Gaia 2011

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2011


The science quote of 2010: "The first self-replicating species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer." was made by Craig Venter in the New York Times on describing the artificial bacterium created by synthetic biology from raw chemical constituents. Venter assembled the genome and tested it in a real bacterium in 2008. On 20th May 2010 the artificial genome successfully caused the bacterium to replicate.

Being an official profession upsets some witches! Witches in Romania are rather upset about their being classified (along with fortune-tellers and valets) as an official profession and so as of January 2011 subject to tax. Apparently, a number of (presumably professional) Romanian witches have cursed their Government for introducing this legislation… To which Gaia says good luck with that (while wondering if this was not something that they should really have foreseen?).

Spud power – Boiled potato makes for useful battery. Alternate copper and zinc electrodes in a potato and you get a weak current – this is old news. The new news is that boil the potato first and the voltage increases nearly ten times! Reported in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy (Rabinowitch et al, 2010) it appears that cooking results in rupturing of cell membranes and this is what causes a greater battery effect. The result is that alternate copper and zinc electrodes in series in five potatoes produces enough energy to light LEDs at about a tenth of the cost of conventional batteries! (OK, so they are bulkier but they do have less environmental impact on disposal, which Gaia likes.)

The fantasy erotic writer Carl East has part of his website quoted by Bent (Bookseller no. 5,443, p50), "When I first started to write my stories it was purely for pleasure."  And Bent comments: "But of course…"

42 not the answer to 'life, the Universe and everything' but is the guaranteed number of quantum-produced random digits by a new process. The sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6, 6, 6, 6, 6 can be random: throw 10-sided dice long enough and you will get any sequence. So getting guaranteed randomness is hard to come by. Now, European scientists led by S. Pironio, A. Acin and S. Massar have experimentally demonstrated that exploiting a Clauser-Horn-Shimony-Holt (CHSH) Bell inequality of a quantum system guarantees 42 random numbers are generated with 99% confidence. (Nature 464, 1021-1024, see also p988-989 for a less technical explanation). One for the late Douglas Adams.

The United States is the developed nation giving the worst healthcare value for money among all developed nations… is the conclusion following a re-visit to the Health at a Glance OECD indicators (2009). Funding healthcare and health science research has been a hot topic this past year (small>2011) what with Obama's proposals for taxes to fund a more universal healthcare (rather than predominantly relying on private health care). Detractors to Obama's proposals have cited Britain's National Health Service (NHS) saying that though it is free at the point-of-service (hospitals and doctors' local surgeries), it actually serves Britain poorly. Conversely, supporters of Obama's proposals say look at the data! The OECD indicators show that US healthcare spend per capita is the best part of twice the OECD average (Britain is actually average) and a third more expensive than the next OECD country spending the most per person on health (Norway) (all 2007 data). Yet despite this large health care spend, US citizens can only average only expect to reach a little over 78 years of age, compared to just under 80 years of age in Britain with less than half the health care spend per person than the US (Norwegians can expect to live just over 80 years)… All of which begs the question of whether US voters will look at the factual data or be persuaded by a science fictional argument?

Oral sex a bigger cause of head and oral cancer than smoking in the US! Shock, horror, drama, probe… at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science research results were announced that oral sex induced head and neck cancer rates have doubled by 200% since the 1970s. The HPV virus is associated with much of this growth in cases, which in turn suggests that changes in US sexual practices with more oral sex taking place between those who have had copious partners is responsible. This cause of cancer has now overtaken tobacco for US head and oral cancers… Gaia was unable to contact former President Clinton for comment.

Botanic Gardens threaten natural ecology! Yes, while biologists love botanical gardens, it appears ecologists have now shown that botanical gardens are of cause for concern. "Over a number of years, I had been trying to find out why the main reasons why some plants become so well established in different parts of the world," said researcher Philip Hulme, professor of plant biosecurity at Lincoln University, New Zealand. "There was always anecdotal evidence that suggested that botanic gardens might have played a role." He found that 19 out of the 34 of the most invasive plant species in the World had been recorded as having escaped from at least one botanic garden!

Now a tribute to the security incident of the last year. Do you remember the bomb found in luggage at Nambia airport for a plane destined for Munich Germany? Well less publicity seemed to be given to the follow-up to this shock-horror-drama-probe story and so for those who missed it panic not, here is what happened… There was no need to panic as the bomb was a fake! It was an official device made in the USA to test security measures though how it got to Nambia was initially a mystery. On 20th November The Guardian (among others) published a related story. Apparently, the USA's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is reported to have organised several series of security tests putting dummy bombs through scanners at US airports. One such test, in 2007, was said to have resulted in three-quarters of fake bomb parts passing unobserved.   Even more embarrassing was a security survey carried out by Slovakian border officials earlier in 2010 using real explosives. Eight pieces of contraband were planted on unwitting passengers leaving on a flight from Bratislava bound for Dublin. 3oz (85g) of RDX was slipped into a 49-year-old electrician's bag but was not picked up by security checks. So the passenger flew to Ireland innocent of what was in his luggage. Slovakian officials eventually had to contact the Dublin police to explain matters...   All this would be laughable were not both the security and the way we subjects/citizens are treated are serious Orwellian matters.

Do you prefer Star Wars heroes or its villains, or have no preference? Many might assume that Star Wars fans would have not much preference, but Bent Notes in the Bookseller that the LEGO Star Wars Heroes Ultimate Sticker Book sales are half those for its companion book LEGO Star Wars Villains… Clearly something is attracting today's kids to the dark side of the force.

Empire Strikes Back secrets revealed: Miss Piggy did a Yoda scene! Well not so much secrets, but unexpected stuff that went on during the making, were revealed in a new book at the end of last year called The Making of The Empire Strikes Back by J. W. Rinzler. You may have missed it so here is an example. When Mark Hamill met Frank (The Muppets) Oz, he suggested Miss Piggy cameo as a practical joke. But some time later he caught Hamill off-guard. When Yoda told Luke to follow his feelings, Luke protested that he has followed his feelings 'and suddenly, Frank Oz whips out a Miss Piggy puppet, saying "Feelings? You want feelings? Get behind the couch and I'll show you feelings, punk. What is this hole? I've been booked into dumps before, but never like this. Get me my agent on the phone!"'

Talking of Miss Piggy, Pepsi, McDonald's and KFC are to be at the heart of Britain's attempts to combat obesity. Britain is following the US in the obesity stakes, with Brits currently having the highest obesity rate in Europe. So, in a debatable move the Department of Health is bringing together high calorific stakeholders for help to formulate a strategy to combat obesity trends. The news was reported at the end of last year in The Guardian.  Of course, it is possible to argue that it is necessary to get the fast food industry onboard to implement nutrition health policy, but actually to formulate it?! The mind and belly boggles.  The sad thing is that we are now so used to hearing about the apparently obtuse (or should that be obese) way politicians work that nothing surprises any more, so much so that you may even think this to be non-news. As ever, we need to keep an eye on our politicians…   Talking of politicians…

National leader becomes a member of Starfleet! Yes, it is true, Scotland's First Minister has come out of the closet as a Trekkie. Gaia had barely put her column to bed last year when in April 2010 in an interview for (BBC-related) Radio Times First Minister Alex Salmond revealed: "there are certain shows [he] like[s]. [He is] an obsessive Trekkie." And when asked as to what sort of Trek he liked he said, "Oh, everything. Voyager was my favourite, that and first series Star Trek. I have seen them all so many times. I’ve seen the new Star Trek film too. I think it’s excellent and it managed to get across some of the urgency and immediacy of the original series."
          When in October (2010) the 'Starfleet' Star Trek fan club heard this they offered the Right Honourable Alex Salmond an honorary membership and he accepted a complimentary one-year Membership of Distinction. He was also reported of being of the opinion that although the specific town of Scotty’s birth was never revealed in any Star Trek episode or film, the Rt. Hon. Alex Salmond firmly believes it to be his native Linlithgow, and he is happy to know that he shares a birthplace with the starship Enterprise’s own Scotsman.  So, true to political form, yet again a politician boldly believes where no evidence has gone before.

Just as science fiction conventions have a Guest of Honour (GoH), so does the Frankfurt Book Fayre and its joke doing the rounds at this year's bash. Bear with me on this but you need some background. The Frankfurt Book Fayre is one of Europe's principal book trade events of the year, except its GoH is always a country. So far so good. This year the joke doing the rounds at the Frankfurt Fayre was 'Iceland'. Iceland was said to be the only country to have ruined two Frankfurt Book Fayres!   Yes, two!   1) It marred last year's (2010) fayre because of the Iceland volcano that disrupted air travel so keeping many away, and 2) Iceland going bankrupt helped precipitate the 2009 recession, that will in turn is considered to likely affect publishers' trade at the forthcoming 2011 Frankfurt Fayre at which Iceland itself is GoH.

Talking of volcanic ash…Russel Ash was mourned by The Bookseller's Horace Bent. Though neither an SF author or a scientist, Russel Ash left an entertaining legacy. In 1983 Ash wrote an article on daft but genuine book titles such as Early US Barbed Wire Patents and Sex Instruction for Irish Farmers. This in turn helped inspire the Diagram Prize for odd book titles which Gaia takes delight in reporting.

And so…

The 2011 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year short-list included: The Generosity of the Dead by Graciela Nowenstein (about the French opt-out vs. the British opt-in organ donation schemes); The Italian One-Night Love Child by Cathy Williams (a Mills & Boon title); and Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way by Michael Young.   And the winner is… Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way by Michael Young, who is himself a former dentist! (Makes you wonder.) The runner up (which had a lot less votes) was The 8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings: obviously a title that did not adhere to the voters' fancy. ('Welding', 'adhere'…. Oh suit yourself.) ++++ Previous Diagram Prize news in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2012 with more frivolity.

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