Gaia 2014

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2014


Daily Mail pays out to Sally Morgan over psychic scam article Gaia, with feet firmly on the Earth, does not subscribe to psychic phenomena. And so the news came last summer with mixed feelings that the Daily Mail has agreed to pay 'substantial' damages to the 'psychic' after a 2011 article suggested she had 'perpetrated a scam' on a theatre audience. Associated Newspapers, who own the Daily Mail, apologised to Sally Morgan and also paid her legal costs.  Who could have seen that coming? Well, obviously Sally did.

Alan Turing pardoned! This follows news covered in Gaia's 2012 column when Andrew Hodges (Oxford U. mathematician and author of Alan Turing: the Enigma) and American mathematician Dennis Hejhal lobbied the British Government for a pardon on the then 60th anniversarry of his conviction cum centenary of his birth. At the time that effort came to nought, or so it seemed because it must has resonated somewhere in the corridors of power given this year's (December 2013) news.  For those of you who do not remember who Alan Turing was, he worked in computing and mathematics and during the war was instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code. Alan's later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed. The pardon was granted by Her Majesty under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy after a request by Justice Minister Chris Grayling.  All well and good; this is certainly great news. But – and there has to be a 'but' – as Gaia predicted there are there are already calls for the others persecuted at the time to be similarly pardoned. The problem is that roughly 50,000 were convicted of that offence back then. If many of these were to claim compensation then that would end up being a sizeable bill: if that 50,000 people estimate is realistic and each got just £20,000 compensation then that would add up to bill of a billion pounds.

G8 science ministers met last year for the first time in 5 years. The meeting took place at the Royal Society in London. High on the agenda was the rise of antimicrobial (antibiotic) resistance. Gaia has to mention this because our Jonathan has been banging on about his vigorously waving the antimicrobial resistance flag to politicians (British but also indirectly US politicos) back in 2002 backed up with the latest science from a 2-day symposium. (His promotional broadsheet – fortunately for this science and SF column – even has an SF quote from H. G. Wells.)

Fantastical, literate ice cream.  The US publisher Quirk Books is known for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Shakespeare's Star Wars. So it was little surprise that last year (2013) it came up with a neat promotion nominally to celebrate National Ice Cream Month. (Only in the outstanding BMI  'US of A' could they come up with the idea of National Ice Cream Month!)  Their promotion involved book-inspired flavours of ice cream with the help of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's. And so they had "Berry Potter and the Container of Secrets" (now with 10% more chocolate frogs) and, for the more literate of mundanes, also "War and Peach" flavour.

The mechanism behind the munchies has been elucidated. SF&DA members know all too well what happens with a heavy session… the dreaded munchies strike and it is time to raid the fridge and larder!  Now, Giovanni Marsicano of the French National Institute of Health and Medical research, Bordeaux, France, focussed their attention on the CB1 receptor (Cannabinoid receptor 1) in mice. When activated hunger improves the sense of smell and this feedbacks to eating. Blocking the receptor in mice that had fasted for 24 hours reduced their eating. Also stimulating the receptor with THC (tetrahyrdracannibol – the key active ingredient in marijuana) boosted olfactory sensitivity and feeding. This research also means that CB1 pharmaceutical targets could be useful in treating some eating disorders.

Will your very bright child ever win a Nobel science Prize for their Nobel-winning idea?  'No' is the somewhat predictable answer, but for a surprising reason.!  The thing is that it is not so much that few people ever win a science Nobel Prize but what is happening with the Nobel Prizes over time. Santo Fortunato and six co-authors made the observation in a correspondence letter in Nature (vol. 508, p186).  What is happening is that it is taking far longer for a scientist's discovery to be deemed worthy of a Nobel. Before 1940 Nobels were awarded after 20 years since the award-winning work was published for only 11% of physics, 15% of chemistry and 24% of physiology prizes. However these proportions have been rising so that since 1985 these proportions are now 60%, 52% and 45% respectively.  Indeed, draw a smoothed graph of average time between discovery and being given a Nobel for each year reveals that back in the 1920s a physicist could typically expect to have to wait less than a decade before their discovery resulted in their being presented with a Nobel. Conversely, today (early 2010s) a physicist can expect to wait around three decades. The problem is a little less acute for chemists and physiologists but today they can still expect to have to wait around two decades, and the trend of all the science Nobel disciplines is for this gap to increase. So, if your child does grow up to make a discovery worthy of a Nobel, they may well have to wait four or more decades for their invitation to Copenhagen. Indeed, in the future some scientists might not live long enough to receive a Nobel.  And the conundrum does not end there. As Nobels are only given to living scientists this trend should be worrying for those running the Nobel awards.

A new evolutionary branch of bacteria have been discovered in human bowels. US microbiologists Jillian Banfield and Ruth Ley have been DNA sequencing microbial communities from the human guts and groundwater. They have found a new type of bacteria belonging to a previously unknown evolutionary branch, the melainabacteria. These have their own phylum – the Melainabacteria. They seem to be distantly related to photosynthetic cyanobacteria but these ones do not photosynthesise and are anaerobic. They probably metabolise by fermenting carbon compounds. There is also the possibility that they may help provide humans with vitamins B and K. (eLife, 2013, vol. 2, 201102.)  Yes, biologists can discern new life even where the sun don't shine.

And talking of sh$te… The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to standardise faeces for transplants. At this point, following the previous item on bowel bacteria, Gaia hears many of you asking 'must you?'. Gaia must: some things are intrinsically important. Now, you may not have heard of faece transplants but dung can be inserted into your body, for medicinal reasons, via tubing to your intestines or even by taking a pill. This is needed if for any reason you gut flora has had to be cleaned out and a new flora established and is, for instance, often used as treatment for life-threatening Closatridium difficile… The problem has been that there are a number of unanswered questions over the treatment and there are no standard protocols. Canada's Queen's University was one of the first to develop an artificial stool with 33 microbes isolated from the faeces from a healthy donor. Typically stool freshness has to be under six hours and transplantation can by nasal tube, colonoscopy, capsules or enema. Clinical trials now need an Investigative New Drug application submitted to the FDA with details of the intended protocols. Over the coming year the FDA will monitor these to define official protocols…  So, in a few hours time when you next do your, eerr, daily ablutions, you can now wonder whether your stools are up to standard, or would they be rejected by the FDA?  OK, this column, this year, is getting a little mucky. Time for something more wholesome at the other end…

The latest global catastrophe to hit planet Earth is a worldwide wine shortage! Shock! Horror! Drama! Probe! Research by the US Morgan Stanley (a financial services firm) concludes that demand for wine exceeded supply by 300m cases in 2012 and that in the short-term inventories will likely be reduced as current consumption continues to be predominantly supplied by previous vintages. To put this in context this shortfall is roughly 10% of supply. As consumption inevitably turns to the 2012 vintage it is expected that the current production shortfall will end up with a significant increase in wine-producer export demand and higher prices for exports globally. The problem could well be particularly acute in Europe due to a combination of declining vineyard acreage and poor weather with 2012 European production down some 10%. France is estimated to consume 12% of global wine production and Britain 5%. (The US also consumes 12%.)  Of the shortfall Gaia says 'gladsh the fingersh is not pointed at li'le ol' me…– hic.'  And wise old Gaia as oft as not is right. This story generated quite a few newspaper column inches in 2013, yet was false! Few news reporters actually read the Morgan Stanley report with a numerical eye, which a cynic might claim was written in no small part to pep up certain holdings in the wine sector. First off, the purported shortfall is not part of some long-term tend, but due to short-term vagaries. Second, the data-sequence the story was based on stops by 2012: funny that. Had the very latest data into 2013 been used it could be seen that there was no 10% shortfall in global supply. The message of this story is that you should really not believe anything that financial institutions or the newspapers tell you, and don't you forget that!

A Higgs boson goes into a church but the vicar says, 'you can't come in'. 'Why not?' enquires the Higgs.  'The thing is that being a Higgs boson you will disrupt the congregation', explains the priest.  'But I have to come in,' says the Higgs, 'you can't have mass without me!'  +++  Schrodinger is driving along one night when he is pulled over by a police constable. The policeman comes up to him and informs him that his tail light is out.  The officer says, 'While I am here I'll search the car: can you pop the boot.' Schrodinger uses the dashboard control to release the boot and the officer goes to look.  Shortly after the officer comes back and says to Schrodinger, 'Do you know that there is a dead cat in your boot?'  Schrodinger replies, 'Well, there is now!'  +++  What is the difference between a camera and a sock?  Easy, one takes photos and the other takes (wait for it…) five toes. +++  And if all this murky mirth is too much for you then Gaia is pleased to be able to announce that it is possible to give you the cause of anaphylactic shock in a nutshell.

Britain's sex survey published. The results of the third British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) were published towards the end of last year (2013). There have been one of these surveys roughly once a decade. (This builds on news the lads reported elsewhere in this site over a decade ago on European sexual behaviour.)  This third survey Interviews were completed with 15,162 participants (6,293 men, 8,869 women). 82·1% of men and 77·7% of women reported at least one sexual partner of the opposite sex in the past year.  The proportion generally decreased with age, as did the range of sexual practices with partners of the opposite sex, especially in women.  The increased sexual activity and diversity reported in Natsal-2 in individuals aged 16-44 years when compared with Natsal-1 has generally been sustained in Natsal-3, but in men has generally not risen further. However, in women, the number of male sexual partners over the lifetime proportion reporting ever having had a sexual experience with genital contact with another woman, and proportion reporting at least one female sexual partner in the past 5 years increased in Natsal-3 compared with Natsal-2. While reported number of occasions of heterosexual intercourse in the past 4 weeks had reduced since Natsal-2 (down from over 6 times a month in the previous survey to a little under 5 times today), the survey recorded an expansion of heterosexual repertoires – particularly in oral and anal – over time. Acceptance of same-sex partnerships and intolerance of non-exclusivity in marriage increased in men and women in Natsal-3. In short, women seem to be reporting more accurately (hence are less inhibited about their sexuality, tolerance of sexual experimentation and homosexuality is increasing, as is intolerance of infidelity). The survey was published in The Lancet, vol. 382, pp781 – 1794.

Though they may be unaware, newlyweds implicitly know whether or not their marriage will be satisfying. Research in the southern US involving a team with members from Florida's State University, University of Tennessee and the Southern Methodist University reported this in Science (vol. 342, pp1119-1120). This study looked at 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months, and then followed up with them every six months over a four-year period.&nsp; Participants were asked to rate their relationship with and their partner. Now you might expect that those who rated their partners and relationship well would more likely be still together after four years. Nope, these verbal ratings give no good indication as to how their relationships will turn out some years down the line. However, what was revealing and could be used to predict the success of a relationship, were people's unconscious feelings. The experiment involved flashing a photo of the study participant’s spouse on a computer screen for just one-third of a second followed by a positive word like 'awesome' or 'terrific' or a negative word like 'awful' or 'terrible.' The individuals simply had to press a key on the keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative. The reaction time was noted. People with positive gut-level attitudes were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words when those automatic attitudes were activated. The opposite was also true: when a spouse had negative feelings about their partner that were activated by the brief exposure to the photo, they had a harder time switching gears to process the positive words. The respondents who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measure reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later. The conscious attitudes were unrelated to changes in marital satisfaction.  This means that if you are about to consider firming up a relationship with marriage or a civil partnership, you might want to consider popping down to your local university psychology department to borrow a computer screen with a reaction times.

Gaia's headline of the year. This local paper headline concerns the deluge from a storm burst over Cardiff. 'Floods close Noah's Ark children's hospital'.

And finally…

The 2014 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year short-list included:-
          Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City   by Chris Balsiger & Erin Canning
          Are Trout South African?  by Duncan Brown
          How to Poo on a Date  by Mats & Enzo
          Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography  by Jo Packham
          How to Pray When You're Pissed at God  by Ian Punnett
          The Origin of Feces  by David Walter-Toews
The Diagram prize was originally conceived in 1978 by Trevor Bounford, co-founder with Bruce Robertson of publishing solutions firm The Diagram Group, as a way of avoiding boredom at the annual Frankfurt Book Fayre. It has been administered every year by Bookseller and Horace Bent, the magazine's diarist. And the winner this year, as determined by Bookseller magazine reader votes, was How to Poo on a Date  by Mats & Enzo. The book is a apparently guide to dating etiquette in case you wondered.   ++++   Previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2015 with more frivolity.

[Up: Gaia Index | Concat': Home Page | Recent Site Additions]
[Author Index: Fiction & Non-Fiction Reviews | Science Fiction News Index]

[ Year's Film & Convention Diary | One Page SF Futures Short Stories | SF Convention Reviews]
[SF Film Charts | Articles ]

[Updated: 14.4.30 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]