Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Exploring Your Bodily Fauna

Ever since I was young, the idea of discovering a new species has, for me, been steeped in age-of-steam mysticism. I'd arrive on a ship in some inadequately explored country in some inadequately explored continent, its air fresh with the scent of otherness. I'd awake in my state cabin, have the boy shave me before being led to the club. My baggage, in trunks of course, would follow, perched precariously on the back of a local. I would pay him extravagantly later, all the while knowing that the only thanks he truly needed was the reassuring colonial presence of my three-piece-suited self. Later in the club, slumped into a green leather chair beneath the revolving ceiling fans, I would sit and avoid discussing the business of a visiting Swiss banker. We would, instead, discuss the "Africa Situation." Then the door would burst open and a well dressed man would stagger in, clutching his stomach. "Doctor James?" he would say, his voice weak and quavering, "There's something you need to see," he would continue before keeling over. He would be dead, and thus would begin my journey of biological discovery. In the jungle. Or, as the locals call it, Green Hell!
These days, it's easier, and only slightly less romantic. All you need is a powerful microscope, many years of highly specialised biological training, and a scraping from someone's forearm. Researchers at the New York Medical School have discovered more than 200 different types of bacteria in samples from the forearms of volunteers, 8% of which were previously undescribed by science. Human skin, according to the report, is a "virtual zoo" of bacteria. Even better is that everyone's zoo is different, so your personal bacterial retinue is as unique as you are. Think about that next time you take a shower. My advice is don't do it; explain away your eye-watering odour with these words: I have devoted myself to the noble pursuit of knowledge.
Source: BBC

Monday, 5 February 2007


Is a rock more capable of feeling hungry than a sentient robot? Would you rather harm the Mona Lisa than Lucas Dobson, a heroin addict desperately searching for his next fix? These are the sorts of far-reaching questions that have allowed Harvard psychologists to research the way we (Internet users with too much time on our hands) perceive the minds of others. Even you can take the test here. Prove that your mother was wrong when she said that you'd never amount to anything.
Over 2000 Internet users answered the call to waste some time participating in this test. The results were that humans perceive the minds and morals of their fellow man along two dimensions: agency and experience. Experience is defined as the ability to feel emotions; agency is defined as the ability to exercise judgement and self-control. This is ground-breaking and fascinating because, according to the press release, there has always been a tradition which views the minds of humans along a single dimensional continuum. Never before have psychologists realised that we are capable of perceiving, say, something with experience but no agency (a newborn?) or with agency but no experience (the idea of God?). It would seem we have a lot to thank this team for.
It may not have been clear to people who lack the razor sharp intuitions of the psychologists behind this research that I was being sarcastic. I was. The research, or at least the presentation of same in this press release, is utterly facile and probably - I'm being generous here- a complete waste of the talents involved. The most galling part is that the press release is worded as if they had invented the wheel or discovered a cure for cancer. The only statement of any note in it is the fact that some people think an unborn foetus has experience and some don't. I want to end this on a high note, so let's all put our hands together for the Harvard team having conducted an electoral issue public opinion poll. It's been a good day for science.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Superbugs: A Battle of Wits

We as humans like to think we're pretty much at the top of the evolutionary tree. We have our enormous brains cased up in the sleekest bodies this side of those cats with no hair. And we made those cats ourselves; through literally years of forced breeding we created a cat breed in our own grossly hairless image. Truly, we are princes among the paupers represented by the lesser species. We even invented (read: stole from fungi) a substance to destroy all bacteria, intelligent life's implacable foe. The only problem is that the more we use it, the better the bacteria become at not being sporting enough to be killed by it. Bacteria, you see, have the advantage of evolving horrifically quickly. Killing them is like punching smoke. As soon as we come up with a new antibiotic, they're already evolving their way around it. It is apparent that a new approach is needed.
Bacteria, worryingly, can communicate. Like tiny little board members, bacteria will not attack a target unless they have a quorum. This allows them to be fairly confident that they have the strength to prevail in the upcoming conflict. Although the idea of bacteria chatting away is profoundly disturbing, it may just provide a new method for producing resistance resisting antibiotics. The signals are conveyed between bacteria via chemicals, and scientists are working on ways to break down these chemicals before they reach other bacteria. The idea is that each bacteria will think it's on its own, and therefore not attack the host. It is gratifying to know that humans, the nominal peak of 3 billion years of evolution, could be on the brink of outsmarting our most distant, unicellular cousins.
Source: AP

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Lost in (tenth) Space

Losing one's keys is an officially designated Bad Thing. To combat this I have a point in three dimensional space where my keys live. I like to call it my key hook. When I don't use the key hook, my keys are lost. They are, in fact, lost in three dimensional space; they could be anywhere in the apartment. This is, as we learned earlier, a Bad Thing. When this happens I like to take solace in the idea that it could be infinitely worse. If I had lost my keys in 4 dimensions not only could they be anywhere in the apartment, they could be anywhen. In practical terms that means my keys could lying comfortably under the cushion and then, just as I'm about to lift it up, they could move to somewhere I've already searched, like in my jacket pocket. This doesn't really happen, although there have been times where I've been convinced that it had.
According to string theory all particles in our three dimensions are cross-sections of particles vibrating in the tenth dimension. If that's a bit hard to swallow, hope is at hand. Rob Bryanton, a kindly Canadian, has written a book and, better yet, made a video explaining the whole deal in simple language. If you have eleven minutes to spare, and don't mind having your mind expanded, you can watch it here. In the video one thing is made abundantly clear: The tenth dimension is somewhere where you really wouldn't want to lose your keys.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The Etymology of Spectrometry

It's life or death. You're looking down at a mess of wires connected in varying combinations to a sturdy looking array of explosives. A red LED clock ticks the seconds down. 10, 9... In your hands is a pair of wire cutters. The radio stutters to life, "Cut the blue wire!" your temperamental commander shouts. You remember your dead partner and realise that after the events of the last two days, death would be a welcome change. You reach out and cut the wire. The universe skips a heartbeat before the clock flickers and dies. You saved the city, Seargeant, or should I say Captain. Unless you happen to be Welsh, that is.
In Welsh, as in a number of other languages, the word for blue encompasses green. Does this mean that, because they lack a mental label, they are unable to distinguish between the two colours? Colours are just words which have been invented to describe different sections of the visible electromagnetic spectrum from short-wavelength violet light to long wavelength red light. In this article from the Economist, two viewpoints among psychologists are identified. One states that human brains are hardwired to recognise and separate the 6 basic colours you might find in a cheap children's painting set. The other states that the spectrum is arbitrarily chopped up into segments based on social and linguistic factors. As always with these kinds of nature-nurture debates the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle; my personal bias tends towards the latter. Another recurring feature of these kinds of debates is that anyone can weigh in and sound like an expert, which makes it something ideal to save up for your next dinner party or night at home alone with your thoughts and a bottle of red. Or is that yellow?

Monday, 29 January 2007

The problem with parasites

There are many things that you don't want to get in your brain: annoying pop songs, advertising jingles, unfortunate images. All of these pale in comparison to a hydatid cyst. The cyst is a larval stage of a tapeworm called Echinococcus granulosus, which is a parasite found in canines. These organisms are present in the feces of infected dogs, and are transferred, thankfully rarely, to humans through ingestion. It is therefore more common in countries where dogs are used to herd livestock. Once the cyst is inside the gut it can sometimes break into the bloodstream. From there the most common route is directly to the liver. A person can survive with several small hydatid cysts in their liver and suffer no ill effects. Sometimes, however, the cysts can wend its merry way to other parts of the body including the brain, where it can grow to the size of a golf ball.
By now you probably have a picture in your mind of what this cyst might look like. You're probably wrong. Happily though, I have found a video of a hydatid cyst being removed successfully from some poor guy's brain. It is not for the faint hearted, but it is morbidly fascinating.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

The Causality of Obesity

The worldwide shortage of pirates is causing global temperatures to rise! As pirate numbers have decreased since the halcyon, pirate friendly days of the 18th and 19th centuries global temperatures have risen, damaging ecosystems, causing sea-levels to rise and even threatening coastal cities with utter annihilation. Surely a bit of good-natured piracy is preferable? It certainly worked for Johnny Depp.
There are, as Benjamin Disraeli said, three types of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Just because there is a correlation between decreased swashbuckling and increased temperatures, does that mean that there is a causal relationship? It seems pretty clear that there is not. The same logic, however, is used often in the popular media and even in serious scientific publications. Recently, in articles about obesity, "scientific articles" have been cited as stating that urban sprawl causes obesity. Look!, they say, there are fat people living in the suburbs, so the suburbs must cause people to be fat. It's a tempting jump to make. People in the suburbs do spend more time in their cars, and they do tend to walk less. But does living in the suburbs make people fat? Probably not, or at the very least there is not enough evidence to prove it. Several studies, in fact, have come to the conclusion that low-density areas merely attract inactive people who are prone to obesity.
It is extremely tempting to make statements which are based on a correlation and phrase them in such a way as to imply a causal relationship. It makes for interesting reading and adds a veneer of respectability, but science it is not. It pays to use a skeptical eye when reading the news, just remember the pirates.