Gaia 2004

has the last word...

For those of you who have diligently followed my jottings... Ha! Fooled you. I was away in 2002. But seriously, we have some three years catching up to do, so here we go...

One of the new millennium's first Fortean experiments was conducted in Israel as to the power of prayer across time. The experiment, reported in the British Medical Journal (v323:p1450-1), appears to have been properly devised being a double blind, randomised controlled trial. Records of 3,393 bloodstream infected, adult patients from Rabin Medical Center between 1990-6 were used. In July 2000, they were divided into two groups using a random number generator (Proc Uniform, SAS, Cary, NC, USA). A list of first names of one group was given to someone who said a short prayer for the well-being and recovery of the group as a whole. A chi square test was then used to ascertain three outcomes: death, length of stay in hospital and duration of fever if over 37.5 degrees C. The records of the two groups were then examined. Mortality was only marginally lower in the pray-for group (significance 60% (50% being pure chance)). Length of fever was reduced by a day out of typically half a week and this was 96% significant. Hospital stays were reduced typically by half a week out of a couple of weeks' stay and this was 99% significant. So prayer, even years after the event, appears to help to keep fever at bay and reduces hospital stays by a small amount. But when God calls you to the pearly gates not even prayer can help you. (Amusement aside, Gaia notes that chi square is not the best test to use and takes onboard assumptions. Preferably, the number in the trial would need to be increased by a few orders of magnitude and a multivariate analysis employed but this would multiply the experiment's cost several fold.)

Does penis size at birth vary with ethnicity? Gaia observes that this is not a politically correct question, but science should be above human foibles and the answer for those interested can be found in the journal Hormone Research (v55:278-81). But is it a best use of resources to fund such research?

Less controversially, does winning an academy award - an Oscar - increase your longevity? The answer, according to the BMJ (v323:1491-5) is that while Award winners have 14% longer careers than nominees, life expectance was 3.6 years shorter. Gaia wonders whether this applies to Hugo winners? If so flowers to Dave Langford.

How much is it safe to drink regularly? Apparently it all depends on where you live according to a 2003 report, International Drinking Guidelines from the International Center for Alcohol Policies. Official guidelines for 'safe' or 'low risk' drinking levels for men in the US is 14-28 grams a day whereas in France and New Zealand its 60 grams. Apparently women in Spain are advised a figure of 20 grams a day, but fortunately 70 in Spain. About time Spain hosted a Eurocon then.

Moore's law states that the amount and rate computers process information doubles every 18 months. So how long before we reach computations' theoretical limits? An answer was proposed in the journal Nature (v406:1047-1053). Seth Lloyd of MIT reckons it is 250 years. This would increase performance 40 orders of magnitude from 1010 operations per second on 1010 bits and a 1 kg ultimate laptop that performs 1051per second on 10 bits. However he also notes it is unlikely that Moore's law will hold for all this time. Gaia genuinely wonders whether this would be more than enough to run an artificial intelligence? Anyone know?

Viagra (sildenafil citrate) makes flowers stand up straight according to Prof Yaacov Leshem, Israel. It increases the vase life of flowers by retarding the breakdown of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP).

Having a regular afternoon siesta appears to be a predictor of early death if a paper in the Archives of International Medicine (v159:1582-6) is to be believed. 70 Jerusalem residents were followed over six years.

And as for what to eat, there is the joke. The Japanese eat very little fat, while people in Mexico eat loads, but both have few heart attacks compared to the Brits or Americans. Africans drink little red wine while the Italians love the stuff, but both these too have fewer heart attacks. The epidemiological conclusion is that you should eat and drink what you like, just avoid speaking English.

Gaia is not above ripping off the end notes from other magazines and so apologises to Bent of the Bookseller (no. 5065: p66) and also T. Moore, W. Neill-Hall, I. Roberts, L. Blasť, A. Gera, S. Kilgannon, D. Pearson and L. Agnew. Book readers, here is how you translate those back cover comments or indeed decode book reviews:
A must read for all fans of...: We are jumping on the bandwagon.
Authoritative: Niche market.
Controversial: Bad sex, good drugs.
Daring: Disgustingly obscene.
Dazzling: Tricksy typography or no punctuation or both.
Epic: Far too long.
Evocative: Makes you wish you were doing something other than reading this.
Ground breaking: Mad theory we are forced to publish by key house author.
Gut-wrenching: Disgustingly violent.
Heartrending: Sick making.
His/Her best novel yet: we've over paid to pinch him/her from his/her original publishers.
Imaginative: Bears no relation to reality, or beyond the bounds of credibility.
Inspiring: Makes you realise that you could write better than this.
Internationally acclaimed: Ignored here.
Long awaited: We'd forgotton s/he was writing it.
Lyrical: No plot, or alternatively overwritten.
Practical: Can be used as a door stop.
Serious: Boring.
Sophisticated: Undescipherable.
Sweeping: Superficial.
Tender: Sentimental.
Vibrant/vivid: Too many adjectives.
Virtuoso: See 'dazzling'.

Finally, over the years Gaia's social encounters with our illustrious editor has included his grumbling that nobody 'really' appreciates the 'alien life' lecture he has been giving, and evolving, over the past two decades. Apparently (because I was not there) this was recently (April 2004) raised by Graham at a rare dinner for eight members of the Concat' team. Our editor's alien probability lecture has (and possibly continues to be as it is updated) proved to have been most prescient. Of course you can only tell this with the benefit of hindsight. Fortunately for posterity we have a decade's old snapshot summary of one of these in Concatenation's 1994 print edition. For example, in case you missed it or one of the lectures, he has long claimed that the best way to detect alien life is not the ground-based radio search SETI use but either a radio search from an observatory on the far side of the Moon or alternatively a Lovelockian approach, after yours truly's namesake, with an optical spectrometer. Well Gaia is happy to affirm the record by noting that in the late 1990s the Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, California, echoed our editor's view with the Terrestrial Path Finder proposal for a space-based array of telescopes with spectrometer to detect for an atmosphere not in chemical equilibrium (life perturbs chemical equilibriums). This could be launched around 2010 if President George Bush doesn't continue to trample all over NASA's science. Meanwhile in New Scientist (p6, 5th Jan 2002) astronomer Claudio Maccone, based in Turin, is reported proposing a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon so shielded from our Earth civilization's radio broadcasts. However at the 2002 International Astronautical Congress Maccone warned that the Lunar area that is interference free will shrink if Earth orbiting telecommunications satellites move into higher orbits if there is no room left at their existing altitude as their numbers increase. Finally, this month they have detected methane in the Martian atmosphere which is an indication of a chemical perturbation, hence possibly life. After all of this, the question remains as to whether our editor's talk in its current form will seem as prescient after another two decades? - Plenty of time to digest that dinner then.

That's it for now. Hopefully I'll be back, but after my last column's failed prediction it is probably better if I don't say when.

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