Guru Magazine Issue 16

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ISSN 2048-2590

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THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond Jon Crowe

Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu

Deputy Editor/ Molecular Guru @crowe_jon

Ross Harper

Deputy Editor / Complexity Guru @refharper

Ian Wildsmith

Design Guru


Nature Guru

Natasha Agabalyan Food Guru @SciencInformant Jessamy Baudains


Janske Nel Simon Makin News Guru @SimonMakin James Crewdson


Dennis He David Smith Kim Lacey

Mind Guru @kimlacey

Isabel Hutchison Shambralyn Baker


Spencer Manwell Matt Linsdell

(texture #103) Flickr • Asja.

Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt


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

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


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BORN TO BE WILD “Stop being such a couch potato and go outside!” is how we would say it. Autumn Sartain, Nature Guru, puts it far more diplomatically. On page 7, she gives so many reasons to get outdoors that you’ll be drop-kicking your TV into the back yard.


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MAKE MINE A PEPPERONI! Stardust, stardust everywhere and not a bite to eat… One of the greatest challenges facing NASA today is how to deliver takeout food to astronauts. Fret not, though, because the world’s brightest minds have a cunning plan for preparing fresh, in-flight pizza. Food Guru, Natasha Agabalyan, invites you to pick your toppings on page 12.


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If a swarm of killer bees decides to attack you, run. Keep running and don’t stop. These nasty blighters can sting a man to death. Ironically, their venom could also help save millions by helping to rid the world of HIV. Guest writer Janske Nel explains how on page 19.


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Super-brain Ross Harper writes about something to do with water-cleaning carbon nanotubes and Simon Makin covers a story about the weird things that happen when you exercise. It’s the news you almost certainly missed. Page 22 is where you want to be.


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Stretching, meditation and aligning yourself with the universe. Don’t worry, Jessamy Baudains agrees it all sounds a bit whacky. She dares to contort herself into the shape of an inverted tortoise for the sake of ‘research’. Find out how it went on page 15.

We last saw James Crewdson in the woods hugging trees and saying “Yeah man, nature’s got, like, all the healing power you need, dude!” Perhaps he’s become a bit carried away with his search to discover nature’s hidden medicines. Join his expedition on page 25.


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CROWDSOURCING A CURE FOR CANCER Go on, admit it. You love playing Angry Birds while sitting on the toilet. Get prepared to use your idle time for something nobler: curing cancer. Clicking on some multi-coloured balls could help save lives. Tap to page 29 to find out how.


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Our regular Ask a Guru feature on page 40 rounds up some of our favourite questions from the last two months. Find out why some men can breast feed and why you really shouldn’t pull the legs off spiders (as if you would).


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REMOTE CONTROL FOR BRAINS Attach electrodes to a cockroach’s antennae, glue a circuit board on its back and what do you get? A lot of very unhappy animal rights activists? Yep. And you also get the world’s first commerciallyavailable insect cyborg. Designed for kids. Mind Guru, Kim Lacey, finds out more on page 33.

Lead-lined helmet? Check. Face mask? Check. Foil-lined white body suit? Check. Fukushima has put many of us on red alert for radiation. On page 44, Spencer Manwell offers some more “practical tips” for keeping yourself safe. Just go easy on the bananas.


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DOING IT OUTSIDE The world’s wittiest ‘evidence-based’ personal trainer, Matt Linsdell, shares a touching account of how he overcame his childhood agoraphobia. We now have a hard time keeping him still. Training tips and more from our Fitness Guru – just get your butt to over page 47.


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HOT OR NOT? Before the ‘Hot or Not’ website, there was Miss World. Before that, there were Divine Beauty Contests. It seems men and women have always enjoyed ogling each other. Dr Stu discovers what it takes to have that special ‘X factor’ on page 36.


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ometimes it’s good to be a dog owner. I never wanted to get a dog, mind you; there’s little joy to be had in picking up poop, paying vet bills and drinking in ‘dog friendly’ coffee shops. And yet I must concede that our puppy, Winston, has given me joy. Taking the four-legged one for a walk every day, regardless of how dog-tired I am, is a great pleasure. There’s little to beat being out among the sounds, sights and smells of nature. Providing Winston hasn’t just done his business, that is. This issue pays homage to the world outside the four walls we call home. Our new Nature Guru, Autumn Sartain, gets the wagon rolling on page 7, where she explains why even the laziest of us are born to be wild. Meanwhile, James Crewdson fights the urge to hug a tree as he goes off around the world in search of natural healing. Sometimes though, nature has an ironic sense of humour: Janske Nel reports on how South Africa’s killer bees may one day cure the nation of HIV. After Food Guru Natasha gets all intergalactic on us – dreaming of cooking a pizza aboard a Mars mission on page 12 – Matt Linsdell

brings us down to Earth. Offering a candid account of his battle with agoraphobia, he compares indoor and outdoor exercise on page 47. As always, there’s lots more in here, but it’s probably best that I now let you go and explore. Just watch out for the bananas, and don’t get lost. (Dog optional.)

Dr. Stu P.S. Our much-loved Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, has chosen to take a sideways shimmy, shedding his ‘Sceptic’ moniker for the more elegant ‘Talent Guru’. Based in South Africa, he is the media co-ordinator at the prestigious South Africa Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). He will be staying with us at Guru, working behind the scenes to identify and develop the next wave of science writing talent. If you ask him very nicely, he might still write something about the Loch Ness Monster. Guru Magazine is now published by the Guru Science Communication Co-operative. Find out more here.

Guru Magazine Issue 16 • February/March 2014 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2014 Guru Magazine Ltd.

Guru Magazine Ltd. is a company registered in England & Wales. Company no. 7683000 •

This magazine is published under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 License by the Guru Science Communication Co-operative Ltd. The Guru branding and logos remain the intellectual property of Guru Magazine Ltd. Advertising & letters Press & marketing enquiries Text and picture material is sent at the owner’s risk.

The opinions expressed herein are of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Guru Magazine Ltd.

Cover image: (Arrrggghhhh!, Triglav National Park) Flickr • flatworldsedge Contents image: (Snowdrops) Flickr • spookypeanut Follow Guru on Twitter •

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Next issue released: 1st April 2014. Guru is intended to be used for educational and entertainment purposes only. Please consult a qualified medical professional if you have any personal health concerns.





(watching TV outside) Flickr • mollybob

Modern living can seem a bit odd sometimes. Lots of us take a car to work, spend our day inside, drive home, then unwind in front of a TV. But Nature Guru, Autumn Sartain, tells us that by staying indoors we are missing out. Let her reveal how nature can change you for good… Human beings – you and I – come from a long line of ancestors who bred, survived and flourished on this planet, Earth. It’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but just think about it for a minute: for over two million years, humans have been influenced by the plants, animals and surroundings of this world. Those two million years have shaped us to become what we are today. That’s a long time – and I bet you can’t imagine the number of people that represents. I know I can’t. Being so utterly shaped by the natural world, it’s interesting to me that so many of us now spend so little time outside. According to a 2010 Report on American Consumers published by the University of California, San Diego, Americans spend an average of 12 hours a day absorbing information, most of which is from electronic sources such as television and

the Internet, but also texting, listening to music and playing games. We are now spending 25% less time pursuing nature-based recreations such as camping and visiting national parks than we did in 1987. It’s our increasing preoccupation with entertainment media that is a primary cause for this change. Fear is also one of the main factors making parents happier if their children play indoors. But whether it’s entertainment or fear (or both), the results aren’t pretty: a study of British schoolchildren showed they were much better at identifying Pokémon characters than common animals like rabbits and beetles. It is only now that science is finally catching up with what we all know on some gut level – that being outside is good for us. What is perhaps unexpected from this new wave of research is how being in nature influences our physical bodies and our brains. For example, showing people nature scenes, as opposed to city scenes, makes them more giving to others and less concerned with selfish goals. Road rage can be reduced by the amount of vegetation visible along a highway. Outdoor classrooms improve mathematics and science scores. Views of vegetation have also been linked to lower anger levels, less impulsive behavior, and shorter hospital stays.

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Impressively, just a twenty-minute walk in nature improves attention scores for children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder). Remarkably, one research study found that behavioural improvements were comparable with what top-selling ADHD drugs claim to provide.

Shining a light on happiness As you may or may not know, serotonin is a chemical in our brains that helps us feel happy (with drugs such as Prozac artificially elevating the levels of this chemical our bodies release). In 2002, researchers in Australia discovered that serotonin production is directly related to the amount of sunlight in a day. The blue light of the sky is our particular favourite: exposure to this hue (with a wavelength of about 470 nm) helps to relieve depression and the ‘winter blues’ (seasonal affective disorder). Winter brings the lowest level of this happy blue light and so it’s even more important to spend time outdoors during those short days. If you happen to live at latitudes where you literally get no light in the winter, or not enough, then you are at a higher risk of depression. Thankfully, therapeutic light ‘boxes’ can help: light therapy has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and even eating disorders. Light is particularly important in the morning, so consider celebrating the morning by going outside – the sunlight should help you think,

feel more alert and happy, lower your anxiety and even help your sleep (later on, of course). The same principles can apply even when you can’t get outside: one set of researchers craftily changed the lights on two different floors in an office building and assessed how the office workers felt. For four weeks, one floor had only white light, and the other had blue-enriched white light. The results were pretty amazing. With the blue-enriched light, employees were in a better mood, performed better at their jobs, felt more alert, and were less irritable and tired than the other group. Natural light is becoming increasingly important as we all are spending more and more time indoors. One problem with looking at our computers all day, instead of being outside, is that our body can become confused about when to be alert and when to sleep. We each have a circadian rhythm – an internal body clock – that controls when we wake and when we sleep. A hormone called melatonin becomes active when it’s dark, getting our body and mind ready for sleep. If we spend our day in office cubicles then we deprive ourselves of the benefits of natural light. And then, at night, when we fill our eyes with light from super-bright TV screens, our melatonin is suppressed – really messing with our sleep. But more than this, a disturbed sleep-wake cycle can contribute to depression, immune problems, obesity, attention deficit disorder and more.

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(Tangled Up In Blue) Flickr • Pewari



(Lavender) 500px • Mark Bucayan

Making sense of the scents When you walk into a forest, you have to admit that it smells nice. Sometimes you probably even take a deep breath, smile, and say “ahhh!” (That can’t just be me, right?) Appreciating a pleasant smell is a nice little side effect of being outdoors, but there’s a lot more to scents than just that. It turns out that our noses are portals to our brains (even though they may seem so useless compared to, say, a dog’s nose). Tiny airborne substances, or vapors, get into our nostrils, enter our brains and then circulate throughout our body. You don’t even have to be able to ‘smell’ them in the traditional sense. Plants give off tiny plant aromatic particles called ‘phytoncides’ that can have varying effects, depending on which ones you come into contact with. Trees, for example, give off phytoncides that can promote immune function, lower stress hormones and induce relaxation. What’s even more amazing is that the positive effects don’t wear off right away. One published study demonstrated that after a weekend walking in the woods, the changes are still measurable a month later.

And the benefits aren’t limited to trees. While aromatherapists have been criticised for overstating their claims, there is nevertheless evidence to show that other plant oil vapors can influence body and mind – even increasing our happy friend, serotonin. Rosemary may well serve as an aid to memory, while lavender has the opposite effect on memory and attention but is great for relaxation. Experiments have also shown that peppermint boosts physical and mental performance in certain situations and has been shown to lower anxiety for those driving for extended periods of time. Plants not only give off soothing vapors, they also help clean up the air we breathe at work and home. The analysis of indoor air has shown some scary things: office air frequently contains pollutants at levels beyond what experts deem healthy. Such airborne contaminants include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and so-called ‘volatile organic compounds’. Our computers are a major source of indoor air pollution, giving off some volatile compounds, some of which have been shown experimentally to impair our thinking ability and make us more likely to make mistakes. But don’t despair! Researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney have discovered what they call a “portable, flexible, attractive, low-cost technology”. Or potted plants to you and me. Office plants can remove up to 75% or more of indoor volatile organic compound loads. So, if you spend a lot of your time inside, consider bringing some nature in with you. They’ll make even your apartment or office look nice too.

Take a break from thinking so hard! Crunching numbers all day, or doing some other task that requires long hours of forced, focused attention, can cause our minds to get tired. Researchers call this ‘cognitive fatigue’; it can cause us to make more errors and have trouble filtering through irrelevant information, leading us to be more distracted. Long periods of ‘cognitive fatigue’ may eventually contribute to burn-out, depression, and anxiety. And this is where Nature can help (again). In 2011, researchers in South Korea tested university students’ mental abilities before and after a walk, either through a lush park or through a city. They found that by taking a 50-minute walk through a tree-lined park, the students performed better on subsequent tests

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when compared to the city-walkers. Unforced attention on nature, and the fascination that comes with looking at the natural world, was enough to refresh the tired mind. Not surprisingly then, getting out and walking in a forest setting is also great for us. The Forest Agency of Japan began promoting an initiative in 1982 called Shinrin-Yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. This program is meant to help stressed-out city people (and anyone else interested) soak up the effects of nature by getting them to spend time in the forest. Since it started, psychological and physiological studies on over 1,000 adults have shown the benefits: lower levels of stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, depression and anger. They also found improved sleep and a greater feeling of liveliness.


The great outdoors awaits There are endless variations of outdoor adventuring, from gardening to scaling mountains to walking in your local park. If you are like Matt Linsdell, our Fitness Guru, and love to exercise, you’ll be happy to know that simply running outdoors reduces anger, fatigue, and anxious thoughts more than running on a treadmill. Better than that, outdoor exercise has been shown to increase the number of positive thoughts a person has. Whichever route of outdoor exploration you choose, it appears conclusive that nature is beneficial to health and happiness. So breathe in the air, bring some nature inside, and of course, romp through the wilds and get some dirt under those fingernails.

Find out more: •

The book Your Brain on Nature by Drs. Eva Selhub and Alan Logan explores these issues in greater detail.

Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.

A potential natural treatment for attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder: Evidence from a national study.

Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain.

Narrow-band blue-light treatment of seasonal affective disorder in adults and the influence of additional nonseasonal symptoms.

Blue-enriched white light in the workplace improves self-reported lateness, performance and sleep quality.

Effect of forest environments on human natural killer (NK) activity.

Smelling lavender and rosemary increases free radical scavenging activity and decreases cortisol level in saliva.

Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults.

The effects of running, environment, and attentional focus on athletes’ catecholamine and cortisol levels.

Improved performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor.

Enhancing athletic performance through the administration of peppermint odor.

The influence of interaction with forest on cognitive function.

• •

Use of living pot-plants to cleanse indoor air. Sixth International Conference on Indoor Air.

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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(flud in the forest 2) 500px • Slav






BELOW: A selection of food available on the International Space Station.

1. Beef Pattie 2. Trail Mix 3. Creamed Spinach 4. Crackers 5. Cheddar Cheese Spread 6. Candy Coated Peanuts 7. Cashews 8. Beef Steak 9. Orange Ade


If you’re a foodie like me, you strive to get some sort of balance in your everyday diet – whether it’s nutritional balance (you know, a good chocolate to wine ratio), or a diversity of textures or tastes. In my kitchen, flour (and oil-covered pots and pans) litters the work surfaces, evidence of my failed attempts to create new types of tasty treats. I have yet to perfect orange-flavoured pies and chilli-infused ice cream. Variety is most definitely the spice of my culinary life. But now imagine for a moment that you’re an astronaut (or simply a bad cook). Three times a day you end up eating the same pre-made, pre-packaged food. It won’t be long before you get a little depressed – particularly if you’re just two years into a five-year mission to Mars. At least if you’re a bad cook you have a choice of fast food deliveries: our poor astronaut has no hope of a warm pizza. Or does she/he?


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Down to earth dining NASA are forever pushing the boundaries of technology and they have a habit of inventing things that ultimately turn out to be remarkably useful. So far, they have brought us solar panels, water filters and smartphone camera technology. Last year they awarded a prestigious innovation and research grant of $125,000 to Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer from Texas, USA. What he’s doing with the money is unusual, to say the least: he’s making a machine that will ‘print’ food. (I think he really just wants to make a 3D printer to print a chocolate rose to impress his valentine.) Anjan’s ambitious plan to investigate the potential of ‘printing’ food in space builds upon existing open-source technology. Currently, food for astronauts are mainly pre-packaged products that have a long shelf-life and don’t need refrigeration or freezing. (Space may be the final frontier, but it’s limited on board a spacecraft - fridges and freezers just don’t fit!) Anjan hopes that 3D printing will provide an answer to the challenge of providing varied and nutritious food for astronauts. His prototype printing system is very space efficient, and would free up ship capacity for better uses. Also, the printer uses ingredients that are mainly powders and liquids, so they have an extremely long shelf life – in some cases up to 30 years. So this invention has the potential to feed crews on longer, more ambitious missions than anything attempted to date. Crucially, though, their system promises to truly tickle the taste buds: it offers variety, not only in nutritional content but in taste and texture. The printer could well offer a menu that accommodates every astronaut’s likes and dislikes. Plus, there’s not much washing up. Now that should put a smile on their faces!

Printed to perfection

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So how does this tasty invention work? Anjan’s company, Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), has divided out the three elements of food – nutritional value, taste, and texture – into separate parts of the 3D printing process. The basic food nutrients (i.e. protein, starch and fat) can be printed using unflavoured powders to give sustenance. Low

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Previous Page: (Red Baron pepperoni pizza with one thinly and evenly sliced hot dog) Flickr • dno1967b

We’ve all been there: it’s the end of the week, you’ve just arrived home after a post-work drink or two with friends, and you’re feeling ever so slightly peckish. But when you throw open the refrigerator door, you’re greeted with nothing but a mouldy tomato and a half-eaten burrito. But don’t despair! Food Guru, Natasha Agabalyan, is on hand to explain how the latest research from NASA may mean the end of late-night hunger pains – with the press of a button. A 3D printer button, to be precise.

MAKE MINE A PEPPERONI! RIGHT: A pizza printed on the SMRC machine at the SXSW Eco conference.

(3D Printed Pizza) Flickr • annainaustin, (Natural Machines pizza) © Natural Machines.

BELOW RIGHT: A pizza being made by the Foodini.

volume micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) and flavourings are added to modify the taste – and the printing process also has the capability to shape these ingredients into a variety of textures. All the powdered ingredients are stored in dry sterile containers from which they are fed directly to the printer. At the print head, the powdered ‘inks’ are mixed with water or oil (just as in an inkjet printer) to hopefully create the perfect dish. The finished product even comes out hot too! For the nutritionally-minded amongst you, this system also has the potential to revolutionise specific dietary requirements. The developers point out that not all people require the same balance of nutrients: a sportsman may need more protein; a pregnant woman needs more iron; and older people need a completely different balance of nutrients to either of these. The 3D printer can create a multitude of taste and texture combinations that can be tailored to specific nutritional or health needs. And while it is extremely important for astronauts in space to balance their diets, the company is highlighting the uses their 3D food printer could have in everyone’s household. Add to that the potential for this technology to help tackle ever-rising food costs and global food scarcity, and you’ve got yourself a truly marketable product!

Getting a slice of the action: print your own pizza To show off the power of his invention, Anjan Contractor goes back to basics: pizza. (Now that’s a foodstuff we can all associate with!) At the recent SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, he demonstrated how his printer first prints a layer of dough, then a tomato base, before finishing with a cheese topping. The pizza is printed directly on a hot plate, which bakes it during the printing process. The Phase I project is currently in its early stages and NASA is still years away from testing these products on an actual flight. But given its versatility, these devices may be coming

to your kitchen sooner than you think. No one has yet tasted the famous printed pizza Anjan has created because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) need to first approve the artificial food for consumer use. However, other companies are already working on similar printers that you could take home. A start-up in Barcelona, Natural Machines, has been developing a prototype 3D printer that can (apparently) make a pretty decent pizza. Neatly dubbed the Foodini, it can even make cookies, chocolate and ravioli (see a video here). Regardless of the device that makes it to market first, it sounds like the food printer could be the must-have kitchen gadget of 2020. And while the food may be a bit weird-looking, I don’t care, so long as it helps me to perfect those red cabbage profiteroles I’ve been working on…

More information • • • •

The RepRap website The project proposal to NASA Anjan’s Youtube page BBC report on the Foodini

Natasha Agabalyan is a lab scientist and budding chef who loves to explore the science behind what she puts in the pot. Holding a PhD in cell biology, she left her home in Brighton, UK, to continue her conquest for a Nobel Prize in Calgary, Canada. In between drinking excessive amounts of coffee and blogging at The Science Informant, she likes to geek out with an episode or ten of Star Trek. You can follow her on twitter at @SciencInformant.

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Previous Page: (Yoga in the mountains) Flickr • Tomas Sobek, (Hatha yoga in Japanese @ Semperviva) Flickr • GoToVan, (SIRSASANA) Flickr • gbSk

Downward-Facing Dog, Dead Bug, Cobra, One-Legged King Pigeon, Cow Face and Inverted Tortoise. No, this isn’t the line-up for some bizarre Noah’s Ark. These are the positions into which millions of people twist themselves every day, all in the name of yoga. Often when people hear ‘yoga’, they imagine incense burning, long-haired hippies, or, at the other end of the spectrum, skinny celebrities talking about how yoga “healed” them (hmm). Yes, there can be incense, chanting, and the odd Madonna-like-bod – but yoga is much more than smells, sounds and body envy. This activity is about community, confidence-building and, more recently, a little bit of science. It’s about bringing a variety of people together and getting in touch with your physical ‘nooks’ and mental ‘crannies’. Sounds scary, I know, but I recently gave yoga a go, and it wasn’t as bad as it sounds… We all know that exercise is good for us, but many of us underestimate just how much it can improve and maintain both our physical and emotional health. Last year, British Medical Journal announced that exercise can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%. Still, we all know that work, family, or relationship pressure can make you feel like there’s little enough time to exercise, let alone dedicate a whole hour to Pilates, Zumba or a yoga class. But, a toned body aside, there is clearly a lot to gain from exercise – yoga included. So is it finally time to wave goodbye to love handles?

Take your pick There are many different types of yoga out there. From ‘Hatha’, using slow and gentle movements, to ‘Ashtanga’ and ‘Power’ yoga, which are both physically demanding and fast paced – the world is your yoga oyster! No two classes are likely to be the same, meaning the effects on the body will vary according the specific practice. Some practices allow you to stretch and unwind while others will definitely get a sweat going. Of course, many people still think of yoga as the lazy option – a waste of time in a fast-paced world

where ‘boxercise’ or ‘spinning’ are the supposed guarantors of a chiselled physique. Other people consider yoga worthless because of its less than scientific roots in Indian mysticism. It is true that you may not be constantly gasping for breath during a yoga class, but the physical benefits of yoga are becoming increasingly hard to argue against. Stretching and the holding of postures encourages muscles to lengthen, a process that leads to stronger, more powerful muscles. Indeed, research published in the journal Preventative Cardiology, in 2007, showed improvements in muscle strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health in young adults after two months of twice-weekly ‘Hatha’ classes. I know how incredibly frustrating it is to trudge away on a cross trainer for an hour after a full day of work when all you really want to do is sit in front of the TV and consume a large glass of Merlot. In fact, an Ofcom survey from the end of 2013 found that the average person in the UK spends around 4 hours watching TV each day, with another report estimating we spend 1 in 12 waking minutes on the Internet. And we’re not alone: Canada has similar statistics, while residents of the US squeeze in an impressive 5 hours of box-watching per day. Even if you are pushed for time, it might be worth substituting an hour of TV or Internet surfing for an hour of yoga.

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TOP: A Hatha yoga class. ABOVE: An Ashtanga yoga class.

STRETCH IT, BABY! While many studies have explored the mental health benefits of yoga and meditation, they have tended to rely on participant questionnaires or have been published in questionable journals. Encouragingly, though, mainstream medical journals are starting to publish carefullyconducted critical analyses: one study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes that the evidence for yoga use is “encouraging” but more research is needed. There is certainly more work to be done but scientists are edging closer to confirming what yogis have believed for years – yoga and meditation can improve health and help us cope with stress. John Denninger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, is currently leading a five year study on how yoga and meditation – which are intrinsically linked – affect the genes and brain activity of those who are stressed. Denninger says: “There is a true biological effect. The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain.”

the “the body, breath, mind, soul, and ultimately, the universe itself”. Now, I know the prospect of unifying your body with the universe sounds ridiculous at worst and a little comic at best, but yoga nevertheless aims to provide something more meaningful than a jog around the park. “The warmth of the heated ceiling, the smell of the burning incense along with the serenity and peace of the room is totally therapeutic. As soon as you walk into a practice you forget about everything around you and are taken into a world of peace and relaxation,” says Gabriella Maubec, 22, a dedicated yogi.

In another report published in 2012, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn found that yogic meditation may even slow the ageing process. 39 people were randomly chosen to practice Kirtan Kriya, a type of yogic meditation, or listen to relaxation music for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. Blood tests revealed that the meditation group showed a marked increase in the activity of an enzyme called telomerase over and above the relaxation group (43% vs 3.7%). Though not normally active in most cells, telomerase can prevent cells from ageing in the normal way. Yes, it’s too early to say that this effect is from yogic meditation specifically, or that upping telomerase activity will definitely result in prolonged youthfulness. Time, as they say, will tell. According to expert practitioner, Swami Rama, yoga (which means ‘union’) supposedly unites

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(Bill) Flickr • milopeng

Yoga yourself younger?

(Bondi Beach Yoga) Flickr • tarotastic


From a purely psychological point of view, deep breathing and meditation practices can help shift our thoughts away from everyday financial concerns and personal struggles. “Every session I dedicate my practice to one person. I am able to give up an hour where I can focus on something and someone other than myself”, says Gabriella. Experienced yoga teacher, Emma Despres, 38, says “For me, yoga has been life-changing, and not simply because it helps to increase our strength, stamina, flexibility and balance on all levels – physical, mental and emotional.” “I love getting so many people involved in my classes,” says yoga teacher-in-training, Sophie Bourge, 23. “I especially like to get boys to come to classes, because I still feel there’s a bit of a stigma in the UK about guys practicing yoga. When I lived in Vancouver, all the ski and surfer dudes loved it! We need to get more of the boys involved!” So, as a person committed to the ethos of trying new things, I have started a personal ‘experiment’ into yoga. I can’t be sure I’m doing it ‘right’, but I have to say, exercise and healthy eating have become less of a battle. They say that “yoga gets you back to you”. So far, I have found that it also allows you to take time out of your busy schedule, to put down the remote

control, and just reflect. Oh, and there are also claims it can improve your sex life. What’s not to love!? Right, now to get into the one-legged king pigeon…

Research •

• • •

• • •

Comparative effectiveness of exercise and drug interventions on mortality outcomes: metaepidemiological study Effects of Hatha Yoga Practice on the Health-Related Aspects of Physical Fitness Yoga for anxiety: a systematic review of the research evidence Average daily TV viewing time per person in selected countries in 2011 A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Quantification of Outcome Measures for Mind Body Interventions UK digital adspend hits record 6 month high of £3bn The Communications Market Report

Jessamy Baudains is a journalist based in London with a passion for writing and travel.

She spent a year working and exploring East Africa and Sri Lanka before embarking on an English Literature degree at the University of Warwick. She is currently studying for her MA in International Journalism at Brunel University. When she’s not drinking a cosmopolitan, reading Oscar Wilde or planning her next trip, she blogs at You can follow her on Twitter @JessamyBaudains.

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A KILLER CURE It is a blazingly sunny December afternoon in a small town at the southern tip of Africa. The air is hot and heavy. No wind or breeze stirs the tree tops. Sara, a mother of two, is working in the garden, meticulously uprooting weeds, pruning hedges, and trimming the trees covering her perfectly pink hydrangeas. Suddenly, the air around her is filled with a droning, angry sound as a black cloud rises up from the tree foliage. Instinct takes over, and Sara covers her face and runs.

Previous Page: (bees) Flickr • Alex Ki, (Honey Bee Swarm) Flickr • kaibara87

Adrenaline and panic temporarily keep the pain at bay, but the multiple stings she receives from a swarm of African honey bees – or killer bees as they are known in most parts of the world – demand to be felt eventually. The intense pain seizes her; she collapses, and darkness descends. Little does she know that what’s coursing through her veins, and could be killing her, could hold a cure for a disease that is decimating her beloved country.

The murderous helper In South Africa, the legends and myths surrounding the beautifully coloured goldenyellow and black striped stingers are passed down through the generations: a horde of thousands of bees will relentlessly chase you for almost half a kilometre once the nest is disturbed, and the venom from between 500–1100 stings can kill an adult human. Venoms like those of the African honey bee, are cocktails of substances that can have a harmful effect on the human body, the ingredients of each cocktail being unique to each species of venomous creature. For many venoms there are no anti-venoms (more correctly called

‘antivenins’) available. However, an ongoing revolution in medical research is looking past the need to develop antivenins to focus instead on the therapeutic properties of the venoms themselves: what if venom-toxins could be used to cure instead of kill? This is not a new idea. The great 15th century philosopher Paracelsus once said; “In all things there is poison; there is nothing without poison. It only depends upon the doses, whether a poison is a poison or not”. So, over the years, hundreds of venoms have been studied for their potential therapeutic effects, with some of the most deadly venoms providing the most potent treatments. Since 1974, researchers have been exploring the anticancer potential of venoms from snake species such as the Elapidae family (which include Cape and Egyptian cobras), Viperidae family (rattlesnakes), and Crotalidae family (pit vipers). Toxin from Agkistrodon contortrix (the copperhead snake) has been shown to reduce the spread of tumours, while the purified venom from the Tasmanian tiger snake has been found to slow the growth of neuroblastoma cells (tumours of the head and brain). Currently, purified venom-toxins from snakes are used in drugs for high blood pressure, strokes, kidney diseases, diabetes, heart failure, and even deafness – as well as being used as anaesthetics. Amphibian skin also carries fascinating venoms that can be used to heal wounds, kill cancer cells, and destroy microbes – with the latter being the subject of particularly fervent research given the rise of microbes that are immune to most currently-available antibiotics. Bee, wasp, centipede and scorpion venoms have also been tested for their ability to effectively treat leukaemia, liver cancer and multiple sclerosis; and as treatments to destroy the bacteria associated with sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, and candida infections.

Zooming in on a cure for HIV But the use of venoms as the basis of potential medicines isn’t without major challenges. After all, venoms – by their very nature – are meant to kill. To unlock the healing power of venoms a way must be found to cross the line from toxin to therapy. And this is where the fields of nanomedicine and nanotechnology are stepping up to the challenge.

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The venom-powered nano-cure Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have been using toxin-coated nanoparticles that have little ‘bumpers’ (much like a car’s bumper) spaced evenly around the nanoparticles, which help them bounce away from normal cells. But HIV, which is much smaller than normal cells, misses the bumpers and therefore comes into contact with the toxin-coated shell of the nanoparticle. This then destroys the protective double membrane HIV scuttling and scary uses for protection, neighcausing the virus bours to burst. – not as mortal enemies, creatures that bring and power to heal.

but as the potential

References: • • • • •

• •

Spatial foraging patterns and colony energy status in the African bee A lytic peptide with anticancer properties Cytolytic peptide nanoparticles (‘NanoBees’) for cancer therapy. Cytolytic nanoparticles attenuate HIV-1 infectivity Anti-cancer effect of bee venom toxin and melittin in ovarian cancer cells through induction of death receptors and inhibition of JAK2/STAT3 pathway Bee venom in cancer therapy Nanoparticle-conjugated animal venom-toxins and their possible therapeutic potential

Janske Nel is currently busy with her second year of a Master’s in Nanotechnology, centred specifically on nano-oncology, at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She shows no fear in the face of spiders, snakes or long hours in the laboratory, but shudders at the thought of books left face down.

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(killer bee hive) Flickr • dutchman_svh

Nanotechnology is a field of research that works with particles at the nanoscale – objects sized between 1 and 100 nanometres (1 nm = one billionth of a metre). To put this into perspective, an atom is 0.1 nm wide, viruses are between 10–100 nm in size, and the diameter of a human hair is a bulky 100 000 nm. Nanomedicine, the field of research that develops nanoparticles for use in medicine, has as one goal: the design of drug delivery systems that are safer, easier to control, and more effective than traditional medicines. It is here that venom and nanotechnology are coming together in a harmonious relationship that could drastically improve human lives, especially in South Africa. South Africa is a country amongst those with the highest rates of HIV/Aids in the world. It is estimated that over five million South Africans have so far contracted the virus – a staggering 10% of the country’s overall population. Thousands of kilometres away, at the Washington University School of Medicine in the US, researchers have turned to bee venom to try and find a solution to the rapid spread of HIV. Their weapon of choice: nanoparticles coated with a highly potent toxin from bee venom called melittin. Melittin isn’t a complete newcomer to the world of medicine: it is already known to be an anti-cancer agent, capable of attacking renal, lung, liver, ovarian, prostate, bladder, and breast cancer. Its effect comes from its ability to destroy cell membranes, causing cells to rip apart. (This also explains why a bee sting is so unpleasant!) It may come as little relief to Sara and the thousands of other people who are injured and killed by bees every year, but the marriage of venom – feared by mankind for millennia – and nanotechnology, a small but ever-growing field, could have a revolutionary effect on our ability to fight diseases that kill millions. Perhaps countries like South Africa, which are home to the most venomous creatures, should re-evaluate how they look at their buzzing, slithering,


February/March 2014

Reporting the news you might have missed...

BODY Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to get more exercise? How’s that “working out” for you? Would it help if you knew exactly how exercise has such long-lasting effects on good health? Well Guru is here to tell you that scientists have just made a big step forward in understanding exactly that. Think of it as a geeky pep talk… A landmark new study has found that exercise not only makes your heart and muscles stronger but may actually change the type of fat in your body. Researchers discovered that exercise triggers muscles to produce a small molecule that travels through the blood and into ‘white’ fat, changing it into calorie-burning ‘brown’ fat. This transformation may be a ‘missing link’ between exercise and its wide-ranging benefits.


There are two kinds of fat. Everybody knows about horrid white fat – the stuff that gives us adorable ‘love handles’ and ‘bingo wings’ – but its lesser known cousin, brown fat, is a very different beast. White fat cells are where our bodies store energy from the food we eat. Think of them as fuel stores; we need that reserve just in case we don’t eat enough to fuel our daily activities. But snaffle more calories than you use up each day and you’ll start to get bigger. Brown fat cells are more like fuel burners – they burn fat to generate heat. Scientists used to think brown fat was only found in new-born babies and disappeared by adulthood, but we now know that most adults still have some. Also – interestingly – it tends to be more plentiful in thin people.

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IN THE NEWS So what does this have to do with exercise? Well, researchers from Bruce Spiegelman’s lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, found that when muscles are exercised they release a newly-discovered hormone called irisin – and irisin can make white fat behave more like brown fat. These experiments were done on mice, although lots of researchers are pretty confident that the same thing happens in human muscle It’s not yet clear whether irisin affects all humans in the same way though, as other researchers could only find effects in elderly people.

Fitness in a bottle Irisin isn’t the whole picture however. In this latest study a team led by Robert Gerszten, in collaboration with Spiegelman’s group, found another substance called beta-aminoisobutyric acid (or BAIBA for short). BAIBA is much smaller than irisin (a single amino acid for the real geeks out there), but has been found to ‘brown’ the white fat cells by making their DNA behave more likea brown fat cell. BAIBA also encourages liver cells to break down fats – a sure sign of increased metabolism. Indeed, mice given water laced with BAIBA to drink had a higher metabolism, healthier blood sugar, and lost weight.

To check whether these effects are likely to apply to humans, the scientists analysed samples from over 2000 patients (from the long-running Framingham Heart Study) and found that people with low levels of BAIBA in their blood had high cholesterol levels – putting them at a higher risk of heart disease – and more insulin resistance – putting them at risk of diabetes. But when people had taken part in a 20 week exercise programme, as part of another study, their BAIBA blood levels increased by 17%. The researchers now think that having more BAIBA protects you from conditions like diabetes and heart disease. It could therefore be used as the inspiration for new treatments – perhaps even in the development of drugs to fight obesity, or even just to help people lose weight. Maybe your doctor could even test your BAIBA levels and find out how much exercise you have really been doing! But we shouldn’t get too excited just yet: there’s still a lot of work to be done, such as finding out if BAIBA has any unforeseen side effects in animals, before they can even start down the road towards drug development. So don’t go turning in your gym shoes just yet – there’s still no substitute for a good old-fashioned work out.

TECHNOLOGY Oh no! I’ve spilled my wine! Be a dear and pass me that carbon nanotube. I’ll admit, it’s not the first thing you think of when it comes to mopping up spills, but tiny tubes made of a sheet one carbon atom thick may soon be the answer to a whole host of cleaning jobs. As the name suggests, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are small… really small. They’re ‘nanoscopic’ to be precise! Since their discovery in the 1960s, CNTs have adopted a variety of roles – from flat screen TVs and solar panels to carbon fibre bike frames, and even nerve regeneration therapies. CNTs have taken the world of science and industry by storm, and now they promise to help the environment by cleaning up pollution. Is there nothing these little


BELOW: A scanning electron micrograph of carbon nanotube bundles.

guys won’t do? Clever Italian chaps at the University of Roma have led the way in making this new type of CNT supersponge by changing the way CNTs are normally made. To the complicated manufacturing process, they have added a key new ingredient – sulphur – which has let them synthesise longer tubes than before, fashioning

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them into a porous sponge-like structure. In tests, these 2×2cm mini-sponges were able to selectively absorb up to 3.5 times more toxic substances from water than all previous efforts. They were also able to hold an amount of vegetable oil up to 150 times their initial weight – meaning a small 7 gram sponge could easily soak up your one litre bottle of olive oil. Now that’s got to come in handy during any kitchen-based fiasco! But the real applications are to environmental clean-up initiatives. After, let’s say, an oil spill, these new CNT sponges could be released into the water, selectively grabbing all the nasty toxins. “OK,” I hear you sneer, “but then what, smart guy? You’ve just replaced free-floating toxins with toxinfilled sponges. Idiot!” That’s true (and a little harsh). However, the important thing is that these CNT sponges contain iron… iron is magnetic… magnets can be used to pull stuff towards you… see where

I’m going with this? After sending out the CNT troops, they can be retrieved far more easily than other water-cleaning options available by using good old-fashioned magnets. Then, like any sponge, they can simply be squeezed out and used again. Perfect. The next step is to figure out a way to produce these CNT sponges on a commercial scale. (If a 550,000-ton oil tanker bites the dust, you’re going to need a lot of sponges.) The other thing to be absolutely sure of is that the sponges themselves aren’t toxic to any wildlife. All things being well, we should soon have a new tool in the fight against dirty water, and, more importantly to you and me, an effective way to get red wine out of the carpet.

Reference: •

A three-dimensional carbon nanotube network for water treatment

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.

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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Previous Page: (The Clove Lakes Colossus) Flickr • Hobo Matt, (Medicine Cabinet) Flickr • CarlMilner, (gila monster) Flickr • soulsurvivor08, (Cry Me A River - The River Wey Navigation - Aug 2013) Flickr • gareth1953 the original

NATURE’S MEDICINE CABINET For as long as there has been disease, people have looked to nature to find cures for their ills. Whether it was Aztec doctors using tree roots to cure stomach aches or ancient Chinese practitioners using seahorses to cure kidney problems, the natural world has always offered doctors plenty to put in their medicine bag. Today, even in cutting-edge research facilities, the outdoor laboratory of nature is still a goldmine for important drugs. Let us now go on a journey into the wild – to discover nature’s hidden healers…

A walk in the scrublands If you happened to be strolling through the scrublands of south-western America on a spring morning, you might be lucky enough to meet a two foot (60cm) long lizard called a glia monster. This venomous lizard is an ugly beast but it’s not dangerous. (It’s too slow-moving to catch a human.) Its saliva, however, contains substances that have the power to fight disease. Move over Harry Potter fans, this dragon spit is for real: Glia monster saliva contains a substance called exendin-4, a compound that can be used to treat diabetes. This chemical is very similar to a hormone (GLP-1) released in humans when food is broken down. It has been used to produce the diabetes drug exenatide – a modern medicine that causes weight loss and helps control insulin blood levels. But the healing

slobber of this remarkable lizard doesn’t end there. It also contains gilatide, a chemical which appears to boost memory and may one day be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Relaxing by the river As we continue our journey, we saunter along an English riverbank in June. The willow tree is there, in all its green splendour. In the bark of this majestic tree, there is a chemical called salicylic acid, the main component of a chemical best known to us as aspirin. This is one of the most important drugs available today, and is used in pain relief and stroke prevention. Sometimes the oldest remedies are the best: every year over 100 billion aspirin tablets are swallowed. Aspirin was made into medicine in 1897 but plants have also made more recent contributions too – although to discover these we must

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travel further afield.

A trip to the tropics

(Catharanthus roseus24 08 2012) Wikimedia • Joydeep, (Penicilliummandarijntjes) Wikimedia

You would probably ask for a second opinion if your doctor gave you some Madagascan rosy periwinkle, but this plant has made a huge contribution towards the treatment of childhood leukaemia. With pretty pink flowers, it is a short shrub that grows in the rainforest. You wouldn’t have to travel far to spot it: the plant is known for its beauty and is used as an ornamental plant the world over. And it is certainly worthy of prominence: vinblastine, which is extracted from its leaves, has increased the survival rates of childhood leukaemia from 10% to around 95%.

tionise medicine: a penicillium mould, left on a discarded Petri dish, produced an unusual substance that appeared to kill many diseasecausing bacteria. When Fleming spotted it, he called it ‘mould juice’ for several months before eventually changing it to the now famous ‘penicillin’. Fleming’s penicillin heralded the era of modern antibiotics and enabled patients with previously untreatable diseases to make full recoveries. Today, while penicillin is used less than before, many of our other antibiotics are also fungal in origin.

High and low, grubby and clean It’s not just plants and animals that have health benefits – fungi also get in on the act. Fungi are amazingly diverse organisms and can survive in places where few other living things can. Some live in deep sea sediments, withstanding extremely high pressures, while others live in areas of high temperature or salt concentrations. To live in such a wide range of habitats, they have become mini-chemical factories, which is extremely useful for humans. The shining jewels in the crown of fungal contributions to medicine are antibiotics. From the untidy mess of Sir Alexander Fleming’s lab came an accidental discovery that would revolu-

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BELOW: penicillium mould covering a mandarin orange.


(Conus magus (orange form)) Flickr • smallislander, (Space boots) Flickr • Nomad Tales

Into the deep Researchers look everywhere to find the next big drug – and that doesn’t just mean on the land! Sometimes they have to don their flippers and dive underneath the water to see what sunken treasures may be there. One such treasure is Tectitethya crypta, a large, pale sponge that you could swim past in the shallow waters off the Caribbean without so much as a second look. This sponge was crucial in the development of AZT, one of the key breakthrough drugs in the treatment of HIV. Even more unusual is the Conus magnus, a poisonous cone snail found mainly in tropical waters near coral reefs. Its venom has led to the discovery of ziconotide, a pain-killer more powerful than morphine that can be used to treat long-term pain. It is probably appropriate, then, that it is also known as the ‘magical cone’.

The biggest killer worldwide is heart disease and one of the most important weapons in our fight against it is the family of medicine called the ‘statins’. These compounds were discovered in a common fungus, Aspergillus terreus, which lives in soil across the world. Statins have the amazing ability to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your blood, meaning your arteries are less likely to become clogged up – offering protection against heart attacks and strokes. They have become a crucial way of keeping many people healthy.

Finishing where we began Our journey concludes where you are standing (or at least where you should be standing – see our Nature Guru’s article on the benefits of being outdoors). The soil beneath your feet hides the source of the best-selling pharmaceutical agent in history.

The natural world is magical and it is because of this magic that the great outdoors has become the great pharmaceutical manufacturer. From dragon spit to magical cones, these wonders can be found the world over. When you next go for a walk in the great outdoors, look around (and beneath) you and just think of all the miracle drugs waiting to be unearthed.

James Crewdson is a medicine undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge and is also a member of the Zoology department at the same university. He has a keen interest in all biological sciences and in the happenings of Manchester City Football Club, the current and future champions of English football. You can follow him on Twitter at @JamesCrewdson1.

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We like to think of our body being whole, but it is actually made up of 300 trillion tiny cells, all working together harmoniously. (Well, for most of the time.) However, if you wait long enough at least one of these cells might develop a fault. In cancer, it will lose its ‘off switch’ and start dividing uncontrollably, eventually resulting in a tumor. Apart from trying to lead a healthy life or raise money for cancer research, there’s not much any of us can do about this inevitability. Each of us has to wait patiently while medical researchers try to find a cure – hopefully in our lifetime. But no longer must we wait passively: new online tools are turning the tables and giving ordinary people – you and me – the power to beat cancer.

Web 3.0 – power to the people The 1990s are remembered as the decade when the Internet entered everyday life. The 2000s have been known for the birth of ‘Web 2.0’ – when the Internet became truly interactive. Similarly, the 2010s may well be remembered as the ‘decade of the crowd’ – the era of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing has achieved some of the Internet’s greatest successes. Take, for instance, Wikipedia – a massive, free online encyclopedia, which is curated by millions of volunteers and serves to keep us glued to our iPhones on trivia night. Meanwhile, ‘crowdfunding’ sites like Kickstarter now offer a platform for aspiring entrepreneurs – artists, writers, film makers, and just about anyone with an idea – to pitch their projects to the world. This web venture has already raised over $100 million (USD) for various projects around the world. Not bad for a ‘kick-start’. Scientists have also been getting a piece of the crowdsourcing action. Online sites, such as the Tree of Life Web Project, which describes and documents our planet’s biodiversity, is powered by online collaboration. And now anyone who wants to see an end to cancer can play their part with Cell Slider, a website developed by Cancer Research UK which harnesses civilian brainpower in an effort to find cancer treatments.

Breaking the bottleneck with Cell Slider When someone is first given a cancer diagnosis, cell samples are collected from the tumour and sent to a lab for analysis. Trained technicians then spend long, grueling hours sorting through these samples, flagging up any that may have cancerous cells. Such is the time-consuming nature of the work that many hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed and have accumulated huge backlogs of unanalysed images: terabytes of cellular data sit waiting to be processed. What’s more, although it’s not a difficult thing to do, it hasn’t yet been automated: our eyes and mind are faster and more accurate at analysing images than any computer. What this does mean, though, is that pretty much anyone with good eyesight and a basic knowledge of what to look for can analyse cell slides – a task that, at heart, simply involves color distinction, shape identification, and counting. It is a powerful way for the Internetconnected masses to make an invaluable contri-

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Previous Page: (CSD 2010_12) Flickr • MaineGeneral Health

We have a love-hate relationship with health scare stories. We love finding out what can happen inside our body. But we also hate these stories because the thought of what can go wrong scares us silly. On radio and TV, in newspapers and on the Internet, at hospitals and in doctors’ offices, medics can’t help but hit us with a brutal truth: the older we get, the more likely we are to get a nasty illness – like cancer. But Dennis He and David Smith discuss how this story just might have a happy ending after all…


to be double-checked by other keen civilian scientists.

Building momentum So far, Cell Slider is going great guns and has truly caught the imagination of the ‘crowd’. After being online for about a year, more than 1.9 million images have been analysed. What’s more, all the time spent by our helpful citizen scientists on Cell Slider has freed up time for technicians to spend on more demanding tasks. The data from these results have not yet been published, but the fact that there is an outlet for the everyday person to aid in research is a promising start. We can only hope that this will prompt future innovations that allow for even more ‘citizen scientists’ to take a more active role in fighting disease. The Cell Slider initiative is all about giving power to the masses, not about individual recognition: if you participate you won’t receive any money, credit in academic papers, or get points towards any type of reward. (See sidebox on the next page for alternative crowdsourcing websites that do). But what you will receive is comfort from the knowledge that you’ve done something that could greatly benefit the lives of

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(We’re thinking of you) Flickr • Unhindered by Talent

bution to the battle against cancer. In essence, each image represents one part of a person’s journey with cancer. And each analysed image gives more information on how well cancer treatments, new and old, are working. The Cell Slider website attracts would-be collaborators through a sleek and intuitive interface. Like any video game, it has an introductory tutorial to show you what you are looking for in each image – ‘playing the game’ means looking at microscope images of real tissue samples taken from real people. Each cell slide has a variety of cells (different coloured blobs), which you must distinguish between, keeping a particular eye out for any yellow-colored cancer cells. At present, most of the images on Cell Slider are from women with breast cancer, but there are plans to expand the site to include other types of cancers. And don’t worry, the fate of patients is not resting on any one user: each slide gets analysed multiple times by different users, and many are re-reviewed by a certified technician. Statistically speaking, the slides with higher concentrations of yellow stain – those most likely to be indicative of cancer – are more likely

CROWDSOURCING A CURE FOR CANCER How to earn a Nobel Prize on your coffee break

others the world over – and that’s the kind of feeling money can’t buy.

References •

Click to Cure – Cancer Research UK and Zooniverse Cell Slider.

The Tree of Life Web Project.

ETeRNA, an online game, helps build a new RNA warehouse –

Video games assist biology research.

What is Kickstarter?

Protein Folding Game –

Crowdsourcing biochemistry and molecular biology.

Dennis He is a student at the University of Western Ontario. Stick him in a room with strangers and he’ll most likely know the most about ancient Roman history, the best napping locations on campus, and how to make delicious chicken potpie. In his free time, he enjoys riding bikes downhill really, really fast.

David Smith is an Assistant Professor the Biology Department in the University of West Ontario. He loves weird genomes and trying to understand how they got that way. He also loves bright coloured cycling jerseys, detective novels, and bullmastiffs. He blogs at

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(Mixed Cancer Cells Color) © Cell Slider

The website eteRNA has the motto “Played by Humans. Scored by Nature”. This crowdsourcing site takes a puzzle-based approach to getting users to analyze ribonucleic acid (RNA) – crucial genetic molecules that help in the creation of proteins in the body. EteRNA aims to create a library of synthetic RNA designs, which will eventually be used to control disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Not that you need to know anything about such things: gameplay involves twisting clickable multicoloured chains (RNA) into different shapes to score points. It’s a surprisingly addictive puzzle with a real-time high score feature and other performance indices. Plus – wait for it – your RNA design could be selected for lab synthesis, giving you super-science status. In a similar vein to eteRNA, the website Fold-It uses crowdsourcing to build better proteins. After a short tutorial, users are given real three-dimensional proteins to digitally bend, crinkle, and fold into bizarre conformations. They are then awarded points based on the size, properties, and possible function of their folded product – essentially, whether their protein is any good for real life use. Encouragingly, some of the findings from Fold-It have been published in prominent scientific journals, which is a tangible result from the efforts of ‘citizen scientists’. (Find dozens more ‘citizen science’ projects, online or otherwise, at




REMOTE CONTROL FOR BRAINS “There’s an app for that” – remember that tagline from a few years back? In a few short years, apps for seemingly everything have materialised. But an app to control minds would be a step too far, surely? Mind Guru, Kim Lacey, looks into the highly controversial RoboRoach project and an app that can indeed control minds. Admittedly, just the minds of cockroaches, but still… A common complaint in many households is that there are too many remote controls (OK, so maybe just in mine). On more than one occasion, I have thought, “why in the world do we have so many options to turn on the TV?” Not once, however, have I ever thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if I could control the mind of a cockroach... with my phone?” But for those of you who have been irritated by the lack of insect mind remote controls (you’re out there somewhere, right!?) then fret no more: the future has arrived.

RoboRoach: a bit like Robocop, but smaller. And with antennae. It was while reading Emily Anthes’ Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts (a great book, incidentally) that I first discovered RoboRoach. Anthes’ book maps out how biotechnology is shaping the animal kingdom. You know, dolphins with prosthetic fins, bionic dogs, genetically engineered fish that glow near pollution… that sort of thing. She also introduces and explains RoboRoach: the world’s first commercial insect cyborg. RoboRoach took its inspiration from the secret services. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) previously had investigated the feasibility of ‘bug spies’, the idea being that a remote-controlled insect could literally be a “fly on the wall”, incon-

spicuously snooping on top-secret meetings while sending audio back to the infiltrators. (Of course, no one ever suspects a cockroach.) Developers, Backyard Brains, decided to take this idea into the mainstream… and into the classroom. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, Backyard Brains developed a mechanism and a mobile app to conduct ‘mind control’ experiments at home. By attaching tiny electrodes on to a cockroach’s two antennae – and by controlling the electrodes with the mobile app – armchair scientists can override the insect’s movements. A cockroach’s simple brain uses its two antennae to help it find its way around. When one antenna strikes an object – a wall, say – it turns in the opposite direction. The RoboRoach ‘backpack’ is stuck onto the insect’s back and sends electrical signals directly into each antenna, similar to those that the roach’s nerves would naturally create. The backpack communicates with a ‘remote control’ app via Bluetooth, giving any smartphone user god-like powers over how the roach walks: stimulate the left antenna and the roach turns right; stimulate the right and it turns left. Cool, right? Except the gross part is that you have to have cockroaches walking around your house.

A clever experiment or sick entertainment? RoboRoach uses the same technology as deep brain stimulation, a treatment for Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions. And so in its short commercial life, Roboroach has quickly become a popular educational tool, helping everyday people understand science in a fun way. Entertainment value notwithstanding, however, not everyone can stomach insect experiments and there are serious ethical issues surrounding the project. Soon after RoboRoach’s release, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) launched a very public attack, branding the project “cruel”, “sadistic” and “torture [to] bugs”. They formalised their objections in a complaint to the Michigan attorney general and the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, citing the felony of “unauthorised practice of veterinary medicine (performing surgery on cockroaches)”. On its website, Backyard Brains lists and responds to many of the criticisms they have received, including: “This … is simply a show-off demo that abuses animals”; “Animal experi-

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Soon after, the Google Play Android Store also pulled the app from circulation, thus leaving RoboRoach stalled for the time being. You can still buy the kit, but without the app, it is a bug without a remote. (The only workaround at present is for Android phone users to download and install the app directly from the RoboRoach website, rather than via Google Play.) As an educator, I’m hoping RoboRoach makes a comeback. In the meantime, I’ll settle for an app to steer spiders away from my apartment walls.

ABOVE: RoboRoach packaging and surgery kit.

References •

• • •

Anthes, E. (2013) Frankenstein’s cat: Cuddling up to biotech’s brave new beasts. New York: Scientific American. Backyard Brains. Ethical Issues Regarding the Use of Invertebrates in Education. Update: RoboRoach – There’s NOT an App for That.

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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(All images in article) © Backyard Brains

ments have no place in educational demonstrations”; “You are causing pain in the animals and that is inhumane”; and a personal favorite, “You are objectifying the cockroach.” Backyard Brains appear sympathetic to their critics and address these major ethical issues with clear explanations and peer-reviewed research. But this hasn’t been enough for Apple or Google: after intense lobbying from PETA’s supporters, the Apple App Store removed the RoboRoach app in November 2013. In an email to RoboRoach supporters (full disclosure: I donated $5 so I’m on the email list), Backyard Brains shared the following explanation from Apple: “[...] last night we received word via a phone call that the RoboRoach app would not be approved because we violated the App Store Guidelines 15.1: 15.1: Apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed or maimed, shot, stabbed, tortured or injured will be rejected.”




It all started as an argument one evening. The men were on one side of the room, the women on the other. The battle lines were drawn. Movie star Keira Knightley was the point of discussion. We men were passionately arguing that she is beautiful. We knew we were right. But the women were far from convinced – some claiming that she has a face that looks as if it has been hit with a frying pan. They were clearly jealous of her good looks. Predictably, the disagreement did not reach an amicable conclusion. The saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is painfully clichéd but true: everyone’s idea of what makes someone attractive is different. (Clearly not everyone thinks Keira Knightley is.) It is, however, hard to deny that some people are just… well… darned good looking. Take Natalie Portman or Ryan Gosling: they seem to have that special something, meaning that they regularly feature in glossy mags’ ‘Hottest Celebrities’ lists. We all know it when we see it, but can never quite put a finger on what that ‘X-factor’ is. The secret of beauty is, however, not as mysterious as you might think.

Hey baby, your testosterone drives me wild!

– they need to be able get our heart racing, tummy tumbling and the hairs on the back of the neck standing… erect. Put simply, they need to ‘turn us on’ – and that usually means they need to look attractive. So let us look at a stereotypically ‘good looking’ man: he is tall, has broad shoulders and a muscular, V-shaped upper body. Conversely, the belle of the ball has a curvaceous figure, full lips and soft features. These appealing qualities aren’t random and are seen positively across different cultures. In a primitive and unconscious way, they give us clues about who will make a good mate and parent of our future children. The hallmarks of a ‘good looking’ man suggest that he is physically strong, thus giving him the ability to intimidate and dominate other men. He will therefore make a good protector of a future family. Any good looking man will also tend to have prominent cheekbones, a chiselled jawline and prominent brow – all of which develop in the presence of high testosterone levels in the blood. And high testosterone levels indicate that he is particularly virile. Similarly, a woman’s allure is born out of her ability to bear children. When high levels of the female sex hormone, oestrogen, pump through her veins, she will develop wider hips, larger breasts and softer features. Plenty of oestrogen can make a woman extremely fertile – and that seems to be something men simply can’t resist.

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After breathing, drinking, eating and sleeping, a human’s next most powerful urge is to get down and jiggy with someone special. But this recipient of our lovin’ can’t be just anyone LEFT: Comparison between a male (top) and a female pelvis (bottom). Females generally have wider hips to permit childbirth.

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HOT OR NOT? Is that a wallet in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

(Love is Blind) Flickr • BlueGoaॐ☮, (CD) Flickr • najjie

You may have dreams of getting together with a Natalie or a Ryan, but let’s face it: most celebs are way out of your league. (Of course, this does not apply to our rock star Guru readers.) When a man gains status, strange things start to happen: we see overweight rich tycoons marrying impossibly well-endowed swimwear models, and we hear of ugly football managers getting hooked up with women twenty years their junior. In terms of physical attractiveness alone, these match-ups make little sense: ‘Mr Ugly’ has none of the evolutionary qualities that mark him out as a strong, testosteronefuelled father-in-the-making. When it comes to wealth and status, love truly is blind.

But a ‘league table’ of attractiveness really does exist. A psychological theory known as ‘the matching hypothesis’ explains how all of us are placed in a desirability pecking order, with the most biologically attractive people being towards the top. According to this widely accepted concept, people find their match with someone who has a similar position in the league table – beautiful people tend to get together with beautiful people, while less beautiful people hook up with similarly placed individuals. This dating hierarchy sounds simplistic, but real-life romance normally follows these rules. As we see in the case of rich businessmen, however, it is possible to springboard up the league table by gaining wealth, status and

power. Each of these social indicators of security and strength represent the ability to protect a family and so compensate for other ‘biological weaknesses’ (like having a beer belly).

The secret to beauty: be boring But we’re still not seeing the whole picture when it comes to the weird science of the super model. Hormones, wealth, success and fertility still do not guarantee a successful modelling career. The real trick is to be remarkable in an unexpected way. By being utterly unremarkable… If you ask a bunch of randomly-chosen volunteers to rate the attractiveness of, say, the faces of 100 different people, most will agree on which are the most and least attractive. The highest scorers will not have big noses, stickyout ears or lopsided smiles. The attractive people will rarely be ‘funny looking’; to all intents and purposes, they will be completely and utterly ‘normal looking’. This experiment reveals that symmetrical faces have real appeal. Look at the portraits of all of Hollywood’s hottest individuals: for the majority, the left side of the face is almost an exact mirror image of the right. (You can test out the facial symmetry of any face online at

The reason for Mr or Miss Average being beautiful is that they serve as a very crude marker of health and good genes: serious illness, injury, or a genetic disorder may give unusual looks or disfigurements. In the 200,000 years of human history, our ancestors needed a way to single out those with healthy genes to pass on to the next generation. In the absence of genetic testing, choosing a symmetrical, average-looking person seems to have maximised the chance of us passing on good genes to our progeny. (In truth, it must be said, being lopsided is rarely a good indicator of poor health. Evolution, it seems, is an unforgiving mistress.)

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You may be hot, but you’re boring.

HOT OR NOT? It’s only skin deep

We can prove our affinity for the ‘normal’ by digitally creating an ‘average’ face: just morph the features of several randomly chosen faces together. Check out these computer-generated average faces and see if you agree.

The next time you are getting ready to go out, and you are slipping into your favourite black number before moisturising your T-zone (yes, modern men, admit it), consider how your fashion choices reflect your desire to fit in. The clothes you wear and the style of your hair are usually chosen to be ‘average’ or ‘normal’, and rarely to truly stand out. But being desirable only goes so far. Research confirms that it is friendship, shared interests and clear communication that form a close, lasting relationship. So there really is no reason to envy the ‘beautiful people’ or the rich and famous. I mean, who would really want to look boring anyway?

Explore More: • •

Psychology experiments about preferences for faces and voices Science News – Has a great little summary on the determinants of facial attractiveness (aimed at Kids – so it’s quick and easy to read) Beauty Check – An excellent site that covers all the science behind different aspects of beauty

References: •

• •

• images © Face Research Lab.

Averageness or symmetry: Which is more important for facial attractiveness? Do facial averageness and symmetry signal health? The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness: Sexual selection and human morphology. “Out of My League”: A RealWorld Test of the Matching Hypothesis. Does attractiveness buy happiness? “It depends on where you’re from.”

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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ASK A GURU Friday is usually a day to unwind and let those

old-fashioned e-mail or send it in a letter. (There’s

mental cogs go down a gear. Which is why every

a stamp around here somewhere...)

Friday we run ‘Ask a Guru’, a chance to send those questions that popped into your mind during the week. Y’know, those irritating thoughts like,“is there intelligent life out there?” and “why can’t men breastfeed?” You can tweet your questions to us @GuruMag with the hashtag #AskAGuru, post it on our Facebook wall, or send it via the app (just tap the ‘?’ on the main menu). You can even use good

Your questions are awaited by an eager team of qualified writers and Gurus who will do their very best to find you an answer. And we will seek out an external expert to help if we can’t. Go on, give us your best shot! Check out our selection of five answers from the last couple of months. Read these and more online.

(Anton und Torsten) Flickr • Torsten Mangner

Can men lactate? Asked by Louise via Facebook Yes, there are reported instances of breastfeeding men which, although very bizarre, brings a whole new meaning to “sharing the parenting duties”. Male breast milk production is called male galactorrhoea. There are a variety of reasons for this to happen, but it is most commonly caused by raised levels of the hormone prolactin. This hormone is produced from a tiny gland at the bottom of the brain called the pituitary gland. Prolactin stimulates breast tissue to grow and milk-producing glands to develop. Without prolactin, a woman would not be able to breastfeed (it PROmotes LACtation) and it is produced aplenty in women who are nearing the end of pregnancy or who are breastfeeding. Men, understandably, don’t have much circulating in their blood. Should something cause increased prolactin levels in a man, he will ultimately develop milk-producing breasts, just like a breastfeeding woman – albeit in a

smaller and less dramatic form. The most common reason for high prolactin levels (hyperprolactinaemia) in men is a small tumour (non-cancerous) on the pituitary gland. This is usually treatable and can often be cured. It is always abnormal in men (in case you were in doubt) and a milky nipple is always a reason for a man to visit the doc. So good news, you fathers: your nipples are safe. You just have to get used to cleaning up the poop.

Answered by Dr Stu

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Do spiders ever run out of web or do they make more when they eat?…I think I’ve seen them recycling old web for new web but I

can’t be sure as I normally squash them on sight. Asked by Matthew Dearest Matthew, So what happens on a slow day when our spider isn’t Spiders are awesome. They spin beautiful webs, they having any luck catching dinner? It’s used a lot of get rid of pesky flies, and – very occasionally – they protein to build a lovely web, but the flies just aren’t bite nerdy high-school students, turning them into coming. It would be a terrible waste just to abandon all superheroes. It therefore saddens me that you would that work. Why not eat the web and re-use the protein “squash them on sight”. Regardless, you do pose an to spin another one in a better location? That’s exactly interesting question: how do spiders make webs, and what they do! Spiders munch old web and use the protein to refuel their spinneret glands – it’s recycling can this ability run out? at its best! A spider’s silk doesn’t leave its body fully formed. There’s no little roll of spider thread waiting to be So there you have it. Spiders are not only awesome, unravelled: the silk is actually secreted as a protein they’re also eco-friendly. What more could you want in a creepy crawly? fluid, which hardens when it comes into contact with the air (a bit like glue does when it comes out of a tube). This fluid is produced by the spinneret glands located at the tip of the abdomen, and the web has different properties depending on which gland type it comes from: it can be sticky (to catch prey) or strong (to form robust structures). To make its web, all the spider needs is a supply of protein. So, yes, the more they eat, the more web they can produce. It’s a nice circle isn’t it – the spider builds a web to catch prey, it eats the prey, and digests it into protein, which it then uses to build another web. Simplicity: thy name is spider. Answer by Ross Harper

What would happen if we lost our moon? No moon? What an Apollo-ing notion! (Forgive me…) In short: without a moon, things would get messy – although it may take a few thousand years for it to really sink in. The moon does three important things on the Earth: it controls its tides, its rotation and its wobble. By pulling at our oceans with its gravity, the moon gives us high tides. (The sun does a similar thing, but because it’s so much further away it doesn’t affect the tides as much.) So without the moon, tides would be less pronounced. Such a change wouldn’t sole-ly affect fishermen (get it?! Ok, I’ll stop now) – but also many animals that depend on changing tides to survive. Mass extinctions wouldn’t be great for the planet, but it wouldn’t cause the world to come to an end. The moon also puts a damper on the Earth’s spinning

speed, causing it to ever-so-slightly slow down. This is called tidal friction and, thanks to the moon, our days are actually becoming gradually longer. Without our moon, days would gradually become shorter. This wouldn’t be too much of a bother though, as we would lose only a couple of seconds every 100,000 years. Losing the moon would mean losing the Earth’s stability: our planet wobbles as it orbits around the sun and the moon reduces this wobble. The physics behind this is a bit too complex to go into, but the result would be greater fluctuations in the Earth’s day lengths; there would be periods with no seasons, and times of seasonal weather extremes. Changes would still be quite gradual though, so we’d have some time before extreme climate change would put an end to our reign on Earth.

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(Spider web) Flickr • lynnmwillis

Asked via Facebook

ASK A GURU But perhaps most importantly, if we lost our moon, we’d have a tough time explaining to future generations what inspired werewolves, the Moon walk, and songs like ‘Man in the Moon’. If we’d lost it a century ago, mankind would be “one large step” behind – though the Soviet Union and U.S. would have saved themselves a quarrel (and a lot of money). Check out this documentary for a fuller story – including the likely origin of our moon. To see what Hollywood makes of the matter, you could try watching (enduring?) the 2013 blockbuster Oblivion. Answered by Isabell Hutchison

What is the longest someone has been pregnant for?

(harvest moon) Flickr •, (Ensaio {grávida} - Silvana Lyra) 500px • Nathalinha .

Asked by Fiona West The current record of the longest ever successful pregnancy goes to Beulah Hunter and her daughter Penny from Los Angeles. While a normal human pregnancy lasts for around 266 days, Mrs Hunter’s pregnancy in 1945 lasted for 375 days – a whopping 109 days overdue. Dr. Daniel Beltz of the Los Angeles Methodist Hospital, who treated Mrs Beulah, confirmed the date when she first tested positive and the date of birth. He was quoted as saying that the excessively long pregnancy was due to unusually slow development of the foetus. The baby was described as of healthy weight when born, had a normal development and went on to lead a healthy life. Bear in mind that, as with all records of a medical kind, the validity of this claim is questionable. Some argue that it could be two separate pregnancies adding up to a longer time period. The first could have miscarried and then been directly followed by a second successful pregnancy. Another idea is that the date for the start of the pregnancy could be wrong. The date was taken from the missed period prior to testing positive, but this could be due to a spontaneously missed period and a false positive test. In 1945, the pregnancy test involved injecting the pregnant woman’s urine into a mouse and observing any hormone-related changes. While this was an effective test, it is less accurate than today’s test and could conceivably have falsely come up positive. If she then got pregnant in the following few weeks, it would appear that the baby had an exceptionally long gestational period. However, this is all speculation and we will probably never know the exact length of the pregnancy.

While that pregnancy was long, it isn’t the longest time between conception itself and birth. In May 2003, a boy and a girl were born 13 years after being conceived. In late 1990, a couple from Jerusalem, who had infertility issues, had embryos cryogenically frozen for use at a later date. Twelve whole years later, these embryos were implanted in the mother and she gave birth to a boy and a girl, weighing 5 pounds each.

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Are edible nightshades toxic or poisonous? If so, in what quantities? When you think of a ‘nightshade’, the image of a deadly nightshade plant or a pretty flower probably comes to mind. In reality, nightshades are part of a vast family of varied plants (the Solanaceae family). Quite a few types of nightshade are highly toxic – but lots aren’t. Had you realised that potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers (to use the US spelling) and even the tobacco plant are types of nightshade? Which gives you something to think about next time you squeeze ketchup on your fries. The chemicals that make nightshades poisonous are called alkaloids. These harmful chemicals help to protect the plants from anything that wants to eat them; it’s the reason hot peppers are so fiery – they contain the spicy alkaloid, capsaicin. While the heat from eating a chili pepper may deter other mammals, humans can’t seem to get enough (see this previous answer to find out why). And while eating lots of hot peppers isn’t fatal, it can certainly make you sick. (Technically it is possible to die from chili pepper overdose but you have to try very hard – Ed) Some nightshade plants are deadly, such as belladonna (deadly nightshade) and the jimson weed. Never eat these. They contain tropane, another much more toxic alkaloid. Side-effects are nasty: hallucinations, coma, and death. A few leaves or berries are enough to kill an adult human. Children and animals are especially at risk since the berries look edible and taste sweet. Oddly, tropane can also save lives when given in controlled doses as atropine, a drug that can treat an irregular heartbeat. Potatoes and tomatoes are the most popular edible nightshades. They do contact a harmful alkaloid called solanine, which when ingested in large quantities can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and hallucinations. We can get away with eating tomatoes and potatoes because solanine levels are low in the edible parts of these plants. Toxic levels of solanine are found only in the leaves, stems, and unripe fruit. Therefore, eating ripe tomatoes is fine, so you should feel free to eat as much tomato sauce and mashed potatoes as you want. But if anyone offers you tomato leaf tea, don’t drink it. Oh, and avoid the green potatoes.

(Mon nom : ‘Atropa belladonna’... Deadly nightshade...) Flickr • anne arnould

Asked by @sineira via twitter

List of edible nightshades: • • • • • •

• • • • • •

Tomato Tomatillo Naranjilla Eggplant (aubergine) Potato Pepper (includes hot and sweet varieties as well as spices like paprika, chili powder, cayenne, and Tabasco) Pimento Gogi berry (wolfberry) Tamarillo Cape gooseberry/ground cherry Pepino Garden huckleberry

Answer by Shambralyn Baker

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HAS THE WORLD GONE BANANAS? Ask most people what they think are the main sources of radiation and you’re likely to hear three main answers – nuclear power, radioactive waste and fallout from A-bombs. And once upon a time I thought the same way. After all, nuclear power and bombs use radioactive materials and produce radioactive waste, which goes everywhere and gets into everything. Right? Well, not quite. I have often heard it said that “no radiation is safe”. But, for most people, nuclear power and fallout from nuclear weapons aren’t the major contributors to the radiation they are exposed to. They’re not even close! Let me therefore outline five modest steps that you can take to protect yourself from common sources of radiation – most that you are probably not aware of.

Step One: build your house out of straw I know this strategy didn’t work so well for the three little piggies, but bear with me… Most of us get our largest annual dose of radiation from naturally occurring sources, including several radioactive minerals found underground. But these minerals don’t stay buried away: they are commonly found in building materials like concrete and brick. In other words, the stuff houses are made of. So one way to avoid natural sources of radiation is to eschew typical building materials and opt for straw instead. And your straw house would

be better off without a basement: radioactive radon gas, found in rock and soil, can seep into your home and accumulate to potentially dangerous levels.

Step Two: install a lead-lined roof Step Two for radiation protection is where things get tricky. We need to deal with the fact that another large portion of our annual dose of radiation takes the form of cosmic radiation from outer space. To keep our exposure to cosmic rays to a minimum we should place nice, thick, lead rooftops on our straw house. I am no engineer, but I suspect there may be structural support issues here...

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HAS THE WORLD GONE BANANAS? Step Three: avoid antique china The rest of our annual radiation dose comes from man-made sources, the biggest contributor by far being medical X-rays and medical procedures using radioactive substances (‘nuclear medicine’). After these, the next most important category is the radiation that we receive from consumer products like tobacco, smoke detectors, televisions, computer screens, and vintage-glazed china. So it would best if we all quit smoking (which we should do anyway), toss out the older electronic devices we still have kicking around our homes and get rid of our old coloured dishes. And if it weren’t for their medical benefit, we should also think twice about having X-rays done on us. Sometimes we just can’t escape the fact that life is a trade-off… (Thankfully, though, the usefulness of a medical X-ray far outweighs the risks.)

(No More Sake) Flickr • Furryscaly, (Please say you can see the sad face too) Flickr • Debs (ò‿ó)♪

Step Four: live in a plastic bubble So what about the radiation that comes from nuclear weapon fallout and nuclear power waste? These must have some impact, surely? Surprising though it may seem, these two sources contribute a combined total of just 3% of the average person’s annual dose. To cut down on airborne nuclear fallout from bomb tests or contaminations leaked from nuclear power generators, simply encase your cozy new digs in a large plastic dome. It is wise to first lay out a larger plastic sheet on the ground, below your house, and then cover it all with a large bubble. Be sure to also install filtering vents to allow new air inside, too.

Step Five: beware bananas! Yes, you read that right: beware bananas! One banana a week for the whole year could give you a dose of radiation equal to one dental X-ray thanks to all the naturally-occurring radioactive potassium in these tropical favourites. These sneaky yellow radiation sources have been secretly poisoning us for centuries.

All of these hopelessly tongue-in-cheek tips really just serve to demonstrate one thing: the statement that “no radiation is safe” is awfully naïve since all living things on Earth have been bathed in it pretty consistently for a very long time. I don’t mean to imply that all doses are safe (at high ranges they certainly are not) but irrational measures to protect ourselves from tiny amounts are unnecessary. Anyone who works near X-rays or radioactive substances do need their doses monitored, as do airline staff (who are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation when flying at high altitude). But for all of us, the best protection is simply a little understanding. And if, after some research on the subject, you are still concerned, you can always cut out bananas…


Calculate your radiation exposure online with the Environment Protection Agency’s calculator.

A graduate of McMaster University, Canada, Spencer Manwell spends most of his time studying the nuclear reactions that light up the stars. When he is not irradiating stuff in the lab, Spencer divides his time between watching movies, playing 90’s video games and wrestling with his dog, Charlee. He’s also very proud of the fact that not many of his friends are nerds.

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Previous Page: (Fort Greene workout 032) Flickr • IaIvanova, (Broken treadmills? Johnny Number 5 graveyard?) Flickr • dpstyles™

The weather channel said it was - 23 degrees Celsius. And that’s before you factored in the wind. With the windchill effect, it felt closer to - 40 degrees Celsius. Ten kilometres separate me from my work, but this morning I had decided to run there. I know it sounds crazy, but after kitting myself in warm and breathable clothing I did it. And you know what? Even in that weather it felt good. Very good. It wasn’t always like that. When I was a teenager, I was crippled with anxiety. Leaving the house was terrifying because I didn’t feel safe. Much of my adolescent existence would fit nicely in a box labelled agoraphobia – although I was never diagnosed as having it. But one evening in my late teens, my mother convinced me to go for a walk with her. It was a cold winter night so the walk was brisk. I left the house feeling apprehensive but returned home feeling… good. And “good” was something I had not felt in a long time. After months of living in a prison of seemingly endless anxiety, my evening walk had, for the first time, offered relief from my anguish. As we strolled together, my heart raced and my eyes widened – but not from panic. That brief, energetic experience snowballed to ultimately change the way I saw the outside world and my place in it. More than that, it changed the way I felt about myself. I went on to learn how to jog and then run: each time I ventured out, an exercise-induced exhilaration gave me a way to cope with my highly-strung ‘fight-or-flight’ responses. Being outside had suddenly given me a sense of comfort. And even as my muscle fibres slid back and forth and my heart rate increased, I remained calm.

(Just search for ‘exercise and mental health’ in Google Scholar if you’re in any doubt.) As an evidence-based personal trainer, I can tell you about the fitness benefits that outdoor exercise brings. Running, for example, helps your bones and muscles. But treadmill and trail running are not the same thing: treadmill running means running in a straight line and so doesn’t allow for much lateral movement, whereas a trail leaves your body needing to deal with a changing terrain. Outdoor trails twist from left to right and pitch up and down, causing your ankles and knees to compensate. (Hey, you might even have to jump over a puddle or two!) And, in moderation, this can be a very healthy stress on your bones, ligaments and tendons. Over time, muscles, tendons, and bones will strengthen, and fitness improvements will be great. Assuming, of course, that you don’t trip and crack your skull open. I personally don’t jog with a helmet...yet.

Kicking the treadmill In the late 1990’s I had read about research that describes how aerobic exercise (the kind of exercise that makes you get out of breath) could positively affect many psychological disorders, such as depression. It was gratifying to learn that there was scientific evidence that aligned with my reality. More recently, I have explored the research linking exercise and the mitigation of mental illness in greater depth. Decades of research all reach one unequivocal conclusion: exercise is good for the mind. Very good.

Making a hard cycle feel easy Cycling outdoors has its benefits too. Unlike indoor cycling, the outdoor variety tends to involve longer rides. Many people will get on a ‘spin’ bike or cycle ergometer and program in a set amount of time. In contrast, outdoor riding lends itself to pedalling for longer, undoubtedly

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Get shredded in the sun Of course, you can also weight-train outdoors. Bodyweight training in a park is one of my favourite things to do. Obvious exercises are chin-ups, push ups, and dips. Lunges can be done anywhere and rows performed on an

Further reading: •

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Prof John Ratey This is a book that distils all the current science behind how exercise can positively affect the brain. It is essential reading for anyone interested in how the mind and body work together.

References: •

• •

Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Change of muscle activation patterns in uphill cycling of varying slope. Laboratory versus outdoor cycling conditions: differences in pedaling biomechanics.

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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(Riverside Park South, Memorial Day weekend 2010 - 29) Flickr • Ed Yourdon

due to the ‘fun factor’ of being outside: a half hour can easily extend into a ride of an hour or more. Experiments also show this: cycling indoors feels harder than outdoors even if the exertion is identical. Hills will cause you to use more force in your pedal strokes, taxing different groups of muscles and causing you to waffle back and forth between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Aerobic exercise (also incorrectly called ‘cardio’) is the low intensity exercise you can sustain for a long time. Anaerobic exercise is the gruelling, high intensity workout. Fast-slow exercise, like what you do on a bike, is called ‘interval training’ and is very good for improving heart strength, lung capacity and overall fitness. Even if you’ve never heard of interval training, encountering hills will force you to do it. Providing you don’t stop and walk your bike up the hill, that is. Fitness tip: once you get to the top of the hill, try not to stop pedalling. Keep an even force on the pedals and go at your regular pace until your breathing returns to normal.

angle can prove challenging even for a wellconditioned weightlifter. It is hard work, of course, but doing it outside makes it more enjoyable: a recent analysis of all published exercise research concluded that training in natural environments gives a greater sense of wellbeing than doing it inside. Sticking to a regular exercise regime is also considerably easier if done outside. Training outside will also allow you to soak up the sun’s rays, which will help your body to create vitamin D. (Just use your head and wear sunscreen if you plan to be in direct sun for a long period of time.) If you are accustomed to exercising indoors, then try a few sessions outside and see what happens. It can be argued that it is more dangerous to exercise outdoors, but hopefully you can appreciate how much greater the benefits can be. Risks can be mitigated: wear a bike helmet, don’t run in the midday sun, wear lights and reflective clothes at night or in the early morning, train with a friend and add a bullet proof vest if you’re doing push ups in a dodgy neighbourhood. Go outside my friends and get under some sky.

After the US Parcel Post Service was introduced in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service with stamps attached to their clothing. The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail.



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