60 Years Ago — “Beep Beep Beep”

October 4, 2017

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.


Aphantasia: Hard To Imagine

June 29, 2016

One of the delights of each week for me is to listen to the Quirks & Quarks podcast on CBC Radio. I always learn something and this week was no different.

I learned that there is something called aphantasia, which is an inability to produce mental images. Those with this condition have no mind’s eye and do not “see” things in their mind as most of us do.  For example, if someone is talking to me about Paris, then an image of the Eiffel Tower may well pop up in my head. But for those with aphantasia this doesn’t happen.


Oddly, this doesn’t seem to affect imagination directly because one sufferer is the author Michele Sagara, well-known for her narrative depictions of fantasy worlds. Another is Blake Ross, founder of Firefox.

This is a recently discovered disorder because those who have it assumed everyone thought the way they do, and those without it had no idea that mental images could be done away with.  The discovery was essentially accidental.

The podcast is worth listening to. It begins at 1:31.

Rosetta and the Comet

March 20, 2015

We live in an extraordinary age, when we can get a man-made craft as close as a few miles to a comet crashing through the immensities of space. I am reminded of this as I look through the sequence of images published in the New York Times today.  My favourite is this one:

Rosetta 1

The Sleep Scientists and I

February 12, 2015

Regular readers of this blog might well think that I obsess over the naps that I take. However, the evidence for the benefits of naps keeps growing.

Yet another group of scientists is reporting that naps “can help relieve stress and bolster the immune system,” for those who don’t sleep well at night.

Researchers analyzed the participants’ urine and saliva to determine how restricted sleep and napping altered hormone levels. After a night of limited sleep, the men had a 2.5-fold increase in levels of norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter involved in the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. Norepinephrine increases the body’s heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. Researchers found no change in norepinephrine levels when the men had napped following a night of limited sleep.

Lack of sleep also affected the levels of interleukin-6, a protein with antiviral properties, found in the subjects’ saliva. The levels dropped after a night of restricted sleep, but remained normal when the subjects were allowed to nap. The changes suggest naps can be beneficial for the immune system.

As you know, I am a sucker for naps and take them whenever I can, so I don’t need this kind of reinforcement. But I would strongly suggest that those negotiating labour agreements might want to use this evidence for instituting regular nap times at work. It is a health and welfare issue after all.

Germs ‘R’ Us — Part 2

December 30, 2014

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how much of “our” body was actually composed of bacteria and similar organisms.   Now, it seems, some of those brethren of ours may actually control how long we live, and how (un)comfortable our old age is. The reporting is from sciencedaily.com:

Using mathematical modeling, researchers at New York and Vanderbilt universities have shown that commensal bacteria that cause problems later in life most likely played a key role in stabilizing early human populations [which]… offers an explanation as to why humans co-evolved with microbes that can cause or contribute to cancer, inflammation, and degenerative diseases of aging.

The work sprung from a fundamental question in biology about senescence, or aging past the point of reproduction. “Nature has a central problem–it must have a way to remove old individuals, whether fish or trees or people,” says Martin Blaser, microbiologist at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. “Resources are always limited. And young guys are ultimately competing with older ones.”  In most species, individuals die shortly after the reproductive phase. But humans are weird–we have an extra long senescence phase.

Blaser began to think about the problem from the symbiotic microbe’s point of view and he came up with a hypothesis: “The great symbionts keep us alive when we are young, then after reproductive age, they start to kill us.” They are part of the biological clock of aging.

Sheesh!  What do we get out of all this?  Do you ever get the feeling it is these microbes that are running the whole scheme, and not us?


Where Are The Nests?

December 5, 2014

We were oiut walking the other day, in this crisp light we’ve been having for a few days.  The trees are shorn of all their cover right now, just about at their barest, with their beautiful structural essence exposed.  We noticed that in all the trees between our house and Commercial, along Adanac and including Salsbury Park, only one had a birds’ nest amid the branches.  Just one.

And it got us to thinking that in both our memories nearly all the trees in the neighbourhood used to have nests visible in the winter. But not now it seems.

This is not an area that has suddenly become residential with road traffic overnight; we’ve been this way a hundred years or so.  The crowds of crows still cross over here twice a day to and from the rookery. So the suddenness of the disappearance of the birds’ nests — if our memories are true — doesn’t have any obvious local cause.

I wonder where and why they went?

Germs ‘R’ Us

December 4, 2014

There isn’t as much of each of us as we thought. The latest research suggests that each of us contains ten times as many bacteria as human cells — we are, in fact, just a small minority of our own bodies!

Changes in these microbial communities may be responsible for digestive disorders, skin diseases, gum disease and even obesity. Despite their vital importance in human health and disease, these communities residing within us remain largely unstudied …

Martin Blaser of New York University has been working to identify the various bacteria that live on the human skin and help to form a protective barrier on the outside. Before he started his research it was estimated that fewer than 100 different species of bacteria lived on the skin … Blaser now estimates the number of different bacteria species living on the skin could approach 500 …

Due to their overwhelming numbers, the fact that their byproducts can be found in most human fluids, and the evidence of their potential role in health and disease, it is quite possible that mapping and understanding the human microbiome may be as important or more important to understanding human health than mapping and understanding the human genome.

So remember, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you are never alone.