Gaia 2012

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2012


2011 finally saw Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 become an e-book. That news really tickled Gaia: smoke that critics.   The e-book of the 1953 novel, about paper book burning, comes from Simon & Schuster and is the latest format version of the classic SF novel since its graphic novel in 2009. That e-books are not so combustible compared to paper books would be somewhat of an irony in the world of Fahrenheit 451.

Stale beer molecule found. Yes, Gaia is determined to bring you the science research news that really is critically important to your well-being, and if you have ever been to a British Eastercon or the London SF Circle, you will know just how important ale has been to British Science Fiction. Anyway, back to the research. In this case – not that surprisingly – the researchers in question were German, and from the Technical University of Munich. So if ever you want to out-do some boring real-ale expert here is the information. The stale-beer molecule prime offenders are the degradation products of trans-iso-alpha acids, which end up as molecules such as our old friend tricyclocohumol. This degradation can be reduced by making beers slightly less acidic (good beers tend to have fairly stable acidity) and keeping them cool (which means a cellar temperature of four or five degrees centigrade (and not icy, which some US Americans like, but of a temperature of one or two Celsius as that inhibits real ale being live)). The research was reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and necessitated the researchers keeping beer for ten years to ensure that it would really go off. Such researchers deserve our admiration: can you imagine brewing excellent beer and then leaving it alone?  Anyway, there you have it. Now, whose round is it?

Men do not think about sex every seven seconds: that is an urban myth! Now research, published in January's (2012) Journ. S. Res. by psychologist Terri Fisher of Ohio State University (US), reveals the daftness of the seven second theory which would equate to 8,000 thoughts in a 16 hour waking day. Instead, her team's research reveals, for young men (18-25 year old campus undergraduates) it is almost 19 times per day (around once every one hour eleven minutes); for young women it is 10 thoughts per day (over an hour and a half between sensual thoughts).   In fact young men thought of food often almost as much at 18 times per day.

The maths joke of the year comes from Andrew Marr in The Spectator and in turn from Jonathan Sacks, Britain's Chief Rabbi. He had been at a seminar where another rabbi, of mathematical wisdom, proffered: "Remember, two negatives can make a positive, but two positives can never make a negative." From the back of the room, and without hesitation, came the comeback: "Yeah, yeah."

When it comes to the frequency of death, does art imitate life? Death in the BBC's long-running radio series The Archers turns out to be close to real life! Rob Stepney in the British Medical Journal (15th December 2011) did a bit of light-hearted research. He compared the frequency and age distribution of deaths in the radio series over 20 years. He had to assume that the age, sex, and social class distribution of the population of Ambridge (the radio series' fictional setting) reflects that of England and Wales and that Ambridge’s demographics remained constant over two decades. Although the confidence intervals around relevant estimates are wide, The Archers seems to have a higher than expected number of traumatic deaths. In this respect it would be similar to soap operas set in urban environments and on television. However, in overall mortality, which in epidemiological terms is the most important outcome, The Archers – by luck or good editorial judgment – reflected almost exactly the experience of the wider population of England and Wales.
          Interesting, the results of this work on a radio soap drama contrasts with other research by Crayford et al (BMJ, 1997; 315: 1649-1652) on television soaps. They reported that the mortality rate for characters in the television soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders exceeded those of bomb disposal experts and racing drivers!

High salt found in food of food salt policy makers! You just gotta smile sometimes at what research throws up. Health, food and nutrition policy makers are always banging on about there being too much salt in the modern diet (and they are right to tell us as this is a significant inducer of strokes among other things). However when the analysis (BMJ 2011;343:d7352 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d7352) of food in the canteens of 18 canteens at the Department of Health, the Health Council, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, university hospitals, and affiliated non-university hospitals was made, guess what they found?   Yes, you suspected it, the mean salt content of the meals (7.1 g, standard error 0.2 g) exceeded the total daily recommended salt intake of 6 g and was high at all locations! This translates into a 23-36% increase in premature cardiovascular mortality compared with people who adhere to the recommended levels of salt intake. Pot / kettle anyone?

End of the World disappointment and self evident as you are reading this. Gaia was fortunately only mildly concerned by an US evangelist prediction that the World would end last May (2011).   That was when US evangelist Harold Camping, 89, predicted that Jesus would return to Earth and true believers will be swept up, or 'raptured', to heaven. A 'Rapture After Party' in North Carolina was held and billed as 'the best damned party in NC'. Harold Camping said that the Bible suggests that a giant earthquake will mark the start of the World's destruction and, having deduced the date through Bible study, that by 21st October 2011 all non-believers will be dead. It should perhaps be noted that previously Harold Camping had predicted an apocalypse once before in 1994, though followers now say that was only an intermediary stage… Gaia, being acquainted with a number of mass extinction events over the past three or so billion years (a scale of time beyond that of even evangelical comprehension), considered the prediction small beer and passed the evening with a couple of glasses of Chardonnay: well, even from an evangelical perspective, wine was better than water.

Meanwhile last summer saw the End of the World over on Charles Stross' blog. The game to play was to come up with ways that would knock our technological civilization for six. There was quite a bit of interest with literally hundreds of folk commenting. Even human ecologists may find a nugget or two. Of course most of the contributors were lay folk and so there were the occasional oddities: 'fertility' was confused with 'fecundity' (but clinicians and demographers do that often enough); erroneously the (ahem) Venus climate scenario came up; as did water escaping our biosphere (actually it is more hydrogen that's leaking); and rich countries were said to have lower fecundity and so as the world gets wealthier population would cease to grow, but in fact very rich countries have higher fecundity than nations that are simply rich (see Myrskyla et al, 2009, Nature 460: 741-743); etc, etc. But don't let Gaia spoil your fun. Dive right on in and check the blog posting and its comments out.

Alan Turing pardon rebuffed. Alan Turing is the father of the modern computer as well as that of artificial intelligence diagnosis. A century on from his birth and 60 years (in 2012) on from his 1952 conviction for homosexual acts, the authorities have not issued a pardon even though (as Alan predicted at the time of his arrest) consenting adult homosexual behaviour is now legal (the change in law came in 1967). Turing committed suicide two years after his arrest and subsequent chemical castration. True, in 2009, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown did issue an apology on the Alan Turing case on behalf of the government (which was also broadcast on TV at the end of a documentary on Turing), but for British gay scientists and mathematicians a formal pardon on the 60th anniversary of his arrest and 100th birthday would have been symbolically meaningful and a powerful statement as to how far British society has come.   Of course pardons from the state are not unknown, so presumably Turing did not contribute enough to the state to warrant such appreciation: defining the modern computer (1936) and artificial intelligence (1950), while along the way helping break the Enigma code in World War II, and such… All are clearly is not sufficient for government let alone by themselves. Yet conversely if the government did grant Turing a pardon there would most likely be a flood of claims by others persecuted at the time. And so it really is unlikely that a pardon will be forthcoming.   Nonetheless, for what it is worth, Gaia is happy to join with others, such as Andrew Hodges (Oxford U. mathematician and author of Alan Turing: the Enigma) and American mathematician Dennis Hejhal, in remembering Alan Turing in the ignoble 60th conviction anniversary as well as the centenary of his birth in 2012.   If we are to get through, what the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington catchly calls, the 'perfect storm' of the mid-22nd century then we will need to do it with both scientific understanding and social tolerance, eschewing ignorance and bigotry… Just a thought for scientist SF fans and Gaia's fellow biospheres.

And finally…

The 2012 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year short-list included: A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares; The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott Mendelson (which Bent, who organises the contest, says was bound to face stiff competition); A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two by Peter Gosson; Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong which is a Thai cookbook and 'poo' is Thai for 'crab' and is Diwong’s nickname; Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World by Aino Praakli; Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh; and The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A Rush.
          Not making the short list surprisingly was Karsai Nei Tsang: Therapeutic Massage for the Sexual Organs (of which Bent opined that it would be hard to beat).   Meanwhile Gaia's own personal suggestion for the year – unfortunately not submitted to Bent – was Objects Inserted and Ingested in Places They Shouldn't Be which, naturally (or should that be 'unnaturally'?), is a collection of x-ray photographs...
          And the winner, as determined by 1,363 votes sent to Bent at The Bookseller, was Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong.   ++++   Previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2013 with more frivolity.

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