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.