A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Science

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Three

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

A team of scientists from Boston University School of Medicine, led by Peter Cummings, reported in the ever popular Plos One, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing problems with functions such as emotional, cognitive and motor.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage? Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via


Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Four

Cigares de Joy

Smoking is rather frowned upon these days and with good reason, given its linkage with cancer, strokes, heart attacks and the like. Cigarette packets are decorated with lurid pictures of some of the problems consuming tobacco cause and smokers with a penchant for a spot of gallows humour take delight in trying to collect the full series of pictures. I suppose they make a useful self-diagnostic kit.

That being the case, it seems somewhat strange to the modern eye that smoking some form of cigarette could be healthy, let alone being helpful to asthmatics but such were the claims for the delightfully named Cigares de Joy. The advert showed a rather vacant-looking young woman, Joy perhaps but not personified, puffing away at a cigarette. The copy advised the reader that said cigarettes “afford immediate relief in cases of asthma, wheezing and winter cough and a little perseverance will affect a permanent cure.” What not to like?

Naturally, the Cigares de Joy were “universally recommended by the most eminent physicians and medical authors” and were so safe to use that you could liberally dispense them to the weaker members of your family or, as the advertising copy claimed, “agreeable to use, certain in their effects, and harmless in their action, they may be safely smoked by ladies and children.” A box of 35 reefers would set you back half a crown and were available from most chemists and stores. Alternatively, you could send your money to Wilcox & Co of 239, Oxford Street in London who would dispatch them to you pronto, without passing on the postal charge.

The Cigares de Joy were described in the Medical Times and Gazette of 1875 as “very useful little agents for inhaling the smoke of stramonium.”  So what was stramonium? To give it its full name, Datura stramonium is a member of the nightshade family and was known by a variety of names in England including jimsonweed, Devil’s snare, the wonderful Hell’s bells and Thornapple, to name but a few. The Elizabethan herbalist, John Gerard, was an enthusiastic exponent of Thornapple, writing in his Herball of 1597, “the juice of the Thornapple, boiled with hog’s grease, cureth all inflammators whatsoever, all manner of burnings and scaldings, as well of fire, water, boiling lead, gunpowder, as that which comes by lightning and that in very short time, as myself found in daily practice, to my great credit and profit.

In Ayuverdic medicine, stramonium was used to deal with the symptoms of asthma, the leaves being smoked in a cigarette or a pipe. It is thought that the practice was introduced into Europe by the Physician General of the East India Company, James Anderson, towards the end of the 18th century. So there would seem be some medical provenance for the efficacy of the Cigares de Joy.

There was one significant downside about the use of stramonium. It was used in certain parts of the world as an analgesic in surgery or for the setting of bones and was known to be a powerful hallucinogen and deliriant, producing intense visions. Indeed, the tropane alkaloids that it contained were fatally toxic in doses only slightly higher than would be used for medicinal purposes. If you smoked too many of the Cigares in too short a time, you would feel high and run the risk of causing yourself harm at best or killing yourself at worst.

They were still available to buy shortly after the end of the Second World War. Unlike many of the cures we have seen, there is a plausible case for arguing that the Cigares de Joy did some good, in moderation, and ingesting was the quickest way of getting the drug into your lungs. But to modern sensibilities, it all seems a bit odd.

Social Media Tool Of The Week

I have to admit it, I don’t really understand social meejah. I have the obligatory Facebook and Twitter accounts but the number of my followers remains steadfastly at a level that they were when I pretty much set up the wretched things.

Fans of these forms of digitised social interaction seem fixated on statistics, particularly on numbers of followers and or so-called friends. They will go to enormous lengths to boost them, thus increasing the chances of their latest inanities trending, as I think the term is. The thinking is that success begets success and the more followers you have the more likely your fan club is to grow exponentially.

One company called Devumi, I read this week, buys and sells fake followers so that those who subscribe to their services appear to be more influential than they really are. For just $17 you can generate a thousand followers and they claim to have at least 3.5 million automated accounts to offer.

If you are going to use them, you had better move sharpish. Allegations have surfaced that this is a fraud, that their address in Manhattan is a fake and that the founder’s LinkedIn career summary is somewhat questionable. The New York prosecutor is investigating Devumi as I write.

It was only in November that Facebook revealed that as many as 60 million of its accounts are generated by automated bots. Not all is at it seems in the digital world, it would appear.

And there was me thinking that it was going to be the brilliance of my apercus that would see my numbers soaring into the stratosphere. A man can dream!

The Most Wonderful Plant In The World

Charles Darwin may have gone a bit overboard in his praise but there is something deeply fascinating about a Venus flytrap, unless of course you are an insect. Dionaea muscipula, to give it is botanical name, lures flies and spiders on to its leaves and a complex system of tiny hairs springs its trap shut. The poor creature is then slowly digested. Apparently the Venus flytrap is a bit fussy and will only start the digesting process if there have been half a dozen triggers of the trap mechanism. After all, it doesn’t want to waste energy.

I share Darwin’s enthusiasm and have long thought that a flytrap might be fun to have. If it does its job properly then there should be a marked reduction in the number of insects that seem to delight in flying around the inner chambers of Blogger Towers. So during a recent trip to the local Garden Centre I couldn’t resist the siren call that was a lurid blue card inviting me, courtesy of Fun Seeds, to grow my own Venus Flytrap. It was clearly aimed at children – although not the under-fives because of small parts – but now that I have reached grandfather status, albeit vicariously, I think I can indulge myself from time to time in reverting to my former childlike state.

The card contained a small red pot, a desiccated piece of Sphagnum moss, a packet of infinitesimally small black seeds, and some rudimentary instructions. The starting point was to dunk the moss into water but not any old water would do. It had to be rain water or, failing that, distilled or filtered. Fortunately, we have buckets of rain water assiduously collected during the not infrequent downpours we have experienced over the winter. As soon as the moss tablet hit the water, it began to swell and break up. After a while I scooped up the moss, squeezed it to remove most of the surplus water and put it into the red plastic pot.

The next stage of the operation was to sprinkle the seeds on to the moss. The instructions were very clear – they weren’t to be buried but had to rest in the moss. It suggested the use of a spoon to achieve the desired results although I found the seeds just stuck to the spoon. My fingers seemed to do the trick.

The pot was then placed on a saucer which contained a small amount of water – rain water (natch) – to keep the moss moist. Then I placed a plastic bag over the pot and placed it on the windowsill of my study.

Frustratingly, it will take the seeds up to 12 weeks to germinate and three years for a fully developed flytrap to grow so I will have to exercise a modicum of patience and .

I will keep you posted on progress.

Culinary Tip Of The Week

One of my tasks in the kitchen is to peel the spuds and prepare them for roasting. I cut each potato into half and then half again. They are then popped in the oven and eventually they become crispy.

But according to some hospitality students from the University of Essex’s Edge Hotel School I’m doing it all wrong. In conjunction with the mathematics department at Samuel Whitbread school, they set about finding the formula for the perfect roast potato, I read this week.

It’s all about maximising the potato’s surface area. Their research found that the optimal way to prepare the spud was to cut it lengthwise and then cut each half at an angle, creating a point of approximately 30 degrees. This increases the surface area exposed to the oven by 65%, resulting in a crispier and more delicious roast potato.

I’m happy to pass this on. I will be interested to see what difference it makes.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Two

Do your ears grow as you get older?

Ears are wonderful things. As well as opening up the world of sound for those blessed with the sense of hearing – that is another story – they provide us with something to which we can attach our spectacles. In Chinese physiognomy large ears are a sign of longevity. As I grow ever older I get this unshakeable feeling that the size of my ears is increasing. The consensus seems to be that old men have big ears and so for those of us with an enquiring mind this prompts the question: Do ears really grow larger with age and, if so, is it a phenomenon restricted to men?

The starting point for our investigation into the lughole is a paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1995, entitled Why do old men have big ears? In this fascinating monograph a general practitioner from Bromley in Kent, James Heathcote, recounts a survey he and three of his doctor colleagues conducted into the size of men’s ears in 1993. The doctors measured the ear sizes of 206 men of aged 30 and over and analysed the results. They calculated that ears grew at an average of 0.22 millimetres a year or, to put it another way, around a centimetre every 50 years. Frustratingly, the worthy medics didn’t hazard a guess as to why this may happen.

But it seems that the British investigation only tells half a story, having concentrated exclusively on the male sex. For an understanding of what happens with the ears of the fairer sex. A paper, reprinted in the BMJ in 1996 entitled Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan details the findings of some physicians working in care homes in Japan (surprise, surprise) where they measured the ears and height of some 400 adult patients of both sexes.  What they found was that there is a significant correlation between the length of your ear and age, confirming Heathcote’s findings, and that there is an even greater correlation when adjusted for height – across both sexes.

An Italian study in 1999, conducted by VF Ferrario and others, measured the ears of groups of males and females in age categories 12 to 15, 19 to 30 and 31 to 56. What they discovered was that ear dimensions were significantly larger in males than females and that there was a significant effect on the size of lugholes with age with larger ears to be found amongst the aging population.

A more exhaustive study was conducted in around 2006 was conducted by a team of Germans from the Freie Universitat Berlin, led by Carsten Niemitz, based upon some original original research carried out in 1959 by Montacer-Kuhssary. The team found some 1448 photographs of ears of people of all ages ranging from new-born children to adolescents to adults and old codgers up to the age of 92. Each of the photographs was subjected to fifteen different sets of measurements. What the team found that “in all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men.” Moreover the extent to which older men have bigger ears than younger males is greater than the extent to which older women’s lugholes are bigger than younger females’. But the fact is that women’s ears grow with age as well. Perhaps the reason why we don’t notice this phenomenon is because they often wear their hair in styles which cover the ears.

They also found that noses grow with age but not at the rate of ears – perhaps the Pinocchio effect of those shaggy dog stories the elderly are so fond of telling. There is no certainty as to why ears grow. It may be due to the loss of elasticity in the skin and the effect of gravity. Who knows?

Glad to have uncovered the truth on that one, though.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Six

Mary Toft (c1701 – 1763)

We speak of people breeding like rabbits but Godalming born Mary Toft took matters a whole lot further – she gave birth to rabbits, or at least so she claimed. Despite having a miscarriage a month earlier Toft still appeared pregnant and went into labour on 27th September 1726, giving birth to what seemed to resemble a liverless cat. The Guildford based obstetrician, John Howard, was summoned and upon his arrival was presented with a number of animal parts which Toft was said to have delivered during the night. The following day, Howard helped to deliver more animal parts and over the course of a month or so the astonishing Toft had produced from her womb the head of a rabbit, nine baby rabbits and the legs of a cat.

Realising that he had something on his hands that was too good not to exploit, Howard wrote to the great and the good, including leading surgeons and the King’s secretary, informing them of the wondrous goings-on in Godalming. George I’s interest was piqued and he sent his surgeon-anatomist, Nathaniel St Andre, and the Prince of Wales’ secretary, Samuel Molyneux, to investigate. By this time Toft’s celebrity was such that Howard moved her into his own house. Astonishingly, Toft was still delivering body parts, in labour with her fifteenth rabbit by the time the King’s men had arrived. Still their journey was not wasted as the indefatigable Toft gave birth to yet more rabbits, all dead of course.

St Andre examined some of the rabbits and whilst it was unlikely that their internal organs could have developed inside Mary’s uterus, he persuaded himself that he had witnessed some kind of immaculate conception. Others were not quite so gullible. The German surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, was sent along by the King and witnessed several births. Examining one of the rabbits, Ahlers found that it had dung pellets containing bits of corn, hay and straw up its jacksie. Ahlers smelt a rat – or perhaps a rabbit – and reported back that it was a hoax, his suspicions further alerted by the fact that Mary adopted an odd posture as if to stop something from dropping down from her midriff and that Howard would not allow anyone to attend to her births other than himself.

On 29th November 1792 Mary, who was by now a national sensation, was brought to London. Large crowds would congregate around the house in which she was staying, effectively under lock and key. The mysterious births stopped and Mary’s hoax started to unravel. Witnesses came forward claiming that they had procured rabbits on behalf of Toft and a porter was caught trying to sneak one into her room. Threatened with a painful examination of her uterus by the eminent physician, Sir Richard Manningham, she confessed to the hoax. She had simply inserted the dead rabbits inside her womb when no one was looking and gave “birth” to order. Her motivation – a desire for fame and, perhaps, a pension from the King. It is probable that when she miscarried in the August she evacuated some placenta containing flesh or parts of the foetus. This gave her the idea to try and benefit from the personal tragedy.

For her sins she spent a little time in chokey for fraud but was released without trial. It is said that she gave birth to a normal child a year later, although you would have thought she would have had enough of matters obstetrical by then. For Messrs Howard and St Andre the outcome was far worse – their medical careers were ruined.  The satirists had a field day mocking the gullibility of the medics. Hogarth’s Cunicularii shows Toft in labour surrounded by the protagonists of the story.

Answer Of The Week

The question du jour of course is: How Does Santa get down the chimney? After all, mere mortals fail spectacularly. Take this example I found this week.

An alleged burglar, Jesse Berube, thought it would be a good idea to break into a business premise in Citrus Heights near Sacramento in California by going down the chimney. Inevitably, he got stuck and had to call the emergency services to rescue. Also inevitably, he had his collar felt.

Well, according to Dr George Knee, a theoretical physicist from the University of Warwick – I assume he works on theoretical physics rather than being, theoretically, a physicist but you never know – it is all down to quantum physics. Atoms in the body, according to quantum physical theory, have an uncertain position and can move around as though they were a liquid. This means that in theory Santa Claus can change his body shape to negotiate any space that may confront him. The barriers that exist in classical physics do not exist in the world of quantum physics which deals with atoms, molecules and photons, Knee helpfully added.

Does this make any sort of sense? Anyway, let’s see if he can pull off the trick again this year.

To all my readers, season’s greetings.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Eight

Dr Louis Slotin (1910 – 1946)

We’ve all done it, I’m sure – moaned about the red tape of bureaucracy and ‘Elf and Safety which hinders us from getting on with what we are trying to do. But, occasionally, there are good reasons why a bit of safety awareness wouldn’t come amiss as this cautionary tale involving our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Canadian scientist Louis Slotin, amply illustrates.

Slotin was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War 2 and he earned a reputation as one of the pre-eminent assemblers of nuclear warheads. Following the destruction of Horoshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of the war, Slotin continued to experiment with nuclear fission. His particular sphere of interest was measuring the beginnings of the fission reaction, by bringing two semi-spherical pieces of radioactive material into close proximity. Of course, if the two actually touched there would be an almighty explosion and so a degree of precision, as well as a steady hand, was called for.

For some people, playing your part in developing something that could fry large portions of the world’s population is not enough. It would seem Slotin was a bit of a character who liked to spice up his life. That may be the reason why he eschewed any of the fancy-dan safety equipment available and relied upon a humble screwdriver to keep the two hemispheres apart.

On May 21st 1946 Slotin was training a colleague, the aptly named Alvin Graves, at the Omega Laboratory and for his piece de resistance a small crowd of his colleagues assembled to watch his performance. Unfortunately, at the critical moment at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the screwdriver slipped and the two pieces of radioactive material made contact. The official report into the incident reported, “The blue flash was clearly visible in the room although it (the room) was well illuminated from the windows and possibly the overhead lights. . . . The total duration of the flash could not have been more than a few tenths of a second.”  Showing a remarkable presence of mind, Slotin pushed the top hemisphere of plutonium off with his bare hands, thus ending the reaction.

It was calculated that Slotin’s screwdriver slip had set off about three quadrillion fission reactions – it sounds a lot but the bang, in fact, it was about a million times smaller than the first atomic bombs. The blue flash was caused by the high-energy photons emitted when the electrons in the air settled down after their agitation. But the damage was done. Slotin complained of a burning sensation in his left hand and a sour taste in his mouth. He was rushed into a car and taken to hospital, but during the journey started to vomit, a symptom of severe radiation poisoning. Slotin said to his colleagues, “You’ll be OK, but I think I’m done for.”

He was not wrong, dying nine days later of radiation exposure. He was commended for his actions in a citation read to him before meeting his maker; “Dr Slotin’s quick reaction at the immediate risk of his own life prevented a more serious development of the experiment which would certainly have resulted in the death of the seven men working with him, as well as serious injury to others in the vicinity.” It was a rather optimistic assessment; within two years of the incident, two of his colleagues had died of radiation sickness.

Clearly, Slotin’s approach to the experiment had been cavalier.  After all, there had been an incident a few months earlier when Harry Daghlian dropped a brick of tungsten carbide onto a plutonium mass, bathing him in radiation. He died a month later from radiation sickness.

For conducting an experiment that caused your demise, Louis Slotin, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

A Measure Of Things – Part Eleven

Having explored the unnecessary complications of the British Imperial paper size system, let’s get up to date. Paper, at least in Europe and the UK – we will deal with the pesky Americans later – comes in what is known as the A-series of sizes. Office workers will be most familiar with the A3, the A4 and the A5 sizes, although the starting point is the A0. The A0 paper size is exactly I square metre in area, although its dimensions are 841 millimetres by 1,189 or, if you prefer, 33.1 inches by 46.8.

What underpins the A-series of paper sizes is that the height to width ratio of all the sizes is the square root of 2 or 1.4142 to 1, if you prefer. It was a German scientist and philosopher, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who first noticed in 1798 how useful exploiting a standard height to width ratio would be in dealing with paper. If you cut a piece of paper parallel to its shorter side to make two equal pieces, each of the resulting pieces would have the same height/width ratio of the square root of 2.

So the A1 size is half that of the A0 and is derived by halving the larger piece across its larger side. A2 is half the size of the A1 and so it continues – the A3 being half the A2, the A4 half of the A3 and the A5 half of the A4. You get the drift now with each size retaining that all important common height to width ratio. Clever, really. It was not until the 20th century that Lichtenberg’s observations were put into practical use, Dr Walter Portsmann creating a defined system of paper sizes, which were adopted in Germany in 1922 as the DIN standard.

The overpowering logic and convenience of the system meant that it was rapidly adopted elsewhere – even by the Brits in 1959 – and it became the internationally recognised standard by 1975. But what about B-series paper and C-series envelopes, I hear you cry. Well, not all of the many paper formats conform to the A-series and so the B deals with them but they are linked to the A-series. The B1 size is the geometric mean between the A0 and the A1 and so on and, of course, retaining the all-important height to width ratio of the square root of two. The C-series relates to envelopes and it is based on the geometric mean between the A and B-series of the same number. So that is why if you get a C4 envelope an unfolded A4 piece of paper fits in it like a glove.

Adopting a more metric-based system of paper sizing encouraged the Brits to change the quantities in a quire and ream to 25 and 500 respectively which is why you now buy your computer paper in bundles of 500.

In the USA, Canada, Mexico and a few other countries, the ISO 216 standard has not been adopted and they use letter paper which at 8.5 inches by 11 is slightly wider and shorter than A4, legal which is 8.5 inches by 14 and Ledger or Tabloid which is 11 inches by 17. The letter size only became a recognised standard in the States in 1921, although, somewhat bizarrely, the US government didn’t adopt it until the early 1980s, adopting a size of 8 inches by 10.5 in the interim. Presumably, the increasing sharing of digital documents forced their hand. The major problem with the American system, aside from the inconvenience of sharing and printing documents between countries adopting the different standards, is that it does not have the standard height/width ratio and so switching from one size of paper to another can cause no end of formatting problems.

It will only be a question of time before they adopt the A-series, methinks.