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martes, 1 de agosto de 2017


Society owes a great debt to scientists some of whom have given us great insight into genetics. They have used their brilliant minds for our benefit, often dedicating long boring hours to research and committing their lives to investigation. What is it that motivates them to do this?

They might appear to be super human, but scientists are very like the rest of us. They have their own foibles and quirks like any other human beings.

In the first half of the 20th century the brightest scientists were attracted to working in the fields of physics and chemistry. During the two World Wars nearly all of them were recruited into the war effort and great advances in scientific research were made. However, after the Second World War many scientists felt disillusioned because their intellect, creativity and work had been used for destructive purposes. With the cessation of hostilities they found themselves without any job and having to rethink their future. Many of the brightest ones decided to leave physics and chemistry and concentrate their efforts in the fields of the life sciences.

Francis Crick was one such man who moved from the physical sciences into biology research.  He described this transition as, "almost as if one had to be born again.’’ Crick’s desire to produce something positive after the war years leads him eventually to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
The double helix structure of the DNA and the sequencing the human genome might have been achieved earlier if it had not been for personality clashes, disagreements and rivalries which obstructed collaboration.Crick and James Watson agreed that having the opportunity to exchange ideas and receive feedback was essential in the path to the discovery of the DNA. 

However, not all scientists who were working on this project were eager to share. When Watson visited Kings College London, Watkins showed him one of the photographs that Rosalind Franklin had taken which clearly showed a form of an X. This was a breakthrough for Watson and resulted in Watson and Crick discovering the double helix structure of the DNA. Rosalind Franklin, however, was angry about Watkins sharing her work. It was fortunate for humanity that Watkins was keen to share his team’s work.

The way scientists function has a deep effect on the rate at which discoveries are made. Some scientists choose to work together in teams and share their effort; others work in competition while others are unwilling to even share their discoveries, motivated by achieving their own personal glory.

The great scientific achievement of discovering the structure of DNA was due to a large extent to the collaboration between Crick and Watson. They spent a lot of time talking about their ideas to each other. While they were chatting at Cambridge University, at Kings College London Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were not cooperating.

Once the structure and the basic coding of the DNA were discovered, the work of decoding would start. John Sulston became the head of the British Human Genome Project investigation at Sanger Centre Cambridge. From the beginning the Institute established a policy of data sharing and encouraged collaboration. Sulston gathered many of the biologists working on the sequencing of the human genome in 1995  in Bermuda and managed to draw up what become known as the Bermuda Principles in which all the scientists agreed to collaborate with each other and that any discovery should be made freely available and in the public domain within 24 hours. Sulston passionately believed that any scientific advances should be for the good of humanity and was strongly opposed to the protection and exploitation of scientific research for commercial interests. Sulston’s motivation was purely altruistic.

Some scientists, however, displayed differing ideas that threatened the progress of the project. Many were keen to achieve the scientific recognition of making an important discovery whilst also wanting to accommodate the needs of their corporate partners and make money! Craig Venter, who worked independently in the USA, was one such person. He tried to patent sections of the DNA sequence for his own financial gain.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed on a statement of principle to ensure that discoveries from the human genome were used for the benefit of human kind. This really put Craig Venter’s nose out of joint.

Scientists are human beings too, and have a wide range of reasons for their motivations. Fortunately, some of the greatest scientists were not interested in making money. We should be grateful that we have scientists such as John Sulston and Tim Burners Lee who gave us the World Wide Web. Humanity owes a lot to these scientists.

jueves, 9 de marzo de 2017

The Mindless Madness of an Empty Mind

Boredom is universal to all humans; every one of us has experienced, at some time in our lives, a monotony that produces an empty mind.  Yet, if we confess to being bored, fingers are pointed at us in accusation. It indicates an “empty mind”, a “lack of moral fibre” and an “ego-centricity”.  “There’s no excuse to being bored” Viggo Mortensen wrote, and the proverb ‘The best cure for boredom is hard work’ is universally known.

The psychologist John EastWood defined boredom as ‘’unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity’’. It is a relatively new phenomenon. In prehistoric time boredom was non-existent; people were too busy hunting and gathering to survive. The Industrial Revolution changed all this, as machines took over man’s work, and people had more leisure time.

The state of boredom has never been given a high profile and it is only recently that scientists have begun to investigate it. It might seem to you that it is not a very interesting subject; however it can have a very negative impact on our lives. Boredom can affect our performance unfavorably. Educationalists are always trying to find a way to combat ennui in the classroom and lower the number of failing students. ‘’ Anyone bored these days is not paying attention."  teachers might say, but, the number of underperforming students seems to be increasing.
Job performance can deteriorate because of dullness, which can put life at risk; imagine you are an air traffic controller or in control of a nuclear power plant. Monotony could end in misadventure!

People are constantly in search for external stimuli. When people are unengaged, they seek meaning wherever they can. Those that take up high risk sports often feel that the world is moving too slowly for them and not offering enough momentum. However stimuli become less effective the more it is experienced. Bungee jumpers feel the need to satiate their adrenaline rushes by more risky falls. There is scientific evidence that adrenaline has less effect the more frequently it is triggered. This leads to a constant search for greater thrills, which could be deadly. As you can see on the Vsauce video, the volunteer, placed in an isolated room with no stimuli present except for the electric shock machine, which he has previously experienced, chose to activate it twice and caused himself pain rather than suffering boredom. He chose torture rather than tedium.        

A destructive behaviour has been associated with a general boredom of life. People dissatisfied with their lives often turn to drugs, alcohol, vandalism and gambling, as they search for meaningful input into their existence. Tedium can lead people to become more introvert and focus on internal dilemmas in a never-ending, negative thought cycle; depression.

These examples show how boredom can impact our lives in a very markedly adverse way. However, it is not always like this, in fact, boredom can make a positive impact on us.  Artists, writers, poets, all give testimony that boredom at times has increased their creativity; to quote Robert M. Pirsig. ‘’Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’’. 

When external influences are reduced the human being automatically looks to their interior for inspiration. People who have been put into isolation have been known to start quoting poetry, Shakespeare’s plays or even the Bible.

Michael, in the Vsauce video, who spent 3 days in isolation, resorted to counting objects, the number of paces he did and undertook physical exercise to abate his lethargy. After 3 days his ability to count, his perception of time and his willingness to communicate with the camera started to diminish.  When he exited from his confinement he stated that contact with his family was what he most desired and that he valued his relationship with them more. Even though he is known to be a great communicator all he wished to do, on exiting from the enforced isolation, was to listen to others talk; that is receive external stimuli.

His period in isolation showed Michael’s interior resources which were called on to get him through the trial and rather than create ego-centricity it had made him more altruistic. However, if he had stayed longer in isolation it could have led to such a mental deterioration that he would have gone mad.

Boredom can lead to many things. Don’t let it take over your mind, for it will empty it of all else – and that way madness lies.

lunes, 23 de enero de 2017

Recognition before Death

Bob Dylan, 75, is the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This could be the most radical choice in a history stretching back to 1901 when the award was first set up by Alfred Nobel. In choosing a popular musician for the literary world’s highest honour, the Swedish Academy, has set off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels. 

 The author Salman Rushdie said he was delighted with Dylan’s win and confessed that his lyrics had been “an inspiration to me all my life ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school. The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel Prize recognises that.”

 But others called the academy’s decision misguided and questioned whether song writing, however brilliant, rises to the level of literature. Irvine Welsh said that, “His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense to touch human hearts. “ However, she added that despite being a Dylan fan she believed that “this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” 

 I think Bob Dylan’s ideas are deeply poetic and there is no doubt that he is regarded as one of the most influential figures in contemporary popular culture, though his music has always proved divisive. Dylan can never be accused of choosing trivial themes; his lyrics cover such profound topics as war, heartbreak, betrayal, death and moral faithlessness in songs that bring beauty to life’s greatest tragedies.

 Shakespeare’s themes were humanity’s deep misfortunes too, but he composed plays and poetry for commercial profit. He wrote what was popular and crowd-pleasing. Nowadays he is considered one of the greatest poets of the English language but his poetic talents were only recognised after his death. To me it seems that Dylan is a poet at heart, but poets find it hard to earn a living in today’s world. I wonder if our nascent poets are forced to turn to writing song lyrics in order to survive. Bob Dylan’s work has not always been appreciated by the literary highbrow, but it has always been loved by ordinary people. This doesn’t make him any less a poet. 

 Thankfully, Bob Dylan’s poetic creativity has been recognised while he is still alive, unlike Shakespeare.

domingo, 11 de diciembre de 2016


Chances are you or someone you know is a vegetarian. But what would happen if everyone in the world were suddenly a vegetarian? What effects would it have on our lives and our planet?

The worldwide rate of vegetarianism is fairly low about 4-5% in the US, to a little 30% in India and 17% in Europe. As a result, there are currently about 20 billion chickens, 1'5 million cows, over a billion sheep and nearly a billion pigs in the world. Without any meat-eating humans to provide a market, whole herds of domestic animals would disappear and this would free up vast quantities of land. About 33 million squared kilometers of land are used for pasture- an area about the size of Africa!  And that's not even counting the land used to grow crops exclusively for animal feed. Some of it would be needed for the increased amount of vegetables crops, but most of the land currently used as pasture is too dry to grow crops. Without humans adding artificial nutrients, this land could turn to dessert. But if properly managed it is possible that farmland could return to its natural state of grassland which could help with global climate.

Cows and other grazers affect our climate through large amounts of methane production which has 25 times more potential planet-warming power than CO2. Livestock production is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all the world's planes, trains and cars put together. In fact, many scientists believe that reducing meat consumption may be one of the best strategies for managing climate change.

A vegetarian diet would also greatly reduce water consumption; around 70% of global fresh water is used in agriculture. It takes 15 000L of water to make a kg of beef, 6000L for pork and 4000L for chicken. In comparison to vegetable crops it only takes 1600L for cereal, 900L for fruit and 300L for vegetables.

So are there any downsides to a vegetarian diet? Well, we would be left with without a cheap source for many byproducts of livestocks like leather from animals or animal fats which are used in cosmetics, candles and detergents. But luckily vegetable, cruelty-free products do exist and work just as good.
A more complicated fact is that raising and processing animals is a full time job for more than 1 billion people and if meat consumption were to be cut off they would be left without their employment. This would be very risky but most of them would be able to move to the production of milk, eggs or even growing vegetable crops.

Of course, any increase in vegetarianism is likely to be a gradual process rather than a sudden cut-off but you can see for yourself that it is indeed, a very sensible decision to think about.

martes, 22 de noviembre de 2016


Since Roman times bridges have crossed the River Thames at London. Nowadays there are 33 different bridges spanning the river within Greater London. Many of them have interesting stories associated with them.

In Medieval times the first ‘’London Bridge’’ was built in stone. It lasted for 600 years when it was finally demolished because it was so dangerous. At one time it had over 200 buildings on the bridge some of which protruded out over the water. On the bridge itself the buildings almost joined forming a type of tunnel. There were shops, chapels and homes.  The weight of the constructions became so much that the arches frequently had to be supported. The bridge is famous to young English children because they are taught at school the song ‘’London Bridge is Falling Down’’.

During Victoria’s reign the medieval bridge was replaced by a granite bridge designed by John Rennie. This bridge was also ill-fated and it began to sink, so in 1968, it was sold to an American business man, the oil tycoon Robert P McCulloch, who shipped it across the Atlantic and had it rebuilt in Arizona.
There has been a bridge called Waterloo Bridge spanning the River Thames at London since 1810 but it has always had an unhappy history. During the 1840s it was a popular place for suicide attempts and in 1841 Samuel Gilbert Scott an American showman was killed while performing a dare devil act in which he hung on a rope from the bridge.

 One of the most bizarre incidents connected to this bridge is known as the ‘’Umbrella Murder’’. It could have come out of a James Bond film! Georgi Markov, who worked for the BBC World Service, was murdered on the bridge by an operative connected to the KGB. He was waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge when he felt a sharp pain on the back of his leg. He saw a man picking up an umbrella from the floor, who then hurried away and got into a taxi.  Markov died four days later from poisoning. The man was identified as Francesco Gullino, codenamed ‘Piccadilly’.

The Tower Bridge was constructed between 1886-1894. It is a suspension draw bridge that has two parts to it; the top crossing is an undercover pedestrian walkway which is part of the Tower Bridge Museum, and the bottom crossing is a busy road which has over forty thousand people transiting it each day.

The bridge has been linked to some very unusual incidents. In 1968 an RAF pilot flew his jet aeroplane, without authorization, between the bridge’s pedestrian walkway and the road bridge to celebrate the RAF’s 50th birthday. Pollock was placed under arrest on landing and was discharged from the RAF on medical grounds.

Tower Bridge opens to let tall shipping pass beneath. In 1997 the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, was on an official visit to the UK.  The President was separated from his security personnel when the bridge was opened in order to let a small sailing barge called Gladys through. The faux pas could have caused an international incident; however we’re told that Mr Clinton was highly amused, unlike his security staff.

The bridge has often been portrayed on TV and in films and recently the main event in the Sherlock Holmes film ‘Game of Shadows’ takes place during its construction.  In this scene the villain is killed by hanging himself from the bridge.

What seems obvious from these stories is that if you visit London you must tread carefully when crossing any of its 33 bridges; you might meet dangerous disrepair, daredevils, disasters or death delivered by the deadly spy Piccadilly.

jueves, 7 de abril de 2016

Genetics, negligible senescence and ‘the warrior gene’.

Genes are fascinating. The Genome Project, which was started in the mid-1980s and is on-going, attempts to identify each gene and its function. It is a huge undertaking, but it could result in a massive impact on science, particularly on medicine. It could lead to improvement in diagnosis of diseases and earlier detection of genetic predisposition.

However, these advances in genetics give rise to ethical and moral questions. To what extent will it be considered acceptable to play with people's genes? Are scientists trying to play God by changing a person's genetic makeup? Will our genetic information be used fairly to avoid genetic discrimination? 

There are concerns that we are only a few steps away from being able to choose our model baby. Will our ability to get insurance and jobs depend on our genetic sequence?  If people are allowed to alter the genetic code of their baby we might end up with a world full of blue-eyed babies. If our genetic predisposition to inherit diseases is made known, then some people might not be able to get health insurance.  Manipulation of DNA sequencing could be used to save life and treat diseases, but it could also be abused.
 Everybody would love to know the secret of eternal life. Does genetics hold the secret? Negligible senescence is the lack of symptoms of aging which is found in certain organisms. Turtles for example are well known for living for a long time, yet they show little sign of aging; we are told by the scientists.
Recent studies have indicated a connection between negligible senescence and the general stability of an organism's genome, specifically the process of storing DNA in the nuclei of the cell. Will those of us who have a better DNA storing system live longer? How will interfering with longevity affect our society?

There’s always been an argument that environment affects our development but now there is speculation that it can trigger dormant genes. Epigenetics is the study of the variations in DNA caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off.  There is a study of convicted criminals’ genes which identified a particular gene in their DNA which predispose them to violence. Did they grow up in a particularly violent environment which activated the ‘violent gene’? This gene codes for monoamine oxidase, it has been nicknamed the ‘warrior gene’. 

There is now a theory that homosexuality stems from the under expression of certain genes which are involved in sexual preferences. The implication is that environment can cause the organism’s genes to express themselves differently. Maybe we are closer to understanding everyone’s sexuality.

Society decides what is acceptable behaviour. There are many science-fiction films that present a future in which human beings suffer alteration of their genes in order to make them more acceptable, more ‘normal’. 

Maybe this future is not so far away! So genes, negligible senescence and epigenetics are things everybody should know about.