Gaia 2023

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2023


The 2022 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.

  • APPLIED CARDIOLOGY PRIZE: Eliska Prochazkova, Elio Sjak-Shie, Friederike Behrens, Daniel Lindh, and Mariska Kret, for seeking and finding evidence that when new romantic partners meet for the first time, and feel attracted to each other, their heart rates synchronize.
  • LITERATURE PRIZE: Eric Martínez, Francis Mollica, and Edward Gibson, for analyzing what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand.
  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Solimary García-Hern´ndez and Glauco Machado, for studying whether and how constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions.
  • MEDICINE PRIZE: Marcin Jasiński, Martyna Maciejewska, Anna Brodziak, Michal Gorka, Kamila Skwierawska, Wieslaw Jedrzejczak, Agnieszka Tomaszewska, Grzegorz Basak, and Emilian Snarski, for showing that when patients undergo some forms of toxic chemotherapy, they suffer fewer harmful side effects when ice cream replaces one traditional component of the procedure.
  • ENGINEERING PRIZE. Gen Matsuzaki, Kazuo Ohuchi, Masaru Uehara, Yoshiyuki Ueno, and Goro Imura, for trying to discover the most efficient way for people to use their fingers when turning a knob.
  • ART HISTORY PRIZE. Peter de Smet and Nicholas Hellmuth, for their study “A Multidisciplinary Approach to Ritual Enema Scenes on Ancient Maya Pottery.”
  • PHYSICS PRIZE: Frank Fish, Zhi-Ming Yuan, Minglu Chen, Laibing Jia, Chunyan Ji, and Atilla Incecik, for trying to understand how ducklings manage to swim in formation.
  • PEACE PRIZE: Junhui Wu, Szabolcs Számadó, Pat Barclay, Bianca Beersma, Terence Dores Cruz, Sergio Lo Iacono, Annika Nieper, Kim Peters, Wojtek Przepiorka, Leo Tiokhin and Paul Van Lange, for developing an algorithm to help gossipers decide when to tell the truth and when to lie.
  • ECONOMICS PRIZE. Alessandro Pluchino, Alessio Emanuele Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda, for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest.
  • SAFETY ENGINEERING PRIZE: Magnus Gens, for developing a moose crash test dummy.

The Lord of the Bins refuse disposal firm challenged by Middle-Earth Enterprises!  Middle-Earth Enterprises, which owns the worldwide rights to The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The small, two man run firm based in Brighton, Britain.  They wereissued with a cease and desist notice after it was claimed they were in breach of the franchise’s trademarks.  They have also been forced to ditch their company slogan – “One ring to remove it all”.

Green peas discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope in the early Universe!  Green peas are, of course known in the present day. Though perhaps Gaia should make it clear that here we are talking about green pea galaxies. These odd little critters were discovered by a citizen-science project, Galaxy Zoo, in 2009.  They are just 5% of the size of our Milky Way galaxy, 1% of its mass and green in colour: small (astronomically) and green, just like peas. They are also young galaxies with few heavy elements and they give birth to stars at 100 times the expected rate given their mass.  The reason they are green is that though they have comparatively fewer heavier elements they do have a fair bit of interstellar carbon and oxygen than most galaxies and it is the ionisation of this oxygen that gives them their green colour.  They are formed when intersteller hydrogen begins to collapse.
          One thing about them is that they are thoght to be the type of galaxy that in theory would exist in the early Universe.  Now, the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to look for old, distant object who are so far away that their red-shift takes their light out of the visible spectrum and into the infra-red.  This year (2023) the James Webb Telescope has discovered three green pea galaxies from the early Universe.  previously, green peas have been observed from ten billion years after the Big Bang.   And now James Webb has seen them just 700 million years after the Big Bang!  Mushy.
          Here's the science bit (you know you want it).  The very early Universe was quite dark because the light from galaxies could not penetrate the surrounding interstellar hydrogen: just like fog dims a car's headlights. Then the intersteller hydrogen ionised into protons and electrons but no-one knew what caused this re-ionisation. It now seems that green pea galaxies, with their high rate of star formation and supernovae, could heave helped with this re-ionsisation event.  Something to ponder when you are having one of your five a day.  (See Rhoads, J. E., et al. (2023) Astrophysical Journal, vol. 942, L14  and the review piece  Hall, S. (2023) ‘Green pea’ galaxies might have helped end Universe’s dark age. Nature, vol. 613, p425-6.)

Monty Python's silly walk has health benefits!  Three US-based clinicians got 13 people to go around five-minute walking trials both normally and using the walk in the the legendary Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.  The researchers measured ventilation and gas exchange throughout to determine oxygen uptake and energy expenditure. They found that both these were 2.5 times higher when using the Silly walk compared to normal walking. This is the first time the silly walks inefficiency has been physiologically measured. They concluded that substituting usual style steps with a Silly walkfor about 12-19 minutes a day would increase daily energy expenditure by approximately 100 kcal.  Half a century ago, the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch might have unwittingly touched on a powerful way to enhance cardiovascular fitness in adults. Increasing the inefficiency of physical activity and movement that we already perform (thereby requiring no further time commitment) might complement other public health efforts to promote regular physical activity in a joyful way.(See Gaesser, G. A., et al (2022) Quantifying the benefits of inefficient walking: Monty Python inspired laboratory based experimental study. British Medical Journal, vol. 379, e072833.)

Can you actually see a neutrino? The answer is, in theory, 'yes'! But, alas, it is a rare event. There is a very slim chance that a neutrino entering your eye will react with the water in it producing muons which release Cheenkov radiation which is light (albeit produced in a special way) and this you will see as a flash. (The Apollo astronauts away from the Earth's protective magenetic field were similarly able to 'see' cosmic rays and also flashes seen by radiation therapy patients.) But how slim a chance of you actually seeing a neutrino? Here PBS Space Time on YouTube has crunched the numbers in their episode 'Using neutrinos to see a black hole?'. Fortunately we start with an optimistic number -- there are 100 trillion passing through your body every second. The chances are that one neutrino will be stopped by your body every 100 years. Two human eyeballs have a volume about 1/5,000 of your body. So it will take 100 years times 5,000 for one of your eyes to catch a neutrino. That's around half a million years. But, assuming you are asleep for roughly half that time and so will not 'see' anything (also many don't live to be a hundred) the chances are you'll need to live a million years to see a neutrino. So that's the bad news. The good news is that there are eight billion people alive today and so eight thousand people a year will on average see a neutrino. In turn, that is a score or so each day!  (Having said that, if you are seeing flashes then see your doctor as these are far more likely to be a sign of partial retina detatchment...)

Clear bottles ruin white wine research shows.  Silvia Carlin and Fulvio Mattivi of the Edmund Mach Foundation (Italy) looked at 1,052 bottles of white wine -- some clear-glass, some coloured -- stored under supermarket shelf conditions. They then analysed the wine's aromatic compounds. These molecules give the wine its fruity aromas. What they found was that that wine stored in clear-glass had 70 molecules degraded by light by 70% in 7 days. Converesley, those stored in green glass were protected from change even after 50 days. (See Carlin, S. et al (2022) Flint glass bottles cause white wine aroma identity degradation. Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciences, vol. 119, e2121940119.)

Dennis the Menace finally loses his online innocence.  The icon British comics character, Dennis the Menace, at last gets a mobile (cell) smartphone and is soon uploading a video of his rival/friend, Minnie the Minx, without her consent and uploading apps not suited to his age. But with the hellp of his mum and Minnie he learns that he could have been heading for danger. The story was written following a poll revealled that six out of ten parents feared that their children were vulnerable on line. Who said comics aren't edutational.

Superheroes encourage blood donation! The festive season sees many weekly science journals have a Christmas/New Year double issue and some also have a bit of festive fun. This year the British Medical Journal had a number of interesting offerings including one that looked at the biomedical aspects of super-heroes giving blood transfusions.
          Transfusion associated graft versus host disease (TaGVHD) is a rare complication of blood transfusion in which viable lymphocytes within a blood product survive and proliferate in a recipient. This process results in an almost always fatal form of graft-versus-host disease, with donor T cells attacking multiple organs.
          This discussion paper analyses a high profile case of non-lethal TaGVHD due to inadvertent blood contamination of an open wound after a car accident. While both donor and recipient survived the crash and contamination, the recipient was left with unexpected side effects, namely inheriting the ability of the donor to transform into a huge, green-rage monster.
          The celebrity nature of this case means that the identities of both donor and recipient as well as the details of the incident are already in the public domain. The donor is Bruce Banner MD, PhD, PhD, otherwise known as the strongest Avenger. The recipient is Jennifer Walters, JD – also known as She-Hulk of high profile law firm Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg, and Holliway, the only legal firm in the world representing superhuman clients.
          The paper concludes that, while superheroes as blood and bone marrow donors capture the imagination, the safety of engaging super-powered individuals as donors is far from established. However, this case will hopefully encourage normal humans to donate blood – allowing them to become the real heroes. (See Barrett, N. (2022) She-Hulk: an incredible case of transfusion associated graft versus host disease. British Medical Journal, 379,e074148)

What is jazz swing?  It could be minute mis-timings! Louis Armstrong famously asked: “What is this thing called swing?”  A century on we still do not know.  However a small team of German physicists and psychologists have an idea that it is due to deliberate, small, mistimings by musicians.  They manipulated the timing of original piano recordings to carry out an experiment with professional and semiprofessional jazz musicians, measuring the swing of different timing conditions.  They prove that slightly delayed downbeats and synchronized offbeats of a soloist with respect to a rhythm section enhance swing. Analyzing a set of 456 jazz improvisations we find that many jazz musicians do use minute downbeat delays. (See Nelias, C. et al (2022) Downbeat delays are a key component of swing in jazz. Communications Physics, vol. 5 237.)

The old addage, 'It's not what you know but who you know' that counts may well be true two analysese find. A researcher collaboration primarily from Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, have published two papers in Nature. They analysed data on the social networks of 72.2 million users of Facebook aged between 25 and 44 years. They looked at 21 billion friendships from Facebook of 72.2 million users in the USA. They then constructed measures of social capital nationally, and at county and zip-code (postal code) level. They showed that this was compatable with another nationally representative demographic survey called the American Community Survey. They then explored various indicators of social capital, including network cohesiveness (a measure of the degree to which a person’s friends are friends with one another) and civic engagement (a measure of a person’s participation in community groups). They also introduced a new measure of social capital, economic connectedness, which captures the extent to which individuals of high socioeconomic status (SES) are friends with people of low SES (with SES being predicted by an algorithm that combines various proxies for SES). They found that Facebook friendships tend to be among people of similar socio-economic status. Further, if low income users have some high-income friends then their income is higher than other low-income users. For example, the research showed that if low-SES children were to grow up in counties with similar economi connectedness to that experienced by the average high-SES child, their future incomes would increase by 20% on average. This has relevance to social policy. For example, bussing high-potential school children to schools in higher-income areas could improve their life prospects. (See the review piece Angrist, N. & Sacerdote, B. (2022) The social links that shape economic prospects. Nature, vol. 608, p37-8,  and the research  Chetty, R., Jackson, M. O, Kuchler, T., et al (2022) Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility. Nature, vol. 608, p108 - 121  and  Chetty, R., Jackson, M. O, Kuchler, T., et al (2022) Social capital II: determinants of economic connectedness. Nature, vol. 608, p122 - 134.)

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

The 2022 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year shortlist and winner have been announced. The shortlist for 2022 works included:-
      - Frankenstein Was a Vegetarian: Essays on Food Choice, Identity, and Symbolism
      - The Many Lives of Scary Clowns: Essays on Pennywise, Twisty, the Joker, Krusty and More
      - Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment
      - RuPedagogies of Realness: Essays on Teaching and Learning With RuPaul’s Drag Race
      - Smuggling Jesus Back into the Church
      - What Nudism Exposes: An Unconventional History of Postwar Canada

          And the winner… RuPedagogies of Realness: Essays on Teaching and Learning With RuPaul’s Drag Race by Lindsay Bryde & Tommy Mayberry.

You can check out Gaia's previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: Gaia 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2023 with more sciencey whimsicality and SF frivolity.

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