Category Archives: science

Teaser Tuesday – 23rd January, 2018

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Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Purple Booker.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This is my choice of the day:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew P. Walker

60% It is said that time heals all wounds. Several years ago I decided to scientifically test this age-old wisdom, as I wondered whether an amendment was in order. Perhaps it was not time that heals all wounds, but rather time spent in dream sleep. I had been developing a theory based on the combined patterns of brain activity and brain neurochemistry of REM sleep, and from this theory came a specific prediction: REM-sleep dreaming offers a form of overnight therapy.

BLURB: An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses. Clear-eyed, fascinating, and accessible, Why We Sleep is a crucial and illuminating book.

I am conscious that I hardly ever read non-fiction and when I saw this one on offer, given our recent, rather scary experience with my husband’s severe sleep apnea, I decided I wanted to know more about this subject. Now I do, I’m making strenuous efforts to get my own broken sleep rhythm back into some kind of order. This book is not just recommended – for those of you who don’t regularly get 7-8 hours sleep a night, this is required reading.

Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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This non-fiction book has become an international bestseller, charting a remarkable story that consumed the author for a decade.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing polio vaccine, helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East henrettalacksBaltimore today, where Henrietta’s children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into Space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Reading a variety of scientific articles and books over the years, I’d already heard about these remarkable HeLa cells and was prompted to track this book down when I read about it in the New Scientist. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows an amazing story, helped by Skloot’s vivid writing which grabbed me by the throat and sucked me into this incredible tale. I was appalled at the grinding poverty endured by the Lacks family and horrified at Henrietta’s treatment which seemed every bit as barbarically brutal as anything you’ll find in Tudor apothecary notebooks. It didn’t help that Henrietta was coloured at a time when the south was divided along institutionalised racial lines. However, I don’t think poor Henrietta stood a chance against the rapacious cancer that ripped through her – the sheer toughness of those cells that are still going strong today, decades after her death, is a testament to the aggressiveness of this particular cancer.

Henrietta was only thirty-one when she died, leaving behind a young family. A good portion of the story deals with the painful grief of children who were never given sufficient information to come to terms with their mother’s involuntary role in a whole number of scientific breakthroughs. While the rest of the world marvelled at the sci-fi headlines describing the HeLa cells and their contribution to humankind’s knowledge, Henrietta’s daughter was riven with horror at that thought that some debased Alien-type version of her mother was locked up in a laboratory somewhere, enduring endless torment.

In America, the law currently says that once patients have had growths/moles/tumours removed, these tissues are no longer belong to them. Furthermore, if researchers and biotechnological companies find a useful gene or cell, they are entitled to sell off these portions for a profit – and American citizens can’t do anything about it, according to the latest Supreme Court ruling. However, this book isn’t in the business of portraying scientists as unfeeling villains – George Gey who removed the tissue sample from Henrietta and was responsible for growing it on, worked tirelessly on the project and freely allowed other scientists around the world access to the HeLa cells, making it possible for the large number of advances and scientific investigations to occur.

What this book starkly highlights is that the myth that science can somehow operate outside the messy business of living, is just that – a myth. The fact that a bunch of cells harvested from a young woman dying of cancer were responsible for a number of number of medical breakthroughs, doesn’t alter the fact that her children suffered by being completely ignored by that process. And if Rebecca Skloot hadn’t arranged for a portion of the royalties from her book to go towards a foundation to help Henrietta’s descendants, the hard fact is that they probably would be still unable to afford medical insurance.
10/10

Review of The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

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The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for Gorillas in Our Midst, a groundbreaking and world-famous experiment where they asked volunteers to watch a 60 second film of students playing basketball and told them to count the number of passes made. About halfway through, a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit strolled to the centre of the screen, beat her chest at the camera and then walked away. Half the volunteers missed seeing the gorilla…

invisiblegorillaYep. It made my jaw drop, too. Unless you’ve already heard of the experiment, of course. Many people have, by all accounts. But before you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as yet another oddball piece of human behaviour that doesn’t really apply to everyday life, just stop and think of the ramifications for a long moment. And if your imagination still fails you, then pick up this book and read on. You need to know what it has to say. Really.

A policeman called Kenny Conley, while chasing an armed criminal, failed to notice a brutal beating by fellow officers nearby. In a crackdown aimed at making an example of the officers involved, Conley was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. During the trial, the jurors couldn’t believe he ran past the beating without noticing it. He was sentenced to thirty-four months in jail and fired from the Boston police force, after the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. However, when Chabris and Simons published their findings, they were contacted by a reporter who had begun to believe that Conley was telling the truth. Based on their evidence, there was a retrial, at which point it was shown that as Conley was entirely focused on the armed criminal he was chasing, it was highly likely that he didn’t notice anything else. Finally in 2006, Conley was reinstated by the Boston Police Force and awarded over $600,000 in back pay and the following year, he was promoted to detective. This is just one of the amazing stories that the book charts as it challenges a raft of our assumptions about ourselves and what we can do. We generally over-estimate our ability to multi-task; instinctively believe people who project confidence, whether or not they are competent; rely on our snap decisions for more heavily than we should; and think we are more capable than we are—with some scary consequences.

Despite the fact that it is written by two psychology professors, the writing style is clear and accessible, while the subject matter is absolutely riveting. If you write any kind of fiction, I highly recommend this book to you. It will give you all sorts of counter-intuitive evidence you can use to tweak those off-the-wall scenarios you have swirling around in your head.

On a more mundane yet vital level, if you are in the habit of conducting long conservations using a hands-free phone during car journeys, then you should urgently read Chabris and Simons’ findings on what that does to your ability to drive your car safely. Basically, they discovered that while folks are chatting on the phone, their driving is significantly impaired. However, if you are talking to a passenger, the same impairment doesn’t occur…

If you don’t pick up any other non-fiction book this year, I urge you to read this one. Your life may depend upon it.
10/10

Put Out Your Hand…

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Question is – which one? Are you one of the right-handed majority – or a leftie, like me? There’s only about 10% of us, and it is a statistic that has held fairly steady despite predictions when children were no longer forced to write with their right hand, that the figure would rise to be approximately 50% of the population. Why is there a rump of us who don’t fit the norm, when it comes to handedness – or lateralisation – to use the proper term? It’s a question I’ve often wondered about.

zurdo3It certainly didn’t make life particularly easy at school. We used ink pens to learn to write so you can imagine the smudgy messes I produced, when struggling to form letters and trying to avoid them with my hand. Handicraft lessons (now called Design Technology) were a nightmare when even cutting paper with scissors posed a challenge back in the days without left-handed scissors. I didn’t manage to tie a bow until I was 8 years old and couldn’t reliably catch or hit a ball until I was 12.

Since then, I’ve had to cope with right-handed typing desks and right-handed checkout tills back in the days when you still pressed all the buttons and bar codes were in the future. It took a long time, but I eventually managed to become reasonably dextrous (a derivative from the Latin word for ‘right’) – and able to perform a number of tasks with my right hand.

There have even been some advantages. I made my VI Form College Fencing team and was regarded as a fairly able tennis player. Not, I hasten to add, through any real talent, but because the average college fencer and tennis player, when confronted with my left-handed play, was at an immediate disadvantage. And while painting walls and ceilings – the only part of DIY I enjoy – when my left hand gets tired, I simply swap hands as I’m completely ambidextrous with a paintbrush. However, when it became apparent that my children and grandchildren were right-handed, I was relieved. Life throws enough curved balls at us without having to battle through being sinister/gauche – the Latin and French words for ‘left’…

Still – it could be worse. Poor George VI, the stammering king who reluctantly stepped up to the job when his elder brother abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson, was reputed to start stuttering when his tutors forced him to write using his right hand, instead of his left. Fortunately, we are more enlightened towards left-handers in the classroom, these days. Which doesn’t stop them encountering more difficulties in learning to write and left-handedness is linked with dyslexia and autism.

What has been discovered, is that humans aren’t the only species with left/right preferences. All manner of animals show signs of preferring a fin/paw/wing/claw. Some of these are gender based. Your tom cat will probably bat a moving leaf with his left paw, while a female is more likely to use her right. So why is this business of lateralisation so widespread throughout the animal kingdom? Experiments with parrots have shown that those displaying more pronounced lateralisation have greater capacity to solve puzzles,schooling-fish-photo than ambidextrous birds. Scientists believe that when the brain categorises physical tasks to one hemisphere or another, rather than splitting them across both halves, it allows more ‘processing’ power for problem solving. So maybe that’s why I took four goes to pass my driving test. It’s not that I’m a particularly bad driver – it’s just that I have to stop and think when anyone directs me in terms of left and right. And I’m likely to turn the wrong way, anyway…

There is also a theory that schools or herds of prey animals have the maximum chance of survival while trying to escape a predator if the majority of them turn in one direction, allowing for safety in numbers. But, this advantage is reinforced if a smaller number turn off unexpectedly in the opposite direction. The sudden change of direction within a wheeling mass helps to confuse the attackers, while this smaller number will have an opportunity to escape because they have broken away from the main group. Apparently.
Hm. I’m not so sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that this rump of wrong-footed/finned creatures are the sacrificial offering. Their ill-advised break for freedom provides a tasty meal, while their more fortunate friends and relations rush off in tight formation, to live another day…

 

Handy way to keep in touch…

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We all know that mobile music and phone equipment is getting ever dinkier – however there is a stumbling block. The fact that we need to interface with these gismos using our fingers to tap/switch commands and messages means that they have stalled at a certain size and cannot get any smaller.

skinput-1-500x250However, US researchers are in the process of overcoming this hurdle – by using our own bodies. When linked with a projector strapped to the arm, our skin can become the screen on which menu lists, a number/key pad or screen can be projected. Tapping on various parts of the body generates different kinds of vibrations, depending on the muscles, tendons and skeletal shape and density beneath the tapped area. Initial experiments have indicated that it takes about 20 minutes to learn ‘Skinput’, which has a promising prototype accuracy of over 90% when using finger flicks.

“The human body is the ultimate input device,” comments Chris Harrison, one of the project leaders.

When seeing the video of this prototype, I experienced a real sci-fi moment and felt that, particularly with mp3 commands, there is strong potential for this technology.

However, I winced when I saw the bit where they were playing games using the hand as a screen. I’m not a naturally gifted computer game-player – a few rounds of Bejewelled and Tetras is about my limit… But when I’m engrossed, I do tend to give the keys a bit of a pounding. What happens to that complicated set of nerves, muscles and tendons making up the human hand if someone spends extended periods of time jabbing at it? And don’t say that the pain will be a useful indicator. Some of us who are VERY sore losers only notice such details after the game is over…

Maybe, it’s just my cautious nature going into overdrive – but I’ll be thinking twice before stabbing at my precious, irreplaceable hand while playing a quick game on the move.

Staring at the Answer

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A fascinating article in the New Scientist (Issue no. 2753) by Anil Ananthaswamy discussed the findings of several scientists. They have discovered that how we move directly impacts on our approach to abstract thought and the conclusions we reach. Traditionally, our ability to reason – one of the defining traits of our humanity – is considered to be completely closed off from our physical responses. However, these recent findings are increasingly linking our physical states and movements with higher order thinking skills.

A series of experiments in 2008 by Chen-bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli showed that people obviously excluded in a social setting felt physically colder than everyone else in the room.

Tobias Loestscher and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne conducted an experiment where they asked a dozen right-handed men to think of a string of 40 numbers, between 1 and 30, in a random sequence. As the men listed their sequence aloud to a metronome beat, researchers recorded their eye movements. A pattern quickly emerged.

If they looked left and downwards, the number was typically smaller than the previous one, while if they looked up and right the number was larger. And this correlation was so precise, the researchers could predict the differences in the numbers just by studying the exact direction where volunteers’ eyes focused.
What this experiment didn’t clarify, was whether the eye movements were influencing the number selection, or if the size of the numbers were affecting the eye movements.

However, this is what Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists has been exploring in his experiments with 24 students. He asked them to move marbles between two shelves, while talking about either positive or negative events in their lives. The students were measurably faster at telling anecdotes reflecting their movements – moving the marbles upwards onto the higher shelf while recounting a positive story, and vice versa.

The next step was to ask the students neutral questions, such as, ‘tell me what happened yesterday,’ when they were engaged in moving the marbles. They were more likely to discuss a positive occurrence while moving the marbles up to the next shelf and recount something negative when moving the marbles downwards.

So… how you move can affect your mood and what you are thinking. On one level, we always knew this, didn’t we? Think of metaphors for moods and mental states that we’ve used all our lives – ‘on a high’… ‘given the cold shoulder’… ‘down in the dumps’… ‘the answer staring you in the face’… George Lakoff, linguist and philosopher, claims that this close relationship with metaphors is no accident, in his metaphor theory. As children, we absorb the physical world in relation to our bodies – and when we have to try and make sense of more abstract ideas and problems, we naturally relate them back to what we actually know and are intimate with – our own physical states.

When suffering with depression some years ago, I was instructed to move briskly, keep my eye level up to meet the gaze of oncoming pedestrians and make sure I smiled at someone every fifteen minutes – whether I wanted to or not. Apparently, when we are miserable, we instinctively look down at the ground, reinforcing our depressed state by isolating us and keeping our mood blue. And using my ‘smile’ muscles, even when I wasn’t feeling like it, would automatically lighten my mood. I was assured that if I went for a walk every day for at least 45 minutes, following these rules, when I got back I would feel happier. I did. It helped that most people I smiled at, responded by smiling back. And within a few days, I was able to start climbing out of my black hole.

I hasten to add – I am not one of those poor souls who suffers from recurring depressive illness, I just happened to be going through a particularly awful patch in my life, which overwhelmed me… I don’t know whether such basic advice could assist someone with major clinical depression – or even if it is generally handed out. But it certainly helped me.

Maybe, these results might lessen the divide between artists, principally concerned with emotional, physical responses; and scientists, more concerned with abstract, higher order problems. I surely hope so. In common with many others, I can’t rid myself of the niggling, nasty feeling that in so thoroughly dividing these two major branches of human endeavour, we are halving our innate abilities and subsequent capacity to respond to the major challenges facing our species.

Broken Promises

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They call us the Baby Boomers.  We are the post-war birthrate bulge that were promised the best of the best – and then rebelled.  We plugged in and chilled out – not disconnected, though.  Never that.  We demonstrated.  A lot.  Against nuclear weapons; against the war in Vietnam; for equal rights for women; for a better deal for black Americans.  We wanted the Pill and legal abortion, free love and a fairer society.

We believed everything was possible – and why?  Because we were on our way.  Leaving the planet and going into Space.  Starting with the Moon, our generation confidently expected that we would continue the great human march out to the stars.  Amidst the worldwide celebration over the moon landings in 1969, I recall my grandfather declaring that I would probably live to see the first human land on Mars.  After Obama’s recent announcement scrapping plans to revisit the Moon, I’m not holding my breath – despite Buzz Aldrin’s gritted determination to put a gloss on the President’s decision.

Apart from the sheer oddness of the decision to by-pass the Moon ‘because we visited it 40 years ago’, when we have amassed a whole tranche of fascinating information that could be profitably investigated since then – I do wonder at the notion that we can successfully prepare for a manned mission to Mars, without trying out the equipment in the nearer, less testing conditions of the Moon.

But there is also a far deeper and more important reason why Humanity should continue to strive for the stars.  It is in our DNA to quest further – and if we continue to allow political and financial considerations to keep us tethered to an increasingly overcrowded Earth, the long-term effects won’t be pretty.  Those of us in First World democracies already speak of ‘economic migrants’ as if these folk were committing a crime in trying to reach somewhere better.   When all they’re doing is responding to an age-old instinct that drove our species out of Africa and across the planet millennia ago.

In breaking the promises made back in the days of my youth and shrinking our horizons, we have short-changed our children and their children, whose concerns seem pettier, less ambitious than those of our generation.  Do I sound like a grumpy old woman – you bet.  But, when I think back to bright promise of space travel…   When I think of the expertise built up in both Russia and America, that was dribbled away by timid politicians… I am also broken-hearted that Obama has joined that dreary list.

Tests for autism?

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This is a tricky one, isn’t it? And yet – before a prenatal test for discovering autism is discovered – surely this is the right time to be discussing the issue. Far too often, scientific and medical breakthroughs with moral ramifications are left in a heap to be dealt with later. And eventually they end up being retrospectively sorted out, after a trail of people have become entangled in having to figure out their own way through these thickets.

Firstly, do we accept that autism is a disease? Hm. Not sure about that one. For starters, it encompasses a spectrum of disorders from fairly mild social unawareness to the extreme and desperately distressing complete lockdown of any form of communication. 60% of severely affected autistic people never learn to speak, while many remain doubly incontinent and unable to dress or eat unaided. So at what point do we decide that a person on this spectrum is ‘diseased’, rather than mildly incapacitated?

And if we do have a prenatal test for autism, will it be able to differentiate between those people completely trapped within their bodies – and those who only prefer their own company? Because if it can’t – then surely, we cannot possibly use it. Especially as these sorts of tests have a tendency to throw up more false positives than false negatives.

And if we decide that – yes – we are quite comfortable with the notion of accidentally ending the lives of perfectly healthy embryos, the prospect of terminating mildly autistic individuals may also have more far-reaching consequences. As anyone who has ever watched Rain Man can testify, there is a significant percentage of autistic individuals who are particularly gifted in specific areas. I’m aware this is a massive generalisation, but the skill areas that mildly autistic individuals often excel in are overwhelmingly in mathematics, the sciences and engineering. The cliche of the geeky, socially awkward boffin has its origins in reality. If we start killing these individuals off before they’re born, what happens to our long-term survival as a species? In an age where over-population and the resulting environmental damage will increasingly rely on our technological ingenuity to keep us from destroying the planet, surely we will be hobbling our chances of success if we decide the very people most capable of solving these problems are no longer socially acceptable.

Having said that, if as a society we decide that it is ok to kill off unborn babies who are mildly socially awkward, it could be argued that as a species, we no longer deserve to survive…