Tag Archives: science

Teaser Tuesday – 23rd January, 2018


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 Crash by Guy Haley


Guy Haley is always worth reading – and when I came across his latest book, it was a must-read.

Dariusz is an engineer whose career ended years ago: now, a man he’s never met sits in a bar that doesn’t exist and offers him a fresh start… at a price. Cassandra – ‘Sand’ to her friends – is a space pilot, who itches to get her hands on the controls and actually fly a ship, rather than watch computers do it for her. The ‘Pointers’ – the elite 0.01% who control virtually all wealth – have seen the limitations of a plundered Earth and set their eyes on the stars. And now Dariusz and Sand, and a half-million ambitious men and women just like them, are sent out to extend the Pointers’ and the Market’s influence across the galaxy – but events don’t go according to plan…

crashI’ve omitted the final paragraph of the back-cover blurb as it contains far too many spoilers. But you have the scenario of a generation-ship and pioneer colony tale – classic science fiction fare. Does Haley provide a sufficiently novel spin on this familiar storyline?  Oh, for sure. Haley’s tale of ordinary men and women trying to prevail while snared in a cat’s-cradle of social inequality, hubris and deep-laid plots makes for an engrossing read. His smooth style is effective at depicting his protagonists with sufficient depth and complexity that we root for them despite the fact that he isn’t afraid to show their flaws. Or kill a few main characters off along the way…

The story continues gathering pace throughout the book, so there are several significant time-jumps near the end as the action whisks along at a fair clip. If Haley wasn’t such an accomplished writer, I might have had more of a problem with his accelerating narrative pace and felt somewhat cheated by being scurried along. But I didn’t, because he is also extremely good at depicting his landscapes. No matter if we were hammering through the story at almost sprint speed, there wasn’t any time that I didn’t have a very clear idea exactly how the protagonists were feeling about the whole business – or where they were and what it looked, felt and smelt like.

If you aren’t a SFF fan, perhaps you don’t realise just what a huge deal this is. It’s tricky enough presenting a convincing backdrop of a familiar cityscape as background to a whodunit without putting a brake on the murder mystery. But when you are establishing a fantastic landscape that no one other than the writer can see in his mind’s eye, this suddenly becomes a major issue. Hence, it isn’t uncommon for two to three pages of info-dumps to regularly occur in SFF books, which we either skim or revel in, depending on our preference. I like to be able to clearly visualise the world and how the characters interact with it in, without pages of turgid detail. And Haley manages to deliver this in cinematic, pin-sharp detail, making it look a whole lot easier than it actually is.

There is clearly a sequel to this adventure, as far too many dangling plot points are waving in the wind for this to be a stand-alone story. And I shall be on the lookout for it when it hits the shelves – meanwhile Haley’s lonely colony will lodge in my head due to his strong, skilful depiction of their plight.

Put Out Your Hand…


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…


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


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.