Last week I was discussing the Test Achats ruling from the European Court of Justice with a couple of colleagues.  (For those interested it means that insurers won’t be able to set premiums based on a person’s gender from December 2012.)

Eventually this discussion rambled off topic and led to a surprising question from one of them: is a female defined as the sex in a species that gives birth?

As i explained, the answer is actually that the female is the sex with the larger gametes,  ie the sex that produces eggs rather than sperm.  However, there are some species which reproduce sexually but have sexes with equal sized gametes; they are isogamous.  These species have two or more sexes none of which is labelled “male” or “female”.

How does that work?  Well if you think of a species with three sexes (A, B and C) then each sex can reproduce with either one of the other two sexes.  This actually leads to evolutionary pressure to produce an ever greater number of sexes.  An organism of sex C can reproduce with 2/3rds of the other organisms.  It won’t be able to reproduce with sex C organisms as a wway to prevent self-fertilisation.  If, following a mutation, an organism arises that is a new sex (sex D) it will be able to reproduce with any other organism in its species as it will be the only sex D organism around.  Eventually, due to this advantage, the number of sex D organisms will rise until there is an equal proportion of each sex and there will be evolutionary pressure for a fifth sex to arise.  There are some species out there with hundreds of sexes with the number growing all the time presumably.

Thinking about this, what surprised me was that this isn’t a topic that was covered in my GCSE biology.  I’d read about it much later.  Yet I think it’s highly interesting, not too complex to understand and illustrates evolution in action.  All of which make me think that it’s something that should be taught.


Last week, the Media Standards Trust launched a fun little tool for detecting how UK newspapers regurgitate press releases – often with little further original reporting – a practice known as ‘churnalism‘.

Unsurprisingly, some old media types voiced their scepticism of the tool, saying all it did was highlight commonly used phrases such as ‘a spokesman for the company said’ and other unavoidable terms. No doubt this is true of the majority of, say, ‘important’ news items like political coverage. It’s the filler items (and unfortunately, science articles are sometimes regarded as such by certain press institutions) which are more likely to be churn.

And lo and behold! The first article I pasted into the tool was replicated by two other newspapers. An article on human papilloma virus (HPV) appeared in almost exactly the same format in the Daily Mail, the Express and the Mirror. No additional analysis or quotes were obtained by any of the papers.

In all fairness after some lunchbreak copying and pasting, I didn’t find many more articles which had been regurgitated quite so blatantly, suggesting the practice isn’t as rife in the nationals as people might think. Having said that, there were still many instances of newspapers churning out substantial quotes or phrases used in press releases – see this instance where the Times clearly couldn’t be bothered to source its own quotes.

I have often witnessed science journalists (and indeed other journalists) attributing this regurgitation to the increasing demands of the newsroom – namely that there’s no time to spend on the phone with contacts. There is a simple retort to editors – cover less, and cover better.

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day so it seems like a good moment to remember an extraordinary scientific study carried out by a group of doomed men and women in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Following the conquest of their allocated share (under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) of Poland the Germans annexed the prime agricultural areas with the remainder of conquered Poland forming the General Government.  This rump did not produce nearly enough food to feed the inhabitants and the Nazis were not particularly interested in doing much to alleviate this situation for their perceived racial inferiors.

As a result, by 1941 General Government was an area of hunger.  The Jews who were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto were the worst off, with daily food intakes well below starvation levels.  It was in these circumstances in late 1941 a group of doctors decided to study the effect of starvation on the people of the ghetto.

The study was the idea of Israel Milejkowski, the head of the Judenrat Health Department and carried out by a group of 28 Jewish doctors at hospitals within the ghetto.  Work was halted in July 1942 as the Nazis started deporting the residents of the ghetto en masse and further study became impossible.  During a temporary lull in the deportations, what data had already been gathered was collated and written up.

This information was then smuggled out to Professor Orlovski, chairman of the department of medicine at a university hospital outside the ghetto in Warsaw.   Orlovski was given instructions to have it published after the war if none of the researchers retrieved it.

One of the researchers, Dr Apfelbaum escaped the Ghetto in 1943, survived the war and after retrieving the manuscripts passed them on to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  He died shortly afterwards in 1946.  The majority of the other researchers did not live to see the end of the war.  The project’s instigator Israel Milejkowski was sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka.

Nevertheless they left behind a set of highly valuable and meticulously recorded scientific data.  Extraordinarily, the studies carried out by this small group of doctors were incredibly detailed and of very high quality despite the extraordinary conditions under which they worked.  Their studies were of a type that cannot normally be ethically carried out and as a result are still enormously valuable.  One of their findings was that the best way to treat starvation is to refeed people slowly.  Had this been known by the Allies, it could have saved the lives of many of those subsequently liberated from concentration camps.  These survivors were often given large amounts of food quickly, which proved fatal.

More information on the extraordinary people involved in this chapter of medical history can be found in “The uses of adversity: Studies of starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto” by Dr Leonard Tushnet.  Those of the records that survived have been published as a book under the heading “Hunger Disease: Studies by the Jewish Physicians in the Warsaw Ghetto”.

As a follow up from my previous post, I’ll link to this story on Engadget that was forwarded by a friend.  Broadly a bunch of audiophiles couldn’t tell the difference between a cable made from coathangers and a ludicrously expensive premium speaker cable.

Some google-fu also threw up this story, in which a review website carried out a blind test on power cables.  Result: they couldn’t tell the difference between generic power cables and premium power cables.

I have to respect this set of reviewers who carried out the blind test in response to some of their readers who didn’t believe an article extolling the virtues of a  power cable they had reviewed.  The reviewers went away and tested their beliefs and then reported back on their failure to hear any difference when using the expensive cables.


If all goes well, I will be the owner of a flat by the end of the month.  Fortunately it isn’t the flat purchase that is making me worry about wasted money (yet).  Instead, it is the relatively paltry £4.50 I spent on What Hi Fi magazine.

As I’ll be needing a TV for the flat, I was reading their feature covering the top TVs for 2011.  However my confidence in their advice was somewhat diminished when I came across a section reviewing different figure of eight cables.

Just to be clear these are power cables you might use to plug your Sky box into the mains.  In fact this is how they tested the cables, using each cable in turn to plug their Sky box into the mains and commenting on the perceived difference in audio/visual quality.  Of the six cables reviewed, prices ranged from £3.50  to £150 (the Furutech G-320Ag in case you were wondering).

I’m pretty sceptical that changing the cable will make any difference to your viewing – even if the cable is silver plated like the Furutech one.  For starters it isnt clear why a silver plated cable will work better than a plain copper cable – they’re both decent enough electrical conductors. Nor is it clear what a cable can be doing to the power supply to make the picture quality better (other than doing the very basics of making sure the electricity does indeed get to your TV).   Also, I doubt the power lines to your house and the wires running about inside your appliances are silver plated either so a measly couple of meters of silver plated cable in between is unlikely to make a difference.

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.  Perhaps if the reviewers at What Hi Fi can reliably show they can tell the difference between the cheapest cable and the most expensive one  just from the quality of the picture on their TVs, but without knowing which one is plugged in. Otherwise I’m going on the hypothesis that the differences in quality they wrote about were merely a form of placebo effect (one cable got rated 2/5 and another 5/5, with the cheapest cable getting the worst score and the most expensive the best).

All this rather makes me question whether their reviewers just imagine the differences between TVs and doesn’t really help me make my TV buying decision.

Google has launched Ngram viewer, a tool which lets you compare phrases appearing across the entire corpus of Google books.

We compared “science” against “religion” in books written between 1800 and 2008. The results are interesting – see how science begins to overtake religion during WWII.

One of the big science stories recently was about US doctors and scientists infecting Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis to carry out research.  This made me realise that scientific and medical ethics is something that I’ve neglected to really comment on.  I’ll be trying to rectify that and this post is part of that effort (although it doesn’t deal with anything as unethical as the Guatemalan experiments).

I’m currently reading “Phantoms in the brain” (by VS Ramachandran and Sara Blakeslee) and the description of the treatment received by one of Ramachandran’s patients had me pondering some questions about medical ethics.

The case involves a patient who Ramachandran diagnoses with Capgras syndrome.  This is a disorder in which a person believes that a close friend or relative has been replaced by an identical-looking imposter.  The patient in the book believes this of his parents following a head injury.

Having made his diagnosis, Ramachandran does not tell the patient “because I wasn’t sure how he’d react”.  However just a few pages later we read the following poignant passage:

“Arthur’s most serious problem, however, was his inability to make emotional contact with people who matter to him most – his parents – and this caused him great anguish.  I can imagine a voice inside his head saying, ‘The reason I don’t experience warmth must be because I’m not the real Arthur.’  One day Arthur turned to his mother and said ‘Mom, if the real Arthur ever returns, do you promise that you will still treat me as a friend and love me?'”

Given Arthur’s distress is it really ethical for his doctor not to reveal his diagnosis?  The news that there are others who share this problem with him could help ease that distress.

As we are not his doctor and don’t have access to the full facts of the case there is no way for us to know.  Nevertheless it would have been good if the book had answered this question for us rather than leaving us speculating.

The ‘big story’

The Royal Society book prize was awarded to Nick Lane for his ‘explanation of life as we know it’, Life Ascending. One of our favourite bloggers Pharyngula reviewed the book on its publication last year:

…what enlivens the book is the biochemist’s perspective: Lane isn’t so much interested in the superficial matters of morphology, but in the emergence of new properties in the molecular machinery of the cell, and how it affects the world around us.

Judge and former Tomorrow’s World presenter Maggie Philbin explains the choice on Guardian’s science podcast this week. To the outrage of science journalists, this Royal Society book prize will be the last due to a lack of funds.

The misreporting

Sexologist Dr. Petra Boynton frequently flags up misreporting in the media around that most British of embarrassing issues – sex and sexual dysfunction. This week, she picked up on a science story (reported by many health and science journalists across the national press) which reported that women with lower sex drives have ‘different brains’.

This is a screen capture of Dr. Petra pointing out some of the flaws in these reports (read from the bottom up):

It might seem the good doctor exaggerates the harmful effects headlines like these can have. But given the commonness of sexual dysfunction (in men and women alike) vs. the lack of genuinely informative articles in the media, one sometimes questions how much the press is really out to inform.

Comment piece

A late entry from Alice Bell’s ‘Who’s the geek?’ piece for the Guardian science blog. While Bell is generally an excellent blogger, this is essentially a piece of Thursday afternoon fluff. However, this is one of the few CiF pieces which is worth reading for the comments alone. Bell’s closing question – what’s the geekiest thing you’ve ever done? My favourite:

I once cycled around all the London Monopoly board locations IN THE CORRECT ORDER. Took three and a half hours and involved more trips along oxford street than any cyclist should have to endure in a week, let alone a day.

If you’re ever tempted to try it be aware that the house-hotel properties are mainly in the West End but the stations are in the City. The low point was having to go from Bond Street to Park Lane… via Liverpool Street station.


Slightly quirky/interesting article

A slightly meta reference this week – an interesting thought in New Scientist with one of those pieces-of-research-wot-everyone-knew-already-but-hadn’t-proved: should students be typecast into science? Students who choose science subjects tend to be introverted/shyer, more conscientious and emotionally stable. A great quote from one of the researchers:

“There’s a feeling that science students have nerdy characteristics,” she says, “but we were surprised to see it in our results, and to see it as early as age 15.”

I was noodling around what little of the Times was available online the other day. Plenty to keep the average science geek happy, as it transpires. Look at this gem from 1919:

For the first review of Darwin’s the Origin of Species, a collaboration with Gugliemo Marconi and other such historical awesomeness, see this list from the Times Archive.

…and that’s all he would say on the subject of God during last night’s lecture at the Royal Albert Hall (chaired by the dreadful Jim Al-Khalili). @ianvisits has already described the actual experience of listening to Hawking speak.

Talking about his latest book, The Grand Design, and his early life, Hawking was a surprisingly engaging, charming and humorous speaker. I would recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in science to see him lecture. There has been media controversy since The Grand Design‘s publicatication, principally around Hawking’s claims that God did not create the universe. From the BBC’s coverage:

Citing the 1992 discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun, he said: “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

He adds: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Disappointingly for us mere mortals, Hawking chose not to expand this statement beyond clarifying that he was not making a ‘God is dead’-style claim; more indicating that God was simply a name for existing laws and phenomena. [I think…].

Not being a cosmologist, I was rather lost when Hawking went through the finer points of black holes, singularities and space-time. Fascinating for scientists and non-scientists alike however was hearing how his interests and mind developed. Born in Oxford to intellectual parents, he was unable to read until the age of 8, though he loved building systems with his trainsets and was later given the nickname ‘Einstein’ at school. He moved to and remained in North London (Highgate, Hendon and St. Albans) through his childhood and adolescence, losing the battle with his father to specialise in mathematics at the age of 17. This was the last formal tuition in maths he would receive. He would go on to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Hawking told the audience that during his undergrad days at Oxford, his lax habits resulted in a borderline degree classification between a 2,1 and a first. Up in front of the board, he told examiners that he would remain in Oxford if he got a 2,1, and go to Cambridge if he got a first. “They gave me a first,” he said.

Citing the field as ‘ripe for development’, Hawking focused his efforts on gravitational physics while at Cambridge. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease soon after – and credits the illness with giving him the drive needed to make his work exceptional: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.” (There was a long hush at this point).

In The Grand Design, Hawking claims to have found the unifying theory which Einstein and all subsequent physicists have been seeking. This should have been the most riveting part of the lecture, yet I found it the least convincing. Perhaps that’s why Hawking chose to distribute the book at the end of his lecture, rather than explain it to a lay audience in ten minutes. If true, however, the discovery of M Theory will end a search which has been going on for 2,000 years.

Asked whether he foresaw a time when man would know everything there is to know about the physical universe, Hawking simply replied, ‘I hope not’.

Before going to the Hawking lecture, I saw this from XKCD. Though amusing, I think the point it makes is a good one – it’s good to encourage intelligence, dangerous to revere it.


Amit Ghosh does mathsy things for an actuarial firm. He read Physics at university, and they even let him loose in the Cavendish laboratory one summer on a research project. He is @bexleylister on Twitter.

Shona Ghosh read English, then did an MA in Journalism. She knows nothing about science. She wishes she did though, so she sometimes reads New Scientist and tries to make Amit explain quantum physics to her, preferably through the medium of pictionary. She is @shonaghosh on Twitter.

They combine their thoughts on this blog.

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