A Pain In The Head



I suffer badly from headaches. Fortunately, if the pain gets too bad, I find a couple of analgesics will normally do the trick.

Analgesics have been around for more than a century and are based on three compounds which were discovered in the 19th century – salicyclic acid, pyrazolone and phenacetin. Drugs in these families have the ability to relieve mild to moderate pain through actions that recuse inflammation at source. All very handy and something we take very much for granted these days.

But prior to these discoveries, how did you go about getting some relief for your aching bonce?

Inevitably, there were many quack remedies, none more bizarre than that espoused in all seriousness by the 10th century oculist, Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal. His idea was that you should lash a mole to your head. Probably useless but if you were glabrous it could serve as a temporary wig.

Scarier still was the practice of trepanning. This involved the drilling of or scraping a hole into the human skull to expose the dura mater – the thick membrane that covered the meninges that surround the brain. The idea was that the hole would relieve the pressure inside your head, the build-up of which was clearly causing your headaches. I suppose it kind of makes sense if you have no medical knowledge and are oblivious to the consequences.

There is evidence that trepanning was practised as long ago as the Neolithic times. Skulls have been found with neatly bored holes, too neat for a wound from a weapon. In one burial site in France, 40 skulls out of 120 dating from around 6,500 BCE were found to have trepanation holes – perhaps they had invented heavy metal rock as well! Some skulls that have been found reveal signs of the bone structure healing, suggesting that many survived the ordeal.

Hippocrates, for many the founder of modern medicine, gave specific instructions on the procedure and the influential medic, Galen, also gives helpful advice on the subject. Hieronymous Bosch’s painting pictured above shows the practice persisted well into the Medieval and Renaissance period and was used principally as a cure for various ailments including seizures and head fractures. There is evidence from graveyards that that the survival rate was high – it makes sense really, because if everyone who had the operation died, it would soon fall out of use.

Whilst a form of trepanation is still used today for various forms of neurosurgical procedures, it is generally not recommended as a cure for headaches. The instruments used for the surgery have improved too – gone are the classical trephines with sharp teeth and in are instruments with diamond-coated rims which are smooth to soft tissues and only cut the bone. Generally, these days, in a craniotomy the bone cut from the skull is replaced – if it is not, the procedure is known as a craniectomy.

Faced with the prospect of trepanation, I would have grabbed the nearest mole! Thank goodness for aspirins.


Story Of The Week



It may be the method actor in me but when I go to a safari park, there is nothing I like better than donning a zebra suit and watching the lions salivate as I walk past their enclosure. But it seems that the behaviour police want to put paid to this innocent pastime.

Chessington World of Adventure have just announced a ban on anyone wearing animal prints and costumes from entering their Zufari. Instead they will be required to don Mao style grey boiler suits.

Two thoughts – if I am going to shell out £43.20 a person to visit their benighted facility, I will wear what I want, thank you very much. And, allow me to anthropomorphise please, if I was a lion what would pee me off more – seeing some prat wander past my enclosure in a zebra suit or the realisation that I am condemned to spend the rest of my natural in some God forsaken animal park for the benefit of Mammon.

Truly the world is going mad.

Forgetfulness Is A Form Of Freedom



The characteristic many of us are most likely to associate with a professor is that of absent-mindedness. They are so wrapped up in their contemplation of higher things that the mundanities of modern life pass them by. It seems that emeritus professor, John Foster, of Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies must have stepped right out of central casting.

Whilst going through his stuff in a locker at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Foster came across a copy of the Poems of Arthur Hugh Clough, who as well as being a minor Victorian poet was an educationalist and devoted assistant to Florence Nightingale. Opening up the volume, our prof was shocked to find not only that it was from the Queen’s University library but also that it bore a stamp indicating that it was due to be returned on October 11th 1966. As fines for overdue books are levied at the library at a rate of 50 pence a day, the absent-minded academic faced the prospect of a fine amounting to ££8,577.50. Happily, the prof was let off the fine. Foster claimed that he was a fan of Clough’s but thought that he was underrated and overshadowed by his contemporaries such as Walt Whitman, Browning and others – I can’t help thinking that this is partly down to the fact that potential adherents couldn’t find his works on the shelves of their library.

It seems that levying fines for late returns of library books is big business for universities. Last year British universities had raised almost £50 million from fining forgetful students and academics. Leeds University, which I reported some time ago, is the university of choice for potheads, has raised around £1.8 million over the last six years through library fines – surely there is a correlation between the students’ predilection for narcotics and their forgetfulness. Some 300,000 volumes a year just disappear.

Although the Clough book was some 47 years overdue, the tardiness of its return pales into insignificance when compared with the fate that befell a copy of Charles Darwin’s book on insectivorous plants. The book, a first edition, was returned to the Camden library in Sydney and staff were shocked to discover that it bore a return stamp suggesting that it had been borrowed on January 30th 1889, some 122 years earlier. Seemingly, the book had found its way into the hands of a private collector before being handed back to a local university and then on to the library. It was estimated that fines accumulated on the volume amounted to over £22,800 but as the book had been returned during the library’s amnesty period and, presumably, because the original borrower was no longer with us – hopefully, not devoured by a carnivorous plant – the levy was being waived. Like the Queen’s university, the librarian was delighted to get the book back and it will not be loaned out again.

Fortunately, as the government is intent on eradicating public libraries, this form of crime will soon be a thing of the past!


Cross Words


Every morning when I come to I check that I am not surrounded by ghostly companions clad in white astride a fluffy cumulus strumming ethereal airs on a harp. I then like to give the old grey cells a bit of a workout by tackling a crossword – usually a cryptic one. Often I find my sub conscious whirring away during the day trying to solve a particularly troublesome clue. I have to say that I have mixed success. Some days I breeze through the puzzle, other times it may as well have been in a foreign language for all the sense it makes.

I used to think that the key to crossword success was practice. The more you did it, the more likely you were to be able to solve them in a timescale that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to own up to. But, according to some recent research conducted by the University of Buckingham, it is all to do with fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning (Gf is the accepted scientific abbreviation) is the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independently of acquired knowledge. Fluid intelligence and its alternative, crystallised intelligence which is the cumulative result of your intellectual achievement as demonstrated by your vocabulary and general knowledge, were first identified by the American psychologist, Raymond Cattell. It seems they are separate neural and mental systems.

The research, conducted by Dr Philip Fine and his team, has revealed that the key to consistent and speedy resolution of tricky cryptic crosswords is the level of fluid intelligence you have. It has the ability to make the mind jump through hoops allowing you to think and reason more quickly and logically, invaluable if you want to untangle those fiendish cryptic clues.

I suppose the logical conclusion from this research is that you either have it or you don’t. If you want to be a super crossword solver you had better have your noddle tested to see the level of the fluid intelligence resident in your grey cells or else you could be wasting your time. Training your grey cells to attain higher and higher levels of mental gymnastics doesn’t seem to cut it – it seems as though the ability is something which is innate.

Quite depressing, really. Sometimes I think there is something to be said for ignorance. At least it allows you to travel through life’s highways and byways with hope and expectation rather than having the certainty that what you are doing is futile and doomed to failure. Perhaps I should give up the cryptic crossword and concentrate on the general knowledge ones which will at least allow my crystallised intelligence (Gc) to shine through.

Isn’t science wonderful?

What Is The Origin Of (33)?…



A storm in a teacup

This phrase is used to denote a minor incident which is blown out of all proportions.

Although today we regularly position the storm in a teacup, it seems that this phrase has a long history and various receptacles over time have been the location of the storm.

The great Roman orator and writer, Cicero, introduced a variant of the phrase in his de Legibus (52 BCE). Tully wrote, “excitabat fluctus in simpulo”, which translates as “he was stirring up billows in a ladle”.

The phrase first finds its way into English print in a letter written by the Duke of Ormond to the Earl of Arlington in 1678. The Duke wrote, “Our skirmish seems to be come to a period, and compared with the great things now on foot, is but a storm in a cream bowl”, establishing the linkage between a storm and something used in the process of preparing a social beverage.

By 1830 the storm had moved and was now located in a wash basin. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1830 attributes this variant to Lord Thurlow who, as well as being the nephew of the first Lord Thurlow who was Lord Chancellor in 1778, had a reputation as a minor poet. The Magazine records, “Each campaign, compared with those of Europe, has been only, in Lord Thurlow’s phrase, a storm in a wash-hand basin.

The first use of the phrase involving a teacup is attributed to the Scottish authoress, Catherine Sinclair (1800 – 1864) who as well as being a do-gooder in Edinburgh, wrote a number of books including some children’s books and a description of modern fashionable life, Modern Accomplishments or the march of the intellect. It was the latter book, published in 1838, which contained the  sentence, “As for your father’s good-humoured jests being ever taken up as a serious affair, it really is like raising a storm in a teacup. Catherine was also responsible for attributing the authorship to the Waverley novels, previously published anonymously, to Walter Scott.

In America the phrase is more commonly a tempest in a teapot, although the origins of this particular variant seem to have been Scottish. Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine of 1825 includes a discussion of the relative merits of a couple of Scottish poets and suggest that one of the poet’s, Tom Campbell’s, imagery of raging storms wasn’t particularly well received. “What is the ‘tempest raging o’er the realms of ice’? A tempest in a teapot!

Interestingly, the phrase, or at least a variant, can be found in other European languages. In the Netherlands it is a storm in a glass of water and in Hungary a tempest in a potty!

So now we know!