Gaia 2015

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2015


Health-policy researcher output reflects that of US wealth distribution: 1% of researchers contribute to 41% of all papers. The analysis by John Ioannidis of Stanford U. (US) found that less than 1% of health-policy researchers managed to publish every year between 1996 to 2011. Further, that this select minority contributed to more than 41% of health-policy papers over the same period. Many noted the similarity of this and that the top 1% of US earners holding a disproportionately greater share of US wealth. The message seems to be 'be productive' and that this is part of natural economics, hence a justification for a small minority of the world's population to own the vast majority of its wealth. But in the Tweeting discussion that followed the analysis's publication Minnesota U. chemist, Chris Cramer, criticised this analogy tweeting that this researcher analysis is 'an interesting example of the top 1% CONTRIBUTING 41% (instead of owning?)'

Light-emitting e-readers in used bed before sleep are harmful to health! US and German researchers, led by Anne-Marie Chang, have found that using light-emitting e-readers before going to sleep suppresses melatonin, and phase-shifts people's biological clocks. They compared those who regularly read before sleep using light-emitting e-readers compared with those that used a physical, printed paper book. Next-morning alertness was also reduced. Overall, they found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety. (Chang, A-M, et al, 2014, PNAS, doi/10.1073/pnas.1418490112).

Popular science book highlights gender debate. British biologist Lewis Wolpert's FIBiol latest book from Faber & Faber (2014) highlights the gender debate starting with its title. Buy the book in Britain and it is called Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?; buy it in the US and it is Why Can't a Man Be More Like a Woman? Lewis points to the obvious, our species is sexually dimorphic. In addition to the obvious, brains physically differ. Now this is not to say that one sex is better than the other; though in some tasks (such as 3-D processing) there appear to be clear differences. Nor is this to say that social and cultural differences do not have their part to play and that we could make opportunities more equal through changes in social and cultural structures.  In the SF community in recent years there has been much welcome progress in recognising diversity and provision of equal opportunity and furthering tolerance.  Having said that, such worthy gains are arguably being undermined by the raucous nature of the strident PC (politically correct) brigade who unintentionally or not add an echo of the jackboot to the otherwise sober and worthy debate.  One example of the latter within SF is the accusation (by a vocal minority) that women are being prevented from writing hard SF and getting published by major imprints: an odd argument given that many (if not most) of the major SF/F/H imprints have senior editors who are female; are they saying that these good folk are being discriminatory?  Does it not strike the strident brigade odd on one hand to call for specialist women's publishing imprints and presses, yet on the other demand equality in sub-genre equality in big publishing assuming that somehow there is deliberate discrimination?  As Lewis Wolpert points out, the sexes are different. True, we can and should strive for equality of opportunity (getting more women to study physics, maths and computer science would be just one way, of several, to help increase the number of female hard SF writers), but why not celebrate our differences and recognise that together we are greater than apart. After all, you cannot have it both ways, except perhaps in a book title.

This brings us on to…

The quote of the 2014 Loncon3 World SF Convention emphasised diversity. Given the recent problems found in a number of N. American conventions, Loncon3 was determined to be politically correct at all costs, ensuring catering for the diversity of gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, political persuasion and (dis)ability equality…  And so, among the many services provided there was a small fleet of electric buggies for those with mobility issues. Unfortunately a minority of these mobility-scooter-users were not able to properly control them, and so there were an unfortunate number of accidents and painful collisions. This in turn resulted in guidance being issued in the convention newsletter. And indeed everyone was determined to ensure that diversity issues were addressed and so one wag firmly noted that 'nobody should stand in the way of mobility buggy users...'

One of last year's oddest science papers actually has very serious implications. This is something that usually comes out of the IgNobel: humorous-sounding research that, once given a little thought, actually has important ramifications and/or implications. The research here relates to women's skirt size and disease and was published in BMJ Open as Fourkala, E-O., Burnell, M., Cox, C., et al (2014) Association of skirt size and postmenopausal breast cancer risk in older women: a cohort study within the UK Collaborative Trial of Ovarian Cancer Screening, BMJ Open vol. 4, e005400. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014- 005400.  It is probably the first study investigating the association between central obesity using skirt size (SS) as a proxy and breast cancer risk. The researchers took measurement data from an incredible 94,000 postmenopausal-women aged >50. Given that obesity is now emerging as a global epidemic, from a public health prospective these findings are significant as they provide women with a simple and easy to understand message and so if Gaia can help spread the word then all the better.
          The key message is this: going up several skirt sizes in midlife could well be a warning sign of increased cancer risk. Women who went up a skirt size every decade after their mid-20s had a 33% greater risk of breast cancer after the menopause. Why is this particularly important? Well, though the relationship between being overweight and cancer has been well established, people just don't know their own BMI (body mass index). However this study highlights that skirt size is an easy way to monitor your weight gain over time: women are more likely to remember their skirt size when they were younger than their BMI!

The most outrageously childish, silly news of the year has to be Winnie-the-Pooh being deemed as an 'inappropriate hermaphrodite' for a playground. Reportedly, Councillors of Tuszyn (Poland) thought Pooh's dress inappropriate as he is naked from the waist down. One Councillor apparently declared Winnie-the-Pooh to be a hermaphrodite saying “it doesn’t wear underpants because it doesn’t have a sex”. The debate came about as a children's character was being sought as the face for a play area in the town. Another even started casting aspirations about the author A. A. Milne reportedly saying '“This is very disturbing but can you imagine! The author was over 60 and cut [Pooh’s] testicles off with a razor blade because he had a problem with his identity'. Fortunately one Councillor found the discussion so obtuse that he started recording and leaked it to the Croatian Times.

More chldish behavour, not by SF geeks but so-called normal people encouraging faery belief in their offspring. Hundreds of fairy doors have been attached to the bases of trees in Wayford Woods, Crewkerne, Somerset, Britain.  The doors have been installed by local people so children can 'leave messages for the faeries', and it is getting out of control.  At its peak a year ago, more than 200 little doors had been screwed, nailed and installed on trees. And with little tokens, faery toys and notes secreted behind some of the doors, it has rapidly become known as 'the faery woods'.  See the pictures for yourself in the story covered by the BBC

School pupil's erotic fantasy character banned but murderers and lecherous spies are all right. Sale High School decided to mark the nation's 2015 Book Day asking its pupils to come in dressed as a character from literature. And so Liam Scholes, 11, decided to go as Christian Grey from E. L. James's erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, dressed up in a grey suit, carrying cable ties and an eye mask. Alas the school did not see consider it suitable and so banned Liam from their Book Day photograph. Apparently "Liam was advised to dress as James Bond... but [he] was a promiscuous character who kills people," said Liam's mother. She added that it was deemed "appropriate for a teacher to dress up as a serial killer" and "acceptable for kids to dress up as people that kill others" and "come in with [toy] guns". "Personally, I'm more offended by a murderer." (See a report here.)

More on munchies' cause. Further to last year's (2014) 'munchies' item in Gaia, there have been striking developments. (A quick catch-up for those not in the SF&DA: the 'munchies' is the craving for food one gets following ingesting cannabis and it was central to the story in the most popular episode of The Big Bang Theory as voted for by Britain's Channel 4 viewers.)  Further to last time, as we suggested might happen, previous munchies research led to the development of dronabinol, a synthetic version of the natural cannabinoid delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, as a treatment for the metabolic disorder cachexia anorexia syndrome.  But how, and where in the brain, do cannabinoids work to stimulate food intake?  In a paper published in Nature ( nature14260 (2015).) Marco Koch and colleagues report that cannabinoids activate a subset of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons, a cell group in the brain’s hypothalamus that has a central role in inhibiting hunger. 'Inhibits hunger'?
          Hang on, the munchies see hunger promoted! (Not inhibited.)
          What Koch et al found is that, in mice, CB1 receptors (Cannabinoid receptor 1 which we discussed last year) are found not only on nerve terminals that make synaptic connections to POMC neurons, but also they are found on on mitochondria (power organelles -- within cells -- that burn sugars to release energy)!  The bottom-line news in this complex neuro-biology story is that cannabinoids can subvert an appetite-inhibitory (anorexic) circuit to become orexigenic (appetite-stimulating). Could this provide further understanding as to how delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol works as a treatment for cachexia anorexia? Still unknown are the relative dominance of various CB1 receptors in the nervous system and on mitochondria. Also, we still do not know as much about the biochemistry and cell biology of appetite regulation as we would like and, indeed, need so as to produce a greater range of pharmaceuticals to tackle that other problem: over-eating in general.

Cartoon films kill and the 'ice bucket challenge' is as infectious as influenza! If you like quirky science and oddities then one place you are sure to find a few is in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal even though it is essentially a clinician's journal as opposed to a scientists'. (And if you don't agree with, or understand, that distinction then seek out the former BMJ's editor's editorial on why doctors [clinicians] are not scientists.) Nonetheless, the BMJ's Christmas invariably has its fun moments and 2014's (was no exception with two papers catching Gaia's eye.
          'Cartoons Kill' by Canadian epidemiologist Ian Colman and colleagues assesses the risk of on-screen death of important characters in children’s animated films versus dramatic films for adults (doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7184). They looked at important characters in 45 top grossing children’s animated films using a comparison group of 90 top grossing dramatic films for adults, and the time to first on-screen death using Kaplan-Meier survival analysis with Cox regression.  They found that important characters in children’s animated films were at an increased risk of death compared with characters in dramatic films for adults (hazard ratio 2.52, 95% confidence interval 1.30 to 4.90). Risk of on-screen murder of important characters was higher in children’s animated films than in comparison films (2.78, 1.02 to 7.58). Conclusions: Rather than being the innocuous form of entertainment they are assumed to be, children’s animated films are rife with on-screen death and murder.
          'Transmissibility of the Ice Bucket Challenge' by Hong Kong's Michael Y. Ni looked at how one celebrity taking the ice-bucket challenge led to another doing the same (doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7185).  Now, if you are reading this some years in the future, you may not know what is an 'ice bucket challenge'. Basically someone gets sponsored for charity to be filmed having a bucket of iced water poured over them and then nominate three others to undertake it. The 'ice bucket challenge' went viral (in the social not biological sense of the term) but the degree to which others accept the challenge is analogous to pathogen infection, and so in essence is epidemiological.  The study took David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Homer Simpson, and Kermit the Frog as index cases and then they followed what happened for five generations of the challenge. Basic reproduction number (R0), the (serial) interval to accepting the challenge, and odds ratios of associated risk factors based on fully observed nomination chains; R0 is a measure of transmissibility and is defined as the number of secondary cases generated by a single index in a fully susceptible population. Based on the empirical data and assuming a branching process they estimated a mean R0 of 1.43 (95% confidence interval 1.23 to 1.65) and a mean serial interval for accepting the challenge of 2.1 days (median 1 day). The Ice Bucket Challenge was found to be moderately transmissible in the range of the pandemic A/H1N1 2009 influenza. The challenge was more likely to be spread by richer celebrities, perhaps in part reflecting greater social influence.  So there you have it; celebrities behave like bugs! Who would have thunk it?

How much do people read? And what are book readers' lives' like? Galaxy Quick Reads has commissioned Liverpool University to conduct a survey. They surveyed 4,164 adult readers. They found that, if their sample was representative of the UK population as a whole then, almost a third of the adult population -- 16 million -- are lapsed readers who used to read but do not, or barely do at all, now. However, Quick Reads says, if an adult reads for 30 minutes a week then they are 20% more likely to report greater satisfaction with life and have 10% more self-esteem than non-readers.  The survey also concluded that 2.2 million who used to read (or who do so now only rarely) stopped reading due to a difficult period in their life such as a death or a divorce, or ill health.  Now, it is important to recognise who is behind this research, Galaxy Quick Reads, and that they have put a positive spin on reading.  The reality may not be so cut and dried. The research cannot make such a claim; there could be more going on? An alternate explanation, to 'reading makes you happy', could equally be one of 'happy people read'. So beware the spin.  As to how much we read?  Well ,adults between 18 and 44 years of age read between two and three hours per week. Those between 45 and 54 years of age read for 3.3 hours per week; those 55 -66 read for 4.2 hours; and over 65s read for 5 hours. The mean reading time for adults was 3.3 hours per week.  Gaia suspects that SF book readers read a little more; but that is only an untested suspicion.

BFI 'Most favourite sci-fi (sic) characters poll of thousands chime with SF2 Concatenation's 1987 poll! The British Film Institute's poll top SF character results were:-
          1. Doctor Who
          2. Ripley from Alien
          3. Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) from Star Wars
          4. Kerr Avon from Blake's 7
          5. Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly
          6. G'Kar from Babylon 5
          7. Hal from 2001 A Space Odyssey
          8. Rick Deckard from Blade Runner
          9. Han Solo from Star Wars
          10. Spock from Star Trek
          2001 A Space Odyssey was voted the greatest SF film.
Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of a century ago SF2 Concatenation's all-time SF survey conducted at the 1987 British Eastercon BECCON top film section results were:-
          1. Bladerunner
          2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
          3. Dark Star
          4. Alien
          5. Forbidden Planet
          6. Star Wars (1977)
          7. Aliens
          8. Silent Running
          9. Dr Strangelove
          10. Brazil
Characters from 5 of the Concatenation 1987 film top ten appear in the BFI 2014 top SF character poll, which suggests that some things never change…

Which brings us neatly on to our never-changing end-of-Gaia column regular… And finally…

The 2015 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year. Remember, these are genuine titles of books published last year! This year the short-list included:-
          Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City   by Chris Balsiger and Erin Canning
          Rabbi, My Husband Wants a Blowjob: The Halachic Analysis of Fellatio in Jewish Marital Intimacy: Volume 1  by Rabbbi S. Even-Shoshau. (Of which Horace Bent notes 'volume 1!?')
          Divorcing a Real Witch: For pagans and people that used to love them by Diana Rajchel
          Nature's Nether Regions by Menno Schilthuizen. (Well, genitals are often an easy way to tell the difference between similar species.)
          The Ugly Wife is Treasured at Home by Melissa Margaret Schneider
          Advanced Pavement Research: Selected, Peer Reviewed Papers from the 3rd International Conference on Concrete Pavements Design, Construction, and Rehabilitation, December 2-3, 2013, Shanghai, China edited by Bo Tian
          The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones by Sandra Tsing-Loh
          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, that magazine's diarist.
          And the winner this year, as determined by Bookseller magazine reader votes, was Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte.  ++++   Previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2016 with more frivolity.

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