I am reading David Nutt’s book Drugs – Without the Hot Air, which is excellent, although as I will get to later, my timing is not great. Incidentally, as he admits in the book, he is best known as the scientific advisor that the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked a few years ago. He says a number of things in the book, but I can illustrate a key point he is making as follows. Consider two drugs: A and B. Large doses of A can kill you on the spot, it is responsible for damage to society on a huge scale, tens of thousands of deaths every year, and can be addictive. Drug B does not, even in very large doses, kill you directly, although it is harmful. It is also not addictive. If you tell you one of these in legal and the other illegal, can you guess which one is illegal?
I guess we have all seen the ads for bleach that claim they kill 99% of germs dead. Maybe you have wondered about the other 1%? Killing the last 1% may be harder than you think. Naively you might think that bleach just kills bacteria, and that’s the end of it. But scientists working on bacteria like E. Coli have found that the individual bacteria are surprising diverse, in the following sense. Consider a population of millions of E. Coli, and assume that they are all clones, i.e., are genetically identical. If they are all descendents of a single bacterium then this would be true. You might assume that these genetically identical clones would all behave identically, e.g., would all require the same dose of something nasty like bleach, to kill them.
At the start of this week I was at an excellent conference hosted in Cambridge’s Homerton College – the building where we had our meals is shown on the left. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I learnt a lot. There were some superb talks. I thought the best was one by Prof David Klenerman. It was on the molecular and cell behaviour that underlies Alzheimer’s disease.
This is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, and a scientist. It is in The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, two Yale law academics. It is an interesting book. Although it focuses mainly on a specific case, immigrants to the USA, it is kind of an argument for what you need to succeed. Where success is defined in material terms: a good job and lots of money. By this criterion I guess I am moderately successful. Being an academic is a professional job, and I am paid more than most, though sadly not as much as Yale law academics who write best-selling books.
Last night Lionel Messi advised me to shave with Gillette’s razor. This was in a TV ad, and was presumably in exchange for a lot more money than I will see this year. Rationally, there is no reason why I should accept advice on the best razor from a man just because he is astonishingly good at guiding a light spherical object past defenders and goalkeepers. Being good at football does not necessarily mean that you are a good judge of a quality razor, even if you are not being paid to recommend one. This marketing campaign is one of a huge number that exploit a weakness in our reasoning that is called the halo effect.
A long time ago — back in mid-2010 when I was still in my thirties — I agree to join a colleague in the Department, Joe Keddie, in an EU consortium. This consortium finally become fully online this week. Its logo is above. It now even has a website! At times Joe and despaired of ever seeing it get off the ground. Years passed. I even got so annoyed with EU bureaucracy that I emailed all my local MEPs. I got only one prompt reply, from the office of the UKIP MEP Nigel Farage. It suggested the way to solve the problem was for the UK to leave the EU. As we would then no longer be eligible for the consortium this would solve the bureaucracy problem but only at the expense of not being able to join any of these consortia and so not being eligible for this research funding. So not very helpful.
A number of factors contribute to whether you end up carrying some excess weight. Clearly too many cream buns, and too little exercise can contribute to you being a bit plump. But genes are also important. Some people are, due to their genes, a bit more prone to putting on weight than others.
Murmuration is my new a favourite word, it means a flock of starlings. It is one of the old English collective nouns for a group of animals, like a murder of crows, a skulk of foxes or a gaggle of geese. And as the YouTube clip above shows murmurations are simply astonishing. The Guardian also has a gallery with some pretty amazing pictures. Thousands of starlings flying through the air as if they were a single organism. Flicking back and fore like cat’s tail, not like the thousands of bird spread across maybe 100 m that they are.
I have just learnt that the European Starling can take its drink. Alcohol is metabolised, in starlings and in us, by an enzyme called Alcohol Dehydrogenase. By weight starlings have approximately 14 times as much Alcohol Dehydrogenase activity as we do. The data are in a paper by Prinzinger and Hakimi. I will now look at starlings with new respect.
You may be asking yourself, why do European Starlings have this impressive ability to take their drink? Fruit is a major part of the diet of starlings. Fallen fruit tends to ferment of course, which produces alcohol. So it may be that starlings have evolved a high tolerance to booze to allow them to eat lots of fallen fruit without then being reduced to zig-zagging across the sky in a rather drunken way.
Water is everywhere – we have been inundated with the stuff over the last few months. But maybe we should not take it for granted. In Britain water is everywhere but in the universe as whole liquids of any sort are extremely rare. And even on Earth, water is pretty much the only liquid around.