Gaia 2017

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2017


Nature's Science Fiction special unwittingly mirrors science fact!  Last year, the leading weekly multidisciplinary science journal Nature produced a special Science Fiction edition. Gaia enjoyed it, albeit that issue's SF content was restricted to just three or four items. However, what tickled Gaia was a purely coincidental science fact news item on the Mars 'Curiosity' rover.  Now, one of the articles was on H. G. Wells and you will recall that Wells' War of the Worlds concludes with the Martian invaders being contaminated and killed by Earth bacteria.  Well, the Mars 'Curiosity' rover news item concerned the dilemma the rovers' controllers faced in getting it up a mountain: Aeolis Mons.  The problem is that the slopes it has to navigate have structures that look like water-induced slippages. International protocol decrees that active the wet areas of Mars should be avoided by non-sterile Earth probes such as the Curiosity rover. The news item noted that it was going to be difficult to reach the mountain's higher regions without coming close to these potentially water bearing structures (see 'Mars contamination fear could divert Curiosity rover', 2016, Nature vol. 537, p145-6).  Wells' story concerned Earth bacteria stopping a Martian invasion in its tracks, and now we have the real life prospect of hypothetical Martian bacteria potentially stopping a NASA invasion of a Martian crater! Another happenstance of science fiction mirroring science fact.  One of the lads, SF² Concatenation's reviews and bioscience editor, informed Nature of this whimsical thought who in turn decided to share it with their readers.

The Martian may be right: it could well be that you could grow potatoes on Mars for real. In Andy Weir's brilliant, mundane SF drama novel The Martian – that spawned the quite good and Hugo Award-winning film The Martian (trailer here) – we see the lone astronaut survivor, Watney, grow potatoes. He grows them in the Martian habitat and so they have Earth's atmosphere, but does use Martian 'soil' mixed in with water and human excrement. All well and good, but would it work? And what would happen if you grew them under a Martian atmosphere?
          Now Julio Valdivia and colleagues from the International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru, have tried to grow potatoes on a simulated Mars.  The potatoes were grown in a sealed chamber under a low pressure, carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere and a near freezing temperature with LED Mars-equivalent sunlight to simulate day-time conditions not far off the Martian equator. (The Martian equator can in fact see temperatures as high as 35 °C.)  They tried 65 varieties of which 61 did not flourish. But four potato varieties sprouted. They then tried these four using rushed rock (as Mars has no true 'soil') watered with liquid fertiliser.  One variety, Unique, sprouted to produce shoots and leaves!
          Aside from the SFnal and exobiological interest, this research also has applications for agriculture in some of Earth's harshest climates.  The border between SF and science continues to give.
          One-and-a-half minute video of the sprouting potato plant here.

Man-flu is real!  But of course you knew this as the boys reported this on their seasonal news page over half a decade ago.  If you do not know what 'man flu' is, it refers to men apparently complaining far more than women when they catch the flu so that by comparison with women, men should consider themselves wimps.  Since this early research back in 2009 there has been a fair bit of progress that confirms that men and women respond to infection differently.  The evolution of this trait is hypothesised to relate to women developing a strong immune response to protect a prospective fetus.  Since then it appears that a protein called TLR7 helps detect viruses and activates immune cells. This protein is genetically encoded on the X chromosome.  In 2014 the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) called upon researchers to declare the sex of any test mice used in pre-clinical research (as clearly that will affect immunological results), but in 2015 the US Government Accountability Office concluded that the NIH did a poor job of enforcing these rules.  Meanwhile, it is likely that research into the man-flu effect will continue… So women, don't grumble at your man if he makes more of a fuss about having the flu than you.

Move over Kryptonians, humans have super-vision that can discern a single photon! Of all the science stories of the past 12 months, this was the one whose headline message Gaia found the hardest to believe.  Researchers at Rockefeller University (New York, US) asked three volunteers to stare into an optical system in the dark and listen to a tone which was sometimes accompanied by the emission of a photon. They ran some 30,000 trails (10,000 per volunteer) and found that the volunteers identified a photon more frequently than would be expected if they had guessed by random (see Nature Communications vol. 7, 12172 (2016)).  And it gets more amazing.  Apparently the researchers next plan to see how the human eye responds to single photons in various quantum states!  Human biology never ceases to astound.

Sweetners make you fat was one of the counterintuitive items that caught Gaia's eye the past year. Now research has shown that it appears that regular consumption of the calorie-free artificial sweetener sucralose causes animals to overeat. The effect was found in both fruit flies and mice: they ate 30% more calories than their respective control groups that were not fed sucralose. (See the Journal of Cell Metabolism doi: 1016/jcmet.2016.06.010.)

So the good old US-of-A has a new President, but Gaia was impressed with one statistic from the Obama years: more endangered species in the US stopped being endangered under Obama than the previous four Presidents put together!  The US Endangered Species Act came into force 44 years ago. It calls for maintaining an endangered list, hence focuses attention, on species at risk of dying out in the US. Under Obama some 19 species had recovered enough to be delisted: this is more than the species that came off the list under Regan, Clinton and the two Bushes added together.  Good news certainly. However, while Obama supported biological conservation, he also properly funded the administration of the lists and so – some Republicans say – helped those processing the delisting.  Nonetheless Gaia challenges Trump to trump that.

BBC's fake news, fake news. Fake news has been growing and has arguably entered a new phase in our lives by spreading out from just using farcical headlines to drive traffic to a webpage (that almost inevitably has advertising and is heavily cookied) and into mainstream politics with the new US President Trump making blatantly false statements (the size of his inauguration ceremony crowd being but one).  And so on 30th January (2017) the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme (Britain's flagship morning news programme) extensively explored the issue.  All well and good until the programme's final ten minutes.  At that points one of the contributors decided to flaunt their lack of literary prowess in commenting that we can even hear with fake news two plus two equalling five and then that person referenced this to Brave New World.  This was a particularly unfortunate slip, it being ironic on a number of levels.  First up, the obvious: the Today participant got the facts wrong as while Brave New World did feature a totalitarian state in which access to culture and literature was proscribed, its societal control was maintained through giving the population physical distractions (sex and drugs) in addition to genetic dulling; it did not feature truth distortion.  In fact, it was George Orwell's 1984 that featured the "two plus two" quote. It was 1984 in which words were deleted from the language with English becoming 'newspeak' and news managed by the Ministry of Truth.
          Second, and as obvious but ironic, the Today programme gaff was also unfortunate because they were in a 'news' programme talking about 'fake news' that contains 'falsehoods'.  Finally, there was a more subtle irony in that George Orwell spent a couple of years working for the BBC, including in its former Bush House on which he allegedly envisioned his Ministry of Truth.  Today programme blunder aside, the reason fake news was in the news was that the House of Commons all-party Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee had just launched an enquiry into fake news and its impact on democracy.
          And from fake news to deliberately fake science…

Kissing it better by mummy doesn't work, a paper shows. Shock, surprise!. The paper appeared in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice ( (2015)) but despite clues such as a fictional biomedical company purportedly contributing funding, and one of the references being non-academically titled 'So what the hell is going on here', many took the paper as being real. Actually it was made up, and was deliberately fictitious so as to explore the limitations of evidence-based medicine and things like randomised controlled trials (RCTs) without impugning any genuine study: it brought various illustrative points together in one short work.  Nonetheless, some took it as real and complained bitterly when they found out it was invented (albeit for genuine educational purposes). But others played up to it. A urologist from Carolina U. tweeted: "Maternal kisses apparently ineffective alleviating boo-boos in RCT-our household now switching to 'blowing on it."
          Gaia has some sympathy with the Evaluation in Clinical Practice journal's editor and enjoys the occasional light-hearted jape.  Indeed, Gaia remembers one of the SF² Concatenation bioscientists saying that with the editor of the Journal of Biological Education they had once concocted a spoof study on the efficacy of devices near the mouths of cattle that ignited the greenhouse potent methane being burped, converting it into the comparatively less climate-warming carbon dioxide. That paper too contained clues as to its satirical nature including the study being called the 'Bovine Eructation Research Project' (BERP, geddit?). Yet the call for off-prints from those believing the study was real was so numerous that a follow-up news item was published saying that a methane flame from one of the cattle set fire to straw and in turn the cow shed which burned down along with the adjoining research lab so preventing the researchers engaging in correspondence.  That paper itself turned out to be somewhat predictive as later in real life a few weeks a vet was smoking a cigarette while doing a cow's fertility determination (FD). Cattle FDs are undertaken by a vet sticking their arm up the cow's rectum to feel her ovaries. In this instance the action released a volume of wind which was ignited by the cigarette.  The resulting jet of flame set fire to straw that burned down the cow shed: real life imitating satirical science.  In case - gentle reader - you are concerned, Gaia can confirm no animal perished in the conflagration.

Why do shoe laces come undone? This is the sort of problem that unduly vexes Gaia.  Now mechanical engineers – yes, Howard Wolowitz types – at UC Berkeley, USA, have found out why in a remarkably detailed piece of research.  Christopher Daily-Diamond and two co-workers used a slow-motion camera and a series of experiments. They found that the repeated impact of the shoe on the floor during walking serves to loosen the knot. Then, the whipping motions of the free ends of the laces caused by the leg swing produce slipping of the laces. This leads to eventual runaway untangling of the knot; they can stay tight or long but once the unravelling starts it is an avalanche effect.  So the implications of this research is that you can tie up your shoes, but don't go walking in them if you want the laces to remain done up. Engineers huh! (See Daily-Diamond CA, Gregg CE, O’Reilly OM. 2017 The roles of impact and inertia in the failure of a shoelace knot. Proceedings of the. Royal Society A vol. 473: 20160770.)

2016 was the year that Australia decided to move a metre! Gaia was at first gob smacked by this headline. Yet, indeed Australia really was to shift its longitude and latitude to address a gap between local co-ordinates and those from global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). But the explanation is actually quite mundane: Australia moves some 7cm north each year due to plate tectonics. This shift means that the global map gradually becomes out of date. If accurate global positioning is required (such as for driverless cars) then reality has to match human maps and so the re-alignment between the two is required. So on 1st January (2017), the country's local co-ordinates were shifted further north by 1.8m.

Penιle bone loss points to a change in human evolution.  Sometimes – well, quite often really – around the SF² Concat' dinner table, with testosterone rising the physics and bio' boys have a go at each other, and inevitably at some stage the biologists say: 'Ahh, but we can do smut'.  And so for these lads Gaia passes on news of Matilda Brindle and Chris Opie's work last year at UCL. They examined the penιs bones of nearly 2,000 species of mammal.  Now, if you have never heard of penιs bones – or 'bacula' – then it is because we humans do not have them.  What the researchers found was that the baculum seems to have first evolved between 149 - 95 million years ago in the common ancestor of all primates and carnivores. All well and quite interesting: we get the message that bacula are big (so to speak) in mammals.  Given this, it begs the question as to why humans lack bacula?  The researchers found that species that tend to cοpulate for longer tend to have lengthier bacula.  They also found that this is also true of species that either mate promiscuously, or where the breeding season is restricted leading to intense sperm competition from different males.  This in turn leads the researchers to muse that human males lost their bacula after our split with chimpanzees and a switch to a more monogamous lifestyle.  Something Gaia gives the lads to think about when they next adjust their dress. (See Proceedings of the Royal Society Transactions B, vol 283, 20161736 (2016).).

Young people's poo may make you live longer is the conclusion of research on fish.  Now, we already know from experiments with rats that old rats sharing the circulatory system with young rats extends the old rat's life, but now research with fish suggests the same may apply with young creatures poo: yes, young people's shιt may possibly extend your life!  How does this work? Well, its a microbiome thing: a microbiome being the assemblage of microorganisms that live in your gut. As creatures get older the microbial diversity of guts decreases. What Dario Valenzano, of the Max Plank Institute for Biology and Aging in Cologne, Germany, and colleagues have found is that by giving middle-aged 16-week old Killifish antibiotics to clean out their gut micro flora and putting them in sterile water and adding the guts of young fish that they then lived longer by a median of 41%! While it is too early to extrapolate these results to humans, the work is intriguing.

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

Which usually is an item on the Diagram prize for oddest book title.  Sadly, this year it is a change for my never-changing end-of-Gaia column as The Bookseller's Horace Bent has not run the prize (at least had not by Easter which is when this column goes to bed). However, you can still check out Gaia's previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2018 with more sciencey frivolity.

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