Burrito birthday!

October 13, 2011 at 10:05 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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As you will no doubt have noticed it is the 40th anniversary of Laboratory News, and this issue is something of a ‘birthday party’ issue.

The Editor has been rattling his ‘40th anniversary sabre’ for several months now. “I want you all fully on board with this. I want original ideas” he regularly shouts. “…And yes, I’m looking at you Science Lite desk.”

Now, regular readers of Science Lite will be all too aware that ‘ideas’ and ‘originality’ are not necessarily something for which we hold a natural inclination. Yet a small seedling started to germinate in the collective imagination of Science Lite and we got to thinking, Lab News is 40 – so what do 40 year olds want on their birthday?

Well, a bit of a reminisce followed by far too much alcohol and then a fully fledged mid-life crisis complete with sports car and a wardrobe full of inappropriately youthful clothing. Obvious really.

It was the first of these that was to be our gift to Laboratory News – a trip down memory lane. After a swift search through the dusty archives we discovered that at its inception the magazine was based at a rather glamorous sounding address on London’s Fleet Street. Excellent we thought – a quick trip to the big smoke, a swift befriending of the current residents and a tour of the office to lap up the heady atmosphere of glories past – followed, of course, by a few celebratory beverages.

The Editor was swift to voice his concern. “You have checked that the current occupants will be happy for us to traipse around their office haven’t you?” he said. “…of course” we lied. Permission to enter the premises however was to turn out to be the least of our woes come the big trip – you see such was our enthusiasm we had neglected to check if the building was even still standing, let alone occupied.

Having gathered all the staff that showed even the slightest hint of willingness, we set-off on the retrospective trip of a lifetime – yet almost immediately upon arrival on Fleet Street the inevitable sense of failure began to gather around our little field trip. You see we neglected to examine who was occupying our ex-office as we simply – and wrongly as it turned out – assumed it would be another publishing company given its locale on Fleet Street. Much to our – and our Editor’s – chagrin it was, in fact, nothing of the sort.

So what was the noble enterprise that now occupied our hallowed ground? A library perhaps, a charitable foundation working for the betterment of science, a venture capitalist specialising in R&D investment?

No – in fact we were greeted by Chilango, a Mexican fast food joint. After standing open mouthed for a few minutes we had to act. “Well, this is perfect!” We announced, hoping to dissolve everyone’s obvious discontent with the situation. “Let’s go in and celebrate. If nothing else it surely shows that even businesses behave according to the laws of thermodynamics – all commercial enterprise inevitably breaks down, eventually becoming a fast food joint of some kind.”

Inside, the mood of our little trip started to noticeably change. Perhaps it was the delicious scent of the food, perhaps it was the frankly mood altering décor – a picture of neon perfection which could surely batter any ill feeling into submission – either way tensions began to lift. This combined with the incredibly friendly staff and the absolutely delicious food meant that the day started to pull back from the precipice of calamity.

So to you the staff of Chilango we say thank you – not just for the lovely food and warm welcome, but for saving what was otherwise bound to be another Science Lite disaster. And to our readers we implore you to pay a visit to Chilango on Fleet Street – not only will you be able to bask in Lab News tradition, but you will also be able to eat very well indeed. And finally to you Laboratory News we simply say: Feliz cumpleaños!



September 29, 2011 at 10:18 am | Posted in I didn't know that!, Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Credit: admiller

We all get bouts of hiccups – squeeky little ones, or ones that come right from your boots that really hurt. Why we get them is a mystery, but what we do know is they can be really annoying – sometimes even embarrassing!

Most cases of hiccups occur for no apparent reason. Sometimes we get them after a few too many beers down the pub at lunch time, or if we’ve scoffed our dinner too quickly. But did you know hiccups can also be caused by shock, stress or excitement?

A sudden change in room temperature or the temperature inside your stomach can also cause hiccups.  Hiccups – or hiccoughs as they’re sometimes known – occur when your diaphragm suddenly and involuntarily contracts. This causes you to breathe air in very quickly, but this air is stopped by the glottis – the opening between your vocal cords – which closes suddenly, producing a hiccup!

So what’s the best way to get rid of them? Holding your breath, getting a fright, or drinking a glass of water backwards – yes…this task is particularly hard but by the time you’re done the hiccups have gone!

But what about those who have hiccups for long periods? They can be caused by a more serious underlying condition such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or inflammation of the stomach, throat ot thyroid gland. What can be done to rid them of the involuntary nightmare? The nastiest we read was puttingvinegar up the nose of a three year-old girl in Japan: it’s thought the vinegar helps stimulate the dorsal wall of the naopharynx where the pharyngeal branch of the glossopharayngeal nerve is located.

We’ll stick to drinking water backwards thanks!

You’re having a laugh?

September 15, 2011 at 8:53 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. Strange then, that the world’s pharmaceutical companies have yet to cotton on to this and develop a cure-all in the form of a simple laughing pill.

Could it be that the laughter/medicine link is simply cosy phraseology, with no actual link to biology? Well yes, of course it is – yet associations betwixt the two are, it seems, becoming apparent. So much so in fact that the study of the health benefits of laughter now has its own name – indeed, if you do ever happen upon a professor of parody, a doctor of drollery or a medic of mirth, then you’ll know they are proud members of the Gelotological circle.

Yet we can’t help think that the physical rendering of an emotional state rooted deep in the ancestral parts of our brains can surely achieve nothing of note medically? As you can tell, the inner cynic that constantly patrols the Science lite desk is growing ever more alert, growling and drooling like a distempic hound primed for its next kill.

So what, exactly, do these purveyors of prankery (…sorry, this will stop in a moment. Largely as we are rapidly running out of synonyms) think laughing will achieve medically speaking? Well, they say there are so many that we are resorting to bullet points. A cheeky chuckle will can:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Increase vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood.
  • Give a workout to the diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles.
  • Reduce certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
  • Increase the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells such as Gamma-interferon and T-cells.
  • Defend against respiratory infections–even reducing the frequency of colds–by immunoglobulon in saliva.
  • Increase memory and learning; in a study at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, humor during instruction led to increased test scores.
  • Improve alertness, creativity.

And so it appears our collective cynicism has been shot down in flames. The beast rests once again. It is the last two of these points that really strike home – essentially the gelotologists seem to be saying that a good, hearty guffaw could actually help you think. Interesting in its self of course, but especially as it is once again time for the Ig Nobels.

If you are not aware of the Ig Nobels – then let us introduce you to the highlight of the international scientific calendar. The Igs honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – although knowing what we now do from the insights of gelotology, perhaps that should be “first make people laugh and then make them think in an altogether more superior way”.

This year’s winners are to be announced on the 29th September, and while we’d dearly love to give you a rundown of the front runners, we’re afraid finding out nominees prior to the event has become harder than winning an actual Nobel Prize. So by way of a little appetite wetter, here are some of our favourite past winners.

First up is the winner of the 1994 entomology prize Robert A. Lopez. And what a winner he was – as scientifically dedicated as he was entirely out of his mind. In 1993 he published work in The Journal of the American Veternary Medical Association based on a series of experiments in which he obtained ear mites from cats, and proceeded to insert them into his own ear, whilst carefully observing and analysing the results.

Then we have Peter Fong of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who is definitely up there with Lopez in the ‘why would you do that’ stakes. In 1998 he won an Ig for his paper Induction and Potentiation of Parturition in Fingernail Clams (Sphaerium striatinum) by Selective Serotonin Re- Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). In short, he gave clams Prozac.

Our next pick comes from the 2000 psychology prize which was awarded to David Dunning of Cornell University and Justin Kruger of the University of Illinois, for a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Now, we are slightly reticent to publish the title of the paper for fear that our Editor will immediately assume it is a detailed description of the Science lite desk – but in the interests of accuracy here goes: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

And our final pick of the Igs goes to the Medicine winners of 2010 – Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University – for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride. Why? Well it turns out that positive emotions at the end of the ride helped sufferers with breathlessness. Someone should report this to the Gelotological gang – yet more evidence that laughter can be the best medicine.

Marital transitions make us pile on the pounds

August 30, 2011 at 8:04 am | Posted in Editorial Comment, Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Both marriage and divorce are bad for the waistline according to American researchers, with women piling on the pounds once they’ve bagged their man, and blokes after divorce.

Marriage and divorce act as ‘weight shocks’ which lead people to add a few extra pounds to their middle – especially among those over 30, says new research.

“Clearly the effect of marital transitions on weight changes differs by gender,” said lead author Dmitry Tumin, a doctoral student from Ohio State University. “Divorces for men , and to some extent, marriages for women promote weight gains that may be large enough to pose a health risk.”

So what causes the weight gain? The researchers think married women are too busy around the house to exercise, and that being married has a health benefit for men – which is lost when they get divorced.

This wieght gains is more pronounced in those over 30 say the researchers who think that the shock of marriage or divorce  is a bigger later in life.

Either that or we just give up trying!


August 25, 2011 at 8:34 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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There’s nothing quite like a steaming hot mug of tea – unless your tea isn’t just tea, but a whole load of common weeds too.

The LabNews team tend to stick to their Tetley’s so we’re not worried, but those of you who like the odd fruity or herbal tipple might like to read this.

A group of high school students found several brands of herbal – and a few brands of regular tea – contain more than is listed on the packet. Among these unlisted ingredients are weeds, garden flowers, ornamental trees and herbal plants. Some of the teas even had parsley in them!

“For example, DNA testing showed that an herbal infusion labelled “St. John’s wort” (Hypericum perforatum) included material from a fern in genus Terpischore. A DNA “barcode” obtained from another herbal tea labelled “ginger root, linden, lemon peel, blackberry leaves, and lemongrass” matched annual bluegrass (Poa annua), a common weed unrelated to lemongrass. Four herbal infusions yielded sequences identical or nearly identical to the tea plant, C. sinensis but none listed “tea” as an ingredient. The most common non-label ingredient, found in seven herbal products, was chamomile (Matricaria recutita).”

The teas – half herbal, half regular – came from 33 different manufacturers in 17 different countries and were collected or purchased at 25 locations in New York. Although the unlisted ingredients are mostly harmless, they could affect a tiny minority of consumers with acute allergies…better check the labels…

Deadly dieting

August 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Your tummy is growling at you – you’ve been really good and starved yourself all day, but your brain has already begun to sabotage your efforts.

New research suggests that when we don’t eat, hunger-inducing neurons in the brain start eating bits of themselves, and this act of self cannibalism make you want to eat even more.

The process – known as autophagy – has been uncovered in the neurons in the hypothalamus, and scientists believe blocking autophagy might be a useful hunger-fighting weapon in the war against obesity.

When the brain starts to eat itself, lipid in the agouti-related peptide (AgRP) neurons become mobilised, generating free fatty acids, which in turn boost AgRP – the hunger signal.

When autophagy is blocked, AgRP levels fail to rise in response to starvation. Experiments on mice showed they became lighter and leaner, because they ate less after fasting and burned more energy.

So there might be hope for us yet, but for now, we’ll all just have to struggle with diet and exercise.

There’s big, and then there’s this…

August 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Motivation. Unfortunately something the Science lite desk has but a passing acquaintance with, yet even we are aware that it can usually be boiled down to several key ingredients – and money is more often than not the king, and indeed queen, of driving forces. And so it appears to be for one of the biggest technology projects being undertaken at the moment.

Fuel giant Shell is forging ahead with a project that will revolutionise natural gas production. Now, they say that there are several environmental benefits to the project, but the real nub of the matter is the vast amount of money they stand to make from it. You see, they want to tap into an enormous gas field that is unsullied by any other company pipelines. Why so virginal? Well, it is located 250m under the sea in an area known as ‘cyclone alley’.  Hmm – should alarm bells be ringing at this point? It has become increasingly clear that large scale energy production and extreme natural events do not mix particularly well.

That said some incredibly advanced science and technology has been utilised in the project, and some 600 people around the world have spent over 1.6 million hours working on the problem – and what of their findings? An innovative pipeline perhaps? An advanced submersible? A pod of highly trained gas-collecting dolphins? Nope, pleasingly – for us at least – they are to build THE WORLD’S BIGGEST SHIP!

Now, it is kind of an unwritten law that writers should not really refer to the little devices they employ in order to get a sentence to covey meaning. A skilfully constructed sentence should leave you not only with information, but also the emotional context with-in which that information should be set. There are many tricks writers use to do this, and expertly applied they can be a thing of joy. However, it is pretty much universally understood by those in the word game that simply capitalising the words upon which he or she intends to hang an emphasis is a big no no. And so for that we apologise, but some things are simply beyond subtlety, and THE WORLDS BIGGEST SHIP! surely falls under that category?

Now whilst all this might sound a little bit like we are trying to convince the Editor to stop throwing our work back at us – the truth is that this particular ship seems to warrant capitals. Let’s have a look at the numbers. It is 488m long – that is longer than 4 football pitches. When fully loaded it’ll weigh 600,000 tonnes – six times the weight of the largest aircraft carrier. And the real kicker – its 200 strong crew will be ferried back and forth by 6 return flights a week.

By 2017 the vessel should be anchored off the north coast of Australia, where it will be used to harvest natural gas from Shell’s Prelude field. Once the gas is on board, it will be cooled until it liquefies and stored in vast tanks at -161°C. Every six or seven days a huge tanker will dock beside the platform and load up enough fuel to heat a city the size of London for a week.

Whichever way you look at it, it is a big boat. In fact big doesn’t really do it justice – nor do any superlatives we can currently think of to be honest. Time to break another writing rule­ – time for some excessive word-compounding. Ginormohuge, Enormassive – yes, they both seem to define this leviathan fairly well.

So to sum up – the world’s biggest ship, which will suck up gas from the seabed only to cool it to         -161°C in order to produce millions of tonnes of liquefied gas, is to be positioned in one of the world’s stormiest seas a mere 200km from western Australia’s beautiful Kimberley coastline – we can’t decide if this is human ingenuity at its greatest or its most foolhardy, but whichever it is, it definitely warrants capitals.

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