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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.

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.


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.

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.

This is easily the only most interesting science article I’ve read today, from the Frontal Cortex blog. I’ve pasted the opening paragraph below. Can you guess what the ‘activity’ might be…?

I’d like to tell you a story about a routine of modern life that is really bad for your brain. Everybody performs this activity – sometimes multiple times a day! – and yet we rarely realize the consequences. In 2008, scientists at the University of Michigan did a very clever study illuminating how this activity led to dramatic decreases in working memory, self-control, visual attention and positive affect. Other studies have demonstrated that people who are less exposed to this activity show enhanced brain function. They are better able to focus and even recover more quickly in hospitals.

Read the answer (and the rest of the article, if you can concentrate long enough) here.

As promised, I’m following up with a post looking at the science in one of the sub-plots in Iron Man 2.  Mostly because it gives me the chance to write about some interesting real world science.

** Warning Spoilers Ahead** Read the rest of this entry »


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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