Gaia 2022

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2022


The 2021 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.

  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Susanne Schötz for analyzing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat–human communication.
  • ECOLOGY PRIZE: Leila Satari, Alba Guillén, Àngela Vidal-Verdú, and Manuel Porcar, for using genetic analysis to identify the different species of bacteria that reside in wads of discarded chewing gum stuck on pavements in various countries.
  • CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Jörg Wicker, Nicolas Krauter, Bettina Derstroff, Christof Stönner, Efstratios Bourtsoukidis, Achim Edtbauer, Jochen Wulf, Thomas Klüpfel, Stefan Kramer, and Jonathan Williams, for chemically analyzing the air inside movie theaters, to test whether the odors produced by an audience reliably indicate the levels of violence, sex, antisocial behavior, drug use, and bad language in the movie the audience is watching.
  • ECONOMICS PRIZE: Pavlo Blavatskyy, for discovering that the obesity of a country’s politicians may be a good indicator of that country’s corruption.
  • MEDICINE PRIZE: Olcay Cem Bulut, Dare Oladokun, Burkard Lippert, and Ralph Hohenberger, for demonstrating that sexual orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines at improving nasal breathing.
  • PEACE PRIZE: Ethan Beseris, Steven Naleway, and David Carrier, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face.
  • PHYSICS PRIZE: Alessandro Corbetta, Jasper Meeusen, Chung-min Lee, Roberto Benzi, and Federico Toschi, for conducting experiments to learn why pedestrians do not constantly collide with other pedestrians.
  • KINETICS PRIZE: Hisashi Murakami, Claudio Feliciani, Yuta Nishiyama, and Katsuhiro Nishinari, for conducting experiments to learn why pedestrians do sometimes collide with other pedestrians.
  • ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE: John Mulrennan, Jr., Roger Grothaus, Charles Hammond, and Jay Lamdin, for their research study “A New Method of Cockroach Control on Submarines”.
  • TRANSPORTATION PRIZE: Robin Radcliffe, Mark Jago, Peter Morkel, Estelle Morkel, Pierre du Preez, Piet Beytell, Birgit Kotting, Bakker Manuel, Jan Hendrik du Preez, Michele Miller, Julia Felippe, Stephen Parry, and Robin Gleed, for determining by experiment whether it is safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside-down.

England's great Bard makes CoVID-19 history.  Everyone remembers the first person to do something memorable, but few the second.  Not with the CoVID-19 vaccine. The first person in the world to receive it following trials was 91 year old Margaret Keenan.  But the second person was one William Shakespeare!
          Sadly, a few months later in May '21, William died of an age-related infirmity aged 81 at the University Hospital in Coventry. It was the same medical facility where he received the vaccine. He will, though, likely live on as the subject of pub quiz questions.

Possibly the most hypocritical CoVID-19 denier of the pandemic?  Possibly?  Throughout the pandemic there have been many CoVID deniers who have sadly gone on to get the virus, discovering that it is real and that the measures needed to counter it -- from social-distancing, lockdowns and the vaccine -- were actually necessary.  However, when such are people who hold public sway and who then benefit from the biomedical care science has to offer, it is particularly disturbing and should be called out.  And so Gaia introduces you to Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke.  If you are not based in the US, you probably will not have heard of him, but he is the considered leader of the US Catholic church's conservative wing and has clashed with Pope Francis and his reforms.  In this light you will not be surprised that he is against civil partnerships, embryonic stem cell research, women priests, Islam, palliative care/euthanasia and has views on the CoVID-19 pandemic.  Here these include being against lockdowns (not how God has "called us to live") and that they are being used to re-set society to new norms, and being against priests using personal protection equipment (masks ) when distributing the Eucharist.  He is also against CoVID-19 vaccines due to some of them using descendent cells originally from embryos many years ago, and as such referred to CoVID vaccines as "never morally justified".  Apparently, God was not on his side in August when he tested positive for CoVID necessitating hospital and being put on a ventilator.  The Christian backlash reportedly included those saying God "has given us a vaccine to prevent serious results from CoVID. God loves his children."  What goes around, comes around.

What is the best genre way to get vaccinated.  Fans in Transylvania arguably know.  Doctors were offering a jab in the arm rather than a stake through the heart at Dracula's castle outside of which a vaccination centre had been set up. No appointment was needed, in an attempt to encourage people to protect themselves against CoVID-19.  Those brave enough to get a Pfizer vaccine shot receive a “vaccination diploma,” which is aptly illustrated with a fanged medical worker brandishing a syringe…. In addition, the vaccinated got free entry to the castle’s torture rooms, which have 52 medieval torture instruments.

SeΧ and drυgs and CoVID roll. (Reminder: It is important to be aware of fake news so we do give references to research papers that you can cut-and-paste into Google Scholar.) Researchers at the University of Chicago, Illinois, have found that cannabidiοl (CBD) inhibits infection of SARS-CoV-2 in cells and mice. The research highlights CBD as a potential preventative agent for early-stage SARS-CoV-2 infection and merits future clinical trials. But they caution against use of non-medical formulations including edibles, inhalants or topicals as a preventative or treatment therapy at the present time... (See Nguyen, L. C., et al., (2022) Cannabidiοl inhibits SARS-CoV-2 replication through induction of the host ER stress and innate immune responses. Science Advances. vol. 8, eabi6110.)
          Meanwhile, the British Medical Journal has summarised the impact CoVID has had on seΧ. Although you might have expected rates of sexual activity to have gone up during lockdown, the opposite is the case. Karex Berhad, the company that makes one in five condοms sold globally, has seen sales drop by over 40% over the past two years. Further, a meta-analysis of seven studies from China, Italy, Turkey, the UK, and the US published in the journal SeΧologies last year verified “a decrease in seΧual activity, which indicates the impairment of the individuals’ quality of seΧual life.” There is an upside. Things got so bad that Karex had to switch to making other products, such as rubber gloves—booming in the new market for personal protective equipment—to make up the shortfall. (See Looi, M-L. (2022) Sixty seconds on . . . CoVID-19 and seχ.British Medical Journal, vol. 376, o104.

Good news, or is it? British Airways and Easy Jet free passengers from face mask use. With the CoVID vaccine roll-out and boosters undertaken, in March (2022) British Airways and Easy Jet lifted the need for mandatory passenger mask use on their flights.  That's great.  What possibly go wrong in the middle of a pandemic for companies who provide a service to customers packed into a steel cylinder breathing recycled air for a few hours..?  Well, roll on to the week before Easter British Airways and Easy Jet were forced to cancel scores of flights.  Why?  In no small part due to a shortage of cabin staff who somehow mysteriously came down with CoVID!  What a surprise.  (Thanks to BBC's The Now Show.)

Buffy slayed by CoVID. (Our last CoVID story this Gaia. Honest.)  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a CoVID denier who spread conspiracy theories on social media.  No, not Michelle Gellar the star of the acclaimed TV series, but Kirsty Swanson who played the role in the 1992 film. This, and being a Donald Trump supporter (whom the journal Science claimed to have lied over the seriousness of the pandemic), did not save her from catching CoVID herself. Reportedly she was taken to the Virtua Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, and put on oxygen and blood thinners to prevent ling clots. She reportedly faced a social media backlash as she was unlikely to have been vaccinated. At the time this happened (November 2021) there were officially over five million deaths worldwide, though this is thought to be a conservative estimate given under-reporting in a number of countries including India and Brazil.

People lie saying they watch SF/F! When Gaia was young, and for much of life (four billion years or so, but who is counting), many folk who enjoyed science fiction and fantasy often distanced themselves from it publicly: SF was not a respectable genre. However, in recent years such has been the popularity of SF, that now people lie to say they are interested when in fact their not.  At least this is what a survey conducted by Radio Times of over 1,300 Brits. Some 52% of those admitted to pretending they had watched something when they hadn’t. The remaining 48 per cent were the more honest saying they didn’t embellish the truth when it came to what they watch on telly. The top shows folk lied saying they watched when they had not were the SF show 1. Stranger Things (14%) and the fantasy series Game of Thrones (10%). How times have changed.

Spock is not logical: shock, drama, probe!  BBC's Radio 4 statistics programme More or Less had its 20th anniversary. Good news you might think, and the programme is always interesting for those having some numerate literacy. However this edition had to defend itself against a robust reaction to a previous edition's item that concluded that Star Trek's Spock was not logical!  A statistician counted all the times in the series where Spock said the 'probability is...', 'the odds are...' or 'I calculate that...' to see how many times he was correct. The results of this analysis concluded that Spock's logic was inversely related to outcomes: he was not logical!  More or Less' loyal listeners wrote in en masse pointing out that the analysis was only of those times Spock was on air: what about the much greater part of Spock's life not screened? They also pointed out that Spock was set up to the provider of cold logic whereas the Captain and the crew provided a warm-hearted and intuitive perspective that won the day. There's more to life than cold fact... The statistician behind the original analysis likened this to saying that Hamlet was not a brooding character as Shakespeare portrayed him: he could have been a jolly fellow most other times. However, the statistician pointed out, we only have Shakespeare's portrayal to go on, and that she only had what was aired on the Star Trek series...  Meanwhile the More or Less programme continues its 20+ year mission to boldly go and create statistical spreadsheets that no-one has drawn up before.

Cats have mental maps of their homes scientists reveal through teleportation impposibility. Teleportation does not exist outside of science fiction and, we now know, cats also are aware of this: that teleportation is impossible. This was discovered when Japanese scientists investigated whether cats had a mental map of their home and where their owners were. The cats were then played their owners calling them through speakers positioned in different places. As is often the case the cats showed little reaction. However when the owner's voice was played back from one speaker and then quickly in another, spaced far away in the opposite direction and too quickly for the owner to have moved there, the cats showed surprise demonstrating they have a mental map of their home and what movement about it is possible. (See Takagi, S. et al (2021) Socio-spatial cognition in cats: Mentally mapping owner’s location from voice. PLoS ONE, vol. 16 (11): e0257611.)

Real life imitates Squid Game art.  If you have not heard of Squid Game it is a Korean SF television series whose premise is fairly similar to The Hunger Games but with more violence as youngsters battle to win a £28 million cash prize or die.  Its success goes far beyond Korea and it is currently set to become Netflix's most successful show: it says it has reached 111 million viewers worldwide topping Netflix's charts in more than 80 countries!  And so we come to a pop-up store in Paris dedicated to the show. Outside it, fans started fighting among themselves. The brawl became so fierce that the police were called.

The term 'alien' is derogatory to extraterrestrials says the singer/actor Demi Lovato. Demi Lovato is standing up for extraterrestrials. She said: "I think that we have to stop calling them aliens because 'aliens' is a derogatory term for anything. That's why I like to call them E.T.s!" The word 'alien', when used in reference to immigrants or those who come from other countries, has become controversial and considered dehumanising by immigration advocates.  In an interview with Pedestrian, Lovato explained that they do not believe that beings from another planet mean to harm humans. The interview was made to promote Lovato's docu-series on Peacock, Unidentified with Demi Lovato that explores what life there may be beyond this planet...  So now we know.
          Meanwhile, Gaia provides for information the Latin 'allus' meaning 'other' and 'alienus' meaning 'stranger', 'exotic' and 'foreign'.

Sniffer dog to improve whiskey quality.  Grant's distillery in Girvan, Aureshire, is using a one-year old cocker spaniel Rocco to sniff out imperfections.  He will be working under the distillery's brand director, a Mr Christopher Wooff!

Some superheroes are set for major health problems when older, a study reveals. Adopting superhero behaviours such as maintaining physical activity and strong social connections may improve health later in life, according to a University of Queensland study. The researchers compared superhero lifestyles, personality traits and behaviours against healthy ageing outcomes, while analysing 24 Marvel films released between 2008 and 2021. It assumed that all Marvel superheroes would age (except for Thor, who has lived for several millennia), and that their ageing trajectories would be influenced by modifiable behaviours, much like anyone else. The study found Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Black Panther and Spiderman engaged in regular physical activity and maintained strong social cohesion, which are associated with healthy ageing and reduced risk of dementia. The superheroes displayed a positive mindset, psychological resilience and a sense of purpose, and all of them, except for Thor and Iron Man, avoided smoking and heavy drinking, which are also behaviours associated with longer life and healthy ageing. However, negative behaviours and risks and found that repeated exposure to loud noises, air pollution, and multiple head injuries put the superheroes at increased risk of dementia, life-changing physical injury, and disability. The Hulk’s heart problems, high body mass index and frequent anger puts him at risk of several chronic diseases, while Black Widow’s traumatic childhood experiences increased her risk of physical and mental illnesses. Further, Spiderman’s strength, flexibility, and agility should reduce his risk of falls in old age, but his nightly crime fighting means he is unlikely to be sleeping 8-10 hours a night as recommended for teenagers his age, which can lead to obesity, poor mental health, and higher rates of unintentional injuries. (See Fox, S. T. et al (2021) Anticipating the ageing trajectories of superheroes in the Marvel cinematic universe. British Medical Journal, vol 375, e068001. doi: 10.1136/bmj-2021-068001)

Would a clone of yourself have the same risk, say, of getting dementia?  This is a non-trivial question because buried within it are other questions such as is the risk of getting dementia more to do with your genes or environment?  The past year a study on twins -- both identical (who are the same thing as clones) and non-identical -- was revealing.  Previous work has shown that cognitive abilities are quite heritable as well as being determined by environmental factors (such as education): evidence shows that healthy lifestyle behaviours (non-smoking, physically active, intellectually challenging life etc) have a protective role.  But what of the risk of getting dementia?  This new study looked at 351 old twins (over 80) -- some identical and some non-identical -- from the Swedish Twin Registry.  They found that only half of the identical-twins had both of the twins in the same dementia class.  This suggests that genetic factors are not the dominant determinants of suffering dementia.  The study, that lasted for five years, also suggested that the higher a person's intellectual state the longer any decline to a certain level took: this supports what is known as the the 'theory of cognitive reserve'.  Armed with this knowledge, Gaia is looking forward to a long and intellectually stimulating life.  (See Muniz-Terrera, G. et al (2021) Do I lose cognitive function as fast as my twin partner? Analyses based on classes of MMSE trajectories of twins aged 80 and older. Age and Ageing, vol. 50 (3), p847-853.)

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

The 2021 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year shortlist and winner have been announced. The shortlist for 2021 works included:-
      - Curves for the Mathematically Curious
      - Handbook of Research on Health and Environmental Benefits of Camel Products
      - Hats: A Very Unnatural History
      - Is Superman Circumcised?
      - The Life Cycle of Russian Things: From Fish Guts to Fabergé
      - Miss, I Don’t Give a Shiτ: Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools

          And the winner… Is Superman Circumcised? by Roy Schwartz.  It is a scholarly look at the Man of Steel’s Jewish influences. Winning the prize demonstrates that Is Superman Circumcised? is a cut above the rest...

You can check out Gaia's previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2024 with more sciencey whimsicality and SF frivolity.

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