Gaia 2006

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter


Worried about exams? Useful advice from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (v98, p174-7) includes: "the day of the exam is not the time to take your first dose of beta blockers" and "when the bell goes, stop talking and wait to be told to leave. Say 'thank you' and leave quietly and promptly. Do not grimace, weep or look desperate."

Gaia feels it important to keep to the facts even when being allegorical and so was delighted to learn the following. Gregor Mendel's GM initials are, it appears, not a result of parental choice hence their unforeseen biotech prescience. Gregor Mendel conducted the first experiments that showed that there were genes and that they were either dominant or recessive. Some scientists into 'genetic modification' (for example Biologist v52 (4) p239) have whimsically remarked that his parents were prescient to give Mendel 'GM' initials. However David Weitzman informs that Mendel's parents did not name him Gregor but Johann. It was only when he became a monk at the age of 21 that he took on the name Gregor. So it appears that the initials GM were not prescient but the result of mutation or modification.

The saying starve a fever and feed a cold may have some truth to it. Starving helps stimulate the formation of T Helper 2 (white blood) cells that fights bacteria. Eating stimulates vagal and neurohormonal output from the gut that promotes T Helper 1 cells that fight viruses such as the common cold. Medical Hypotheses v64, p1080-84.

Super-size me news. A medical newssheet doing the medical rounds in London last summer included the following: "MRI scanners (for large patients). This is to inform all GPs that the Veterinary Department at the Zoological Society of London do not have CT or MRI scanners for scanning oversized patients. GPs are advised to contact the Equine/Large Animal Units at either Cambridge University Veterinary School or the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket." So now you know.

Harking back to last year's July bombs in London- one of which went off down the road from Concatenation's IT person that was also outside our editor's former office - Gaia was pleased that despite being just three feet away from the Edgeware Road device Prof John Tullock survived. Irony abounds, however, as Prof Tullock of Brunel University is an expert on the effects of Islamic conflicts on Western societies. So it is appropriate that Time Warner (Transworld) will publish his account of the July event this summer.

Nazi nomenclature in medicine? Reiter's syndrome is another term for' reactive arthritis' but Hans Reiter was a Nazi who was implicated in enforced sterilizations, euthanasia and who ran Hitler's Reich Health Office. So a campaign was started in 1977 to abandon the term 'Reiter's syndrome. Online analysis of medical journals from 1998 to 2003 shows that 57% of them still used the term in 1998, but by 2003 this fell to 34%.

Being poor is deadly! New Zealand researchers have found that mortality would fall by 4-13% after a 10-40% increase in everyone's income and that mortality inequalities would go down by 12-38% (Social Science and Medicine 20th October 2005).

The journal Nature reports that it is issue of November 3rd (vol 438, page ix) has news of a 'supermassive' but super-small black hole at the centre of our Galaxy. It is just "1 atomic unit" across! This really is super-small.   Gaia first suspected they meant 'astronomical unit' (149,600,000 km) the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun, but Nature said it was 1.6 light years across which is far too big. However a read of the source paper, by Zhi-Qiang Shen and colleagues, revealed that they did actually mean astronomical unit. So alas no new forms of exotic matter other than, perhaps, that of Nature's staff.

Beards are quite common among UK and US book SF fans. So they need to note latest research that a beard impairs the seal between a face mask and the face, often making positive pressure ventilation ineffective. However anaesthetists writing in the European Journal of Anaesthesiology (vol 22, p894) have suggested adding a 5 mm layer of ultrasonography contact gel to the edge of the mask, which impregnates the hairs of the beard, creating a semi-liquid joint and giving a better seal. Could this help in spacesuit use? The gel is water soluble and easily removed with a damp cloth but is not really, Gaia ventures, recommended for EVA.

The annual Locus Awards are voted on by its readers and so an indicator of what dedicated SF readers like. Now there is a collection of Locus winner shorts. The Locus Awards are not just a popular vote but are split between separate SF and fantasy categories (so no muddles as with the Hugo Award for 'SF Achievement'. This meant it was just right for our lads to use Locus SF novel winners as a criterion for inclusion in Essential SF: A Concise Guide. Yet Essential SF focuses mainly on novels for its entries relating to written SF, and only had a handful of short stories as these are less easy for average collectors to find.   But now Locus has done a great service by bringing out an anthology of some of the best of the Locus fantasy and SF short story win. It is called, not surprisingly, The Locus Awards and it can be ordered from the Locus website.

Dawkins comes under fairly regular attack for his book The Selfish Gene published 30 years ago this year. One recent rant in a UK national newspaper springs from a review of the anniversary edition and comes from one Gavin based in London (whose surname I'll keep anonymous to prevent unnecessary hurt). Gavin says: "The idea of a 'selfish' gene may be seductive but, even if considered as a metaphorical device, is plain silly: genes do not have minds of their own." Of course not, but there is nothing in Dawkins' book that undermines the whole-organism perspective and the environmental component is included in Dawkins' book, in a way that are not at odds with more recent developments such as epigenetics and genetic imprinting. Does Gavin and his ilk really think that Dawkins' readers will imagine that genes are conscious?   Gavin goes on to say: "At least genes exist. 'Memes' however do not -- or at least not beyond the minds of their creators." To which comes from this corner a resounding 'of course'. But this does not mean that memes (which can be considered as ideas that are accepted and utilised) can't impact the real, physical world. Consider the affect on continental Europeans in the early 1940s of the meme, that then had some currency, of a master race. Or today in the Middle East of the concept of 'the war against terrorism'.   The Gavins of this world need to realise that conveying scientific ideas to a non-science expert public will always be imperfect. However if awareness is raised then what's the problem, and Dawkins has made a more than significant contribution. As I have said before, and do again to Gavin (and other pedants who make similar complaints), DS H KNW WHT CMMNCTN S? Yes Gavin, some may well misunderstand this last but many (I think many more) will get the point.

Bent from the bookseller advises how, should they wish, hardened book buffs can really, really bore. So wow your friends with this... Take any ISBN number and multiply the first digit by 10, the second digit by 9, the third by 8, and so on... Add these together and the total is always divisible by 11.   Not to be outdone, Neil Patterson on Falkirk subsequently informed Bent that the first edition of Cambridge University Press' The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Authors & Publishers got the ISBN algorithm wrong. Fortunately it was corrected for the second edition.   Armed with such titbits, hardened SF book readers can now out-geek computer nerds... About time too.

Finally, still on Bent from the Bookseller, each year he calls for odd titles. Having given credit where due, Gaia is only too pleased to pass them on. 2005 worthies included: People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What To Do by Gary Leon Hill, Urogenital Manipulation by Jean-Pierre Barral, and Dining Posture in Ancient Rome by Matthew Roller.   The People Who Don't Know They're Dead... title won. By now some of you may yourselves be dying to get this book which is available from 'Weisner Books' (an occult line) in the US, and in Britain from PG UK for 11.99 ISBN 1-578-63297-8.

See you in 2007 and don't forget to get the latest epic (not by this columnist but by Gaian micro-component James) The Revenge of Gaia...

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