Category Archives: Science

The Meaning Making Machine

We all have one.

Sometimes, I just want to flip the lid, take it out of my cranium and rest the damn thing on the window ledge.

There is no meaning. There is meaning. There is no meaning. There is meaning.

Chunter chunter, huffle puffle puff.

Wittgenstein was right.

Marius the Giraffe & Marius the Giraffe, Denmark

It was upsetting last weekend to learn that a healthy young giraffe was going to killed at Copenhagen Zoo, simply because his genes were well-represented in the breeding pool and if he lived, inter-breeding would potentially affect the health of any offspring, or offspring of offspring, in the future. At least, that’s what I think the zoo where saying.

This gave rise to lots of questions about why the zoo allowed the giraffes to breed at all, if this were a likely outcome, as well as lots of others to do with sensibilities about the public nature of the death and autopsy, before parts of the giraffe were fed to the lions. I wrote to the Danish Embassy in the UK to raise some of these questions and I was sent a link to this statement, in English, from the zoo.

Today, the Telegraph runs a piece about another Danish zoo, Jyllands Park Zoo, which also has two male giraffes, a younger one called Elmer and Marius aged 7. It is the latter who may soon become superfluous to requirements. The zoo plan to get a female giraffe and can’t have two males with one female as there ‘would be fights.’ The link to the Telegraph piece is here, but please be aware it contains a picture of the dead giraffe in Copenhagen.

There are it seems a number of ways to manage the problems of zoo populations. Some zoos don’t breed, the Danish ones do, but then cull the animals that aren’t required. I realise that the case of Marius upset my sensibilities, but it is a symptom of the real problem, not the cause. When Copenhagen said they were going to autopsy parts of Marius to gain more knowledge about giraffes, I just thought… how pointless. We don’t need more knowledge about the biology of giraffes, interesting though it may be to certain scientists. What we need are good solutions to pollution and poverty and war and disease and although I appreciate some scientists study animals for the latter, I am not sure giraffe study forms a useful part of that process. As it happens I am against animal testing full stop. I am also against humans manipulating animals in manmade environments for their own amusement or edification.

And then I realise I run into difficult territory because I am not a vegetarian. You see, although I detest what I perceive as animal cruelty I don’t know exactly where I personally draw the line. I do know I try to eat free range products, and I do know as I get older I am enjoying meat less and less. I don’t like fish, and on the odd occasion I have eaten farmed salmon I thought it was the most disgusting flabby fatty product I had ever tasted. I imagined all the fish packed tightly into tanks without room to swim up wild streams and develop any sort of muscle tone at all. The life the animal or fish leads is definitely there in the meat we eat and if I end up mainly vegetarian in time, I wouldn’t be too surprised.

Still, this doesn’t help Marius I, or Marius II. From a scientific point of view it’s hard to be offended by the Copenhagen Zoo statement, As a human, a member of one species sharing the same home with other species, I don’t really understand why a zoo needs to keep, let alone breed giraffes (or any other animal come to that). The statement from Copenhagen Zoo does not address that fundamental issue at all, rather it seeks to rationalise a system that I find indefensible.

(The obvious picture to add here is one of a giraffe, you know, a close up of those inquisitive and limpid brown eyes with long lashes, but frankly to do so would chip my old heart even more than it is already – and at the moment it feels like a knackered and cracked, leaky old teapot).

Thinking in the past tense

I’m doing it a lot at the moment because of the big writing project.

It’s funny really because, every Friday, I stand up on my hind legs and remind people that to stay in a balanced frame of mind, to not be swept away twenty times a day on a great swell of emotions, what they really must do is… stay in the present moment.

It’s not esoteric flim flam either. A massive study conducted by some American scientists showed that mind wandering is bad for our happiness and, perhaps surprisingly, that it is equally bad for our happiness whether our mind wandering is pleasant, or not.

So, I say, ‘be mindful’

By which I mean be mindful of where your mind wanders off to. Apparently the average amount of time for the mind to not be where the body is at is a whopping 47%. Now, I accept allowing the mind to drift forwards to future events may create excitement and anticipation certainly ( after all, isn’t the shenanigan that is Christmas predicated on this likelihood?), but be mindful that projecting oneself forwards can also cause anxiety. Mind travel in reverse, well that can be pleasant too: happy memories and self-indulgent nostalgia over an eggnog whilst listening to George Michael crooning about Last Christmas… But often – often, often, often, mind wandering backwards leads to sadness and regret.

Yes. The evidence is out there. To be happy, stay in the present moment. So why, why, why is the past so much more interesting than what the hell is going on in my living room right now? And why do I look forward to getting home from work and throwing myself headlong into 1919?

Uncovering the signs

Uncovering the signs

‘The badgers moved the goalposts’

I dare not normally speak of badgers and the cull, because my sister is in country ways and has strong, and very valid, views on the whole issue of the spread of TB and the impact on farmers. I sit in the town and have my own views and perhaps they are not quite so valid as I don’t know anyone at all who is affected and neither am I, so it is easy enough to say that my heart bleeds for all the badges being shot. I would also add that the science seemed to suggest a cull would not fix the problem. Equally, I would say, that it hardly seems fair that cows should be slaughtered when they carry TB either, but they are, and no-one appears to be particularly up in arms about that. Or maybe they are, and I missed it, for which I apologise.

However, it is not a laughing matter. It is not funny that a disease is blighting the lives of badgers and cattle. But what really puts the tin lid on it is when a government minister comes on the tv to say the length of the cull needs to be extended because ‘the badgers moved the goalposts.’

Really? Really?

And we trust this lot with a lot more besides the TB and badgers issue.

Saints preserve us. Or, if you are a badger, and you’ve survived the brutal and stupid cull, stand for parliament in my constituency in 2015 and you are guaranteed my vote.

Badgers in charge all the way baby.

Badger from Fantastic Mr Fox

The model of scientific knowledge

Science is based on observable events (that can be replicated). This constitutes empirical knowledge.

These sentences are going to be quite short, because, as I type, I am thinking quite hard…

What science cannot observe – they dismiss. Thus we have people like Professor Brian Cox, calling things he cannot empirically prove, ‘woo-woo’. I quite liked the way Cox presented his knowledge on the television for a while, until he overused the word woo-woo and was dismissive of anyone who had a belief, or belief system, based on non-scientific paradigms.

It’s like when Professor Stephen Hawking claimed that ‘philosophy was dead.’

Don’t get me wrong, I like science. I even read the New Scientist sometimes, although I can’t claim to understand it all. What I don’t like is the idea that science trumps philosophical thought, or spiritual faith, because it consists of observable phenomena.

If we allow this idea to prevail, aren’t we limiting ourselves to what we can perceive with our own senses. Hasn’t science shown us that some of our own senses are distinctly lacking when compared with, say, a bat, or a lizard? Didn’t the Copernican revolution show us that it is the position of the observer, or the act of observing, that influences the outcome of the observation? Doesn’t science fall short when trying to understand the behaviour of unobserved particles in the double slit experiment? Therefore couldn’t we speculate that it is also our position as unobservers (what we cannot see or sense) that makes us resist so much that is unobserved but tangible on some level: a level that lives outside our five sensory realms – what might partially fall into the category of metaphysics

Are we using a limiting model when we insist on science being only based on observation? Isn’t empirical evidence a bit woo-woo too? After all, if I own a big pharmaceutical company I can pretty much commission scientific research to empirically prove what I like. And my rival can do the same. And then what, when the science is contradictory, as it sometimes is? Is it a co-incidence that Einstein came up with a theoretical model, not one based on lab work. Isn’t the whole universe a laboratory if only we are sufficiently mentally unshackled to move beyond the limits of our five scientifically-proven senses? How many senses do we really have. What about your gut or your heart intuition or neurons, for example. What about energy fields?

I don’t know. It’s just something I’m thinking about. What goes on outside the observable field of human experience might be far more amazing that the stuff the anti woo-woo merchants peddle (and that – classical science – is pretty amazing in itself).

Reducing Stress Through Mindfulness

This morning’s post could easily be a rant – I have two hanging around. One is about wristbands, the other about the dentist. However, I am trying to live more along the lines of a saying that goes, ‘whatever angers you, owns you.’ In that spirit, I am working not to allow petty annoyances throw my day off kilter this early. Mindfulness practice is the route I take. This non-secular meditation practice also featured on this week’s Horizon programme

For as long as humans have gone to work, they have suffered occupational accidents and diseases. From the Stone Age hunter who severed an artery making yet another flint-tipped arrow, to the high incidence of scrotal cancer in Victorian chimney sweeps, work has made us ill. Flicking through ‘Diseases of Workers’, published in 1700, shows that, notwithstanding industrial, technological and digital revolutions, certain work-related health issues have persisted, which led to the book’s author, Bernardini Ramazzini, to be dubbed the Father of Occupational Medicine. Take what we call repetitive strain injury: Ramozzini observed that clerks suffered from ‘incessant driving of the pen over paper.’ The unfortunate clerks were also, like many of us now, ‘chair workers’ and could not escape the ‘lumbago’ that he noted ‘afflicts all sedentary workers’. This is an example of 18th century occupational health advice – in Ramazzini’s prescription for a bad back

‘Take physical exercise, at any rate on holidays.’

Surely working conditions have improved over the intervening 313 years – isn’t that why elfin safety was invented? 21st century bakers no longer ‘become bow-legged’ and sewer workers are not completely blinded, so it appears we have reduced perilous working conditions and associated diseases. Modern work can still be physically hazardous, an extreme case being the Texas fertiliser plant explosion, but perhaps the most pernicious is in the invisible killer: stress. We know stress can play an underlying role in many chronic diseases. After bereavement and divorce, work is the third highest contributor to our stress levels and elevated stress levels, over a prolonged period, are seriously deleterious to health, and the nation’s coffers. Ramazzini’s lumbago now costs the UK £7 billion a year, mental health, an almost inconceivable, £100 billion plus. Only yesterday, I met a friend whose apparently fit and healthy husband, in his forties, had suffered a heart attack. The doctors attributed it to work stress. An economy in recession only exacerbates the situation and reducing stress levels should be a personal and political health priority.

Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, is sobering, ‘If you look at just children and young people and students, their stress and anxiety levels in the 1950s for example, and you track that carefully… what you find is that people by the ’80s and ’90s were now the average level of anxiety that was equivalent to clinical levels in the 1950s.’ And that’s before they get to work… How do we help ourselves? Relax more, certainly, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Goggling at screens might feel like stress reduction but, biologically, it’s not. There’s a more effective way of actually reducing your levels of the stress hormone cortisol: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the updated, secular take on the ancient practice of meditation and it doesn’t involve a hard floor whilst tying your legs in a knot. Instead of promising esoteric nirvana, mindfulness practice relies on a growing body of clinical evidence from practitioners like Professor Williams who, with others, has developed mindfulness techniques including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – approved by NICE in the UK as a treatment for recurring depression.

New research, published this March in ‘Health Psychology’ suggests regular practice in developing mindfulness techniques may measurably reduce cortisol levels in the body. The study, conducted by the University of California, Davis Centre for Mind and Brain, concluded that it had demonstrated a direct link between increased mindfulness and resting cortisol levels. 57 participants spent 3 months on a meditation retreat, being instructed in elements of mindfulness e.g. focusing on the present moment, mindful breathing and cultivating positive mental states and compassionate hearts. Researchers measured the cortisol levels in participants’ saliva and rated their mindfulness level at the beginning and end of the retreat.

The study reported, ‘At an individual level, there was a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol both before and after the retreat. Individuals whose mindfulness score increased after the retreat showed a decrease in cortisol.’ Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher on the project added, ‘The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol.’

Regrettably, there was no control group, so one cannot rule out the possibility that simply spending three months on retreat would have had the same effect on cortisol levels… But having tried mindfulness myself, I can subjectively report that its functional benefits don’t seem to be purely confined to the luxury of spending three months with one’s feet up in California. I really do feel less stressed by just keeping my focus in the present moment. Still, this latest finding joins existing research in suggesting that far from being helpless in the face of our stressful lives, reducing its effects might be as simple as where and how we direct our thoughts.

Bernardini Ramazzini – the Father of Occupational Health

The Pitch Drips…

I was very taken with the piece on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme earlier this week about the pitch drop experiment that has been underway in Australia since 1927. Pitch at room temperature appears to be solid matter; you can even smash with a hammer should you have both to hand.

In fact, given enough time, pitch shows the properties of a fluid and will eventually form a drip. As I write, the blog (and the world) waits for the ninth drop, since 1927, to drip.

For the live drip cam click through to the University of Queensland website here. For what it all means, ask Einstein. Oh, he’s dead you say? Well, given enough time, perhaps anything is possible.

In the meantime, here’s a time lapse video, taken over the last year, as the pitch gets ready to drip and… drop!


There are some research projects that just beggar belief i.e. that money is actually spent on this stuff. The latest case of this is an ‘experiment’ run down at the University of Portsmouth that has reached the stunning conclusion… wait for it… that dogs can understand some of their human’s perspective on things. Now, call me an ignorant non-scientific member of the general herd of sheep known as the dumb public, but you know what, I think you, or I, or even my dog could have told them that.

I know that subjective anecdote is not considered hard evidence in the scientific world but was it really necessary to run the following study. 84 dogs with their owners and a bowl of tempting food (not all in the same room at the same time one assumes); 84 dogs forbidden, in broad daylight, to eat the food. The dogs mainly comply. Then, the lights go off. Left in the dark with the humans that can’t see them: the dogs mainly eat the food. And I bet the dogs wouldn’t have been fooled if the researchers had made them put their paws over their eyes like those silly human babies are… Now you see me, now you don’t… The average poocher ain’t falling for that, no sir.

Any dog owner could have told you the same and the really intelligent ones don’t even wait until it’s dark – merely until your back is turned.

Dogs have a theory of mind? You betcha. Dogs, and other animals, are not the simpletons arrogant humans like to assume they are. Well, who knew? I mean, really.

Science? Have you really nothing better to do?


Rudi and Laddie: Plotting

One look at those faces tells you more about the inner life of dogs than some silly old lights on/off experiment.

The purpose of a blog and the basic emotions paradigm

I started this blog for various reasons but the top one was

#1 to create a daily writing habit

So, in a sense I have to continue with the enterprise because if I don’t I will have, by default, lost my daily habit. Of course the longer term plan was to shift from blog writing to writing other things on a daily basis and although I have achieved partial success in this department it is not the 365 day a year that I was after by any means.

The problem at the moment is that I am deep into research on a writing project which means reading rather than writing. Sometimes I think, ah phooey, that’s just an excuse for not getting on with the main business at hand. However, if you are researching a big project and you draft too much whilst still researching you are likely to change your mind about what it is you want to write anyway. I say ‘you’ – I mean ‘I’ but it is a question in my head. How much research do you need for a non-fiction book. It’s been a year now. I am going to have to put a limit on it for my own sanity. I want to get the first draft done by the end of this year.

In the meantime, so as not to lose the habit, this is a holding post to my myself to think about and discuss further what is called the basic emotions paradigm. A lot of my work is currently rooted in this paradigm, but I consider there are some questions to be answered. What is currently puzzling me is the attribution, through brain scans, of the left and right amygdalae being involved in triggering different ‘basic emotions’. I don’t have a scientific background but it interests that me that we don’t ask the same questions of the left hand and or the right hand, or the left nostril and the right nostril. For example, we don’t say, it seems that the left nostril is much more involved in the olfactory experience of a sweet smell; we just accept that we are designed along symmetrical lines. Here’s the latest research and it’s all about the schnoz singular, not nostrils plural. And yet there are studies that examine any apparent differences in amygdalae function from left to right

It’s almost as if the initial activator of the amygdalae, which is too fast for our conscious mind, is then followed up by a further activator, or dampener, provided by the conscious mind. I suppose we do that with smell too, if we can’t place it. We smell something, but we then sniff again, actively trying to place it – say a perfume.

I also wonder if there is a sort of cascade of chemicals released which are initially triggered subconsciously but then further influenced by the conscious mind. For example, some of the chemicals thats release are triggered by fear also form a part of the cocktail of chemicals that are released when we are in love. In fact, if you think about the subjective experience of being ‘in love’ don’t you recognise some of the fear feelings too in tandem – say the knot in your stomach. In love and in fear at the same time at a neurological level.

There are no pictures for this post.

And if you want answers, this is the wrong blog for you today.

Move along please there’s nothing to see here.

Fallen Arches & Frankel

If you look at the word fallen for too long it looks odd, like we should pronounce it with a short ‘a’ sound like in cat.

And I suppose one automatically thinks of feet when thinking of fallen arches. That’s fair enough, apparently twenty-five percent of the American population suffer from them. In some African countries though, it’s a rare phenomenon, that scientists link to the wearing of shoes (bad) not wearing shoes (good). Shoes with arch support paradoxically allow your arches to simply collapse; rather like what happens to one’s middle if you never wear a pencil skirt beyond the age of sixteen and have no need to hold your stomach in…

When I was reading all this about fallen arches, I started getting other imagery coming through.

Destroyed ancient cities with marbled smashed arches crashed to the ground
The broken rainbow I saw last Saturday with the high arc section of its arch missing
A day when the golden arches of McDonalds are a forgotten brand of yesteryear
The American racehorse who was not quite out of the top drawer
Triumphal city architecture to make us shudder
Those unnecessarily sharp comments that we live to regret

And so on.

Saturday is a quiet day for blogging and I imagine there are not many that will read this post so I will also allow myself a fallen arch of narrative thread.

Frankel is due to make his last appearance at Ascot today, but connections report some slight concern about the state of the going. It is currently: soft, heavy in places. He may make a late withdrawal on account of it. I know some people who are going, people who will be devastated if the greatest horse most of us have ever seen is taken out of the race. My own heart prefers that we do not run our national treasure if the ground will be more than a minor inconvenience.

We do not want any fallen arches for the beloved Frankel. It will be an anxious wait.

The fallen arches of a double rainbow, Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Original image can be seen here