As usual our monthly list of links to interesting items you may have missed the first time around. There’s a lot in this month’s edition, so let’s get going …
Science & Medicine
Here are 101 ridiculous science “facts” which are mostly myth and need to die.
Researchers have worked out the genealogy of our dog breeds, and it isn’t as simple as you might think.
Meanwhile scientists have discovered the world’s largest canary on an isolated island of giants and dwarfs off west Africa.
Changing tack, it turns out the new £5 note isn’t so indestructible – if you’re a determined enough mad scientist.
Wow! A photographer has used black light (ie. UV) to photograph the luminescence emitted by plants. And it is amazing!
Another sort of discovery has led to the finding of lost research notes which undermine dietary advice we’ve been given for the last several decades.
Looking at even older “research” it seems that some of the medical recipes in medieval books may actually work and point the way to new antibiotics.
I wasn’t sure whether to put this here or under “science” but it turns out that unprotected sex may disrupt the microbiome of the vagina. Now there’s a surprise!
A Victorian ivory dildo, with an interesting story, has generated a lot of excitement at an auction in Ireland.
Max Hooper, the man who worked out how to date old hedgerows, has died at the age of 82.
Here’s another which could easily have gone in the science section … Scientists have now worked out how to extract the DNA of ancient hominids from the surrounding dirt.
Turns out we aren’t the first people to be scared of zombies; it seems the mediaevals were too and they did some barbaric things as a result.
It’s well known that the Tudors bathed only about once a year and were very smelly the rest of the time. Turns out that may be another myth as it is possible to go months without bathing and not be smelly. Yes, an intrepid researcher has tried it!
They’ve found, quite by chance, the remains of five lost Archbishops of Canterbury in a small London church. Harry Mount, new editor of The Oldie, was first on the scene.
Are you a devotee of nail polish? If so here’s a piece on some of the chemistry which makes them work.
Food & Drink
Cheese. That microbial concoction of from milk. Well here’s a guide to the natural microbiology of cheese rind.
Why is ultra-heat-treated (UHT) milk so stable that it is a shelf staple, especially in tropical climes where milk easily spoils?
[Incidentally, UHT milk is always known in our house as “UFO milk” but I have no idea how you might milk a UFO!]
So what really does give beer its bitterness and flavour? While some of it is down to the malt, most seems to originate with the hops.
Why are we masochists? Why is it we love chilli so much when it burns like it does? And how does the burn work?
Shock, Horror, Humour
OK, so here goes with this month’s selection of links to interesting items you might have missed the first time around …
Science & Medicine
Those of you with youngish children … they might like the science magazine Whizz Pop Bang. I wish there had been such a thing when I was young.
Since the 1950s we’ve had the nuclear technology to provide power for perhaps millions of years, without creating humongous, and ever increasing, quantities of radioactive waste. So why aren’t we using it? [VERY LONG READ]
Most of us hate ironing clothes, but you’ll be glad to know that there’s some science which does make it a bit easier.
Changing tack … What is the world’s top predator? Well apart from humans it seems the answer is spiders!
New research suggests that fish evolved in a surprising way before they invaded the land – and it all started with their eyes.
The Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, has been extinct for almost 100 years – or so we think. But there are some new, and credible sounding, sightings in northern Australia (not Tasmania as one would expect). They are sufficiently credible that researchers are following up on them with camera traps. Watch his space; we might get some exciting news.
Those of us who have close relationships with cats know they have wonderful rasp-like tongues. And it turns out those tongues are indeed rather special. [VIDEO]
In a different study researchers are suggesting that cats sailed with the Vikings to conquer the world. As someone commented, I didn’t even know the Vikings had cats!
Still with cats, scientists are doing DNA sequencing on their faecal output to try to understand their gut microbiome. It turns out it is just as variable as the human microbiome.
It’s very unlikely the Neanderthals had domestic cats, but they did share one thing in common with us: dental plaque. By looking at their dental plaque researchers are working out the Neanderthal diet – and again it is highly variable.
While we’re on diet, it’s well known that eating asparagus makes your pee smelly. But not all of us can smell it, because genetics.
Now here’s another real oddball … it seems there is a connection between synesthesia and having absolute musical pitch.
And finally in this section, two posts about things feminine. Firstly Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel talk about their experiences of going through the menopause.
Secondly, news that scientists have created a “lab on a chip” device which mimics the female menstrual cycle, something which could help enormously with research.
Here’s a look at the environmental impact of pet food manufacture.
I love it when new work changes our assumptions about what we know. Here’s news of the archaeological discovery of a Greek tomb which did just that. [LONG READ]
An academic is suggesting that the writings of mediaeval mystic Margery Kempe contain an early recipe for medicinal sweets to cure her religious mania.
In another case of turning what we think we know upside down it looks likely that late medieval (ie. post Black Death) peasant houses survive much more often than we thought, at least in the English Midlands.
While on housing, here’s a potted history of the British bathroom.
Harry Mount, the newly appointed Editor of The Oldie magazine, writes indignantly in the Spectator about how he sees the National Trust dumbing down and spoiling its treasures.
Meanwhile a Dutch researcher has discovered a wonderful collection of 16th-century drawings and watercolours of animals hidden away in the library of the University of Amsterdam.
The Londonist takes a look back at photographs of London in 1907.
400 years ago this month Pocahontas died in Gravesend. Our favourite London cabbie, Robert Lordan, looks at six places in the capital which are associated with her.
It has long been known that London cabbies have an expanded area of brain associated with mapping, but now it’s been shown that using a satnav switches off the brain’s mapping ability leaving users unable to navigate without their device.
OK, so it is American, but here are eleven everyday objects with unsuspected uses.
On the importance of public loos, and knowing where they are.
London Bridge is falling down. What happens when the Queen dies.
Shock, Horror, Humour
And finally, from the School of Shock Horror … enormous insects and where to
find avoid them.
Phew, that was a bit of a marathon! More next month.
Yesterday, New Scientist posted an interesting news item on the Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan in the 1950s.
The tests were known about, but what’s new is that New Scientist have seen a hitherto unknown secret Soviet document containing scientific evidence of the effects of the tests; something which was hushed up at the time.
Needless to say the tests were conducted with total disregard to the local population. The Soviets knew this – even setting up a (disguised) research institute to monitor the medical effects – but carried on regardless. As a result it seems the effects produced a worse human “disaster” than Chernobyl.
Read the full news item at New Scientist.
Thursday’s Guardian ran another article on the clean-up of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear site following the tsunami six years ago today. They point out, quite correctly, that two robots have now failed in trying to investigate the inside of the Reactor 2 containment vessel. I don’t see why this is such a surprise to everyone, or why quite so much recrimination continues.
Let’s be clear, again, once and for all. The containment at Fukushima did its job. It contained the reactor cores (admittedly only just) under stresses (earthquake and tsunami) way beyond its design specification.
What failed were the cooling systems. And they failed because of major shortcomings in the risk analysis, and therefore the placement and design, of the plant.
Yes, there was a radiation leak – small in comparison to Chernobyl – as a result of fractures in the buildings surrounding the containment vessels. And yes, this is a disaster for the 160,000 people who were evacuated – the disaster is their displacement and, medically, the psychological effects, rather than the risks due to the actual radiation encountered in the time between the leaks and their evacuation.
The tsunami killed around 19,000 people. The radiation, as far as I am aware, has caused zero direct deaths (although a handful have died in accidents during the clean-up operation).
Of course the clean-up is going to take a very long time and be hugely expensive. The radiation level inside the containment vessels is going to be incredibly high – high enough to kill a human within minutes. So without robots there is no way to find out what actually is happening inside; and they will succumb to high radiation levels and blocks in their access routes. And yes there is a huge quantity of contaminated groundwater to contend with. Why would we expect otherwise?
The current estimate is that the clean-up will take 30-40 years and cost $189bn, although many believe this a significant underestimate in both time and money. On that basis one has to ask whether the clean-up should continue, or whether the whole plant should be permanently encased as has been done recently at Chernobyl – but I’ve seen no-one even mentioning this as a possibility. I’d be interested to see some analysis of the possibilities.
A week ago IFLScience published a very long, and fully referenced, article on a forgotten nuclear power technology which is much more efficient and robust than the current Light Water Reactors (LWR). It is actually a breeder reactor (but one which doesn’t produce weaponable products) called a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR).
As usual what follows is a few extracts by way of the TL;DR summary.
According to the article MSR are not just a better nuclear technology but also beat most other power sources (including most renewables) into a cocked hat.
Today’s cheap, bountiful supplies make it hard to see humanity’s looming energy crisis … Fossil fuels could quench the planet’s deep thirst for energy, but they’d be a temporary fix at best … renewable energy sources like wind and solar, though key parts of a solution, are not silver bullets … Nuclear reactors, on the other hand, fit the bill: They’re dense, reliable, emit no carbon, and – contrary to bitter popular sentiment – are among the safest energy sources on earth. Today, they supply about 20% of America’s energy.
The good news is that a proven solution is at hand – if we want it badly enough.
Called a molten-salt reactor [it] forgoes solid nuclear fuel for a liquid one … in theory, molten-salt reactors can never melt down … It’s reliable, it’s clean, it basically does everything fossil fuel does today … [and produces] energy without emitting carbon … What’s more, feeding a molten-salt reactor a radioactive waste from mining, called thorium (which is three to four times more abundant than uranium), can “breed” as much nuclear fuel as it burns up.
MSR were developed in the early days of the Cold War and the technology was proven in pilot production. However they were never pursued because (a) they didn’t produce weapons grade materials and (b) “not invented here”.
The article follows with a brief analysis of the safety of nuclear energy compared with traditional power generation, and a very brief summary of how nuclear physics works. Followed by an explanation of how MSRs using thorium can “breed” and then use uranium 233 but not weaponable plutonium.
The concept of the breeder reactor was fairly straightforward. It would dramatically increase the chances for fission, boost the flow of neutrons, and breed more fissile fuel from a “fertile” material than the reactor burned up. Breeding U-238 into Pu-239 created an excess of plutonium. Meanwhile, breeding thorium into U-233 broke even, burning up just as much fuel as it made. The choice of fuel makes all the difference. The plutonium fuel cycle is a great way to make weapons. Meanwhile, the thorium fuel cycle can produce almost limitless energy. A fluid-fuelled design [would] eliminate the considerable difficulty of fabricating solid fuelled elements … Liquid fuel also made it easy to remove both useful fission products – for example, for medical procedures, and those that poison nuclear chain reactions.
OK, so what’s the downside? Basically, apart from the proof-of-concept pilot, the technology hasn’t been developed fully. But it could be developed, and probably relatively easily, probably as the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). And the article lists (some of) the advantages of LFTR:
- Fuel burn-up is extraordinarily high. LFTRs could fission about 99% of their U-233 liquid fuel, compared to a few percent for solid fuel.
- It’s easy to clean up. Solid fuels build up fission products, or new elements generated by the splitting of atoms, which poison fission reactions and often end up being treated as waste. Liquid fuels, meanwhile, can be processed “online” – and the fission products continuously removed, refined, and sold.
- There’s less waste and it’s shorter-lived. For the above reasons, hundreds of times less radioactive waste is left over from LFTR operation compared to LWRs. And what remains requires burial for about 300 years, as opposed to 10,000 years.
- LFTRs operate under safe, normal pressure. All commercial reactors compress water coolant to extreme pressures – upwards of 150 times that found at Earth’s surface. One small breach can lead to a catastrophic explosion. If a LFTR pipe breaks, however, molten salt will only spill on the ground and freeze.
- Environmental contamination is far less likely. LWRs can release gases, fuel, and fission products into the air and water. Molten salt freezes and traps most contaminants.
- LFTRs can be made small and modular. LWRs require giant, reinforced-concrete containment vessels that scale with their operating pressure. LFTRs require small containment structures, so they could be made small – possibly to a size that’d fit [on a truck].
- They should be much cheaper and faster to build. LFTRs don’t require many of the expensive safeguards that LWRs do. Their potential to be modular could also lead to mass manufacture of parts and reduced cost.
- LFTR is immune to meltdowns. Molten salt that overheats will expand, slowing down fission.
- The design is “walk-away safe.” No nuclear power plant today can claim this. LWRs require backup power systems to cool solid fuel at all times. If power is knocked out to a LFTR, a freeze plug melts and lets the molten salt fall into underground containment units, where it freezes and stops fission.
- Electricity output is better. LFTRs are so hot, operating at roughly [1000°C] they can use more advanced heat-to-electricity conversion technologies.
- The excess heat is very useful. It could boil and desalinate ocean water into drinking water, help generate hydrogen for fuel cells, break down organic waste into biofuels, and power industrial processes.
- The “kindling” to start a LFTR is flexible. Burning up old nuclear weapons material is possible, since fissile U-233, U-235, or Pu-239 can be used to start the reactor.
So if thorium reactors are so great, what’s the holdup?
It basically boils down to … The science is easy. The engineering is hard … [which] is true in many, many advanced systems, nuclear and nonnuclear for that matter, where the scientists’ proof of concept is everything to them … To the engineer, getting it to the commercial-viability stage is their goal. And those are two very different hills to climb.
So there is still a long road ahead, but given the apparent advantages isn’t this a technology we should be pursuing? Yes, India and China are already doing so.
They’re off! … On the quest for this month’s links to items you really didn’t want to miss the first time.
Science & Medicine
Many statistics are lies compounded by misleading graphics. Here’s a quick guide to spotting lies in visuals.
Queueing is quite complex, both psychologically and mathematically, so no wonder there are old wives tales about how to queue. But many are wrong, and the right answers are non-intuitive. The Guardian gives us some clues.
We don’t normally think of Winston Churchill as a scientist, but he certainly had a passionate interest in, and knowledge of, the science of his day, even down to writing with great foresight about astrobiology and extra-terrestrial life.
Black chickens. Not just black feathers, but black all the way through: meat, bones and organs. No wonder they’re a special, and expensive, breed. It just seems wrong that so many are bred purely for divination.
Social Sciences & Business
In 1944 the CIA wrote a manual on how dissidents can surreptitiously sabotage an organisation’s productivity and gradually undermine it. Now it has been declassified and released.
So who was Gordon Bennett? The BBC looks at a few of the people behind famous phrases.
Writers, improve your text. Here are a number of filler words and phrases which are superfluous and serve only to bulk out your word count.
Polari is a British slang dating back to at least the 19th century. Used by a number of tightly knit cultures it is perhaps best known for its use by sex workers and the gay subculture. As you might guess the Bible in Polari is quite a hoot; here’s my blog post about it.
Art & Literature
Book blogger Karen Langley has rediscovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Here’s her blog post about it.
Construction of London’s Crossrail has unearthed a vast amount of archaeology. Here are two very different reports on the same Clerkenwell site which includes a completely lost river and a curious pair of plague victims: the first report is from IanVisits and the second from the Guardian.
Apart from the above item on Crossrail archaeology there is only one snippet on London this month …
Canals are well known for carrying water not electricity, but IanVisits, again, brings the story of how the Regent’s Canal ended up safely carrying both.
Life is stressful. Things are continually conspiring against us. We all know that if we get too stressed we get sick. So it’s useful to have a list of major life stressors, with their relative values, so you can work out your likelihood of a stress-related illness.
Unsurprisingly the second most highly-rated stress is divorce. Here are four behaviours which appear to be the most reliable predictors of divorce.
Finally in this section is our favourite zen master talking about immigration and tribalism. It’s a perspective worth reading.
Food & Drink
And finally, finally … Garlic. Whether you love it or hate it trying to supress the resulting odour is far from obvious.
Be good until next month!
Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything
(Black Dog & Leventhal; 2014)
This is another of my Christmas acquisitions. It is a large coffee table book of almost 250 pages containing (mostly) photographs and diagrams on a black background with relatively little, but simple, textual explanation. It is a science book for the non- or only-just-scientist in which Gray sets out to show us how everything around us is built.
Gray shows how the elements of the periodic table combine to form the molecules that make up our world. Everything is made up of molecules, formed in an infinite variety of ways from the elements. This book explores the most interesting, essential, useful and beautiful of the millions of chemical structures that make up every material in the world. Gray begins with an explanation of how atoms bond to form molecules and compounds, as well as the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry. He then explores the vast array of materials, all built of molecules: soaps and solvents; alcohol and oil; rocks, ropes and fibres; painkillers, sweeteners, perfumes and poisons. All are stunningly photographed and accompanied by chemical diagrams and potted explanations.
This double page spread with a potted introduction to each chapter shows why this book is so brilliant
You’ll want to click the image to get a larger view and appreciate the image fully
I’m originally a chemist, but over 40+ years have forgotten much of what I once knew – and in fact much of what is here I never did know as it is materials science beyond the scope or time of a 1960s/70s chemistry degree (although I had the grounding to work it out). But do not be put off … even if you have no science background at all, you should get a huge amount from this book as it starts with some basic steps, and is all written in very non-scientific language. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the detail of the molecular structures shown; you don’t need to as the explanations allow anyone to follow along. There is no hard science here such that you are lost if you don’t understand it. And there are no details of how the compounds discussed are synthesised (if such is even possible in the lab.) – so there’s no need to be scared.
What is here are simple explanations of why many things are the way they are. Why, for instance, tetraethyl lead was added to petrol, how it’s toxic effects were known but ignored and thus why it was eventually banned. Why asbestos is so dangerous. Why plastics work. And even why coins smell. The book ends with a very simple explanation of how the proteins that make up the living world are built – which just reinforces the wonder of life itself.
I found this a fascinating book, which made me realise how much I had missed (or forgotten) of my chemistry degree. I found the chapter on sugars and the one on painkillers especially interesting. Yes, I could have taken more detail, but in fact the balance is right for the interested layman rather than the superannuated chemist.
So yes, I’d recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in how the world around is built and why it works in some of the ways it does. Although if you have a science background you will get more from this book, you don’t need it to appreciate the fascinating nature of “stuff”.
Overall Rating: ★★★★★
Yet again this week there has been another round of scare stories about what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant which was so catastrophically crippled by the tsunami following the 11 March 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake.
We had headlines and comments like:
Radiation In Fukushima Is Now At ‘Unimaginable’ Levels [Huffington Post]
The situation has suddenly taken a drastic turn for the worst [EcoWatch]
Fukushima nuclear reactor radiation at highest level since 2011 meltdown [Guardian]
Blazing radiation reading [Japan Times]
Radiation Levels Are Soaring Inside the Damaged Fukushima Nuclear Plant [Gizmodo]
As I suspected when I first saw the stories, and has been confirmed by Jonathan O’Callaghan at IFLScience and Azby Brown at Safecast, this is the usual sloppy, not to say totally misleading, reporting. (Both these reports are worth reading; neither is especially long or difficult.)
Yes, TEPCO (who are responsible for the plant) have measured incredibly high radiation readings (530 Sieverts an hour — with an error of +/- 30% — that’s enough to kill a human in seconds) inside Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2. To do this they have used a 10.5 metre robotic arm to image further inside the Unit 2 containment vessel that they ever have before. The images appear to show a 1 meter square grating melted by exposed fuel rods. From the data obtained TEPCO have estimated the radiation level. But this does NOT mean radiation levels there are rising. That is not what the data are indicating — they can’t say that as this area has not been measured before, so there is only this one reading.
As IFLScience reported:
Measurements in new locations … pin-point hot-spots and understand the nature of the radioactive materials within the reactor complex and to better inform us on suitable strategies for long-term decommissioning and clean-up … The purpose of this was to plot out a route for a robot [TEPCO] is planning to send into the reactor … But the robot is only able to survive an exposure of up to 1,000 Sieverts. At 530 Sieverts per hour, it would be destroyed in just two hours. Thus, this latest finding is likely to complicate [the decommissioning] even further.
They also point out:
While a higher level of radiation has been found inside the plant, levels around it are continuing to fall. This suggests no radiation is escaping from Fukushima into the surrounding environment … There are many people wandering around in Japan with radiation monitors and it would be very easy to see if there was an increase in radiation coming from the plant.
So note carefully: that despite all the problems and the environmental contamination, the various levels of containment vessels in the reactors essentially did their job. They have contained the vast, vast majority of the radioactive material under conditions which were way beyond their design.
That doesn’t take away from the human disasters nor from the unimaginable work which will have to be done over the next, probably, 50 years to decommission the site. But it does show that this was not the immense catastrophe so often painted by the media and environmental groups.
In a classic piece of understatement IFLScience conclude with:
So radiation levels aren’t soaring, but it’s a grim picture all around really. As the latest announcement from TEPCO shows, the clean-up of Fukushima is going to be anything but easy — and there’s a long, long way to go.
Time to stop panicking and enjoy the weekend!
Apologies that due to an incursion of lurgy this month’s collection of links is somewhat late. Anyway here goes …
Science & Medicine
Unlike most other animals, roughly 90% of humans are right-handed. But why?
Another peculiarity of humans is that we are one of only a handful of species which has an appendix. Again, why?
Evidence is emerging that women with severe PMS, called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), really do have an aberrant cellular response to their hormones.
How do doctors measure pain? Answer: inconsistently. And they’re trying to understand this better. [Long read]
I suspect most people don’t notice the pigeons around them, but there are three which are common in the UK: the feral pigeon (rock dove), wood pigeon, and collared dove. The first two are genuine natives, but the collard dove is a recent arrival from Asia which set out to conquer Europe.
On attitudes to masturbation in a relationship.
The BFI now has an archive of erotic films covering the late nineteenth century to around 1960s.
And bridging seamlessly into the really historical, it seems the Ancient Chinese were into sex toys, just as much as modern generations.
Researchers are getting really quite good at dating ancient objects and events. An ancient volcanic eruption has now been firmly dated using fossilised tree rings.
The myth of Medieval Small Beer — no, everyone didn’t drink beer, rather than water, in olden days.
Someone has found what is alleged to be the long-lost skirt from one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dresses being used as a church alter cloth.
A research student has been able to uncover the movements and exploits of a Renaissance spy, who successfully masqueraded as a garden designer to the rich and powerful.
Each year IanVisits provides a calendar of the gun salutes in London for the year.
Crossrail have unearthed yet more archaeology in an unexpected place: jammed and pickled under the old Astoria nightclub.
There’s a section of tunnel under the Thames on the Northern line tube which was bombed and flooded in 1940. And it is still sealed shut.
To go with the previous item, here are a few vintage pictures of London tube stations.
And, just in time for your next pub quiz, here are a few things you may not know about London buses.
Some thoughts on how to talk meaningfully with children. And not just children, I suggest.
Even the most macho bloke has his bit of feminine. Here are some on the feminine things men would do if they thought they wouldn’t be judged for it.
Unless you’re doing a really dirty job (like down a coal mine) it’s likely you’re showering much too often for the good of your skin.
And finally … Just what did those prudish Victorians have to hide?
More next month.