Saturday, 25 November 2006

Elevators, Chimps and Love? Plus a little live radio

This week on the Mr Science Show Podcast, we tackle the topics of:
  1. A 100,000 km space elevator
  2. Young chimp males like older chimp women
  3. Being tall and young makes you more attractive at speed dating
Also heard on this podcast are the sultry tones of Jacqui Pfeffer and the golden tonsils of Matt Clarke.

In other news, tonight (25/11/06) the Diffusion Science Radio Show is going live and up-late on 2SER between 11pm and 1am. We are taking the opportunity to produce some live and unscripted radio. Highlights from this show will appear on my podcast soon.

Grab this show here

Saturday, 18 November 2006

North Koreans, Mammoths, Invisibility and what did not make it to air on the Diffusion Radio Science Show

This week on the Mr Science Show podcast, we are taking a look at a number of different science news stories, as well as what I could salvage from one of most out-take ridden episodes of the Diffusion Radio Science Shows with which I have been involved - we had a great time, and its all good science! I have the raw recordings should anyone want them.

Our stories are:
  1. Dodgy North Korean Scientists attempting to clone mammoths
  2. New developments in invisibility (also see this past Mr Science story)
  3. Black and White television not so black and white
  4. Women allergic to semen?
  5. Psychology and cricket
You will also hear the voices of Matt Clarke, Darren Osbourne, Tilly Boleyn and Lachlan Whatmore. Darren is also involved with Mo-vember, so feel free to sponsor us both!

Grab this show here

Friday, 17 November 2006

Rebirth of the cloning debate

The issue of human cloning is one that has been with us for some time.

Recently in Australia, a bill which would allow scientists to clone embryos to extract their stem cells for medical research has passed through the Senate and now awaits a lower house decision.

With this in mind, I have dug up an article I wrote for The Helix magazine in 2001 (editor Darren Osbourne). In this article I asked a number of prominent Australian's about their opinions on cloning, for some very interesting answers. I have attempted to track down these same people 5 years on to see whether or not their opinions have changed, and have had a couple of responses, so stay tuned for the 2006 results.

Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja
Leader of the Australian Democrats in 2001

Cloning is no longer about whether it will be done but when it will be done. It is time to start sorting out the boundaries of what our community deems acceptable—or unacceptable, as the case may be. Cloning has a role to play in many possible medical treatments, either as a therapy or as a diagnostic. The paramount requirement from legislators in the immediate future will be to ensure the new cornucopia of genetic tools is used only for our benefit and not to unfairly discriminate.

Senator Bob Brown
Australian Greens Senator for Tasmania and leader of the Greens party

Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob – isn’t cloning boring? Nature has sorted all our genes and we re-arrange this ecological prescription at the peril of losing diversity and ecological robustness. The Precautionary Principle should, at least, apply.

Jean-Francois Aymonier
Spokesperson for Clonaid, a company aiming to be the first Human Cloning Company www.clonaid.com

Cloning frightens a lot of people. Especially the people who believe in God. Because if we succeed in cloning a human being, it proves that we can create life scientifically and God might not exist after all. That God doesn't exist is very hard to accept for those who have always believed in God. They don't want to be proven wrong so for them it is important to stop scientists from cloning. That is why they try to frighten us by imagining many terrible things that could be done with cloning. But cloning can also be used very positively. We Raelians at Clonaid think that a long time ago extra-terrestrial beings created life on earth scientifically thanks to cloning techniques. The first humans they created were clones. So cloning is a wonderful thing since we are all here thanks to cloning. Not only cloning will help cure many diseases but it will also make us understand how to create life and become eternal using different bodies or body parts. And one day it will be our turn to create life on another planet. That's why cloning is so fantastic.

Adam Spencer
Then Triple J Morning Presenter, Comedian and Science Communicator

One of the most disturbing aspects of the cloning debate is that again science has arrived at the ability to do something well before society has decided where it stands on the issue. This is happening more and more as the rate of discovery is increasing in so many controversial fields. It is so important that we start discussing the morality of this sort of research as soon as someone suggests that "perhaps one day we could do..." rather than wait until the press conference where it is announced "well we've got a few in the lab now if you want to come and have a look!” Hopefully we will all learn from this, we have to make our feelings known on the big issues, earlier not later.

Associate Professor Catharine Lumby
Director of the Media and Communications Program at the University of Sydney, Journalist and Author

There is understandable public anxiety over the issue of cloning. I believe there are two reasons for this. Firstly, we live in a society where the speed of technological advances far outstrips our capacity to absorb their implications, let alone debate them in a considered manner. Secondly, cloning touches on an ancient philosophical conundrum - the relationship between the original and the copy. Plato expresses a concern that representations of real objects, if they are too exact, might be mistaken for the real thing - that images or copies have the capacity to trick the viewer. A similar kind of anxiety grounds the taboo in some religious orders against making likenesses of God (icons). A clone is essentially a perfect copy. The fear then arises that there will be no way of telling the original from its copy (or the human from its clone).

Professor Alan Trounson
World Leader in Reproductive Technology
Centre for Early Human Development, Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development

Cloning human people is not ethical because of the risks of deformities to babies and problems for mothers during pregnancy. We know this from our studies on cloning Dolly the sheep and many other animals. We are studying cloning of animals to try and understand what goes wrong and to see if we can correct this. If we are successful we may be able to use cloning for cows to produce more milk, milk that is better for little kids in poor countries and cheap medicine to help sick people all over the world.

Dr Paul Willis
ABC Catalyst and radio Presenter, PhD in Palaeontology

I think that we all need to take stock of the context in which cloning is proposed. It's all very impressive to be able to clone people, sheep or cattle but do we really need to? The biggest problem this planet faces is too many people so why exacerbate the problem by producing more? Further, the only people who will be able to afford cloning will be the rich who are also the worst offenders for wasting the resources of the earth. Producing more of them only makes matters worse. I really have no opinion on the ethics of cloning and can see arguments for both sides, but I think that the wider context of cloning is emphatic; we don't need more people no matter how we want to make them.

Dr Graham Phillips
Then ABC Catalyst Presenter, author and PhD in Astrophysics

I'm in favour of therapeutic cloning - creating cloned embryos that might one day allow replacement livers and kidneys for people. I know there are serious ethical problems with creating embryos purely for medical purposes, but I think there are even more serious problems by not doing this. In effect this means sentencing people who need the new organs to earlier deaths. As far as the other sort of cloning goes - creating cloned adults - I guess my attitude is it will eventually happen and it will turn out to be not such a problem. After all, biologically, a clone is just an identical twin. But I don't think we should be attempting to create adult clones any time soon - the techniques are simply not safe enough yet.

Brian Alexander

Then Journalist for US Magazine Wired – www.wired.com

The subject of human cloning has occupied the better part of one year of my life. In the process of researching and discussing human cloning for the U.S. magazine Wired, I have met a number of very interesting people, including scientists who say they would like to help clone a human being, people who would like to be cloned, and people who feel strongly that nobody should ever be cloned. After all this time, I have come to the following conclusion: human reproductive cloning does not really matter. Someday soon, the issue of whether cloning is safe will go away. Then, there will be a human clone. And that clone will be, simply, a baby. The world will not change. There will be no "Brave New World," no sci-fi mass-produced human beings. A very few people, probably men and women who cannot have a baby any other way, may choose to clone to have a genetically related child. Hardly anybody else will ever want to have children this way. The one lesson I think we can take away from the controversy is that we need to look at science in realistic ways, not as if we all lived in a movie.

Thanks to someone at itunes....

I was browsing around itunes the other day, and discovered to my pleasure that they had featured my podcast on the front page of their podcast section. But not only am I grateful for that, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had done some graphic design on my logo. Usually my podcast logo is the goofy photo of me at the Summer Palace in Beijing, however someone at itunes had added my name in a rather funky manner and the podcast title. You can imagine my surprise when I saw my ugly mug staring back at me with my name in rather large letters! So thanks itunes, the number of downloads and subscribers has increased because of it - the vast majority of my subscribers subscribe through itunes.



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Monday, 13 November 2006

Movember Week 1 Documentary

Here is my take on week 1 of Movember.

It may not be very sciencey, or funny, but hopefully it will help us raise some money for a great cause. Sponsor me securely here and check out our team progress here. For more info, check out last week's Movember story



Watch this here

Sunday, 5 November 2006

MO-vember - the science of moustaches

This month on Mr Science, we are celebrating November, or more particularly, Mo-vember. That is, for a good cause, I am growing a moustache, or a Mo. You can sponsor me to do this, and check out our work team's progress and varying states of scruffiness here (Well done Adrian!) Mo-vember, my moustache, and the science of hair and men's health was the subject of a panel discussion between myself and the other members of Diffusion Science Radio, and can be picked up as an mp3 on my podcast here.

The cause is male health, and research into depression, testicular cancer and prostate cancer. Men's health is an often overlooked topic, however when you look at it, men are far less healthy than women. The average life expectancy for men is six years less than females (presently 75 compared to 81). Men access health services 30-40% less than women, thereby denying themselves the chance for prevention and early detection of common diseases.

Money raised through this event go into the following areas:

Prostate Cancer in partnership with the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia (www.prostate.org.au) because every year in Australia 2,700 men die of prostate cancer - more than the number of women who die from breast cancer. Find out more

Male Depression in partnership with Beyond Blue (www.beyondblue.org.au) because one in six men suffer from depression at any given time but most don't seek help. Find out more

Testicular Cancer because it's the second most common cancer in young men aged 18 to 35. Find out more

Seeing my face is going to covered in an ugly growth for the next month, this week we are going to take a look at the science of hair. Facial hair is a secondary sex characteristic in human males. Most men develop facial hair in the latter years of puberty, whilst many women also have some facial hair, but generally after menopause and generally less than men.

Male pogonotrophy (beardedness) is often culturally associated with wisdom and virility. Excessive hairiness in women however is known as hirsutism, and is usually an indication of abnormal hormonal variation.

The amount of facial hair varies from individual to individual, and also between ethnic groups. For example, men from many East Asian, West African or Native American backgrounds typically have much less facial hair than those of European, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.

But what is hair and why does it grow out of the side of our faces? Hair is a growth of dead cells protruding from the skin, and occurs in many animals, mainly mammals. However, in contrast to most mammals, humans do not have thick hair all over their bodies. While other great apes have relatively thin body hair and some bare areas, in comparison humans have very little. Theories about why humans, in comparison to apes, have less hair range from the idea that it was because early humans lived on African savannas and lost their hair in order to more easily control their body temperature, to the idea of neoteny, a form of sexual selection where one mate chooses another because of their youthful – that is, less hairy – looks. A more recent theory suggests that we lost our hair to reduce our vulnerability to fur-loving parasites.

There is a myth out there that hair and nails continue growing for several days after death. Often people have thought that others, previously thought dead, were still alive because of this. Sadly, this is untrue. The appearance of growth is actually caused by the retraction of skin as the surrounding tissue dehydrates, making it look like the nails and hair were growing. The skin was just shrinking.

As we age, hair becomes greyer as the pigment in the hair is lost and the hair becomes colourless. In general men tend to become grey at younger ages than women. I’m starting to get the odd grey hair and it scares me, I’m only 27!

But an interesting fact is that grey hair in itself is not actually grey – it is either white or dark –the head of hair appears grey because of these two colours mixing. As such, people who have blond hair when young usually develop white hair instead of grey hair when aging. Red hair usually goes sandy colour and then white.

But that’s only for the lucky ones who keep their hair. It is estimated that half of all men are affected by male pattern baldness by the time they are 50. This can also be seen in other primates and apparently has an evolutionary benefit – I wonder what that could be….

Hair thinkness ranges from 17 to 181 ┬Ám, and different parts of the human body feature different types of hair. From childhood onward, vellus hair covers nearly the entire human body. Rising levels of male hormones (androgens) during puberty causes a transformation process of vellus hair into terminal hair on several parts of the male body. Hair follicles respond to androgens, primarily testosterone, and this causes males to start growing thicker and denser body hair. Body hair grows for about 3 to 6 months before being pushed out by a following hair, whilst head hair grows at the rate of about 1.25 cm a month.

Check out www.movember.com.au for more information about this moustache growing spectucular, and if you feel like sponsoring me, go here or type “Marc West” into the sponsorship page and use your credit card. Its all for charity. Happy to do moustache requests, if it grows long enough, or to wear particularly stupid or outlanding clothes to the gala party, if sponsored the right amount!

Mo-vember, my moustache, and the science of hair and men's health was the subject of a panel discussion on Diffusion Science Radio on 2SER. You can listen here