of criticism is whether or not Mars One will have all the resources and knowledge necessary to carry out this mission beyond the initial space flight to Mars. Living in space is a complex business for several reasons. One of the most important of these is health:

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(Both Images) • © SSC RF – IBMP RAS


BELOW: Exerior of the Mars-500 module.

being in space for seven months has a significant effect on the body. Due to the lack of gravity, your body requires much less strength to move around. This means that your muscles weaken and the density of your bones decreases, making them more fragile when you arrive on Mars. The heart is also damaged, predisposing astronauts to heart attacks and angina. And that’s not all! Zdenka Kuncic, Associate Professor of Physics in Sydney, insists that space radiation is a serious issue: “For a long-haul manned space mission like a trip to Mars, a serious risk that will be faced by astronauts is the sudden bursts of enhanced radiation associated with ‘space shocks’. Such intense radiation can potentially cause adverse health effects like cataracts.” Kuncic goes on to explain how the answer isn’t straightforward: “One solution is to develop an alert system on the spacecraft that will automatically inflate an additional shielding layer around the inside. Another possible solution is to initiate a magnetic field that can deflect the charged particles in the radiation burst away from the spacecraft interior.” A recent study carried out in Russia, called Mars-500, tested how living in close quarters would affect astronauts. The experiment focused on the effects of isolation on the participants. They were confined to a mock spaceship for 520 days while the researchers observed their behavior. Although the Russians claimed that their participants were all healthy and

psychologically stable when the experiment ended, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences disputed this rather optimistic claim. According to their report, two thirds of the participants experienced symptoms that weren’t healthy at all. Although astronauts are required to adhere to a strict exercise regime, many of the experiment’s participants abandoned their exercise schedules – most likely due to the side effects of living in isolation. Furthermore, while most astronauts have some problems sleeping when they’re in space, in this experiment the sleeping issues seemed to be far worse than anticipated due to the prolonged duration of the study. Their social behavior also changed: they withdrew from each other and entered a state similar to that of hibernating animals. The taxing effects that living on Mars will have on the four successful Mars One applicants seem to be being taken seriously by the Mars One program (as can be seen from their extensive checklist for the perfect candidate). However, the trouble even NASA and the ESA are having in figuring out how to make living in space go smoothly makes Mars One’s plan seem somewhat overly confident. That said, no space mission has ever recruited a mix of sex-obsessed, conflict-loving cannibals. Perhaps they’ll be successful after all.

References • • • Borenstein, Seth. (2013) ‘Mars experiment marred by sleep woes.’ Fitts, R.H., Et al. (2010) Prolonged space flight-induced alterations in the structure and function of human skeletal muscle fibres. Kuncic, Zdenka. (2013) ‘How will they protect Mars astronauts from harmful cosmic radiation?’.

A graduate of medical sciences, Dorothée Grevers lives and works in Berlin, Germany as she tries to make it as a scientist and writer. At Guru she embarrasses the team by writing better English than anyone else. When not doing science or writing, she spends the rest of her time obsessing about brains, challenging the norm at Sensa Nostra in Berlin, and figuring out the perfect, minimal polyphasic sleep schedule.

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ABOVE: Inside the Mars-500 Module.




HOW TO AVOID A RUFF HOLIDAY SEASON While we deck the halls and stock up on winter goodies, all we want for the fluffier members of our family is to share the Christmas cheer with them. But beware – sharing is NOT always caring! Our Animal Guru (and veterinarian) Artem Cheprasov highlights some of the hidden dangers lurking beneath the Christmas tree to help you avoid a festive fiasco.

Tasty fact: The reason that vets see more dogs suffering from chocolate toxicosis as opposed to cats has to do with their sense of taste. They are far less likely to eat chocolate than dogs because they have no sweet taste buds. No wonder they’re always so cranky!

I love the holidays – the decorations, the happy people, and all that amazing food. But while growing up, I never really appreciated how many of the festive delights at home and around the table could have spelled disaster for my beloved pets. As a veterinarian, I now know that my animal friends had a lucky escape. So, to keep you and your furry family members cheerful this season, make sure to steer them away from the following Christmas treats.

Previous Page: (Grumpy Santa) Flickr • andrewr, (Costa Lenguitas de Gato Cat’s Tongue Chocolates Macro November 27, 20108) Flickr • stevendepolo

Finally! The answer to why cats are so grumpy Usually, when we give someone chocolate we want to wish them well, show them admiration or express our love. If you love your pet, though, you won’t be putting any chocolates in their Christmas stockings this year. Compounds called methylxanthines are found in chocolate and have the potential to kill your cat, and, more commonly, your dog. Each animal is unique: some pets will react far worse than others when all else is held equal, but you need to keep a particularly careful watch on Fido. Dogs adore treats for the same reason you do: their sweet taste. But with the sweet taste comes a very high price (far higher than the most expensive Swiss confectionary you can buy). Your pet will experience any combination of: vomiting, diarrhoea, excessive thirst, agitation and restlessness. Ultimately, chocolate consumption can lead to tremors, stumbling, seizures and death. Only immediate medical help can save your pet’s life from this sticky situation.

The not so sweet sugar Now that you know not to feed a chocolate cupcake to your favorite pooch, don’t let Santa’s cheery grin catch you off guard: there may still be some dangerous things in your favourite sweets. And these candy threats aren’t as obvious as the colour and flavour of chocolate: they’re much more sinister. If those delicious-looking cupcakes that great aunt Betty is bringing to the Christmas gathering have xylitol in them, make sure that none of them ‘accidently’ plummet to the ground for your dog to get a hold of (no matter how bad they taste). Xylitol is an increasingly popular low calorie sugar substitute; it is used to sweeten up everything from gum to baked goods. It is a ‘natural sweetener’ that contains one third fewer calories than table sugar. So unless you’re told otherwise, your palate will be oblivious to your great aunt’s sugary sleight of hand. But if you don’t want her secret recipe burning a hole in your pocketbook then make sure you ask about its presence – and be even more certain that your dog avoids it: Xylitol can cause everything from vomiting and lethargy,

While chocolate, and especially dark chocolate or baker’s chocolate is quite dangerous to your pets, you can give them that chocolaty taste you love without the poisonous after-effects by buying them treats made with carob. The reason carob products are so much safer for a pet is because the levels of methylxanthines in them are quite low.

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to disorientation and seizures, to liver failure. And the only way out of that cupcake catastrophe is an emergency trip to the veterinarian. Not so sweet fact: While xylitol gives us some energy when we eat it, ingestion of xylitol by dogs actually leads to hypoglycemia, or abnormally low blood sugar levels. That’s because humans process xylitol just fine whereas dogs experience a massive surge in insulin secretion from their pancreas – a surge that causes their blood sugar to plummet to life-threatening levels.

Ah, nuts! Whether macadamia nuts are in your chocolate covered sweets or are left out as a snack for your guests, keep them out of paw’s reach from your dog. Something in these nuts, or in contaminants used during their processing, causes a

dog’s back legs to become paralysed. Nobody knows exactly what the toxin is, but within around 12 hours of eating, your dog won’t be able to walk. For the next 12–48 hours, he will be in a great deal of distress and may suffer vomiting, stumbling, depression, high body temperature, and trembling. Thankfully, disastrous medical consequences from eating macadamia nuts don’t seem to be very common, and dogs normally get better within 48 hours (even without treatment). However, if trembling and a potentially high body temperature aren’t properly controlled, it can lead to more serious problems. So, if mutt chomps on some macadamia nuts, think about heading to the vet for a quick check-up. Nutty fact: The way in which the mystery macadamia nut toxin causes back leg paralysis is strange. But what’s even weirder is that some dogs with the paralysis are able to walk – but aren’t able to get up from lying down. If they are picked up and put on their four paws then they will walk normally, but when they lie down they won’t be able to get up again (until you pick them up off the floor). This bizarre liftingwalking cycle will continue until the dog’s body is rid of the nut toxin.

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(XylitolGum-01) Flickr • Hyoh, (Macadamia nuts) Flickr • quinet



(Blood Compilation) Flickr • ˙Cavin 〄, (lillies) Flickr • apdk, (Poinsettia) Flickr • OiMax, (Pork Neck and Fatty Pork) Flickr • avlxyz, (Three Kings) Flickr • OctopusHat

Honourable mentions in the holiday home or on the table include: The Grapes of Wrath – Grapes and raisins can cause painful and deadly kidney failure.

Flowers of Doom – Poinsettias can cause vomiting and irritation to the mouth while lilies may cause kidney failure in cats.

Alcohol: “The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems” When Homer Simpson said these words, he got it right – especially for pets. In some cases alcohol can kill your pet; in other cases it may save their life. We all know that no holiday is complete without some alcohol and a drunk fatherin-law hitting on you/your partner. It’s OK to laugh at your inebriated kin-folk but it’s absolutely no laughing matter when it comes to giving your pet an alcoholic drink. Animals, by nature, are far more sensitive to alcohol than humans.

Fatty Scraps of Meat – May cause everything from vomiting and diarrhea to life-threatening pancreatitis.

A drunken dog or cat may look very funny but I can assure you they are suffering severe consequences. Consumption of alcohol can lead to vomiting, low blood pressure, stumbling, coma, and death. If your pet is given alcohol by a not-so-sober member of your family this Christmas, please make sure to rush your pet to the vet clinic ASAP. Do-not-try-at-home fact: Although alcohol is very dangerous to your pets, in some cases a certain type of alcohol is actually given to pets who’ve been poisoned by drinking anti-freeze in order to save their life. Oh, the contradictory world of medicine!

Have festive fun with your furry friend This holiday season, just stick with the tried and trusted and your pet will remain just as excited as ever before. Play fetch (if it’s not too cold where you live), get them a new toy to play with, or give them some dog biscuits (if they’re a dog). That way, both of you will be happy, and so will your vet.

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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Every year it’s the same problem: what do I get so-and-so for Christmas? If one of your loved ones is an exercise enthusiast, look no further! Matt Linsdell, our Fitness Guru, knows all about the must-haves for active people this winter holiday. If you’re the fit one, why not treat yourself? Go on, you deserve it. Regular readers will know that I usually write about fitness, personal misadventures, and my dog (you can normally tell which is which). In the spirit of festivity, here is something a little different: a list my favourite things that help make my winter here in Canada active, fun, and safe. Not all of them are specifically for winter activities so you needn’t feel left out, you Southern-hemispherians. And, because it is gift-giving season, I’ll give you guys some items to add to your wish list for the big guy upstairs. (And by upstairs, I mean the North Pole.)


’TIS THE SEASON FOR BUYING STUFF 5. A Wrist-Mounted GPS The price of ‘never-get-lost’ gadgets has plummeted since I got my first one in 2006. If you are not familiar with what a wrist-mounted GPS is, it’s basically a large watch that uses satellites to pinpoint your position on the Earth and then tracks your movements across it. It records speed and distance

in km/h or mph, and elevation in metres or feet. It’s a bit like a car navigation GPS but it won’t give you road directions, and some models record your heart rate. I much prefer these wrist units to any smartphone or handheld GPS because you can use them regardless of what you are doing – be it cycling, running, kayaking, or horseback riding (or sitting in the bar? - Ed). Whether you’re running to keep in shape or you’re preparing for an upcoming race, a portable GPS should give you extra motivation. It doesn’t have to be for serious athletes either; I have a friend who tracks her daily dog walks and uses a GPS device to add up all the distances each week. Some models have a wireless upload feature that automatically syncs with your computer when you return home, allowing you to view your adventure on a Google Map-type interface. So why not give it a try? You can always return it to the store and use the money to buy a box of frozen burritos instead.

(GPS_Watch) Flickr • JMR_Photography, (Snowshoes) Flickr • m.prinke

4. Running Snowshoes Tripping and falling in snow is something I have done way too many times. Sometimes I have performed some rather spectacular – and embarrassing – wipe-outs. If someone had caught one on a phone camera then I’m sure it would have made for hilarious footage. I have been lucky so far, but this was before I discovered running snowshoes. Everyone knows what snowshoes are: big flat tennis rackets you wear on the bottom of your boots to increase the surface area so that you don’t fall through the snow. But what you might not realise is that there are smaller,

more streamlined versions designed for those of us who like to run on snowy trails. Running snowshoes are narrow metal frames with a fabric ‘deck’ that slips over your preferred winter footwear. Snowshoes usually have fairly large ‘teeth’ on the bottom that give you good grip on slippery surfaces and inclines. I love running snowshoes because they can help keep you aerobically fit without the fear of someone seeing you fall on your butt… and then suffering the indignity of your mishap going viral on YouTube.

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’TIS THE SEASON FOR BUYING STUFF 3. Fleece-Lined Gloves With the exception of frostbite to the private parts, there are few things worse in winter than freezing cold hands. I am one of those people who often has cold hands, so a good pair of gloves is something I’ve come to appreciate. We all know that when we exercise, we produce heat. Depending on the type of exercise you are doing and what the weather is like, it is good to wear a pair of suitable gloves. Running tends to generate massive amounts of heat, so your hands warm up quickly and may even start to sweat. It’s normally OK to wear a normal fleece glove. But you should always try to get a glove that ‘wicks’ the moisture outwards (which is actually capillary action) – many fleece gloves do this, but check first. A wicking glove will keep your hands dry and comfortable. When I’m on my bike, it’s a whole different story. The wind chill factor makes it necessary to use a

glove with a wind-proof layer. And when it is really cold, I prefer mitts because they have the thickest fabric and keep the most warmth in. So whatever you do, remember to take care of all your extremities – not just your hands. No one wants to get frostbite.

2.5. Adult Diapers

2. Ice Spikes for your Bike Tyres I like to ride my bike all year round. In fact, I try to cycle to work every day. This isn’t as crazy as it might seem: the right equipment can make cycling in winter safer than driving. Success in winter cycling starts where the rubber meets the road… literally. Ice spike tyres/tires can cost more than any high-end bike tyre, but the investment is worth it. Two tanks of gas will easily pay for a pair that should last you an entire winter or more.

Things to look for in a good ice tyre are spikes that are made of a carbide metal material (a super hard substance that is used to make armour-piercing shells). If they aren’t made of carbide metal, then don’t expect them to last more than a couple of months. If you pay more, you can go for tyres with more spikes (which I always do). The grip is so good that you can cycle across a freshly polished skating rink and slam on your brakes with no slippage.

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(Untitled) Flickr • Marco Spaapen, (Adult diapers for him and her) Flickr • david_shankbone, (Spikey tyres) Flickr • Hello, I am Bruce

These are great to slip on under your snowsuit before a long day of downhill skiing or snowboarding. They keep you on the hill longer and make chairlift breakdowns less anxiety-producing. This is obviously a joke. I’m just keeping you all on your toes...


(Headphones) Flickr • Bigbadvoo

1. Noise-Cancelling Headphones My girlfriend, my neighbours, and anyone who knows me will think it strange if I’m not wearing large headphones at all times – except when I’m cycling or driving a car. I can’t live without my noise-cancelling headphones. There are a couple of reasons why: Now being in my 30s, I fear for my eardrums: noisecancelling earphones let me have clear music without

cranking up the volume. Also, they completely envelope my ears, keeping frostbite away. On very cold days, a windproof hood over the earphones provides more than enough insulation to keep me warm and rockin’ out (or listening to the latest Guru podcast episode – Ed). I’ve walked the dog at minus 30 °C with my earphones and a hood and not had to worry about my ears needing amputation.

So that’s it. The rest is up to you. Don’t get stuck on a treadmill this winter: get outside and breathe deep in the cold air. You will feel invigorated. And when spring hits, you’ll be beach-body ready.

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. Follow Matt on Twitter at @smartfitmatt.

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HOW TO MAKE THE MOST DISGUSTING VEGETABLE TASTE GOOD They are the horror of all horrors for children; they are the most maligned of festive foods; and they are the cause of horrendous flatulence. It’s no wonder, then, that Brussels sprouts get a bad rep. It’s also no coincidence that nearly all children have a disdain towards these seemingly innocent little green balls. Even though they’re remarkably nutritious (with high iron and vitamin C levels), they have a strong bitter taste. Children are far more sensitive to bitterness than adults: experts think this aversion helps youngsters avoid bitter-tasting rotten and toxic foods at all costs. Yes, even


if that means enduring dinner table tantrums every now and again. Your genes also determine whether you like Brussels sprouts. About half of us carry a mutated gene that makes us tolerate bitter tastes. So, if you inherited that gene, you are probably far more forgiving of Brussels’ distinctive flavour. However, even if you are genetically programmed to hate those crunchy green spheres, celebrity chef Felice Tocchini has some ingenious recipes to make the most of this seasonal fare.

It sounds like a birthday prank, but forget about carrots: the humble sprout also makes for a great tasting cake ingredient.

Ingredients • 2 eggs • 125g sugar • ½ tsp cinnamon • 100ml vegetable oil • 125g self-raising flour • 125g carrots • 125g Brussels sprouts • 30g walnuts • 30g raisins • 25g dried coconut • ½ tsp fresh ginger, grated • ½ tsp vanilla essence

Method 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Line two 900g/2lb baking tins with silicone paper. Beat the eggs, sugar and oil for a couple of minutes. Add the flour, cinnamon, ginger and vanilla essence and carry on mixing for a further minute. Fold in the grated carrots, Brussels sprouts, walnuts, raisins and dried coconut. Split the mix between the two lined tins and cook in a preheated oven at 180°C for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out dry. 6. The cake can be served on its own, or you might like to enrich it by mixing some natural yoghurt and icing sugar and pouring the mixture over the cake.

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TWICE BAKED SPROUT SOUFFLÉ Ingredients • Seven soufflé timbales or ramekins

If you prefer your Brussels sprouts with a more upmarket twist, then try this recipe for size. Soufflés are great fun to make and taste delicious. Even ones with Brussels sprouts in:

• 25g butter

• 2 eggs, separated, and whites stiffly beaten

• 200ml milk

• 375g Brussels sprouts, finely sliced

• ¼ small onion, finely chopped

• 40g flour

• 25ml cream

• ½ clove of garlic, finely chopped

• 165g grated cheddar cheese

• Salt and pepper

• ½ tsp nutmeg

Method 1. Put the milk in a pan to boil. 2. At the same time, melt the butter over a low heat in a separate pan then add the onions and garlic and cook gently until golden. Add the sprouts and carry on cooking on a low heat for 5 minutes. 3. Add the flour to the pan and mix well, cooking gently for a further two minutes while mixing constantly. 4. Remove from the heat and add the boiling milk to form a thick béchamel sauce and cook for a few more minutes. 5. Remove from the heat and add the egg yolks, 125g of the cheese, nutmeg and some seasoning. Mix well. 6. Gently fold in the egg whites then pour the mixture into greased and floured ramekins. 7. Place the ramekins into a bain-marie (or deep roasting pan filled with water – see here for how to make one) at a moderate heat until golden. 8. Remove from oven and allow to cool before removing the soufflés from the ramekins. 9. Place in an oven-proof dish with some cream and scatter the remaining cheddar on top. 10. Place back in the oven to gratinate before serving.


Pasta is the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Again, sprouts take the stage… but you may find yourself persuaded by their pairing with a favourite carbohydrate and a topping of parmesan cheese. Success is guaranteed if you can get your hands on an extremely good extra virgin olive oil.

(Farfalle with pesto alla siciliana) Flickr • citymama

Ingredients • 500g farfalle (bow-tie) pasta • 75ml extra virgin olive oil • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed • 1 chilli, crushed • Salt and pepper • 250g Brussels sprouts, finely sliced • Parmesan cheese shavings

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Bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Drop in the pasta, stirring occasionally. In a large sauté pan, pour in half of the oil, add the garlic and chilli, and cook until golden. Add the sprouts and cook for a further 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce. Add the rest of the oil, check for taste, and serve immediately, topped with the shavings of Parmesan cheese. Brussels sprouts are related to cabbages, so substituting one for the other in coleslaw isn’t as mad as it sounds. Sprouts-slaw goes extremely well with cold meats and is the perfect accompaniment to a roast beef sandwich.



1. Clean and wash the sprouts. 2. Thinly cut (julienne) them and add to the rest of the vegetables. 3. Add the mayonnaise, horseradish sauce, vinegar and a little salt, mixing together well. Adjust the seasoning to taste.

• 250g Brussels sprouts

• 3 tbsp mayonnaise

• 80g carrots, grated

• 1 tbsp vinegar

• 30g onion, thinly sliced

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 1 tbsp horseradish sauce

Impress your dinner party guests with a truly unique flavour combination while they sip their champagne.



• 400g large Brussels sprouts, trimmed

1. 2. 3. 4.

• 2 tbsp soured cream • 100g cooked and peeled chestnuts • 40g mature cheddar, grated • Salt and pepper

Cook the sprouts in boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Remove the sprouts and dip into cold water. Scoop out the centre of each sprout. Crush the chestnuts and combine with the rest of the ingredients, adjust seasoning to taste. 5. Fill the centre of the sprout with the mixture, and decorate with some of the peppers.

• Red and yellow pepper for decoration

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BRUSSELS SPROUT AND CHESTNUT SOUP In this dish you won’t even have to face the Brussels sprouts in their usual round form. Instead, they’re reduced to a mere pulp and mixed with onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes to make a delicious and hearty soup. Never throw away left-over vegetables again.



• 300g Brussels sprouts, trimmed

1. Sweat the onion and leeks in the butter before adding the sprouts and potatoes. 2. Cook for a further 10 minutes. 3. Add the vegetable stock and cook for 40 minutes. 4. Pour the soup into a food processor or liquidiser and blend until smooth. 5. Return the soup to the rinsed-out pan, re-heat gently and adjust for seasoning. 6. In the meantime, dice the bacon and cook with a little oil until very crispy. 7. Drain and place the bacon on some paper towel to remove all the grease. 8. Garnish the soup with some of the bacon and chestnut. 9. Finish with a swirl of cream.

• 1 medium onion, chopped • 2 white leeks, rinsed and chopped • 2 small potatoes, peeled and diced • 40g butter • 1 litre vegetable stock • 100g chestnuts blanched, peeled and crumbled • 4 rashers of smoked bacon • Double cream for garnish • Salt and pepper

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8 REASONS WHY SANTA WAS RIGHT TO USE REINDEER They don’t have to commute very far for the job When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
 but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
 with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
 I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
 “On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!

 “To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
 “Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

St Nick needn’t worry about having to import beasts to carry his heavy burden: reindeer already live pretty close to the North Pole, if not actually on it (as you may remember the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean and covered in shifting sea ice). They live throughout northern latitudes in countries like Norway, Finland, Russia, Greenland, Canada and parts of the U.S.

They can keep warm Presumably, staying warm would be a key concern while flying in the open air at high altitude (it’s pretty chilly up there: –44°C at 30,000 feet/ 9,000 m). Luckily, reindeer are equipped. They have two layers of fur: one coat of dense wool and another above it with hollow hairs for added insulation. Also, while their noses aren’t actually glowing red bulbs, they do work to keep the reindeers warm. The especially large surface area of their nostrils warms up the frigid air with their body heat before it reaches their lungs.

It was a cold, dark night, and Santa needed to get presents to all the nice children of the world. So he piled the gifts in his sleigh, hitched up his eight flying reindeer and saved the day. Thank goodness for the reindeer! Sadly, if reindeer scientists have observed them flying, they haven’t reported it. But if we ignore that triviality for a moment, we are still left with an important question: are reindeer the right choice for Santa’s sleigh? Here are eight reasons why they could be exactly what Santa needs on a certain cold, dark night.

They have experience (more than you would imagine!) The indigenous people of Scandanavia, the Sámi, used reindeer to pull their pulks, a low-slung toboggan. However, this was an unfortunate appointment for the reindeer, as they would be castrated first by having a Sámi man chew on their testicles. I doubt Santa would do the same, but he hasn’t responded to my request for an interview.

Their feet are great for slippery landings Better than a snow chain, reindeer have adaptable hooves. Summertime means soft and wet tundra, and their footpads become like sponges to help them get traction. Deep in winter though, these pads shrink and become hard, making appropriate sleigh-landing gear in snowy conditions. With a sharp hoof edge, they can cut into ice and crusted snow, which they do while digging for lichen. And for scraping the ice off chimneys.

They can work through the night (or day) The Arctic is a place where the terms ‘day’ and ‘night’ take on an abstraction that most of us couldn’t handle. Two months of the year it’s

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Previous page: (Reindeer sleigh drive in Hotel Kalevala) Flickr • Hotelli Kalevala, (Reindeer sleigh ride Kuusamo Lapland) Flickr •

Clement C. Moore, “The Night before Christmas”

8 REASONS WHY SANTA WAS RIGHT TO USE REINDEER dark and two months it’s light. With this kind of variation, humans undoubtedly suffer as our circadian rhythm struggles to adjust to the patterns of rest. Not so the reindeer. To adapt to the massive changes in daylight regularity, they’ve dropped their 24-hour sleep-wake body rhythm altogether. Without the clock, they are able to forage whenever conditions are right, whether ‘night’ or ‘day’. Ideal, considering the long night they have in store.

With their speed, stamina, hardiness and general good-looks, there seems to be no question that reindeer are perfect for the job of pulling Santa’s sleigh. And with wolves as their primary predator, they probably wouldn’t even mind landing on rooftops to avoid the family dog.

They are more peaceful in winter Males lock antlers and push each other to show strength and dominance while trying to win over the ladies. They also loudly groan at and chase females, later adding a little extra attractiveness by digging troughs in which to deposit urine. (Now, which warm-blooded female could resist that?) The males are so caught up in these battles and pursuits that they even stop eating and lose weight. Luckily for Santa, he doesn’t have to deal with this drama during his busy work schedule because mating only occurs from September to November. This is assuming Dasher and the rest are male, because female reindeers have antlers too. On that note, depending on the subspecies and age, males might not have antlers at all in late December.

They can see better than us

They have stamina How would you feel about walking 5,000 km this year? Some reindeer populations in North America do this every year on what is the longest migration for any land-based mammal. Not only that, but they’re fast – which could come in handy during sleigh take-offs. They travel 19–55 km a day during migration (think, power walking a marathon or more each day) and can run 60–80 km/h.

References • • • •

• •

Rangifer tarandus The Sámi and their reindeer Geist, V. and Baskin, L. (1990) Grizmek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals Volume 5. Whitaker, J.O. (1996) National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals North America. Hogg, C., et al (2011) The Journal of Experimental Biology 214. Lu, W., et al (2010) Current Biology 20.

Autumn Sartain’s favorite thing is spending time in nature, which is why she chose to be a wildlife biologist. For the past ten years she has wrestled sea turtles in the tropics, chased song birds in the mountains, sorted through Antarctic seafloor samples and dealt with all that silly business of gaining a postgraduate qualification in Biology. You can see some of her writing at

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(Rentier fws 1) Wikimedia •Jon Nickles

…at least when it comes to UV light. Researchers recently discovered that reindeer can see light at a higher frequency than humans. This helps them see contrasts in the mostly white and low-light environment, which likely helps them better discern each other, predators, food such as lichen and mince pies, and even urine. Just the animal to lead the way in the middle of the night to deliver presents.


December 2013/January 2014

Reporting the news you might have missed...

TECHNOLOGY Prosthetic limbs have become amazingly sophisticated in recent years. Robotic arms can move in any dimension a real arm can, complete with individually moving, jointed fingers. They can even be controlled by the power of thought alone! (No, they’re not toys, even though they sound like great Christmas gifts for gadget fans.) We’ve nearly created Robocop technology, but something crucial is still missing: a sense of touch. Our ability to feel lets us know when we make contact with things, where they are touching us, how much pressure we are applying, and so on. We can’t get the same information from just watching what we’re doing – just try unlocking your front door with fingers numbed from the cold! Without this sense of touch to give us feedback, interacting with the world through a robotic arm remains clumsy, and we will inevitably drop (or crush) things occasionally. Not too much of a problem if it’s a coffee mug, but picking up the family pet is probably risky. But all that may be about to change: scientists at the University of Chicago, Illinois, led by Sliman Bensmaia, have managed to artificially create a sense of touch by delivering signals directly to the brain. They have tested their new technique with Rhesus macaque monkeys – but, in theory, the same process could be used for human amputees.

A TOUCHING PROMISE Author: Simon Makin

in these same places (corresponding to different fingers), and adjusted the strength of the signals to simulate different pressures. And, sure enough, the monkeys responded in nearly the same way as if they had been physically touched: the monkeys looked in the correct direction whether they had been physically touched or electronically stimulated. The scientists claim that their results provide a blueprint for converting the output from touch sensors on a prosthetic arm into a real sensation of touch via a direct connection with the brain. If successful, this new technology would help someone wearing a prosthetic arm to handle things more precisely – and it would also make the prosthetic ‘feel’ more a part of them. It’s still early days, but this is a vital step towards making truly useful brain-controlled prosthetic limbs, and Bensmaia thinks these results will bring such devices closer to being tested in humans. In the meantime, other scientists are developing pressure sensors advanced enough to be used with this technology. So it may not be long before people who have lost limbs, or sensation in their limbs, could again be reaching out to feel the touch of someone they love.

(prosthetic limb) PNAS, 2013

Feeling like a monkey In the first part of the experiment, the researchers trained a group of monkeys to look left or right depending on which of their fingers was touched, or how hard they were prodded. They then implanted tiny electrode wires into a part of the brain that deals with touch sensation (known as the somatosensory cortex) and measured brain activity there. By touching a monkey’s skin at the same time as monitoring its brain activity, the team could precisely identify the areas that ‘felt’ being touched in different places. They then used these same electrodes to deliver electrical stimulation G U R U • I S S U E 1 5 • D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 3 / JA N UA R Y 2 0 1 4 • PAG E 2 8


New research at the University of Chicago is laying the groundwork for touch-sensitive prosthetic limbs that one day could convey real-time sensory information to amputees via a direct interface with the brain.

IN THE NEWS BODY DON’T LET ME KEEP Practically everything that moves and breathes needs to YOU AWAKE… sleep. But in a world in which it’s ‘survival of the fittest’, sleeping doesn’t make much sense – if you don’t want to get eaten by a predator, that is. Therefore, there must be a good reason why so many living things spend a good chunk of their lives snoozing. But the exact purpose behind what Edgar Allan Poe called “those little slices of death” has eluded scientists for decades. Many sleep experts think that sleeping strengthens the memory and slumber is a time when the day’s events are moved into ‘long term’ storage. That may be true, but judging by the devastating effects sleep deprivation can have on our mental abilities (see ‘Dying to Sleep’ on page 32), there’s little doubt that we need a regular dose of Zs to keep our emotions and our minds balanced. Exactly how sleep weaves its restorative magic has been something of a mystery – but now new research says that one of the main reasons we sleep is to physically ‘clean’ the brain. Every biological process – and every chemical reaction – in the body produces by-products. The brain is no exception: it churns out waste, such as damaged proteins. This waste needs to be cleared away or else it will cause damage. Until now, the only way we thought the brain did this was by breaking down and recycling the waste within brain cells. Last year, however, researchers led by Maiken Nedergaard at the University of Rochester Medical Centre, New York, discovered a completely new brain waste disposal system. They found it using a cutting-edge imaging technology called two-photon microscopy, which offers a new way to look inside a living brain. Nedergaard and her colleagues injected a special dye into the brains of mice and, using the microscope technique, spotted a drainage system that pumps liquid (cerebrospinal fluid) through the brain. This flow of fluid seems to ‘wash away’ accumulated waste before emptying the ‘dirty’ liquid out of the brain and into the blood, where the waste can ultimately be destroyed in the liver. Nedergaard and colleagues dubbed this the ‘glymphatic system’ (due to its similarity with another of the body’s waste removal systems, the lymphatic system). The researchers also thought that because this newly-discovered glymphatic system uses a lot of energy, it should be less

active while the brain is awake and busy. To test their idea, they compared awake and sleeping mice, and found that the glymphatic system was actually ten times more active during sleep. They strongly suspect that this happens because the tiny channels between blood vessels and cells that the fluid flows through get wider during sleep, allowing fluids to pass more freely and “take out the trash”.

A dream answer for Alzheimer’s? Finally, the researchers went a step further by injecting a toxic protein that has been strongly linked with Alzheimer’s disease, called betaamyloid, into mice’s brains. They saw that this waste protein was flushed from the mice’s brains twice as quickly when the mice were asleep. This could be an extremely important discovery because almost all neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) are associated with the build-up of waste products. This research may therefore help us understand how sleep aids the brain, and ultimately how we might treat these conditions. We can’t be certain whether these mouse results will apply for us, so the next step is to check whether the same things happen in human brains. By pure coincidence, just days after these results came to light, research was published which shows that older people who sleep poorly have higher levels of the harmful beta-amyloid waste protein in their brains, as measured by PET scans. The researchers behind this work urge caution, insisting that their results don’t prove that poor sleep causes Alzheimer’s (it could be the other way round, for example). Sleep is, however, starting to look like an extremely plausible factor in the development of Alzheimer’s. So not only will plenty of sleep make you a happier, more alert person this Christmas, it may also improve your long-term mental health. How many more reasons do you need to catch up on all those Zs these holidays?

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(ssttt! little baby-mouse, sleeping on my hand) Flickr •e³°°°

Author: Simon Makin

IN THE NEWS ANIMAL In show business, they say that you should never work with animals or small children. The reasons are obvious: they are both unpredictable and you never know exactly what they are thinking. Children grow up and learn to communicate via spoken and written language, but animals remain an enduring mystery for owners – to the extent that my neighbour recently told me she was hiring a ‘dog whisperer’ to help her understand her puppy. I’m highly sceptical of such techniques and I tried not to let my cynicism show – but I could soon be eating humble pie. That’s because a team of researchers from Italy have now shown that you can tell how a dog is feeling…from the way it wags its tail.


(Dog in stiff winds on beach) Flickr • mikebaird

Author: Stuart Farrimond

All dog owners will know that – contrary to popular belief – dogs wag their tails both when they are happy and when they are scared. In 2007, an Italian team of researchers, led by Prof. Angelo Quaranta, started to find out why. They studied the way a dog’s tail moved and published evidence to show that the direction the tail is wagged reflects the dog’s emotional state. A right-handed wag means a dog is happy – for example, when the

pet’s owner returns. A left-handed wag means the dog is anxious – for example, when an unfamiliar dog approaches. They deduced that when the tail wags to the left, the right side of its brain is highly active, whereas a right-wagging tail indicates that the left side of the brain is dominating. In the research team’s latest work, published in late 2013 in the prestigious Current Biology journal, they demonstrated that these left and right tail movements actually form a type of language between dogs – they can literally ‘read’ each other’s wagging tails. The Italian team made this discovery by observing dogs that were themselves looking at other tail-wagging dogs. Studying a group of domesticated dogs, they tested each dog by showing it a video clip of another dog wagging its tail (either to the left or to the right). Monitoring the dog’s pulse rate through a wireless heart monitor and recording its behaviours, they realised that each dog became more anxious when it saw a dog wagging its tail to the left, and remained calm when looking at another dog wagging its tail to the right. So, not only do these findings reveal that dogs communicate to each other in subtle ways, it also offers dog owners an insight into their pets’ psyche. But don’t start watching tail movements and hiring out your services as ‘dog whisperer’ just yet: the scientists looked at slow motion recordings of each dog to work out which way the tail was wagging – but the jury is still out as to whether the human eye could spot a left-beating tail from a right-beating one. But who knows: perhaps we could calm our pets by playing a video of a dog wagging its tail to the right. Or maybe, with a little tail-watching practice, we could all understand a dog’s emotions just a little better. Because, let’s be honest, it’s never nice to find out that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

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.

Dr Stuart Farrimond (Doctor Stu) originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing. He drinks too much coffee, eats ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit. You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at

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Santa Stats

References: The Physics of Santa Claus Father Christmas’s Christmas Eve in figures

No species of reindeer has been recorded in flight. But then, 86% of earth’s organisms still haven’t There are currently 1.87 billion children under 15 in the world. been fully classified. Admittedly, Assuming Santa only visits families where Christmas is celebrated, most of them are insects or which make up 31.59% of the world’s population, he has 590,733,000 microorganisms, but it would be children on his list. The average number of children per household is wrong to completely rule out 2.36, so Santa has 250,310,594 houses to visit. the possibility of discovering flying reindeer. I personally suspect Santa ties a 2 Earth’s total land mass has a surface area of 148,939,063 km . large helium-filled According to the Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, urban balloon to each areas take up 3% of the Earth’s land surface, and scientists at the one.

Have you ever wondered if it’s possible for Santa to visit every home in a single night? Here’s some of the science behind his work.

University of Wisconsin-Madison have worked out that 40% is used for agriculture. So, if we assume that inhabited land is a combination of agricultural and urban areas, around 43% of Earth’s land surface, or 64,043,797 km2, is populated.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, children between the ages of 5 and 12 need between 10 and 11 hours sleep a night. Assuming every child gets 10.5 hours sleep, and Santa starts his journey moving west from the International Date Line, he has 34.5 hours to make his deliveries. To meet this tight schedule he has to travel continuously at 3,669,941 km/hr, or 1,020 km/sec (I’m assuming he has a PresentLauncher, with a precise air-to-stocking guidance system, some kind of mince-pie-and-sherry tractor beam, and probably a toilet built into his sleigh to cut out any stops…) And he must deliver to 2,015 houses every second. For all the reindeer to still have antlers in late December, they must all be female. Large females weigh in at 120 kg, and can each pull about 240 kg, meaning Santa has overestimated the ability of his 9 beasts, and Rudolph is having a bit of an identity crisis. Santa actually needs an extra 2,479,116 reindeer to pull this year’s presents and sleigh.

For simplicity, let’s assume that the inhabited land is all grouped together, and these 250,310,594 dwellings are distributed evenly over it. This means the average distance Santa has to fly between residences is 506 metres, and so he travels a total of 126,612,957 km on Christmas Eve. The average weight of this year’s top 11 toys is 950 grams. If we round this up to 1 kg to include wrapping paper and sticky tape, then Santa is hauling 590,733 metric tonnes (that’s about 98,455.5 male elephants). The average volume of each toy is 8,942 cm3, so if all the toys were cubes, then each side would measure 20.76 cm. His sleigh must have a cubic capacity of 5,282,200 m3 – the equivalent of about 2,112 Olympic-size swimming pools. Assuming Santa built the sleigh out of aircraft grade aluminium, and the walls are 1 cm thick, it would weigh about 4,257 metric tonnes (709.5 elephants to you and me). If Santa gets a mince pie and a sherry (traditional in the UK) from each household, he piles on a total of 64,830,443,846 calories (the Recommend Daily Allowance is 2,500), at a rate of 521,985 a second, and consumes a total of 250,310,594 units of alcohol (the RDA is 3-4). No wonder he’s so merry.

(Guru encourages responsible drinking. Please don’t try to drink as much as Santa – you’ll die.)





The fact that ‘sleep’ is part of our everyday vocabulary, that it’s a thing, and that we’re all familiar with it shows just how dysfunctional our relationship with sleep really is. We delay our bedtime – forever pushing it to the bottom of our priority list. But somehow even the most masochistic party rebel will eventually turn into a whimsical pillow lover after a night out. Yet our busy work schedules mean the masochist in all of us wins a lot of the time: we end up sleeping too little rather than too much. There must be a pretty good reason for why sleeping feels so good, right? We spend a third of our lives doing it, and sleep researchers spend a lot of what’s left of their time trying to figure out why we do it – without any clear answers so far. The reason for sleep is unknown – but we do know a lot about what happens when we don’t get enough of it.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Off to go and get some beauty sleep? You better believe it, because ‘beauty sleep’ has been scientifically proven to be real: In one tongue-in-cheek experiment, a group of Swedish volunteers had their photos taken after a fully rested night and, again, after 31 hours of staying awake. Another group of people then rated all the pictures. Surprisingly enough, people rated the sleep-deprived as less attractive, less healthy looking, and (who would have guessed…) more tired. So, if you don’t get enough sleep, you actually do look a bit rough. Given how sensitive we are to appearances when judging people’s personality, suitability as a potential partner or as an employee, we shouldn’t take this evidence too lightly. So maybe Snow White’s evil stepmother just had a bit of a rough night the day her trusty mirror turned against her.

Don’t sleep deprive and drive We working age grown-ups often boast about how little sleep we get, which in many ways mirrors how our younger selves would recount tales of long, boozy nights. In fact, being drunk vs. being sleep-deprived is much more similar than you might think. Researchers found that people who stayed awake for 17 hours had a reaction time as slow as those with a 0.05% blood alcohol content (BAC) – the threshold for being drunk driving in most countries (you’re breaking the law at 0.08% in the UK, Canada, USA and many other countries). After staying awake for a further 2 hours, they scored as if they had a BAC of 0.1%. So, if you’re an average guy with a weight of 170 pounds, this is a reaction time equivalent to being topped up with 4 pints of beer. One of the reasons for sleep-deprived ‘drunkenness’ is that when we stay awake for too long, the sugar supply to our brain slackens. The areas involved in movement and complex thought suffer the most, receiving around 12% less sugar – the brain’s main source of fuel – after 24 hours of being awake. So, sleep deprivation is like the sly legal cousin of drunkenness – which means there isn’t really all that much difference between turning up to an exam after an all-nighter or after a couple of cheeky morning pints. (Except that you don’t smell of alcohol and aren’t likely to tell everyone that you love them – Ed.)

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Previous Page: (“Sleeping Beauty” By Elie Saab @ Harrods) Flickr • Loco Steve, (I sure am good looking in my pajamas) Flickr • Beverly & Pack

Sleep is such a pleasant thing. It’s so pleasant that only the most horrid noises and the fear of unemployment can persuade us to stop doing it. Nothing competes – not even food. (The memory of a hairnet-bearing mother shouting, “BREAKFAST IS READY!” springs to mind.) And who hasn’t slapped away a lover’s hand and turned to the tempting bosom of their pillow instead?


(Hausmaus (Schecken & Silber)) Flickr • Nils J.

Sleep: the lazy man’s diet Pour the cabbage soup down the drain, refill your shelves with your favourite snack, and toss your barbell out of the window (OK, maybe that’s not such a good idea). Keeping awake may be undermining all your attempts to lose weight. If you don’t sleep enough, your good intentions may be being wasted. “How?!” you may ask. Good question. There are several reasons: 1. When you sleep, you obviously can’t eat …except if you’re a sleep-eater (believe me, this is a thing). When you’re asleep there’s no chance of a midnight snack. #win 2. The sleep-deprived you is a hungrier you (see sidebar below). By sleeping three hours less a night, you will tend to eat 6% more calories per day. In fact, the sleep-deprived have a different eating pattern altogether: they eat less in the morning and much more in the evening – with after-dinner snacks often exceeding the calories of all other meals of the day. To make things even worse, too little sleep also makes us crave high calorie foods. 3. The sleep-deprived body can’t handle its sugar. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just change when you eat and what you eat; it

Sleep less, eat more This strange change in eating habits stems from an imbalance of our hormones. When it’s time to eat, our stomach releases the hunger hormone ghrelin. When we’re full, our fat tissue releases another hormone, leptin – letting us know we’ve eaten enough. Sleep deprivation not only makes the levels of ghrelin go up, but it makes leptin levels go down – ever widening our gape for supersized meals and surplus snacking. Our sleepy preference for sweet and fatty foods can also be blamed on a shift in brain activity: the reward areas of our brain become overactive, while the decision-making parts slow down. And what is more rewarding than chips and chocolate?

also changes how your body uses its nutrients. If you sleep for only 4 hours a night for six days in a row, then your body takes 40% longer to remove excess sugar from your blood. Thus sleep deprivation boosts blood sugar levels and is now thought to be a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

So, instead of spending late nights at your 24-hour access gym, why not just curl up in bed?

Sleep, and the world smiles with you Not getting enough sleep can really put you in a funk. Sleep depriving people experimentally makes them much more irritable and emotionally fickle. Staying awake also intensifies your response to unpleasant images while blunting your response to positive ones. But it gets worse: when you’re sleep-deprived, you tend not to pick up on other’s emotions and so often get the wrong end of the stick. Interestingly, depressed and anxious people tend to have abnormal sleep patterns or insomnia. The relationship between sleep and emotions is a bit muddled. Total sleep-deprivation (i.e. staying up for a full night) is sometimes used as a quick fix for major depression. In fact, it’s one of the quickest and most effective treatments we currently have (although the effect only lasts until the next time the person goes to sleep). Researchers looked into why this works by treating depressed mice (I’m really not making this up) with a substance associated with sleepiness: adenosine. The mice cheered up, surprisingly, without falling asleep. Either way, you’re not yourself when you haven‘t slept enough – so don’t make any life-changing decisions when you’re knackered. Your fully rested alter-ego might just regret it.

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DYING TO SLEEP Dying to sleep If I haven’t yet convinced you of the importance of sleep and how desperately the body and mind need it, let me illustrate what happens when you can’t sleep. Yes, there’s a condition for that, and its name gives away how it ends: Fatal familial insomnia. It is an inherited condition caused by a slightly mutated protein in the brain. Once the disease kicks off (you never know when it will strike) one protein molecule in the brain converts to a scrambled version of itself (called a prion). This messed up protein causes other copies of that protein it comes into contact with to follow suit and twist into a broken version too. It’s a bit like how one rotten apple makes the whole fruit bowl go bad. So, one by one – like dominos – these prions fill up the affected brain area (in this case, the sleep controlling hypothalamus) preventing it from doing its job. ‘Back in the day’, before this disease was properly recognised in 1974, it was diagnosed as ‘lunacy’. Victims of fatal familial insomnia suffer from mental distortions (hallucinations and paranoia), impotence, heart troubles, dementia… and the list goes on. They become mute, can no longer walk, and then finally sleep, forever. Unfortunately, there is no cure for fatal insomnia: sedatives only aggravate the symptoms and attempts to artificially induce a coma don’t help. Cutting-edge gene therapies, which aim to reverse the faulty DNA causing the prion, have been unsuccessful so far, although it may be our only hope – unless we discover some other way of preventing prions from forming.

But just relax… Each day we make decisions, many of which affect the whole course of our lives in big and small ways (think butterfly effect). By not getting your fill of sleep, you are more likely to lose control of your emotions, cause accidents, and eat ‘naughty’ foods. And all of this happens while you’re really not looking your best. Obviously you won’t be able to get a full night’s sleep every day, but if this becomes a routine, just think how much you’re losing out on. Have a good night to boost your chances of having a good day. Or, in Arianna Huffington’s own words: “It’s time for us to open our eyes to the value of shutting them.”



Peter Tripp (201 hours – 8.4 days)

This reckless DJ from NYC set the world record in staying awake back in 1959. The world watched him slowly lose his mind inside a glass booth in Times Square, NYC. By day three, he was already as emotionally incontinent as a two-year-old. Towards the end he even claimed to be an imposter. Apparently, he had some help from some of the darker treasures of his medicine cabinet… Sadly, there were lasting effects: he became moody and depressed, which eventually lost him his job and may explain why he got divorced by four consecutive wives. Randy Gardner (264 hours – 11 days)

In 1965, at the tender age of 17, Randy took part in a school science project on sleeping patterns. Unlike his predecessor, he managed the feat without the help of stimulants, though he still had some major delusions. On day four he saw cobwebs on people’s faces and kittens chasing mice around. By the end he had convinced himself he was a famous American football player. Tony Wright (266 hours – 11.1 days)

The English don’t take defeat lightly. This chap, from Cornwall, UK, fully intended to go beyond Randy Gardner’s impressive benchmark. The whole time he stayed awake, he lived on a diet of raw fruit and veg. Unfortunately for him, he was too late: the Guinness Book of World Records no longer

accepted records related to sleep deprivation due to the health risks involved. However, he did get some pretty good publicity for his book, Left In The Dark. Maureen Weston (449 hours - 18.7 days)

But did one overlooked woman outshine them all? As part of a rocking chair marathon in the UK back in 1977, Maureen may have broken the world record for staying awake. No one knows for certain, because no one cared to scientifically monitor whether she was indeed awake the whole time. However, witnesses stated that, towards the end of the stunt, she did seem a bit ‘off her rocker’. We’ll never know for sure.

Isabel Hutchison is currently working on a Ph.D. researching the cognitive neuroscience of sleep (which, ironically, involves not getting very much sleep at all). Besides doing science and writing about it (check out her sleep science blog here), Isabel loves music, dancing , travelling and art.

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BELOW: An abscess caused by methicillinresistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria.

From underwater steam vents to rainforests filled with exotic plants, the search for new and better drugs spans the globe. Now, scientists at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, have found something that can help fight the ‘superbug’ MRSA, and it’s produced not in a remote forest, but closer to home – in the human breast. HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumor cells) is a substance made of protein and lipid (fat) found in human breast milk. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have discovered that it can kill cancerous cells without harming healthy cells. Furthermore, research published in May of this year shows that HAMLET also makes antibiotics more effective: when the researchers used a mix of HAMLET and methicillin (a particular type of antibiotic) against strains of ‘superbug’ MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)

they found the number of bacteria present reduced significantly. Normally, Staphylococcus bacteria are harmless and sit on the surface of the skin, but they have the potential to cause a wide variety of problems, from minor skin infections to sepsis – and even death. But it is the multi-drug resistant MRSA that causes real trouble, not only because of the harm it can do to our bodies, but because it can be so difficult to treat.

Killing the unkillable MRSA first became resistant to an antibiotic called methicillin before becoming immune to the effects of other antibiotics. Worryingly, even vancomycin, the ‘drug of last resort’ (so called because it remained effective against MRSA even when other antibiotics were beginning to fail) is losing its fight against MRSA. Such ‘last resort’ antibiotics normally work by preventing the bacteria from making the protective cell walls they need to survive. However, some MRSA strains have developed the power of antibiotic resistance: they can continue to make effective cell walls even when antibiotics are present. So how does HAMLET help these antibiotics regain their potency? It blocks special pumps that MRSA uses to remove those chemicals

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What do Shakespeare and MRSA have in common? Up until now, probably nothing at all. However, that could all be about to change with the discovery of ‘HAMLET’ – a substance found in human breast milk. This bug-killer may just be the end of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

(Micrograph of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)) Flickr • NIAID


that are toxic to it (in this case, the antibiotics). With their detox system out of commission, the antibiotics can start to accumulate inside the MRSA – and have their desired effect. One of the big challenges when it comes to fighting MRSA is that it can evolve to become immune to antibiotics. As a result, MRSA usually forces doctors to rotate through multiple antibiotics until they eventually find a drug-cocktail that works. And the more they use that particular cocktail, the faster MRSA gains resistance. The great thing about HAMLET is that MRSA cannot become immune to it. It’s the equivalent of forcibly overriding the firewall on a computer: HAMLET forces the bacteria to become susceptible to antibiotics by overriding their usual defense mechanism. The researchers also found that even after upping the dose of

methicillin (something that would normally encourage the bacteria to become resistant) the bacteria remained susceptible to it – as long as HAMLET was also present. As the research into the HAMLET protein continues, how many more uses will we find for it? After all, MRSA is only one type of antibioticresistant bacteria. Hopefully HAMLET will prove effective on other troublesome bugs. And the fact that it was found in breast milk is just one more example of how amazing the human body is.

Source: •

Sensitization of Staphylococcus aureus to Methicillin and Other Antibiotics In Vitro and In Vivo in the Presence of HAMLET.

Based in the New York area, Shambralyn Baker has graduate qualifications in both biology and creative writing. With her powers combined, she has now become… a science writer! When not learning French, playing video games or working on her next novel, you can track her down on the twittersphere at @Sevvy09.

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ABOVE: Scanning electron micrograph of MRSA and a dead white blood cell.





Previous Page: (Cowboy cat) Flickr • Infomastern, (Schrodingers cat) Wikimedia • Dhatfield

Let’s get a cat. Now let’s stick it in a box. Now let’s throw in some confusion over whether or not the cat inside is living or dead. Congratulations! You’re an expert in quantum physics. Feel smarter? Didn’t think so. The problem is, this frequently quoted thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger is rarely fully understood (or at least not fully appreciated). The scenario was in fact designed to highlight a flaw in quantum physics, not as a tool to explain it, or to make things in any way clearer. Time and time again, however, this pesky little hypothetical is rote-learnt and regurgitated as a (perhaps ill-considered) display of knowledge. But no more, I say! This article should hopefully clear up a few things, and arm you with the ability to silence that annoying dinner party know-it-all. So what’s going on? Well, we take a cat and put it in a box – that much is true. But this box also contains a flask of poison. The flask is rigged to a device that will release the poison when one of the atoms in a small amount of radioactive substance (also inside the box) breaks down or ‘decays’. During the experiment, there is a chance that one of the atoms will decay, releasing the poison, and thus killing the cat. There is also the equally probable chance that no atom will decay (leaving our four-legged hero unharmed and free to continue wondering why it’s in a box at all). Upon closing the lid, we have no way of telling whether the cat is alive or dead. Either scenario is equally probable, and

until we lift the lid to see, we just don’t know. Now comes the science. A fundamental principle of quantum physics is something called ‘quantum superposition’. This is the idea that, until measured, a system exists in all its theoretically possible states simultaneously. So something that is normally either black or white can instead be considered a kind of grey. In our case, the quantum superposition principle implies that, while in the box, the cat’s state is actually a combination of living and dead. This conclusion is obviously ludicrous. It goes against common sense and conjures up images of deranged cat-zombies clawing their way through cat flaps (when everyone knows cat-zombies don’t have claws). Unfortunately, most people don’t go much further with Schrödinger’s experiment, but walk away with a message that goes something like, “There’s this cat, and it’s kind of alive, but also kind of dead. Who knows? Science is crazy!” This interpretation isn’t exactly stretching the boundaries of knowledge. Clearly in today’s society, the juxtaposition of life and death is a nonsense easily swallowed. But Schrödinger was making an entirely different point altogether. The fact is, quantum mechanical effects are only really relevant on a very small scale – for example, at an atomic level. Electrons (the small particles whizzing around the centre of an atom) can be located in different positions, and have a different probability of being found in particular places at a given time. So taking into account quantum superposition, until it’s observed, we consider a single electron to be

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everywhere, rather than in just one specific place. This has an important implication: by measuring the position of an electron we actually force it into that location, and in doing so, change the system. It’s a pretty cool idea. By simply observing the world around us, we are changing the way it acts (cue delusions of grandeur). So let’s get back to our cat-in-a-box. The creature’s life depends on whether or not a radioactive atom decays; the two are inextricably linked. At this small scale, the atom is governed by quantum effects, and can therefore be considered as both decayed and un-decayed at the same time. But hang on a minute: this also means quantum effects will indirectly govern the cat, right? So, it too is in a state of… living death? Schrödinger is messing with us! He has purposefully paired a quantum system (the radioactive atom) with a more normal system (the cat) to leave us wondering. He raises an important question: when does a quantum system stop existing as a superposition of states and adopt just one? We’re not supposed to accept the conclusion of the experiment: we’re supposed to laugh at how ridiculous it is. Clearly there is still some fine-tuning to be done with quantum theory.

As it happens, there are some problems with Schrödinger’s experiment – in particular, the question of what constitutes a measurement. We’re led to believe the only measurement taken is the action of us opening the box and looking inside (at which point, the system would be forced into one particular state). However, isn’t the poison-releasing device a piece of apparatus designed to measure radioactivity? And what about the cat itself? Is there a minimum level of intelligence required from the observer? The term ‘measurement’ is ambiguous, and as a result, things start to fall apart a little bit. (The debate continues to rage today.) But don’t lose faith in old Erwin. He hasn’t failed us. Oh no. His aim was to spark discussion, and spark discussion he most certainly has. Just don’t ask him to look after your cat while you’re on holiday. So the next time you find yourself in the presence of an insufferable know-itall preaching the gospel of half-alive, half-dead cats, quoting Schrödinger, and explaining how complicated it all is and why you couldn’t possibly understand, just take a moment, furrow your brow and say, “Dude… it’s a joke”. [Disclaimer: No cats were harmed in the writing of this article.]

A biologist straight out of Cambridge University, Ross Harper spent two years heading his own technology start-ups: and Wriggle Ltd. As he begins his neuroscience PhD at UCL, Ross is living proof that you can take the boy out of the lab, but not the other way around. Between devising his latest crazy schemes, Ross makes an effort to eat (pizza), sleep (two pillows), and exercise (skiing/rugby/swimming). Follow him on Twitter @refharper.

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(Schrodinger’s cat) Flickr • jieq


WHAT TO WATCH We’ve all been there: after a morning of intense work, your mind starts wandering and, before long, the procrastinator lurking inside you begins to take the reins. YouTube is a go-to for any professional procrastinator – but you don’t have to restrict yourself to watching Miley Cyrus twerk her way to public shame, or viewing yet another cat flushing a toilet. The following videos are just as (if not more!) interesting – and you might even learn a thing or two on the side. Tap on the boxes to watch the videos! HouseholdHacker: The Bike Phone Charger HousholdHacker presents the solution to the most common of smartphone woes: a 5% battery warning when you’ve just walked out the front door. With just a few household tools from the local store, you can create your very own phone charger for your bicycle. It brings a whole new meaning to charging around town.

(Old TV) Flickr • stevestein1982, (sony tv & sony bd dvd remote controls) Flickr • osde8info

Tom Lehrer: The Elements Although Tom Lehrer was better known as a mathematician, this chemistry-themed song nicely showcases his affinity for music. This geek-tastic number contains the names of all but two elements of the Periodic Table. Not recommended for performing at open-mic nights.

Truthloader: Scientists Develop ‘Uncrackable’ Quantum Encryption Networks With cybercrime on the rise, information security research is booming. You may have heard of quantum physics (page 39), but quantum encryption? See how this impressive (but expensive) new technology could offer you protection of your personal data in the future.

National Geographic: How to Time Travel Time travel is a popular theme in science fiction (and often comes to mind after missing a birthday or crashing your car!) In this short clip, National Geographic explains how time travel could one day become reality. However, as with all sci-fi based ideas, you should probably take it with a pinch of futuristic salt.

CERN: The Large Hadron Collider Rap Often catch yourself wondering what people at CERN are up to and what they’re doing with all that fancy machinery? Thought not. Well, it turns out that when they’re not smashing particles together, the scientists at one of the world’s most prestigious research centres like to get their rap on. Eminem hasn’t got anything to worry about just yet.

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More people than ever believe in miracles. Even though religious attendances are falling, belief in the inexplicable is seeing a revival. We shouldn’t be so easily duped says Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury. As a stalwart rationalist, Daryl nevertheless believes in the miraculous and the wonderful. However, the miracles he believes in are probably not the ones you’re thinking of… Flick through the pages of a typical tabloid and it won’t be long before you are confronted with a headline that screams ‘miracle’. If it’s not an advert for some ointment or pill regime claiming to cure everything from chilblains to cancer, it will be a story of an event that purports evidence of divinity. Such claims should be examined with a sceptic’s eye – because one man’s miracle is a wise man’s science. First of all, let’s get something out of the way: there is a place where you will most definitely find a miracle – in this popular understanding of the term. It’s in a dictionary, where it’s defined as ‘an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws’ and is therefore often ‘attributed’ to some form of divine agency. So miracles really do happen? Not so fast! The word ‘attributed’ is key here, because at a glance it may suggest causality, something that believers in miracles take as a given. However, ‘attributed’ simply means ‘considered’ or ‘regarded’, and it underlines the relative nature of what is considered a ‘miracle’. Just because some people may attribute something to divine intervention doesn’t make it a reality, just as some religious fundamentalists attributing a catastrophic event to, say, homosexuality definitely doesn’t make it so.

Miraculous logic Furthermore, believers in miracles may point to the phrase ‘not explicable by natural or scientific laws’ as meaning that such events are somehow ‘bigger’ than science, but they will pooh-pooh ‘ghosts’ and ‘ghouls’ as trivial and purely ‘supernatural’. This is ironic because the word ‘supernatural’ is similarly defined as ‘beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature’ – so all ‘miracles’ are supernatural!

It’s not a casual connection. Believing in miracles is normally supported by logic similar to that supporting the belief in the supernatural: because ‘science can’t explain everything’, supernatural events must be possible. This is terribly flawed logic. It’s a little like saying if you take everything out of your fridge and observe that it’s empty, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a unicorn in there.

So there’s no such thing a miracle? That’s not entirely true if you dig deeper into the word ‘miracle’ for its root meaning. Its origin can be traced back to the Latin phrase ‘miraculum’ meaning ‘object of wonder’. Now, that should resonate with scientists! Carl Sagan once wrote: “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up [and] you don’t have to exaggerate. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.” It’s no coincidence, then, that Richard Dawkins’ autobiography is titled ‘An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist’.

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OF MIRACLES AND WONDER Many people don’t realise it, but science is driven by this thirst or appetite for wonder. As it progresses, science finds explanations for things formerly considered not explicable by the laws of nature; and in the process, these ‘laws of nature’ are adapted. Also within the realms of science – specifically when investigating the very small and very large scopes of the natural world – the laws of nature as we know them can have a nasty habit of being completely flipped on their heads. The result: we discover things that really are – in the true sense of the word – miraculous.

liquids in the gut. But that’s not all: when the rotor spins clockwise, the flagella each stroke to their own beat and E.coli spins and tumbles; but then it switches, the rotor spins counterclockwise, and the flagella spiral into a single tail, giving it a smoother, more direct thrust forwards when needed.

Real miracles

Recent studies of E. coli have also found that they have a tendency to ‘chat’ amongst themselves. This hadn’t been noticed before because bacteria are normally grown in labs in flat petri dishes, away from the hazards of their ‘natural’ environment. However, when examined under natural conditions, E. coli display remarkable survival skills, not least the capacity to communicate with each other (via receptors) through a set of complex interchanges. A chemical ‘chatter’ of enzymes and proteins gives E. coli the capacity to hunt for food as a group instead of as individuals. Yes, just like dolphins. The thought of bacteria communicating goes against our understanding of the laws of nature – that communication between living organisms is the sole preserve of those with at least some measure of a brain. As such, the fact they can do this falls squarely within the realm of a miracle. So, if you are looking for evidence of real miracles, you need nothing more than an appetite for wonder…oh yes, and a powerful microscope.

Daryl Ilbury is a multi-award winning South African broadcaster and op-ed columnist. He has been in commercial breakfast radio for over 20 years, and has a passion for science that has burned since he was a child. He is currently completing a Masters in Science Journalism at City University in London, and enjoys being the pointy stick that jabs at that uncomfortable area where science and society collide. You can see an archive of his work on his website or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury or via his blog

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ABOVE: A transmission electron micrograph of E. coli showing its flagella.

(9995) PHIL • Elizabeth H. White, M.S.

The late paleontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould, writing in The Panda’s Thumb (1980), tells the fascinating story of magnetotactic bacteria – microscopic aquatic organisms that ‘eat’ strings of cubed particles of iron minerals to create tiny internal compasses (mini-magnets, as it were) so that they can navigate by the Earth’s magnetic field. What is truly – and here’s that word – ‘miraculous’ is that the size of the cubed particles that the bacteria choose to ingest, roughly 500 angstroms (an angstrom is one ten-millionth of a millimetre), is exactly the correct size to achieve the desired result. Somehow the bacteria ‘know’ that if the particles were any smaller, they would simply be ineffective, and if any larger they would cancel each other out. Staying with bacteria, the American neurobiologist Debra Niehoff has a fascination with E. coli – not because it’s known as a little critter that can cause a nasty upset tummy, but because of its incredible arsenal of seemingly humanlike skills, specifically its capacity to dance and communicate. The laws of nature are different down in the gut. For one, what we imagine as easily flowing liquids are (for bacteria) highly viscous, not unlike treacle. To counter this, as Niehoff explains in her book The Language of Life (2005), E. coli have developed a skein of spinning filaments, called flagella, that are powered by a ‘gearbox of proteins’ that spin the flagella like a rotor at more than 100 revolutions per second, allowing it to churn its way through the ‘gloopy’




Why are some people more creative than others? I guess it’s just the way we’re wired. But what does that actually mean? It’s a fair question – and it’s one being investigated by scientists in the U.S.A. Using a special brain imaging technique, Dr. Siyuan Liu and his colleagues measured the brain activity of rap artists during a performance. They found that when improvising lyrics – rather than reciting a rehearsed rap – certain areas of the musician’s brain become more active than others – hinting at a neuronal basis behind musical creativity. Aw snap! The scientists recorded brain activity in 12 professional male rappers using the somewhat un-gangster method of ‘Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ (fMRI). This involves using a fancy piece of kit that measures blood flow changes within the brain. When an area of the brain becomes more active, it requires more oxygen, and so the body increases blood flow to that area. By looking at how much blood is being sent to different parts of the brain, we get a good idea of which areas are currently being used.

That’s some pretty cool science right there, homie, but unfortunately it means climbing into a giant white tube and staying very, very still so as not to blur the images. Not so cool if you’re a rapper trying to get your swagger on. Luckily, Liu and friends used a specially developed correction technique to edit out the motion blur, allowing the test subjects to bump and grind to their heart’s content. It’s as if the artists were on stage at one of their gigs – only they weren’t, because they were actually lying down, in a lab, surrounded by scientists. Cold. First, the test subjects performed a rehearsed rap they’d been given to learn a week earlier. They rapped to a standard 8-bar musical track, having their brain activity measured continuously. Each rapper was then asked to improvise lyrics to the same backing track. The results were pretty impressive. When greater creativity was required (during the improvisation), changes were seen in two areas of the brain: an area called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) became more active, while another region – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) – got quieter. The dlPFC tends to be involved in the conscious control of thought, acting as a sort of filter to

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(DoomTreeNoKings-12) Flickr • MrAnathema

IT’S TRICKY TO ROCK A RHYME other regions of the brain by keeping a lid on those more ‘animal’ urges. It’s an important part of being human – we’re not slaves to our emotions; we have some control over what we do and think. But when the brain needs to be creative, perhaps the filter isn’t all that useful. The mPFC creates new ideas that could be at risk of getting filtered out. It’s constantly going, “hey bro, check out this awesome string of words I just put together”, whereas the dlPFC is all, “Shut it fool! Ain’t nobody got time for your babblin’”.

The decrease in dlPFC activity seen during the improvisation task could therefore be like switching-off your inner critic and allowing inspiration to flow. Freestyle rappers often report a state of ‘being in the zone’, where they aren’t wholly aware of what they are saying. Athletes report a similar phenomenon when competing. It all agrees with the notion of silencing that inner critic and allowing the spontaneous generation of creativity from more subconscious areas to flow. Interestingly, when unbiased volunteers rated the quality of the test subject’s performances, the artists who scored highest were those that demonstrated the largest changes in brain activity. This research may therefore not only have discovered underlying mechanisms of musical creativity, but might also provide a way to predict anyone’s creative ability! Sorry ma’am, your daughter can’t go to nursery today; she’s going on tour with Jay-Z.

References: •

Liu, S, et al. (2012). Neural correlates of lyrical improvisation: an fMRI study of freestyle rap. Scientific reports, 2.

P.S. For anyone who didn’t get the memo that scientists are cool now, check out this rap by Open Mike Eagle – one of the co-authors of this paper.

A biologist straight out of Cambridge University, Ross Harper spent two years heading his own technology start-ups: and Wriggle Ltd. As he begins his neuroscience PhD at UCL, Ross is living proof that you can take the boy out of the lab, but not the other way around. Between devising his latest crazy schemes, Ross makes an effort to eat (pizza), sleep (two pillows), and exercise (skiing/rugby/swimming). Follow him on Twitter @refharper.

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Book Review


Author: M. E. Thomas Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson Price: £9.09, (Amazon UK, Kindle version available) Rating: They make up between 1–4% of the population – but you probably won’t hear anyone owning up to being one. In fact, chances are that you know one personally. Maybe you’re even one yourself but nobody knows it... Which insidious members of society am I talking about? Sociopaths. Confessions of a Sociopath is a personal account of life as a sociopath. Written by M.E. Thomas – a pseudonym, of course – a self-proclaimed and (later) officially diagnosed sociopath, the book delves into the mind of someone who has a very different emotional life to most. Extending beyond a mere description of what it’s like to be a sociopath, her book is a self-exploration of what it’s like to live without emotion. And as the author often points out, survival is by “mimicking the manifestations” of other people’s emotions. The book highlights many of the typical traits of a sociopath. People like M.E. have a tendency to lie and cheat for egocentric gain; have a superficial charm but are utterly self-obsessed; and have limited and often distorted interpersonal relationships. Fundamentally, sociopaths have no guilt or shame and seem incapable of appropriate emotional responses. All of these ‘qualities’ can be grouped together and described as ‘antisocial behaviour’, and form the core of what psychiatrists prefer to call ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’. But you and I know them as the sociopaths or psychopaths – portrayed as serial killers or ruthless criminals. The GuReview rating system:



This murderous stereotype is exactly what Thomas dispels with her book. She says that she has no criminal record – on the contrary, she is a successful law professor. And from being a curse, she describes how her sociopathy has helped her to succeed. It is her self-focused ambition, ability to manipulate and use people without remorse, and knack for purely rational thought that make her so powerful. Thomas gives several real-life examples to illustrate this manipulation in the world around us, most explicitly in the tough and competitive realm of business. It is here that enthusiastic selfishness and fastidious manipulation set the successful apart from those who fall behind. This is likely due to their lack of emotional response, which in turn, as Thomas claims, allows them to make more rational decisions. If we’re honest, we can all probably think of several wealthy tycoons who demonstrate some of these qualities. Besides pointing out examples of sociopathy around us, the reader also gains insights into her background and early family life. The debate of nature versus nurture often arises when we discuss disorders and, in Thomas’ case, her dysfunctional and slightly abusive family background could have indeed brought out the sociopathic traits of her personality. She mentions instances of neglect and abuse; it could be that she developed these sociopathic traits as a defence mechanism. However, it seems unlikely that it was only her environmental background that made her a sociopath: she compares and contrasts herself to her siblings and they’re all quite different from one another. Thomas intersperses her personal memoirs with interesting scientific research on sociopathy. Some of this is fascinating: she mentions an experiment in which participants were told they were to receive a mild electric shock, and ‘sociopathic’ participants displayed much lower levels




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CONFESSIONS OF A SOCIOPATH of anxiety. Other scientific titbits are just plain frightening: a study at King’s College London has found that sociopaths have less developed brain regions associated with emotions and empathy. Confessions of a Sociopath is far from being a book about science, but instead is a personal account, written as part narrative and part stream-ofconscious. It is a refreshing departure from a conventional non-fiction text, and her recollections from her youth are enthralling. However, it is the informal, meandering style of Thomas’ writing that is the book’s biggest downfall: the structure often becomes irrelevant as Thomas repeats the same point and, at times, becomes

overly fixated on excessively expanding certain topics. Perhaps this is just her obsessive personality traits coming out in her writing… Taken as a whole, Confessions of a Sociopath is an enjoyable and challenging read. Thomas offers an intimate insight into the mind of a sociopath and how the ‘illness’ is very much a part of today’s society. The book takes away some of the mystery and has left me with a better impression of sociopaths – or at least, what Thomas is like as a sociopath. But then, that was probably her plan all along…

A graduate of medical sciences, Dorothée Grevers lives and works in Berlin, Germany as she tries to make it as a scientist and writer. At Guru she embarrasses the team by writing better English than anyone else. When not doing science or writing, she spends the rest of her time obsessing about brains, challenging the norm at Sensa Nostra in Berlin, and figuring out the perfect, minimal polyphasic sleep schedule.

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Santa’s Quick Stats

Cruising speed: 3.6 million km/hr

Distance Travelled: 126,612,957 km ow n He gulps d 4 9 250,310,5 units of alcohol

ain ill g one w ta st San 3,070 1,32

probably a toilet in there

Payload: 590,733 tonnes (about 98,455.5 male elephants)

A De i ntle Th c e n r s are e re mbe late pro inde r? b e fe m a b l y r ale

Pr e Fir cise ing a rat ir-to e: -st 2,0 oc 15 kin pr g p es re en se 2.48 million ‘brake ts nt reindeerpower’ pe la r s un ec ch on er d

Made from 4,25 tonnes of a 7 metric lum Holds the e inium. qu of 2,112 Oly ivalent mpic-size swimming pools. Journey time: 34

.5 hours

590,733,000 children on Santa’s list 250,310,594 houses to visit




WHEN WRITERS LIE, CHEAT AND STEAL Who hasn’t ever wished that they were a successful musician, writer or artist? Some people want it so bad that they’ll cheat to get there. Mind Guru Dr Kim Lacey finds out about the people who steal others’ work and make stuff up in the pursuit of success. But it’s not just the kids who are at it – even the pros are getting caught out.

Previous page: (cut copy paste) Flickr • stupid is the new clever, (Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME) Flickr • poptech

Full disclosure: I teach writing. I have dealt with many students who have plagiarised. Plagiarism is the act of copying someone else’s work without giving the original author credit for it. It’s like those times when you tell a great joke, but when your friend retells it they don’t say, “Hey! Kim just told me this really funny joke – here it is!” You hope that your friend would credit you with the laugh, but if they don’t – that’s plagiarism. (Now, don’t go around accusing your joke-stealing friends of plagiarism; that’s not going to earn any laughs.) Sometimes plagiarism happens accidentally – a phenomenon called ‘cryptomnesia’. (I’ll get to this in a bit.) But other times – and this is usually the case with my students – it is so blatantly obvious that I have to wonder, what drives them to do it? Almost always, the cheater gets busted. The funny thing is, professionals are accused of it more than we realise. (Second full disclosure: I considered plagiarising this piece. I thought better of it.)

into some of their most well-known pieces. But was it on purpose? Musicians often borrow parts of other songs or beats (a practice known as ‘sampling’), but why do writers take the most heat?

The Jonah Lehrer debacle One of the better-known recent examples is that of science writer Jonah Lehrer. (Another disclosure: I’ve discussed Lehrer in this magazine. See my article in Issue 8: “The Life of a Bookworm.”) Throughout his career, and even before the cheating scandal, Lehrer took a lot of heat for his writing. Although he earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Columbia University, many readers felt he wasn’t qualified to write about the intense scientific topics his books were covering. As a science writer myself, and one who comes from a literary, rather than a scientific background, I rooted for Lehrer on more than one occasion. All of that changed when it turned out he’d been faking all along.

Stealing is stealing is stealing? How does accidental plagiarism, or cryptomnesia, happen? It’s probably happened to you – without you realising it. Sometimes, we can be so invested in something (researching, composing, or whatever) that we don’t realise we’re using someone else’s ideas. Researcher C. Neil Macrae and his team say cryptomnesia happens when we operate at maximum capacity without having the proper amount of energy to process the information we are thinking about (hence the reason it happens when you’re really invested in a project). Tons of people have done it. Though doing it ‘by accident’ doesn’t make it OK, of course. According to Jonathan Lethem’s article ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, writers as famous as Vladimir Nabokov and William Burroughs have been accused of incorporating others’ writing

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References • • • • •

Is there plagiarism in Jonah Lehrer’s new book proposal? Jonah Lehrer’s mea sorta culpa Jonah Lehrer The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism How to Avoid Sampling Disasters: A Step-by-Step Guide to Clearing Samples Macrae, C.N., Bodenhausen, G.V., Calvini, G. (1999) “Contexts of cryptomnesia: May the source be with you.” Social cognition. Vol. 17: 273–297.

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

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(Rowland Scherman) Wikimedia • Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Lehrer got busted when he made up quotes about Bob Dylan. Bob freakin’ Dylan! In his most recent book, Imagine, Lehrer fabricated an interview with the famous musician. In addition to that discovery, fact checkers also noted that Lehrer had actually reused much of his own writing, passing it off as new material. Hold on, Mind Guru, you’re telling us we can’t use our own stuff? Well, no. Sort of. ‘Selfplagiarism’ is a prickly subject. In the publishing world, it’s not considered ‘cool’ to reuse your own stuff – especially once it’s been published in another place. That’s what happened to Lehrer. To get technical: if you acknowledge your writing has been published elsewhere, all is forgiven. (Take a look at the acknowledgements sections of some books. You may see authors thanking other publishers for letting them ‘borrow’ their own work for republication!) But the Jonah Lehrer debacle gets even more ridiculous. In the same article, Lehrer points at how Bob Dylan himself was accused (more than once!) of plagiarising:

“The songwriter has [plagiarised] not only from panoply of vintage Hollywood films, but from Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also [plagiarised] the title of Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft.” That’s right, Lehrer highlighting another’s plagiarism through his own plagiarised word. Now that’s irony. So what are the ramifications for cheating? For Lehrer, it has been a rough road. On top of his cred being shot to pieces, he lost his job writing for the New Yorker, Wired, and other publications. The discovery of his ‘infidelities’ has caused many writers (myself included) to rethink and retract research we’ve done that includes his work. He has become the Lance Armstrong of the writing world. Is it ever possible to recover from such an egregious act? Lehrer is trying – desperately. He’s given numerous public apologies (for which he’s earned upwards of $20K!), but they don’t seem to be helping as much as he’d hoped. Lehrer, allegedly, has a new book contract but its proposal has also been accused of plagiarism! As it stands now, it doesn’t look like Lehrer will be recovering from this huge professional misstep. Footnote from the editors: This 812 word article has been deemed to be at ‘low risk’ of plagiarism by automated plagiarism checking software.




Is it unreasonable to get excited when the leaves start to fall, simply because it means that the ski season is coming? Helen Knowles thinks not! In eager anticipation of doing some shoop, shoop-ing, she considers what the mountaintop experience does to our bodies. As soon as there is a chill in the air, I find myself dreaming of fresh powder, cold blue skies and the adrenaline rush that comes from hurtling down a snowy slope. But before I head off to the log cabin, I wonder what I can do to help counteract the ‘I am SO unfit!’ feeling that I experience in the first few days after arriving at altitude… My fitness concern came about during my first summer trip to the French Alps. A flight of stairs that I would normally bound up left me gasping for breath. Talking during the gentle walk up to the hotel was almost impossible without stopping to gather breath. My summer resolution to continue jogging while on holiday (slightly optimistic, I admit) dissolved as I collapsed in a breathless, weary heap less than 100 metres from the start.

There is somenothing in the air… Few of us can charge up a mountain-side like Aragorn and friends in Lord of the Rings. Luckily,

I have an excuse – and so do you: each lung-full of has much less oxygen at higher altitudes than at lower ones. But contrary to popular belief, the concentration of oxygen in the air is the same on the top of a mountain (it remains at 21%, no matter what the altitude is); there is simply less air up there. The air pressure at the top of Mount Everest, for example, is only a third of that at sea level. As a result, mountaineers aiming for the top of the world only take in a third the amount of ‘air’, and so a third the amount of oxygen, with each gasp. Just imagine doing even moderate exercise and taking only one out of every three breaths… However, a winter excursion in the Alps won’t be at Everest height – the ski-able slopes usually top out at around 3,500 metres. At this altitude, the available oxygen is about two-thirds of that at sea level – still enough of a drop to render you and me more than a little breathless. Being weak and breathless is an unpleasant experience. With less oxygen in the lungs, there is less oxygen in the blood. And less oxygen in the blood means less oxygen getting to the muscles. And oxygen-deprived muscles are less able to produce energy – making them tire much more quickly, and making you feel like you’re carrying lead in your pockets. So, what can you do to combat these altitude effects? Acclimatisation is the key (in other words, ‘go easy on yourself’).

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DANGERS AND DELIGHTS OF SKIING Chill out When you first arrive, your body quickly adapts to high altitude by increasing your rate and depth of breathing, as well as increasing yourblood pressure and heart rate. If you pause for a moment and take your pulse when you get to the lodge, you may even notice that your heart has sped up. As the days pass, the body will start to produce more of the hormone called erythropoietin (better known as EPO). It is a powerful substance: many Tour de France cyclists, Lance Armstrong included, have injected extra EPO doses to improve their performance in the mountains. EPO stimulates the production of more red blood cells, which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, increasing oxygen delivery to the muscles and therefore making you more ‘fit’. It naturally takes a while, but by the end of the week, you’ll be flying down those slopes! It’s just cruel fortune that, by then, it’ll be time to head back home.

(Resting Snowboarder) Flickr • Prophetic_Blogger

From highs to lows: mountain sickness So while most of us get out of puff and tired more than usual, an unlucky, but relatively small, number of people experience something much worse when arriving at the ski resort – altitude sickness. If you get it, you will know about it in the first day: symptoms usually start within ten hours of ascent. A bad headache is usually the main symptom, and it can feel like you’ve caught the ‘flu: fatigue, feeling sick, lack of appetite, not sleeping well and light-headedness. Unfortunately, this is made all the worse for the keen skier suffering from altitude sickness by a rapid ascent (as you experience on the road transfer to the resort), exertion (skiing), and alcohol (due to the knock-on effects of dehydration). The best way to avoid altitude sickness would therefore be to ski gently (if at all), eat lots of starchy foods, drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol for the first few days of your trip – even if this may lead to a relatively dull start to the holiday. It’ll be worth it because getting altitude sickness can be serious and can only be ‘cured’

by descending to a lower altitude. And needing to leave the resort would make you a real partypooper.

Beating down the cold One of the other challenges with being on a mountainside in winter is that it is cold. Very cold. This chill keeps all the snow light and fluffy and makes for fantastic skiing – which is great, as long as you can keep warm. Shivering with cold will seriously hinder your skiing ability, no matter how fit and acclimatised you are. Under normal conditions, your body is brilliant at keeping its inner body temperature at about 37 oC. In cold environments (just like at high altitudes) the body needs to make several internal adjustments to help keep you alive. The first – and probably the most important – change is what you do. When your brain tells you that it’s cold enough to freeze the nose off a polar bear, you put on warm, insulating clothes to keep you feeling cosy (which, if you’re a skier, come in lots of bright colours you wouldn’t normally be seen dead in…).

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If you’re n o t warmly wrapped up enough, your body’s first reaction is to narrow the surface blood vessels to reduce blood flow through the skin. This makes your skin look pale and means that less heat is lost from your skin. Unfor tunately this occurs at the cost of progressively painful cooling of the extremities, especially the hands and feet. Some people are more prone to this painful numbing than others. Personally, I take this as an opportunity to rapidly bring out the boot-warmers! The next response to cold involves you doing odd things: you jump up and down, flap your arms, stamp your feet, and generally look silly in order to increase your activity level. This is very effective in the short-term: increased muscle activity produces heat and makes you feel more comfortable again. Shivering has the same sort of effect. However too much activity, especially under all those clothes, will cause you to sweat.

And sweating will cool you down further. You just can’t win sometimes! If you’ve reached this sweaty, shivery point then now is the time to declare that enough is enough and point your skis down the mountain. There really is no better excuse for really needing a hot chocolate or vin chaud.

But it’s worth it… After all that, it might seem like my conclusion is that altitude and cold are horrible, can make you ill, and are generally uncomfortable. Maybe… but taking it easy, being prepared and making the most of a few bits of comforting technology (otherwise known as hot chocolate stops, heading for home when you get too cold and getting quality ski clothing and boot warmers) are more than up to the task of combatting these environments. And let’s face it, these high, cold, snowy places really are the perfect winter playground for grown-up kids. I, for one, cannot wait to step into my skis at the top of the world in search of a winter adrenaline-rush.

References •

Dhillon, S. (2012) Environmental hazards: hot, cold altitude and sun. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America

Helen Knowles is a research fellow at the University of Oxford. She is currently on a year’s sabbatical and thought she’d try her hand at some ‘proper’ writing. It’s proving a bit difficult though, as playing hide-and-seek with two boys under the age of five seems to take up quite a lot of time…

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(121206-F-LX370-071) Flickr • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, (Snowboarders At Timberline) Flickr •frozenchipmunk


ASK A GURU Love Fridays? We do too.

We’re working on our homing pigeon service.

Every Friday is ‘Ask a Guru’ day – when Guru HQ

Your questions are awaited by an eager team of

opens the doors to your questions about pretty

qualified writers and Gurus who will do their very

much anything: health, food, science, psychology,

best to find you an answer. And we will seek out

the meaning of life…

an external expert to help if we can’t. Go on, give

You can tweet your questions to us @GuruMag with

us your best shot!

the hashtag #AskAGuru, post it on our Facebook

Here’s a roundup of answers from the last couple

wall, send it via the app (just tap the ‘?’ on the main menu), or use good old-fashioned e-mail.

of months. Read these and more online.

Is it safe and not unkind to pick up an adult cat by the scruff of its neck?

(Cat carrying kitten) Flickr • The Akermarks

Asked by Martin Lee via Facebook Scruffing a cat is rarely justified and may even be dangerous to you and your cat. As a vet, I’ve found that on routine visits most cats do just fine with a minimal hands-on approach. They are more relaxed and, frankly, just don’t need to be restrained with this approach. Most even take injections without so much as a flinch – if they are handled properly in the examination room. On rare occasions, with particularly aggressive cats, we must restrain them through a variety of means in order to avoid hurting the owner, the patient, and ourselves. There’s just no choice – but, in my experience, this applies to less than 10% of all feline patients. Scruffing a cat is based on the antiquated notion that it isn’t painful or distressing – but it almost certainly is for adult cats. (This may not be true for kittens.)

Furthermore, I’ve had plenty of experience to know that when a cat wants to, they can turn around to bite and claw you, even with a very firm grip on their scruff. Scruffing a cat is by no means a sure fire way to avoid getting bitten. Therefore, if you truly respect your cat and want to avoid causing it undue distress, please properly pick it up by supporting its entire body with two hands/ arms. (And don’t feed it chocolate – see page 14!)

Answered by Artem Cheprasov

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Why, evolutionarily speaking, do men have beards and women don’t? Asked by Sarah Cottle Alternatively, there’s always the possibility that, once upon a time, females also had large amounts of facial hair, and it was a chap’s preference for less facial hair in a potential mate that caused women to lose this hair over time. I hope that gives you something to think about, Sarah. For now, I beard you farewell. (I’m so sorry – I couldn’t resist.)

Answered by Ross Harper

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(Beard update - 1 year) Flickr • Mac_NZ

…We both have armpit, leg and arm hair in similar amounts, so why do men benefit from facial hair and women don’t?! Good question – let’s try and get to the root of it. (Groan – Ed.) Why do men typically have more facial hair? Well, as with many characteristic male traits, the answer lies with testosterone (you know, that hormone that makes you want to burp, fight, and tell your in-laws offensive jokes?). As well as having many other important effects, testosterone increases the growth rate of facial hair, making it possible for men to form some rather handsome beards. In fact, one of the side effects of testosterone therapy can be a hairier face. But why would this be a good thing evolutionarily? It’s hard to say: human evolution happened over hundreds of thousands of years, and, for the majority of that time, we were probably just hitting each other with clubs. (Perhaps – Ed.) However, there are a couple of plausible explanations… The first such explanation is that hair keeps us warm. You can imagine that the huntergatherer lifestyle of the early man involved braving some pretty chilly weather. In this respect, increased facial hair may have helped ward off frostbite, leaving our ancestral hero’s lips intact for a good smooch with the missus when he got home to his cave. Another explanation could be sexual selection – the idea that evolution favours traits which make you more attractive to the opposite sex. Perhaps early human females found beards an irresistible aphrodisiac. We know that facial hair is somewhat correlated with testosterone, and testosterone levels are correlated with male fertility… so it makes sense, then, to go for males with bushy beards who are just brimming with ‘man-ness’.


Who invented the French language? Asked by Molly Brown via e-mail With a few exceptions, like Esperanto and Klingon, languages are not directly ‘invented’ by any one particular person – they ‘evolve’ from other languages. French is the continuously evolving invention of every person who has ever spoken French. Modern French developed gradually from the Latin spoken in Gaul about 2,000 years ago. Gaul is the area of the Roman Empire that roughly corresponds to the modern European countries of France, Belgium and Switzerland (Asterix & Obelix fans will know this already – Ed.) At first, the differences between the Latin spoken in Gaul and the Latin spoken in Rome herself was small, but the differences increased over the centuries. New words were invented or imported from other languages, and the pronunciation of words changed. ‘Selfie’, for example, is a newly invented word in the English language, meaning a photo taken of you by you. Eventually the ‘Latin’ of Gaul was so different from the ‘Latin’ of Rome, the two different peoples would hardly be able to hold a conversation – they spoke so differently that they eventually started calling each other’s gibberish French and Italian.

Modern Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan evolved in similar ways in other parts of the Roman Empire, all from the same Latin root. The same thing is also true of Latin itself. A language spoken somewhere around the Black Sea, about 6,000 years ago, was probably the ancestor of most of the languages of Europe, Iran and India, including French, English, Welsh, German, Greek, Russian, Hindi and Farsi. The same ‘language evolution’ is still happening today. The French spoken in France, Belgium, Quebec and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are not identical. Who knows? In the far future they may become as different from one another as French and Italian are today.

Answered by Steve Cook

Why do some people have curly hair?

(People walking back to Eiffel Tower, Paris) Flickr • Photos change the world

Asked by Wendy Giles via Facebook Your hair curl comes down to two main things: your hair follicles and you hair proteins. These are determined by your genes – so thank your parents if you have an uncontrollable afro. First up: proteins. Hair is made up of a protein called keratin. This is the same stuff that makes up your nails and gives your skin a protective coating – quite a remarkable feat considering how different hair and nails look! The keratin protein contains many sulphur atoms. Try to imagine hair as being made of millions of beaded strings, where each bead is a sulphur atom. These sulphur atoms form special links with each other, called disulphide bonds. When the keratin string has sulphur atoms (or beads) that are a long way apart on the ‘string’, the hair is curlier. The second determining factor is your hair follicles. These are tiny structures in the skin – each producing Answered by Dorothée Grevers

an individual hair. Hair is made in the bottom of the follicle, which grows out through a tiny tube to the surface of the skin. Should you ever need to have hair removal treatment, then a laser can be used to blast hair follicles. The curve of the follicle tube affects how curly it is. Straight follicle? Straight hair. Curvier follicle? Curlier hair. Very curvy follicle? Afro.


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Why does everything taste like chicken?


Asked by ‘MJ’ via Facebook lean, giving it a similar texture and blandness – there isn’t much fat on a snake, for example. Therefore, when a meat tastes bland, we say it tastes similar to a bland meat we are familiar with: chicken. If we ate lots of frog, we’d probably say everything tastes like frog! One zoologist, Joe Staton, has a theory that sums it all up. He thinks that meat flavours have evolved over millions of years. After eating lots of meats, he drew an evolutionary tree of meat flavours: he claims that most meats that we eat have come from a four-legged chicken-flavoured animal ancestor (with the exception of beef, pork and venison which evolved from a different ancestor). Check out his chart here. You can also use his evolutionary meat tree to make predictions about what certain meats will taste like. For example, Tyrannosaurus Rex tastes like chicken. And so does cat. I think we’ll have to take his word for it on that one.

Answered by Dr Stu

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(kaffir lime fried chicken coated) Flickr • Andrea_Nguyen

“Hmm, that tastes nice!” “What does it taste like?” “Chicken!” How any times have you heard this? There’s no denying it: new meats often taste like chicken. Granted, beef tastes like beef and pork tastes like pork (and so do humans). Yet so many other meats taste like chicken: quail, goose, frog, snake, snapping turtle, giant salamander, pigeon… (I confess I haven’t eaten the last two.) To understand why this is, you need to know that there are only so many different types of muscle (or meat). The meat that you usually eat comes in two main types: white and red. White meat (like chicken breast) is actually a type of muscle designed for fast movements (called ‘fast twitch’). Red meat (like beef steak) is a muscle designed for endurance and prolonged standing (‘slow twitch’). Chickens don’t do much in the way of endurance exercise – just lots of flapping – so they have mostly white meat. Cattle, on the other hand, do lots of standing and walking and so have more red meat (‘slow twitch’ muscle). Many other animals are similar to the chicken in the exercise they do (for example, a frog will do short bouts of swimming) and so have a muscle composition similar to the chicken. There’s a bit more to it: chicken meat (particularly from the breast) doesn’t have much fat. This makes the chicken meat dry in texture and fairly bland. (Just ask anyone on a low calorie diet if you doubt that low fat food tastes bland.) Many cuts of meat from other animals are similarly



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