Gaia 2021

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2021


The 2020 IgNobels have been presented.  The Ig Nobel Prizes honour achievements that make people laugh, and then think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative -- and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.  Each winning team was given a cash prize — of a 10 trillion dollar bill from Zimbabwe.

  • For Acoustics: Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and Tecumseh Fitch, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.
  • Psychology: Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule, for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.
  • Peace: The governments of India and Pakistan, for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night, and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door.
  • Physics: Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky, for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.
  • Economics: Christopher Watkins and colleagues for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.
  • Management: Xi Guang-An, Mo Tian-Xiang, Yang Kang-Sheng, Yang Guang-Sheng, and Ling Xian Si – five professional hitmen in Guangxi, China, who subcontracted a murder one to the other with none of them in the end actually carrying out the crime.
  • Entomology: Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists (scientists who study insects) are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.
  • Medical Education: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi of India, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Donald Trump of the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, for using the CoVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.
  • Materials Science: Metin Eren, Michelle Bebber, James Norris, Alyssa Perrone, Ashley Rutkoski, Michael Wilson, and Mary Ann Raghanti, for showing that knives manufactured from frozen human faeces do not work well.

Prediction news.  Much was predicted about coronovirus before the end of 2019 outbreak.  But one thing the experts completely missed...  Britain had civil servants, health workers and bioscientists participate in the Cygnus exercise game-playing a severe flu-like pandemic.  This was one of a number of viral pandemic exercises conducted in various countries the past couple of decades.  One of the last, called Event 201, took place in October 2019 in New York. ('Event 201' because there are around 200 epidemics across the world every year, but what if one more became a serious pandemic?)  These exercises all came to a similar range of conclusions: medical equipment shortages, ineffective and late travel bans, disorganisation, a massive rush to develop a vaccine, and the spread misinformation.  But there was one thing that none of them predicted.  None of the experts and professional workers foresaw that some nations' political leaders, even world leaders, would be so dismissive of the virus and scientific advice so as to actively allow the virus to spread unchecked!
          (See also 'Medical Education' in the preceding item above.)

2020 saw the passing of a global, human-related weight landmark.  Emily Elhacham and colleagues have calculated that the global human-made mass (metals, bricks, concrete etc), which had recently been doubling every 20 years, in 2020 (plus or minus a few years) for the first time exceeded the weight of all living biomass -- 1.1 teratonnes. We are truly in the Anthropocene. (See Elhacham, E. et al (2020) Global human-made mass exceeds all living mass. Nature, vol. 688, p442-4.)

The big SF mistake of 2020: when three equals four!  Designed in 2020 (visual by Chris Costello) but launched early in 2021, was Britain's new £2 coin intended to mark 75 years since the death of H. G. Wells. The series of the coins includes imagery inspired by The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.  Alas 'The Invisible Man' is depicted as wearing a top hat (actually he wore a wide-brimmed one though Wells himself did once draw an image of the man wearing a top hat) and, less forgivable, The War of the Worlds tripods are shown as having four legs! Apparently the visual designer's inspiration came from the cover of an old US edition of The War fo the Worlds.
          If all that was not bad enough, Simon James spotted the quote chosen for the edge of the coin: “Good books are warehouses of ideas.” James and SF author and university lecturer Adam Roberts (also a vice-president of the Wells Society) could find no such quote in Wells’s writing – although it is credited to him on various inspirational quote websites. Fortunately however, author Eleanor Fitzsimons solved the mystery. She searched Wells’s writing for a quote with “warehouses” in it, and found an approximation in his obscure work Select Conversations With an Uncle (Now Extinct) and Two Other Reminiscences. That quote, however, is not what appears on the coin: it reads, “Good books are the warehouses of ideals.”

Good news!  Non-science declines in US schools.  The proportion of US school biology teachers who present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to evolution has fallen from 32% in 2007 to 8% in 2019.  In 2005, a US federal court ruled that intelligent design lacks scientific merit and is a religious belief and so cannot be taught in science classes.  Alas, there are other areas of concern. Some communities, in which global warming is not commonly accepted, are seeing science teachers dodge the issue or are sending mixed message about humanity's role in it.  Also, some teachers do not feel equipped to champion climate science in those communities where a good knowledge of the subject is needed to counter denier arguments.  Clearly there is some way to go, but things are slowly moving in the right direction.  In the UK things are better, but a few schools (almost invariably those affiliated to a religious belief) still do not properly teach Darwinian-Wallace-Matthew evolution.  Yet evolution teaches us that we are all individual and unique, but equally that all life has a common ancestor. Further, that there is greater genetic variation within groups commonly described as 'races' than between them.  The world can only become better when all school children learn this as a matter of course. (See Reid, A. (2020) Good news: US classes are warming to evolution. Nature, vol. 582, p315.)

Bad news!  We had our eye off the ball, and asleep at the wheel, with coronavirus.  (We'll get this last bit of SARS-CoV-2 news out of the way early on.)  Between financial years 2000-2020 global government and charitable funded research into coronaviruses totalled US$569 million. (For comparison, Ebola related research over this period was US$1.2 billion!)  This decade's worth of US$569 million compares with the global spend on coronavirus research the first quarter last year, January-April 2020, of US$416 million!  (See Anon. (2020) Historical spend on cornavirus was tiny. Nature, vol. 58, p3.)

Sad - happy news.  Twitter reveals we were happiest in 2010 as well as the latter half of 2015, and saddest in 2020!  Mathematicians, Chris Danforth and Peter Dodds, of Vermont University in Burlington (USA), have been tracking the public's mood since 2008.  They use over 10,000 key words of mood with each score on a nine-point scale for positivity.  They then cross reference this against 10% of Tweets each day.  Aside from daily peaks at each Christmas and New Year, followed by a down-surge the first week of each New Year, their results show that we were happiest in 2010 as well as the latter half of 2015.  The following years (coincidental with Brexit and Trump) has seen a slight, but consistent, downward trend up to early March 2020.  Coincident with the World Health Organization declaring the SARS-CoV-2 'pandemic' in early March, there was a fall to a new, all-time low since 2008.  Following that there was a gradual recovery to pre-Christmas 2020 levels mid-May.  Alas, this was followed by a new, all-time low, late May coincident with the murder of George Floyd.  And so we come to the no shìt Sherlock conclusion that 2020 was not a good year.

A treasure trove of memorabilia discovered, after man dies aged 44, and is only just saved from landfill.  The unnamed man, an IT worker, had accrued a hoard worth an estimated £4 million (over US$5m). In addition to 12 Rickenbacker guitars (worth £10,000 each), Beatles and 1960s space race memorabilia, and among 60,000 items, were Batman, Superman, Flash and Gerry Anderson comics. It took all 18 workers of an auction house based in Lincoln, East Midlands, to sort out the collection.  So vast was the collection that it filled the man's home, another one-bed flat, two garages and 24 wheelie-bins.  Indeed, for the past year the man had nowhere for himself to live and so stayed in a bed & breakast.  The man's brother had asked for the properties to be cleared and the collection to be sent to landfill, but the house clearers recognised the collection's value.  The hoard had apparently been collected to fund the IT worker's retirement.

Time really does slow when you are tired.  Gaia -- like possibly many -- finds that time drags when you are tired. The bus does seem to take longer to arrive at the end of a day, a kettle boil and so forth.  Time flies when you are busy, but when you’re bored, it seems as if the day will never end.  Recent research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, has revealed that there may be something in this.  Researchers have now found that specific neurons can grow weary if repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus — altering the brain’s perception of time.  Masamichi Hayashi at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Suita, Japan, and Richard Ivry at the University of California, Berkeley, scanned volunteers’ brains while showing them a grey spot on a screen for a defined period of time, 30 times in a row. After this ‘adaptation’ phase, participants saw the grey spot again, but for different lengths of time. Then, they estimated how long the object had stayed on screen. In some tests, the length of time that the visual stimulus was on screen was similar to that in the adaptation phase. Participants tended to respond by misjudging its duration, and activity decreased in a group of brain cells involved in time perception, indicating neuron fatigue. The activity of other neurons was unchanged, which can skew an individuals’ experience of time. (See

Climate scientists fly more than other scientists!  Environmental psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh of Bath University (UK) surveyed 1,400 scientists from 59 countries as to how often they fly.  Climate scientists accounted for about 17% of the scientists surveyed. The survey took place in 2017, before CoVID lockdown, but was only published last year.  On average, in total (for both work and leisure) climate scientists took 5 flights per year compared to other types of scientist who took on average four.  They took more domestic, intracontinental as well as intercontinental flights for work and more domestic flights for leisure than other scientists.  The only categories of flight climate scientists took less were leisure intracontinental and intercontinental flights. It could be that climate scientists curb their leisure long haul flights in favour of domestic but their work specialist subject being global climate change, hence international by nature, sees them going to more international meetings and symposia. (See Whitmarsh, L., et al (2020) Global environmental Change, vol. 65, 102184.

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

The 2020 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year shortlist and winner have been announced. The shortlist for 2019 works included:-
      - A Dog Ρissing in the Path: Animal Metaphors in an Eastern Indonesian Society
      - Introducing the Medieval Ass
      - Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music
      - How to Make Love to a Despot
      - Lawnmowers: An Illustrated History
      - The Slaughter of Farmed Animals: Practical Ways to Enhance Animal Welfare

          And the winner… A Dog Pissiηg at the Edge of a Path: Animal Metaphors in Eastern Indonesian Society by Gregory Forth.  At first glance, publisher McGill-Queens’ claim that Forth’s book is based on “extensive field research” brings some alarm, but happily the book is not about dog urination per se, but animal metaphors in Eastern Indonesian society. The titular phrase is an idiom of the Nage people of Flores and Timor which means someone who begins something but is easily distracted from it.

You can check out Gaia's previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2022 with more sciencey whimsicality and SF frivolity.

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