Monday 30 October 2006

Diffusion Science Radio goes LIVE

Diffusion Science Radio went LIVE this week on 2SER, during 2SER's radiothon subscriber drive. In this podcast episode, I host the show - my first time doing live radio - and am joined by Vanessa Gardos, Tilly Boleyn and Chris Stewart, who also produced the show.

You can hear my own feature on Stephen Hawking - you may have previously picked this up on the Mr Science feed. You can also hear Diffusion's own New York correspondent Kachina Allen talking about the scientific dangers of showering!

This was recorded during Radiothon, which means there are alot of comments regarding members and prizes and such things - you can phone up and join 2SER anytime should you like, but for first time listeners, Diffusion is not normally like this - there is usually a bit more science and entertainment!

A big plug to Justin Zeltzer who wrote the new theme to Diffusion - this was its debut.

Listen to this show here

Friday 20 October 2006

Space Invaders Mind Control, Small Testes and Facial Expressions

Mind control over Space Invaders
A 14-year-old who suffers from epilepsy, is the first teenager to play a two-dimensional video game using only the signals from his brain, a unique experiment conducted by a team of neurosurgeons, neurologists, and engineers at Washington University in St. Louis has found.

And the game was one of my favourites from the 1980s, Space Invaders.

This type of work has implications towards someday building biomedical devices that can control artificial limbs, for instance, enabling the disabled to move prosthetic arms or legs by simply thinking about it.

The teenager had an electric grid placed upon his brain to record electrocorticographic (ECoG) activity - data taken invasively right from the brain surface.

Eric C. Leuthardt, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the School of Medicine, and Daniel Moran, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, performed their research on the boy who had the grids implanted so that neurologists and neurosurgeons could find the area in the brain that causes epileptic seizures.

Leuthardt and Moran connected the patient to a sophisticated computer running a special program known as BCI2000 which connected Space Invaders to the ECoG grid. They then asked the boy to do various motor and speech tasks, moving his hands various ways, talking, and imagining. The team could see from the data which parts of the brain and what brain signals correlate to these movements. They then asked the boy to play Space Invaders by actually moving his tongue and his hand. He was then asked to imagine the same movements, but not to actually perform them with his hands or tongue.

"He cleared out the whole level one basically on brain control," said Leuthardt. "He learned almost instantaneously... He mastered two levels playing only with his imagination. This really was a symphony of expertise ranging from neurosurgery, neurology, neuroscience, engineering, and computer science which was years in the making. The end result is something we can really be proud of."

You might be horny, but you have small testes
Some interesting news now for the tough cocky muscle men among us. Professor Leigh Simmons of the University of Western Australia and US researcher Professor Douglas Emlen of the University of Montana have shown that there is an evolutionary trade-off between the ability to fight off sexual competitors - ie be really tough - and reproductive potency.

They found that beetles with the biggest horns have the smallest testes. There is a trade off between the ability to find a mate and the ability to fertilise her.

The researchers looked at beetles of the genus Onthophagus, dung beetles known for the size and variety of their horns.

"What we did was test a fundamental assumption underlying evolution ... that males face a trade-off between competing for access to lots of females and investment in gaining fertilisation with those females," Simmons says.

"They need to have big horns to win fights and get females and they need to have big testes in order to win in sperm competition.

"But they can't do both, so species which invest very heavily in their horns tend to invest less in their testes."

There are other examples in nature also. Bats trade the size of their testes for brain power. Stalk-eyed flies, in which eye span width is a measure of sexual desirability, trade testes size for the width of their eyes.

And clearly is known in humans - those with the most expensive cars with the loudest sound system, clearly have the smaller penises.

Inherited Facial Expressions
Do you look like your father when you're angry? Probably more than you'd imagined. Facial expressions may be inherited.

According to Israeli scientists, every person has a set of facial expressions that is unique to them, a signature of their identity that remains stable over time. Stable patterns of facial expressions arise before a baby is six months old, but until now, scientists were unsure whether these patterns were learned or innate.

"We were interested to examine whether there is a unique family facial expression signature," said lead author Gili Peleg from the University of Hafa in Israel. "We assumed that we would find similarities between the facial expressions of relatives."

The study, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 21 participants who had been blind from birth, each with either one or two relatives who had normal vision. According to the researchers, blind individuals have no way of learning the facial expressions of their relatives by mimicry. The common perception that blind people touch other's faces to sense their expressions was revealed to be, in fact, very impolite behaviour.

The scientists induced six emotional states in each individual - sadness, anger, joy, think-concentrate, disgust and surprise - and then documented all the facial movements the person made while experiencing a particular emotion.

Forty-three different facial movements were recorded, including movements such as: biting the lower lip on the left-hand side; moving the lips while pressed together, as though chewing; rolling the upper lip inside the mouth; sticking out the tongue slightly while touching both lips; and pulling down the corners of the mouth while pushing the chin forward.

A computer program was used to allocate the blind individual to a family according to the types of movements observed and their frequencies. The blind individual was allocated to the correct family 80 per cent of the time when using information from all six emotional states.

"These findings indicate the existence of a hereditary basis for facial expressions," Peleg explained.

Listen to this show

Sunday 15 October 2006

The Science of Speed Dating - A gentleman does not kiss and tell...

We live in a fast paced world. And the modern approach to dating embraces this idea. This week we are going to tackle the science of speed dating.

My friend, and fellow Diffusion Science Radio team member, Vanessa Gardos and I travelled down to Canberra for a Speed Dating extravaganza. There we heard a talk by our friend, and communicator extraordinaire, Lish Hogge on the science of speed dating, and got lost in the whole speed dating experience.

This podcast contains our reflections on the evening and the science of speed dating, as heard on the Diffusion Science Radio show recorded and broadcast through 2SER in Sydney. This was live and unscripted, and so rather honest, although as a gentleman I can not divulge too much information from the evening! Ian Woolf and Justin Zeltzer take part in this discussion, and the segment was produced by Ian.

Following this, and a brief interlude by Jose Gonzales, I have included, with permission, an interview Lish did with Richard Aedy about the science of love and speed dating on the "Life Matters" show on ABC radio across Australia.

Here on the Mr Science Show website, we have tackled the science of love a few times:
Today I have included below an extract from Lish's run program for her National Library talk, discussing the science of speed-dating, how personality traits effect your chances, and what pick up lines to use. Thanks Lish!

What's Love Got to Do with it? (Lish Hogge 2006)

How do you get love really damn fast, because let’s face it, we haven’t got time to be fiddling about looking for love in all the wrong places when we could be reproducing our genes and bringing up off-spring so that they too can make our genes go further.

So, how to meet people you like more than yourself and want to spend the rest of your life with? There are several modern ways - online dating, mobile text messaging or speed dating.

Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher has also bought science to on-line dating. She is one of a collection of scientists at (note the blatant use of science to sell product!) She has translated her work on neurotransmitters and hormones to discrete personality types. Her personality types are similar to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment tool that classifies people according to four pairs of traits: Introversion vs Extroversion, Sensing vs iNtuition, Thinking vs Feeling, Judging vs Perceiving (Marc: I’m INFP by the way, rather unscientist like).

Dr. Fisher found out that genes for certain hormones or chemicals are also associated with particular character and personality traits.

DOPAMINE – Associated with motivation, curiosity, anxiety and optimism. Maps to the EXPLORER personality type.

Genes for the metabolism of SERATONIN, another neurotransmitter, tend to modulate ones degrees of calm, stability, popularity and religiosity. Maps to the BUILDER personality type.

TESTOSTERONE is associated with being rational, analytical, exacting, independent, logical, rank oriented, competitive, irreverent and narcissistic. Maps to the DIRECTOR personality type.

OESTROGEN hormone is associated with being imaginative, creative, insightful human, sympathetic, agreeable, flexible and verbal. Maps to the NEGOTIATOR (or DIPLOMAT) personality type. uses a questionnaire to drag out clients ‘chemistry’ through looking at these traits.

There are some interesting genetic traits that are indicators for these personality traits. Take your left hand and have a look at the index and ring fingers. Which is longer? Would you look at someone's hands before into their soul? Elevated foetal testosterone determines the ratio of the second and forth finger in a particular way as it similarly builds the female and male brain. So by looking at someone’s hand you can get a fair idea if they are going to be a male or a female... or in those of us already born, whether we are a director (LONG RING FINGER) or a negotiator (SHORTER RINGER FINGER)

Some Characteristics That May Be Associated with Digit Ratio (from Manning, 2002)

Low 2D:4D ratio
High 2D:4D ratio

Presumably due to relatively greater foetal exposure to testosterone in the 1st trimester
Presumably due to relatively greater foetal exposure to oestrogen in the 1st trimester.
· More fertile
· Higher lifetime reproductive success
· More aggressive and assertive
· Greater proclivity towards homosexuality / bisexuality
· Higher musical and sports aptitude
· Higher risk of early heart disease
· Greater proclivity toward homosexuality/bisexuality
· More aggressive and assertive
· More fertile
· Higher lifetime reproductive success
· Higher risk of breast cancer

But why would we evolve to have longer fingers- there has to be a point – perhaps a longer ring finger gave more stability while throwing objects increasing accuracy – an inherent masculine trait – this was clearly important when we were hunters and gathers but now … what of those people who had a longer ring finger to index?

Another question: How often do you vividly imagine extreme life situations such as being stranded on a dessert island or winning lottery?

A: Almost never
B: Sometime
C: Most of the time
D: All of the time?

Someone who answers 'All the time' is a definite Negotiator," Fisher said. "High oestrogen activity is associated with extreme imagination."

According to Fisher, each response is correlated with one of the four personality types: Choice A corresponds to Explorer, B to Builder, C to Director, and D to Negotiator.

If you're a builder...
You are calm, dependable and thorough. You shine at all sorts of executive and managerial skills, both in the workplace and at home. People admire and respect you.

Dating suggestions for the Builder:

You can bring stability to someone who is impulsive and a risk taker. In return, you may find someone with the energy and imagination you admire.

If you're an explorer...

You love to discover new things, absorb yourself in new ideas and travel to new places, often on the spur of the moment. You are highly inquisitive and spontaneous. Because of this, all sorts of adventures come your way.

Dating suggestions for the Explorer:

When you find someone you are genuinely interested in, avoid other dating opportunities and focus your energy on this person.

If you're a negotiator...

You are intuitive and understanding — the quintessential "people person." You instinctively know how others are thinking and feeling. You can be enormously empathetic, charming and tactful.

Dating suggestions for the Negotiator:
Try not to overthink situations. Let your mate know your boundaries, needs and hopes. This way, he or she will be able to act accordingly to enhance the relationship.

If you're a director...

At times, you can be a genius. You are highly inventive. With your intense determination, competitive spirit, and lack of respect for convention, you have the potential to make major discoveries and be a dynamic leader.

Dating suggestions for the Director:

Your competitive spirit is productive and appreciated at work; but with your partner, you may want to practice relaxing so you can truly enjoy your "down time" with him or her.

But if you are still not convinced that science is the future when researching affairs of the heart then you can log onto thousands of other sites:

Good Genes: Helping Ivy Leaguers and similar well educated graduates and faculty find other with matching credentials

Millionaire Match
: Add a touch of romance to success and achievement

Single Fire Fighters
: The only place to meet fire fighters with out calling 000.

And then there is speeding dating, it is fast, furious and fake but it removes months if not years of traipsing around bars, joining clubs and taking long walks around sunset. Studies show that while speed daters are looking for all manner of important things like attitudes to religion, fidelity, education and intelligence, in 8 minutes all it comes down to is physical attractiveness – they put a value on their beauty and go for something of equal beauty – women went for men of medium build and men for thin women.

To uncover the best type of chat-up lines, researchers compared the conversations of participants rated as very desirable by their dates with those seen as especially undesirable. Those highly skilled in seduction encouraged their dates to talk about themselves in an unusual, quirky, way. The most memorable lines from the top-rated man and woman in the study illustrate the point. The top-rated male’s best line was: ‘If you were on Stars In Their Eyes, who would you be?’ whilst the top-rated female asked: ‘What’s your favourite pizza topping?’ In contrast, failed Casanovas tended to be far less creative, employing old chestnuts like ‘Do you come here often?’ or struggling to impress with comments such as ‘I have a PhD in computing’. Talking about travel was better than movies – anything that avoided conflict and men interjecting with hmmm and ah ha, and women with modulated voices, did much better.

Marc: Thanks Lish! Great story. The Mr Science show plans on featuring a few other guest writers in the future.

PS I'm a long ring fingered, Director INFP (Meyers-Briggs) - a weird combo.

Listen to this show here

New Podcast Host and lots more mp3s

The Mr Science Show Podcast has moved from Castpost to Libsyn. Castpost did a great job, however we needed to upgrade from their free service to the more comprehensive service of Libsyn.

Some of the benefits of this move are that now you can download the mp3s directly, instead of streaming them, and the feed is not limited to 15 episodes. So now you have access to all 36 Mr Science Show episodes that have been recorded so far, from the very first episodes recorded down the phone to China Radio International produced by my brother James, to those produced by Michael Li, to The Snorer, and those produced by myself on my home computer and in the 2SER studios in Sydney.

Click here to check out the podcast feed, to choose how you might like to subscribe (for example, through itunes) or to simply download the mp3s in which you are interested.

The podcast feed page remains:

Hope you enjoy the Podcast, thanks for subscribing if you are already a subscriber, welcome if you have just joined up and enjoy the mp3s if you are just casually browsing past.

Thursday 5 October 2006

Travelling broadens the mind and opens the bowels

I had imagined this particular story to be about the science of the amazingly developed city of Hong Kong. I thought it would make a fantastic tale to contrast the role of science in people’s lives between India, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

However, unfortunately, my experiences during my week in Hong Kong were largely confined to public toilets and the bathroom of my friend Aaron, with whom I stayed. But this in itself makes a good story, so this week on Mr Science, we are going to look at the diseases that my brother and I picked up during our tour of Asia, and how they were treated.

It is ironic that, having been so careful with the water and food in India, that my brother James and I should get sick from eating at McDonalds, but all the evidence is pointing that way. They probably made the Coke we ordered using tap water. James’s illness hit within 12 hours, with vomiting and severe dehydration. He was so dehydrated that he took in about 2 litres of saline drip in the Indian hospital before he even went to the toilet.

I did not react with vomiting, and perhaps because of James’s sickness, did not think much of my own until I’d left the country. It was on landing in Hong Kong, incredibly tired from the 3.00 am start, that it all hit. And it hit hard, and explosively! My body erupted, not from my mouth like with James, but from the other end.

With remarkable Hong Kong efficiency, the hospital prescribed me 5 separate drugs to treat the problem. They did not know exactly what the problem was, and without a proper examination, blood test, urine test and stool sample, they were never going to know. I had a plane to catch.

So, introducing the top 3 contenders for inducing sickness in the West Brothers:
  1. Giardia - Giardia Lamblia is a parasite that infects the gastrointestinal tract and gives you Giardiasis, a type of gastroenteritis that manifests itself with severe diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. Other symptoms can include bloating, flatulence, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and weight loss. In some patients, vomiting or nausea is the major symptom.
  2. Traveller’s Diarrhoea - Also known as Delhi Belly or the Ragoon Runs, traveller’s diarrhoea has a host of causes, and can have very mild symptoms or kill within hours. The most common cause is the bacteria e-coli. The reason this is not top of the list is that e-coli­ infection usually only causes diarrhoea for 3-7 days, and then the discomfort stops. Perhaps James had a severe case of this, however, the fact that my discomfort was must more prolonged and that I had had some e-coli­ preventative medication before I left, makes me think it is not the cause.
  3. Cholera - I believe that this is unlikely, as I had preventative treatment for Cholera before I left, however the symptoms of Cholera are exactly as I had. Also, the risk of contracting Cholera is very low and I would have hoped that had if either James or myself contracted such a potentially deadly disease, that the hospitals would have picked it up.

As for the cocktail of drugs that I was prescribed, I am still taking some of them in order to complete their course. They are:

  1. Lactol Forte - These pills contain Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is considered a probiotic or “friendly” bacterium. These types of healthy bacteria live in the intestines and protect against some unhealthy organisms. When L. acidophilus breaks down food, it produces lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide that make the environment hostile for undesired organisms. It can also out compete harmful bacteria by consuming the nutrients they need. Antibiotics will kill L. acidophilus, as well as bad bacteria, so often after a course of antibiotics you will need to take L. acidophilus to recolonise the gastrointestinal tract. It’s also used to make yoghurt from milk.
  2. Ciproxin - These pills contain Ciprofloxacin HCL, which is a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are commonly used, and in my situation were used for the following reasons: a) Where there are many possible causes of the illness, but where delaying treatment to more accurately identify the cause could result in the illness getting much more serious; b) Where there are multiple bacteria causing the illness. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are often avoided as they cause bacteria to become resistant to treatment. However, as I was in Hong Kong for such a short time and needed the treatment rather urgently, in the absence of a more thorough diagnosis and to get me on the plane home, the broad spectrum was our best option.
  3. Profenil - The active ingredient in Profenil is Alverine Citrate, which is a smooth muscle relaxant. Smooth muscle is a type of muscle that is not under voluntary control, such as in the gut. It acts directly on the muscle in the gut, causing it to relax and preventing muscle spasms. Muscle spasms result in symptoms such as heartburn, abdominal pain and bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
  4. Oral Rehydration Salts - This dissolvable powder contains mainly sodium chloride, sodium citrate, potassium chloride and Dextrose Monohydrate, and is possibly the most important mixture of my drug cocktail. Diarrhoea saps the body of important electrolytes, as well as causing dehydration – this is how diarrhoea kills millions in the third world each year.
  5. Biogesic - Biogesic simply contains Paracetamol, which we all use as a painkiller.
  6. Doxycycline - In addition to this cocktail of drugs, I had to continue taking my anti-malaria tablets to complete their course.

So for about a fortnight, I’ve had a little cup to hold all my medicine – I felt like my grandparents!

Thanks for joining me on my all-too-brief scientific tour of South Asia. The podcast for this story contains extra recordings from Hong Kong, a small commentary on my final thoughts of India, and a few extra musings attempting to capture my feelings at the time. You can my thoughts on Hong Kong hospitals and sicknesses in this episode, and James’s thoughts (sometimes with sickness induced incoherence) on their Indian counterparts in the previous episode.

Listen to this show here