Gaia 2018

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2018


Sweet gene found. A pill for losing weight soon possible.  Gaia loves the occasional sweet, but only occasionally.  A new study of thousands of Danish citizens has confirmed previous mice studies that the FGF21 gene drives feeding behaviour: FGF21 encodes for a liver hormone. Another new study of 51 volunteers showed that after 12 hours of fasting, the levels of FGF21 were higher in those who said they disliked sweet foods. This research may lead to pharmaceuticals to combat obesity. (See Cell Metabolism, vol. 25, p1045-1053.)

Gaia's Tweet of the Year goes to The Flat Earth Society.  They tweeted on the 5th February 2018 that, "The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe."  To which Sci-Tech Universe tweeted the comment, "Say that again, but slowly."  Within a day the Flat Earth tweet received 32 comments, 386 shares and 4,900 emoticon likes, loves and amazements.

The 2017 IgNobels were presented in the autumn. They are the alternative to the Nobels with wins designed to at first make you smile and then think.  The wins that tickled Gaia's whimsy were:-
          The Economics IgNobel [AUSTRALIA, USA] — Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer, for their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble. (See "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer, Journal of Gambling Studies, vol. 26, no. 4, December 2010, pp.571-81.)
          The Anatomy IgNobel [UK] — James Heathcote, for his medical research study "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" (See "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" James A. Heathcote, British Medical Journal, vol. 311, 1995, p.1668.)
          The Biology IgNobel [JAPAN, BRAZIL, SWITZERLAND] — Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard, for their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect. (See "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, Charles Lienhard, Current Biology, vol. 24, no. 9, 2014, pp.1006-1010.)
          The Medicine IgNobel [FRANCE, UK] — Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang, for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese. (See "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly and Tao Jiang, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 10, October 2016, article 511.)
          The Cognition IgNobel [ITALY, SPAIN, UK] — Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti, for demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually. (See "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, Salvatore Maria Aglioti, PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 4, 2015: e0120900.)
As for the real Nobels, these were announced over on SF² Concatenation's Spring 2018 season news page.

Marijuana boosts memory in old mice!  This is a controversial topic and the SF&DA Society has all but vanished from SF conventions (since its hay day of the 1970s and '80s) as the dope of yesterday has in the 21st century been replaced by skunk cultivars: while both are called 'marijuana' they are about as different as real ale beer and moonshine spirit, with chronic skunk usage far more likely leading to problems such as psychosis. (It's a CBD to THC ratio thing.)  Yet for some – people such as MS sufferers and those on chemotherapy – marijuana relieves pain and side-effects. And now there is more research that is likely to fuel controversy…
          Andreas Zimmer and colleagues from Bonn U. (Germany) gave low levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinbol) or a placebo for 28 days to three groups of mice: young (two months old), mature (12 months) and old (18 months).
          Not surprisingly the younger mice who had the THC fared worse in memory tests than those who did not.  However, and this is the surprise, those mature and old mice who had the THC performed as well as untreated young mice.  Further, the neuronal synaptic structures of old and mature mice who had the THC became similar to that of young mice. (See Nature Medicine, 2017, doi.orgb6vf.)
          This work needs to be independently replicated as, superficially at least, the implications are profound. Low levels of THC may help in old age. Having said that, we are talking about low levels and not getting the mice so stoned that they can't perform the memory tests. Also, the implication is that giving low levels to juvenile humans (pre-young adults aged under the early 20s) is harmful; their brains are still developing.  Marijuana should not be legalised for under 21s.

Cory Doctorow is adamant that he does not write 'adult fiction'.  Cory Doctorow was the winner of the 2000 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2004 Locus Award for Best First Novel (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) among other awards.  He was being interviewed at Waterstones bookshop in London in November (2017) where he made it clear as a valid point of pedantry that he does not write 'adult fiction' but 'fiction for adults': the term 'adult fiction', he says, can have some unfortunate connotations.

Vocal chords have now been grown from stem cells.  The news comes from BBC's R4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.  Apparently, the results speak for themselves!

Mars discovery!  Gaia feels for theoretical astronomer Professor Peter Dunsby (of Cape Town University), though does see the funny side.  In March (2018) he telegrammed the astronomical community that he had discovered a 1st order magnitude transient.  This – had it been true – would have been something and even visible by the naked eye, and indeed it was.  Peter, being theoretical, does not do much practical observing and what he had actually discovered was the planet Mars.  So some astronomers, being such wags, sent Peter a certificate for discovering Mars…

Children 'swipe left' to turn book pages.  This story was run by a number of papers including Metro (3rd April 2018). Apparently children, so used to smart phones and pads, swipe instead of turning the pages of physical books.  Also, it was said, that books were too expensive and a luxury for many.  The story quickly drew a substantive reader response the next day with folk pointing out that smart phones and pads were more of a luxury than books: books can easily be bought from second-hand shops for less than £1.

The Global Seed Vault had been designed to protect the planet’s crop seeds from planetary disaster but it fell foul of human-induced global change.  The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway, was constructed to protect samples of the world’s food crop seeds from global disaster.  All well and good. The vault was supposed to last for ‘eternity’.  But last May, in an ironic turn, it became prey to an impact of human-induced global warming.  The reason the SGSV was sited in the Arctic Circle was to ensure it was kept cool. Alas warming last spring meant that the surrounding permafrost melted so flooding the vault.  At the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year there was permafrost melting and heavy rain. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which manages the vault.  The vault was supposed to run without humans, but now the seed vault is being watched 24 hours a day.  Back to the drawing board then.

Gaia – a planetary being encompassing our bio-geosphere – is into biological conservation, but sometimes correctness can go too far! This happened when overenthusiastic biosecurity officers in Brisbane, Australia, destroyed rare samples of 19th-century pressed plants which the French Natural History Museum in Paris had sent the nation in loan.  Apparently, the paperwork was not in order. Reportedly (by the BBC) the correct procedure the officers should have followed was to have stored the samples in isolation until the paperwork was sorted. Ooops!

Wannacry ransomware infected hundreds of thousands across the world last year. From the biosecurity of the previous item to cybersecurity.  The Wannacry virus last year locked computer users out of their data.  It affected systems Microsoft had stopped supporting and not just people's personal computers but businesses: even railways and hospitals weren't immune.  So, Gaia wonders, with the planet under global cyber attack, where exactly is Doctor Who when you need him?

Plate tectonic theory celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and also 2013, so sparking a discussion.  OK, we all know the story: Alfred Wegner considered continents as 'icebergs' of granite floating in a denser sea of basalt way back in 1912: and that's some 95 years ago.  Ridiculed, Wegner's theory lay dormant until McKenzie and Parker came up with the idea in 1967 (without reference to Wegner possibly because his ideas had been lost to the 1960s researchers).  And so this year the Geological Society (the world's oldest geological society) celebrated the theory's 50th anniversary on the grounds that McKenzie and Parker's paper was more complete than Wegner's and also became fully accepted by the geoscience community.  Yet the journal Nature celebrated tectonics 50th back in 2013!  What is going on?  And so it came to pass that there was an explanatory editorial on the discrepancy both in Nature (vol. 550, p7) and an item on the celebrations in the Geological Society's in-house magazine Geoscientist (vol.27 (11), p7).  Here is what happened…
          In September 1963 (fifty years prior to 2013), Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews noted magnetic reversals along the mid-Atlantic ridge and hypothesised an upwelling and ocean floor spreading and it was this paper that Nature chose to mark the 50th anniversary of plate tectonics (that that paper was published in Nature (vol. 199, p947–9) had no bearing on their decision – perish the thought.  But then in 1965 Tuzo Wilson ran with the idea of a spreading Atlantic and also revived (citing him) Wegner's theory. However Wilson was unsure as to the exact mechanism citing three options.  This was then resolved by Lynn Sykes (Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 72 (8), p2,131-2,153) who deduced the nature of the faulting and linked it to earthquakes. This last was before the McKenzie and Parker paper (Nature, vol. 216, p1,276–1,280) later that year.  So, when was the modern theory of plate tectonics developed?  Well, there is no true answer: scientific knowledge is both additive and synergistic in terms of progress through its component elucidations. Gaia knows this, as do many SF fans.
          Similarly, science fiction tropes do not spring into being fully formed.  Take alien life forms.  Early SF had aliens as essentially human, then chimaeric (human with terrestrial animal species components such as angel-like wings), then non-humanoid alien and then back to loosely humanoid-like but through convergent evolutionary processes on Earthlike planets.
          This 50th anniversary discussion can illuminate another similarity as to the ways science and independently SF evolves, changing with time.  Something on which to perhaps ponder in this, science fiction's own 200th anniversary, since the publication of arguably the first true SF novel Frankenstein.

It is the end of an era with the retirement of Ted Nield.  This item builds on the geological theme of the previous one above, and really is for the Brit polymath scientists out there.  Just as SF fans have their favourite author, so scientists have their favourite science writer. Gaia has had a few favourites over the decade including: the British Medical Journal's Stephen Lock (its editor1975–1991), Nature's John Maddox (editor 1966 – 1973 and 1980 – 95), Science's Richard Kerr (Earth system science reporter still going strong) and Geoscientist's Ted Nield.  Ted has been delighting, teasing and otherwise entertaining Geological Society Fellows with his editorials for what seems like over three decades.  He has also had a couple of pieces reprinted in SF² Concatenation.  As Ted retires, Gaia gives him a nod and hopes he'll continue with his popular science book writing.  It may be the dawn of the Anthropocene, but it also is the end of an era.  Happy retirement Ted.

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

The 2017 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year shortlist and winner has been announced.  But first a note: 2017 Diagram Prize? Surely you mean 2018? Nope. Last year the diagram prize was delayed to after Easter and so reporting on it missed our annual Gaia column slot last year.  Anyway, the 2017 shortlist is now out. It consisted of:-
An Ape's View of Human Evolution by Peter Andrews
The Commuter Pig Keeper: A Comprehensive Guide to Keeping Pigs When Time is Your Most Precious Commodity by Michaela Giles
Nipples on my Knee by Graham and Debora Robertson
Love Your Ladylandscape: Trust Your Gut, Care For 'Down There' and Reclaim Your Fierce and Feminine SHE Power by Lisa Lister
Rennikos Australian Pre-decimal Decimal Coin Errors: The Premier Guide for Australian Pre-Decimal & Decimal Coin Errors by Ian McConnelly
          And the winner… The Commuter Pig Keeper: A Comprehensive Guide to Keeping Pigs When Time is Your Most Precious Commodity by Michaela Giles.
You can 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 2019 with more sciencey frivolity.

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