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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.

lunes, 7 de marzo de 2016


December 2015 was an extraordinary month for finding lost treasure. A hoard of Viking coins was unearthed near Watlington in Oxfordshire, England, by metal detectorist James Mather.  The treasure found was made up of 186 coins and several items of jewellery as well as 15 Ingots. A few days later, the wreck of the Spanish galleon, the San José, one of the most important ships in the Spanish fleet, was found off the coast of Colombia.
Both of them are very significant finds, not only for the monetary value of the discoveries but for their historical implication. However, in the tradition of all great treasure quests their discovery has not been without some controversy.
The Viking treasure contains coins that date from 870 and it is these that have caused the uproar amongst the academics. According to King Alfred the Great’s historians, Ceolwulf II of Mercia was an ‘’unwise king’s thane’’, but the coins appear to show that he and Alfred were ruling as equals.  Alfred the Great is revered as the unifier of England and the victor over the invading Vikings. However, it now seems that he didn’t do this alone and England has an unsung hero who has been airbrushed out of history; Ceolwulf II.
The galleon San José was sunk in 1708 by British pirates off the coast of Colombia. The ship carried a cargo of eleven million gold coins and jewellery which are worth today 4.5 billion euros. President José Manuel Santos insisted that the ‘San José’ and anything it contained was the heritage of all Colombians and should be protected. Other people are claiming a stake in the find. The American company Sea Search Armada, who were the company contracted to search for the San José, are claiming that the Colombian government are in breach of contract. Some Spanish people affirm that it should belong to Spain and even the British could demand it as their rightful booty, having sunk the ship.
My Colombian friend summed it up very well. 
‘’It should be divided between Spain and Colombia, and each one should take their part. The Spanish should take what’s theirs, the ship and the corpses; and the Colombians should take back their treasure’’.

miércoles, 13 de enero de 2016


Thousands and thousands of love songs and poems have been written throughout the history of humanity. It must be very hard to think of an original way to express those intense feelings of love and pain¸ yet Neil Hilborn has managed to do just that, and even more.
Hilborn went to Macalester College and graduated with honours with a degree in Creative Writing.  He and his team have often been finalists in poetry competitions where poets read their work aloud; but unlike other poets, he has OCD.

OCD is short for Obsessive–compulsive disorder. It is a illness where people feel the need to check things, have certain thoughts or feel they need to perform certain routines repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly.
In 2015 he won ­­­­ the 2013 Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam with his poem ‘OCD’, which at times is funny but at times poignant and is even shocking in some ways. When I first heard it, the words ‘sad but beautiful’ came to my mind. Many people commented that it was a funny and humorous poem but it has a serious side; it makes people more aware of the difficulties for people who suffer from OCD.
When my friend watched the video of Hiborn giving a live recitation she commented that he was a good actor, but in fact, Hilborn wasn’t entirely acting, most of his tics and stuttering were involuntary.

OCD is often portrayed in the media as a rather quaint, quirky, idiosyncratic and endearing condition, but it is really a debilitating affliction of the mind which causes great suffering.

In the poem, through repetition and theatrics, Neil Hilborn paints a painful but beautiful image of being in a relationship while dealing with OCD and finds a powerful way to transform his disorder into a declaration of love. Two of the most common manifestations of OCD are a compulsive urge to switch the lights on and off repeatedly and check numerous times that the door is securely locked.
In Hilborn’s poem Love conquers Affliction; he closes the poem with the words: -

"I want her back so badly, I leave the door unlocked. I leave the lights on,"