Thursday 31 August 2006

The Scientist Maharaja, and the Bollywood experience

The Maharajas of India were variously known for their extravagance, the wars they waged and the magnificent forts and palaces they built. One of these rulers, Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, was a warrior, lavish in his desires and aloof from his dominion – this in itself is not unusual. However, he was also exceedingly well educated, and fashioned himself as an astronomer and scientist.

Jai Singh II created and ruled the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, Northern India. His father, Maharaja Bishan Singh, gave him the best education money could buy, and he ruled his dominion from 1688 to 1744. The city of Jaipur was conceived in 1727 because Jai Singh desired a new capital for his growing kingdom as the old capital, Amber, did not have enough water to supply the burgeoning city.

Jaipur was Northern India’s first planned city, although the comparison to Canberra, the capital of Australia, stops there. Jai Singh’s grounding in the sciences influenced his design of the city, which is reflected in its precise symmetry and aesthetic beauty. Unfortunately, the modern city has spread beyond Jai Singh’s original conception, and its growth has had no planning nor has any thought been put into how it should expand.

The greatest achievement of Jai Singh’s scientific mind is the extraordinary Jantar Mantar, a seemingly oversized and bizarre observatory. Deriving its name from the Sanskrit yanta manta, meaning “instrument of calculation”, the observatory bears little resemblance to any modern observatory. Its construction began in 1728 and is full of massive sundials and other instruments, who’s shadows chart astronomical facts such as local and meridian time, the sun’s position in the zodiac and attributes of heavenly bodies. The standout feature is the amazing Brihat Samrat Yantra – King of the Instruments – which is 27 m tall and set at an angle of 27 degrees – the latitude of Jaipur. This well named instrument works by casting a huge shadow, which moves up to 4 m per hour, and helps to calculate time and the various attributes of heavenly bodies such as stars and planets.

The instruments are still used today, testifying to their remarkable accuracy – Jai Singh did not possess computing power nor high powered telescopes to make his observations. The final instrument installed by Jai Singh, the Jai Prakash Yantra, is used to calculate auspicious days for weddings and other such important occasions, as well as verifying the calculations from other instruments.

Jai Singh so liked astronomy that he sent scholars abroad to study the science and learn how astronomy was conducted in other places. He built 5 observatories like this one, the others being in Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and the missing one in Mathura. The photos on this site document some of the incredible looking instruments on display in this park.

A less sciencey, but equally fun, destination in Jaipur is the huge cinema complex showcasing the best of Bollywood. It is appropriate perhaps that the learned Jai Singh should create a town showcasing Indian’s massively entertaining cinema industry. I took in a showing of Fanaa, a massive production incorporating love, terrorism, war, politics, medicine, families and travel, with each theme expressed through song and dance. Our heroine, Zooni, is a beautiful blind female, who travels from Kashmir with her friends for a tour of Delhi. She falls for the charismatic tour guide Rehan, but he has a secret. He is a terrorist working for the Kashmiri cause and only acting as a tour guide so he can obtain schematics of major Delhi tourist locations. His defining act of love is that he arranges for Zooni to have her sight repaired, but she never gets the chance to see him as he disappears underground after destroying a monument in an act of terrorism, although not before one night of passion (with no kissing however) with his blind love. Zooni thinks that he has died in a terrorist blast.

We then skip 7 years ahead. We are back in Kashmir. Zooni has a son who, as he does not kno who his father is, imagines that Rahul Dravid, the Indian cricket captain, is his Dad. If this were an Australian film, the son would not need to pretend to have a cricketer as his father, as there would be a good chance that Shane Warne would actually be the father! Anyway, Rehan is fighting as a double agent in Kashmir, and is forced injured to find refuge in, believe it or not, his lost love’s house! He also has got hold of a nuclear device! Of course Zooni she does not remember him as he stumbles in the door as previously she was blind, but he remembers her and quickly figures out he is the father of the child. Eventually they both figure it out, but love doesn’t turn Rehan good, and Zooni is forced to shoot him after he had killed both her father and her friend.

Or at least that’s what I thought happened, it was in Hindi. It’s a tragic love story, but thankfully they sing and dance all the way.

Jaipur, a hub of science and entertainment. My Indian podcast can be found here.

Tuesday 29 August 2006

Sorry for the delay...

Hi Readers / Listeners,

Just a quick note to say sorry for the delay in this week's Mr Science post and podcast. I have been on holidays overseas, and recently contracted myself a case of Delhi belly, so there will be a little bit of a delay.

But, never fear, the podcast will hopefully be quite interesting. I have recorded thoughts and interviews (both sciencey and non-sciencey) whilst on my travels and will edit together shows about science in the Philippines and India. We will tackle serious topics such as science in the developing world and ecology, as well as less serious and light hearted topics like balut. I was also going to do Hong Kong, however Delhi belly took hold whilst I was there, so instead I am going to do a show on travel diseases, drawing on my own first hand experiences, and those of my travel buddy, my brother James.

Monday 14 August 2006

Y is it so?

It is a question that has plagued humankind’s deepest philosophical thinkers ever since men were men and women were women: Why are men and women really so different? Most women claim to have long noticed the strangeness in males, but now it seems that at last scientists have the evidence.

Researchers studying chromosomes, which harbour genes containing DNA that act as your human body blueprint, have discovered that the Y chromosome, which determines maleness, is downright strange.

Chromosomes are found in every one of the more than one billion cells that make up the human body and are inherited from your parents. There are 23 pairs of chromosomes in the body, one of which determines sex. Women have a XX pairing of sex chromosomes, and men a XY pairing. Research reported in Scientific American suggests, not only is the Y chromosome tiny in size compared to the X, but that it holds far less genetic information. There are less than 50 genes on the Y compared to about 3000 on the X. Moreover, all other pairs of chromosomes have exactly the same number of genes.

However, the tiny Y has had an exciting journey to its current form. The research has found that Y did not start out its life as the runt of the chromosomes. About 300 million years ago, before mammals and even most dinosaurs had appeared on the Earth, a fascinating process of evolution started to change the Y chromosome, which was then identical to the X. The sex of our ancestors was then determined, not by sex chromosomes, but by the temperature of the embryo at a developmental stage before birth. This is similar to modern reptiles.

The Y chromosome began its independent life when the first mammals appeared. It contained a gene called SRY for “sex-determining region Y.” This gene triggers the formation of the testes, which then produce testosterone and other substances that mould maleness. The presence of this gene on Y however disrupted the DNA surrounding it such that the X and Y chromosomes could no longer entirely pair up in a process called recombination. Recombination allows chromosomes to swap genetic information during the production of sperm and egg cells. Without recombination, which keeps the chromosomes fresh from possibly harmful genetic mutations, the Y chromosome progressively mutated so much so that much of it no longer exists and 95 percent of the X and Y chromosomes does not recombine.

But does this mean that as evolution takes its course the ever-shrinking Y will spell the death of the male?

Geneticists say that we should not yet add the male to the endangered species list, and for now all is not lost for the little modern Y. It was previously thought that the Y chromosome contained mostly junk DNA and that the production of the testes triggered by SRY was its only function. But it is now known that the genes remaining on the Y chromosome are particularly important for survival in males and for fertility. In about half of all couples affected by infertility the problem rests with the man. Disruption of the genes on Y can reduce sperm count causing infertility. Infertility research is now directing efforts towards understanding the strange Y and searching for a cure. On the flip side, the possibility of new male contraceptives that target the sperm producing regions of Y is being developed.

So things aren’t looking to bad for us blokes.

Listen to this show here

Sunday 6 August 2006

Yummy Duck Embyros

I am currently on holidays in the Philippines, and as you can see from this first shot, the place is beautiful. However, last night I had the chance to appreciate one of the oddest eating experiences in my life. Whilst I will write and record more serious travelling science topics in the near future, this is one semi-science, semi-social and all round curious topic that I had to cover.

I had been told that eating duck and chicken embryos, whilst still in their eggs, was something of a tradition, and surely one that I could not miss, having eaten many weird and wonderful things in my time, although never something quite this bizarre.

Balut is a fertilised duck egg with an almost fully developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell. It is thought that balut is an aphrodisiac, and in many ways it reminded me of oysters, not least by the fact that the embryo had oyster consistency, and didn't really taste all that great.

Balut is high in protein, and all the other good things that ducks and eggs provide. It is also high in cartilage, which is good for osteo arthritis.

The Australian equivalent is probably the late night kebab, as they are sold by street vendors and often accompanied by the vast consumption of beer. Indeed, this is how I tackled the obstacle - on the back of the Philippine beer "Red Horse" which is San Miguel beer with gin added making a highly potent combination.

The eggs themselves are a combination of solids, liquids and gases - a veritable treasure trove of textures and flavours. I was a little too sheepish to sip the broth surrounding the embryo - I guess that it is the embryonic fluid. I tackled the yoke first, which tasted like normal boiled egg, just without all that nutritional value that was helping the embryo grow. This was followed then by a glass of Red Horse quickly consumed, and a glass of water, as the most confronting obstacle, the embryo, lay in wait. Thankfully, it slid down rather easily. I wouldn't say that I enjoyed eating the balut - indeed, if you wanted duck and egg, I think it would taste better to get yourself an unfertilised egg, and grown-up duck, and combine them in an omelette.

There is a science behind the production of balut. Fertilized duck eggs are kept warm in the sun and stored in baskets to retain their warmth. After 9 days, the eggs are held to a light to reveal the zygote inside. About 8 days later the balut are ready to be cooked.

So I'm glad that I can say this is one eating experience I have had, although I don't think I'll be back for more. I am told that it is much nicer if you don't dissect it, as I did, and just eat it all quickly washed down with San Miguel. That sounds about right. But I still can't quite get my head, or stomach, around the little bones and feathers that I had to spit out...

Wednesday 2 August 2006

Music and Science on the Brain

Music has an indisputable ability to trigger powerful emotions. It is frequently associated with memories of the past, and hearing just a short clip of a song can often trigger feelings from deep within the subconscious. It is also used in various therapies, can add considerable depth to a movie or film clip, and can have a substantial effect on your mood, even the first time you hear a song. What is it about music that conjures up such feelings?

It is undeniable, yet largely inexplicable, that music can evoke emotions from your past, whether it conjures up memories from school, good times or lost loves. However, the mechanism within the brain that allows this to occur is relatively unknown. Traditionally, the fields of music and biology have not overlapped, and a deep understanding of the neurological effects of music still awaits us. One of the problems is that the emotional effect of music is very subjective – one song can be experienced in many different ways by many different people. Some may associate memories with the song, the environment in which it is played effects how people respond, and simply the personality and mood of the listener may make them predisposed to feel a certain way about certain pieces of music and musical styles. In summary, songs that affect some people, may not affect others – there is a cultural effect.

Notwithstanding this, a researcher at the University of New South Wales has worked out a few basic mathematical features of music that influence our mood.

“'Among other things,” said Dr Emery Schubert, “loudness, tempo and pitch have a measurable impact on people’s emotional response to music,'”

His study involved 66 volunteers who listened to four classical compositions and moved a mouse over a computer screen to indicate how they felt when they were listening to the songs. He found that arousal is associated with a composition’s loudness and to a lesser extent its tempo. Schubert stated that along with the idea that songs written in a major key are happy songs, and those in a minor key are sad songs, happiness is associated with a rising pitch and an increased number of instruments.

However, Schubert is aware that he has only highlighted a number of broad factors that contribute to music’s effect on our emotions.

”While we know that some musical parameters predict some emotions with a degree of certainty, musical features interact in complex ways, as do listener responses. Before we can compose musical emotions by numbers, we need to convert human experience and cultural knowledge variables into numbers, too. It will be some time before we can do this. What we've shown is that it is already possible to locate and quantify some of these emotions with some precision.”

Dissonance is another factor that is unpleasant to listeners and can create feelings of fear. It may also be intrinsic to music as infants as young as 4 months old show negative reactions. It has been found that varying degrees of dissonance causes increased activity in the paralimbic regions of the brain, which are associated with emotional processes.

Another recent experiment measured the brain activity while listeners were played music they chose that made them feel good and had emotional value for them. Activity was seen in the reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal areas of the brain. This result suggests a connection between the pleasure of music and the pleasures induced by food, sex, and drugs, which target these same areas.

Music can also effect hormone levels within the body, lowering levels of cortisol (associated with stress), and rising levels of melatonin (associated with sleep). This suggests music can help with relaxation. It also causes the release of endorphins, which help relieve pain.

Everyone has felt chills up their spine when listening to a piece of music. Emotions stimulate a region of the brain called the hypothalamus. Neurobiologist Jaak Panksepp found that people more often feel chills or goose bumps when listening to music when the music evokes a sad feeling or is compounded by a sad memory, as opposed to happy feelings or positive memories. He thinks this may be due to evolution – this response may be similar to those our ancestors felt when they heard the cry of a lost loved one bringing about a desire for close physical contact and keeping families together. It is known that songs mimicking the sounds of mourning and waling evoke feelings of sadness.

Cementing the fact that music has a powerful effect of the brain is a disorder called musicogenic epilepsy. People with this condition are mentally deficient, yet most are excellent musicians – some are even known as “musical savants” who have extraordinary musical talent. On the other hand, less than 1% of the population suffer from amusia, a condition that means that they can literally not recognise a melody, no matter how simple is it.

So however music works on us, it seems that it must have an important function, otherwise it would not have evolved. Perhaps an appreciation of music, like broad shoulders, may demonstrate fitness to a potential mate – singing or playing an instrument well requires dexterity and good memory. Or perhaps it is something we need to keep our brain stimulated with its complex patterns. Whatever its reason and however it works, music is fundamental to our society and something for us all to enjoy, even if we don’t all enjoy the same stuff.

Listen to this show here