Friday, 27 February 2015
Thursday, 26 February 2015
Strange things seem to be happening in Brazil for the 2016 Olympic Games where golf will return as a sport (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/25/rio-2016-occupy-takes-swing-at-olympic-golf-course). A golf course for this event is being created in a section of the protected Marapendi Reserve which is part of Brazil's Atlantic Forest and home to a number of endangered species (butterflies and fish). Golf courses are notorious for the amount of water they consume and this one is calculated to need 5m litres per day in an area where the substance is at a premium. The site has, reportedly, been developed without conducting an environmental impact assessment (the mayor of the region declares that none was needed as the city council approved the decision). It appears that money does more than talk.
There is a recent call by charities to ban the sale of 'energy drinks' to children under 16 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-31623771). This is on the basis of their high sugar content (up to 20 teaspoons of sugar in one can) and their high caffeine dose. This has been linked to diabetes and obesity (as well as tooth decay?). There has been little mention, however, of reactive hypoglycaemia. When people take an acute 'sugar hit', the elevated blood glucose triggers a release of the hormone insulin (designed to convert glucose into stored glycogen). This, more markedly in some people than others, may produce an undershoot in the normal blood sugar values. The brain stores no glucose so would be receiving blood deficient in energy, This has been linked to profound mood changes in healthy humans (and reduced energy). Having blood sugar levels going up and down like a roller-coaster can't be a good idea! Whether a ban could be imposed and whether it could work is another question.
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
There is a recent study from Oslo University claiming that plague in Europe was largely introduced by Gerbil fleas rather than those of the maligned Black rat (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/24/great-gerbils-chief-cause-of-the-great-plague-not-black-rats-study-says). The conclusion is based of the observation that fleas leave their rodents when host numbers decline and plague (which killed almost 30% of Europeans) showed fluctuations in incidence. The fluctuations were, however, not linked to populations of Black rats in Europe but to Great gerbils in Asia. The authors suggested that the fleas on the gerbils in times of host shortage leapt upon human traders using the Silk Route and consequently repeatedly carried plague into Europe. So the Black rat is innocent?
Tuesday, 24 February 2015
There is an interesting study from King's College, London demonstrating pretty conclusively that exposing children in early life to peanut butter and other peanut-containing foods, greatly reduces the probability of that individual developing peanut allergy in later life (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/23/feed-babies-peanuts-reverse-allergy-rise). Peanut allergies (including full-blown anaphylactic shock, a condition that is life-threatening) have been on the rise in recent years and this may be a consequence of parents avoiding anything peanut related in their child's food. Obviously, whole peanuts should not be given to young children as they are a choking hazard but peanut butter (if administered carefully) would seem to be safe enough. The finding is entirely consistent with the view that children develop tolerances for certain foods in early life or even within the womb (this may account to cultural differences in the rates of certain food allergies).
It is interesting that the Green Party appears to be being a bit populist in promising up to 500,000 new social housing units by 2020 (http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/ho.html). I appreciate that there is a great deal of inequality in the present 'system' and that many people in the UK do feel a powerful 'need' to occupy traditional housing with garden and garage but any such development would have to be very carefully managed. I personally would not favour traditional units being dropped into the landscape on every square foot of 'available' land (especially if our limited natural environment is ear-marked for this role). Agricultural land may also be out as the UK is not even near being capable of growing sufficient food to feed its population. The units would also have to be effectively insulated and heated (suggesting that they would not be 'cheap and cheerful'). Perhaps there is a need to consider alternative modes of accommodation that do not occupy such a large surface area? Although this would not appeal to territorial folk.
Monday, 23 February 2015
Somewhat sad news that the total UK sales of Fairtrade foods in the UK has fallen for the first time in the 20 years of the schemes's existence (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/feb/23/fairtrade-sales-fall-first-time-20-year-existence). This is attributed (by a number of commentators) to the changed buying habits by 'cash-strapped' consumers and the increased frequenting of discounting supermarkets (who are less involved with products receiving the label). Given the claims that things are improving economically, I am not entirely convinced by this argument. Fairtrade is a nice idea but not many people really delve into the backgrounds of individual products. 'Organic' is another 'ethical label' but also seems less powerful as a marketing device currently (I have to say that it is scientifically meaningless as any compound containing carbon is organic so far as chemists are concerned). Might this not be an early sign of what might be called 'ethical fatigue'?
Sunday, 22 February 2015
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
There have been many stories recently about the negative influences on the health of consumers of sugar (such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay). Now there is disturbing news about the very high incidence of fatal chronic kidney disease (ckd) amongst sugar cane cutters in Nicaragua (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/16/-sp-nicaragua-kidney-disease-killing-sugar-cane-workers). The reasons for these fatalities in relatively young but poor workers is, as yet, unclear but some people believe it is related to the harsh, hot conditions under which the cutters labour (in spite of rest periods and water provision being specified). Yet another reason for reducing our extraordinary intake in the UK?
News that 200,000 people have applied to go on a one-way trip to Mars, set up by a Dutch non-profit making organisation, is interesting (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/17/one-way-mars-trip-shortlist-includes-seven-australians). The 'successful' candidates (reaching an initial consideration phase) apparently includes 5 British and 7 Australians and many appear highly qualified (PhDs), young and successful, so what drives folk to elect to go on such a trip? The most common reason stated seems to be to leave a 'legacy' in terms of being first to live on the red planet. I suspect, however, that life would be extremely tough in that location and might well involve a continued need to send materials to enable the colony to survive. Some of the candidates have mentioned retaining communication links with their friends and relatives on Earth but this might not prove all that easy (I suspect that Facebook and Instagram would not be options). Personally, I think that we need a lot more robot investigation of Mars before we contemplate a human colony (if, in deed, that can ever be viable). Some of the current candidates for this trip of a lifetime are likely to be too old by the time we have most of the answers.
Sunday, 15 February 2015
Saturday, 14 February 2015
It's a pretty trivial story but news that Thames Valley police were proposing to rename one of their trainee police horses 'from Brian to something more god-like' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-31446635) does make you wonder. Horses, like any other beast including dogs, have no idea what their names mean but can learn to respond to a particular sound. It could be confusing for an animal undergoing training to suddenly be called 'Hercules' (an apparent contender name). I suspect that the name changes are more driven by a police desire to appear 'hard' as 'Brian' sounds a bit friendly. Why it should get no much media attention is beyond me.
News that a celebrity, in a single-sex relationship, used her brother's sperm to produce a 'son' with her partner (http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/mary-portas-reveals-brother-biological-5161268) raises a few potential concerns. I appreciate that asking a trusted family member to donate gametes might seem a good solution in such cases (and would make the offspring related to both partners-25%, like a nephew, in the case of the celebrity) but there would be an increased danger of inbreeding, leading to possible genetic disorders in the offspring (remember the incidence of haemophilia in the European royal families around the turn of the 19th Century), if the process ever involved fusing the brother and sister's gametes (which might happen in inappropriate cases, unsupported by professional medical advice). Our ability to detect (and, in some cases, correct) genetic problems is improving but I think an enthusiasm for such arrangements (influenced by celebrity?) certainly stands a chance of resulting in some unintended consequences. The surprising things to me were a) that the potential genetic problems of brother-sister derived embryos were unmentioned in some of the media accounts and b) that information on the incidence of people choosing to go down this route are not collected.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
There is an interesting report that towns and cities may be more friendly to pollinating bees than the 'countryside' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31359984). The most obvious reason is that towns and cities generally have flowers throughout most of the year (in parks and gardens) whereas agriculture generally means than the monocultures (if they flower much at all) only do so for very limited time periods. This could well result in town bees getting small amounts of regular nectar throughout the non-winter seasons whereas the country-based insects will get exposed to a food followed by famine regime. Perhaps we need a bit more variety in our agricultural regions.
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Monday, 9 February 2015
News that the first UK straw bale houses have gone on sale near Bristol (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31156579). These have the advantage of providing excellent insulation and the waste material used to build them removes carbon dioxide from the air. It has been estimated that enough waste (not required for animal bedding) straw is produced in the country each year to build 500,000 homes. What is not mentioned is that the traditional alternatives (brick and cement) produce carbon dioxide making climate change more likely!
Sunday, 8 February 2015
Saturday, 7 February 2015
Tuesday, 3 February 2015
Sunday, 1 February 2015
I appreciate that there is a) a need to capture the interest of diverse audiences and b) a natural tendency to use short-hand language when popularising science but I am a bit nervous about the anthropomorphism evident in the BBC series 'Animals in Love' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05237m1). The stories are nice enough and complex mammals/birds clearly have 'emotions' but it is very unclear whether attributing human sentiments on the basis of appearance is a scientifically helpful activity. Animals do form social bonds (for mating, parental care and even security and status) but it seems to me a quantum leap to call it 'love' (not really a term that is much used by animal behaviourists anyhow). Maybe I'm not just an old romantic?
George Monbiot has joined the enthusiasts for culling the alien Grey squirrel in the UK by encouraging the return of the Pine marten (Martes martes) throughout the land (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/30/how-to-eradicate-grey-squirrels-without-firing-a-shot-pine-martens). The described Irish experience certainly sounds more effective than the other expensive methods of culling (by shooting, trapping and poisoning etc). It would also be nice to (occasionally) see more of the Pine marten. Having said that, there is no certainty that once this little predator had munched its way through the greys (who are linked to the decimation of the native Red squirrel and cause real damage to pine forests), they would not start to eat species of mammals and birds we would like to conserve. This is a standard problem of advocated biocontrol methods (they need to be measured over the long term).
There is a somewhat odd finding that highly toxic Pumpkin toadlets from Brazil apparently cannot hear their own mating calls ( https://w...
A combination of night rain and day-time sun has resulted in more Bynea blooms. The Southern marsh orchid ( Dactylorhiza praetermissa...
A study ( https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/01/special-spit-is-the-secret-of-uniquely-sticky-frog-tongues-study-reveals ) has...
It is always sad to hear of problems occurring at places you have used for teaching and the outbreak of h5n8 avian influenza at Abbot...