Tuesday 30 March 2010

Ep 125: The Sailors' (syphilis detecting) Handshake

It may be an apocryphal tale, but here's an interesting story about how sailors of yore determined if a potential suitor had syphilis.

As demonstrated by Victoria Bond and myself in the image on the right, Victoria is feeling my right elbow whilst shaking my hand. The epitrochlear lymph nodes in the elbow get swollen with syphilis.

The story goes that when sailors arrived in a new port, they would greet the girls in this manner to determine if they had syphilis. Another story goes that they did this whilst dancing. Whatever the case, it is true that the nodes swell when suffering from syphilis, although it's not fail safe as there are a number of things that could cause the swelling, including infection.

We made the following short video demonstration of the handshake when recording Diffusion Science Radio. The movie was produced by Ian Woolf. You can download the video as an mp4 here and find all my videos on youtube here.

While we're on the topic of syphilis, reports out of the UK this week are laying the blame for a rise in syphilis cases at the feet of social networking site Facebook. This story is the up there with the dangerous cookie story as one of the more stupid 'science' stories I have read. The Telegraph reported Facebook 'linked to rise in syphilis', however The Sun takes the cake with Sex diseases soaring due to Facebook romps.

The articles are based on an NHS news release titled Warning as syphilis cases increase. The news release does not mention Facebook, but does mention "social networking sites":

Professor Peter Kelly, Executive Director of Public Health for NHS Tees said syphilis has risen sharply in the last year.

"There has been a four fold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected," he said. "Syphilis is a devastating disease which can lead to serious health problems to the infected individual, their sexual contacts and an unborn child (in pregnant women). It is easily preventable and treatment is simple and effective. Unprotected sex, especially with casual partners, is the biggest risk for syphilis. Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex. It is important that people avoid high risk sexual behaviours and practise safe sex to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections."

Syphilis cases have increased fourfold in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside. The UK newspapers, independent of the NHS press release, found that Facebook is very popular in Sunderland. The problem here of course is our old friend "correlation vs. causation" - it is in no way clear that Facebook (or more broadly online social networking) is connected to the rise in syphilis. Syphilis cases have been on the rise for some time now. And even if Facebook is increasing casual sex in these regions, should we really blame it for someone's sexual habits? Other problems include the fact that the sample size is tiny (30 people), there is no mention of other sexually transmitted diseases, and no actual evidence to connect social networking to syphilis is presented - it is a merely a comment. There is a good discussion of this at Bad Science.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Ep 124: Liberals, atheists, intelligence, cocaine deaths and temperature

Liberals, atheists, intelligence, cocaine deaths and the temperature? What do these things have in common?

Courtesy Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
The answer? Correlation of the Week of course.

This podcast concerns our two most recent Correlations of the Week:
  1. Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent;
  2. Cocaine overdoses and the Weather.
To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):

For a very interesting comment on the Kanazawa theory, see rifters.com

Saturday 13 March 2010

This should get the kids back into mathematics

Fibonacci Spiral

Seen over at imgur and also at fridley.

Fibonacci numbers are the numbers in the following order:
0,\;1,\;1,\;2,\;3,\;5,\;8,\;13,\;21,\;34,\;55,\;89,\;144,\; \ldots.
After the 0 and 1, each number is the sum of the previous two. A Fibonacci spiral can be created by drawing arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in a Fibonacci tiling. In the picture above, the "squares" have side-lengths 1, 1, 2, 3, and 5.

Edit: Just in case it wasn't obvious, this post is more humour than maths. The curve would actually be a parabola (I think). If you look hard enough in nature, you can find all sorts of curves - see Fibonacci Flim-Flam for an overview of this idea.

Friday 12 March 2010

Correlation of the Week: Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent

Some people have thought this for a while.

A recent study, Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent, published in Social Psychology Quarterly has shown that more intelligent people are statistically significantly more likely to exhibit behaviours that have not been shaped by our evolutionary history.

Image by clintjcl. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Specifically, Satoshi Kanazawa from the London School of Economics and Political Science, postulates that liberalism (not to be confused with the Australian Liberal Party – a socially conservative political party) and atheism correlate with higher intelligence. Sexual exclusivity for men, but not women, is also a sign of higher intelligence.

According to Kanazawa’s theory, more intelligent people are more likely to adopt evolutionarily novel behaviours than less intelligent people. Evolutionarily novel values are those that humans are not biologically designed to have.

The theory is known as the Savannah-IQ Interaction Hypothesis. The Savannah Principle is the notion that the human brain was moulded through natural selection in an environment that is drastically different to the world we currently live in. This means it has difficulty comprehending and dealing with situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment – that is, on the savannah. An example of this is that our ancestors, in a time of scarce resources, craved sugary and fatty foods – those who ate more of these foods lived longer and were healthier than those who didn't. In today’s environment, where such foods are plentiful, this craving brings on health problems. The Savannah-IQ Interaction Hypothesis postulates that intelligence evolved to deal with novel problems – problems whose solutions evolution had not “hard-wired” into us. More intelligent individuals can better deal with new situations than less intelligent individuals, however both can deal equally well with evolutionarily familiar situations.

"General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions. As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognise and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles," Kanazawa said.

Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative and to care mostly about their family – those who have similar genes. Caring for unrelated strangers - that is, being liberal - is evolutionarily novel. This theory is backed up by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which found that young adults who identify themselves as "very liberal" have an average IQ of 106 while those who identify themselves as "very conservative" have an average IQ of 95.

Kanazawa also argues that religion arose because of our desire to look for the cause of events and to ascribe meaning and intention to natural phenomena. Humans are innately paranoid and extremely vigilant when it comes to self-protection. This was an evolutionary benefit for human preservation on the dangerous savannah. The survey showed that young adults who identify themselves as "not at all religious" have an average IQ of 103, while those who identify themselves as "very religious" have an average IQ of 97.

"Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid. So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists," said Kanazawa.

Sex, sex, sex...

Throughout evolutionary history, it is theorised that men have been mildly polygamous in order to increase their chance of producing off-spring, whilst women have generally been monogamous, possibly due to the fact that a nine-month pregnancy period means that having multiple partners does not increase the chance of producing off-spring. Being sexually exclusive is evolutionarily novel for men but not for women. Kanazawa’s theory therefore predicts that more intelligent men are more likely to remain sexual exclusive – that is, monogamous – than less intelligent men. However, this does not hold for women. Again, the survey data supported this theory.

But he also found that intelligence does not correlate with the very oldest of evolutionary values. One finding was that more intelligent people are no more or less likely to value such evolutionarily familiar ideas as marriage, family, children, and friends.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

The Postmodernisation of Rugby Union in Australia... wait, what?

Sometimes when are you are not looking, you stumble across gold. I was browsing through Google Scholar looking for an entirely work-related article today when I came across The Postmodernisation of Rugby Union in Australia published in the august journal Football Studies.

(As a side note, you can do an Honours Degree in Football Studies at Southampton Solent University. And Sydney University used to offer Cricket and the Law which was unfortunately cut before I could do it. I digress...)

Throughout my time as a rugby fan, I have given the game a great deal of thought - how the rules could be changed, whether the domestic game should expand into new states and countries, will the Waratahs ever win - but I must admit to having never thought of the effect of postmodern philosophy on rugby. I should have. This paper is a surprisingly interesting take on the evolution of the game.

Tahs vs HighlandersPostmodernism is defined, in the paper, thus:

Postmodernism represents a realisation that there is no single truth but multiple realities, all are legitimate and all equally valid; that individuals, societies and economies are not governed solely by instrumental reason but are subject to historical and cultural processes that cannot be explained by reason alone; that the human being is not necessarily the centre of the universe; that modernism is itself and egregious male oriented conceptualisation of the world and has consistently retarded female participation in human affairs (hence the emergence postmodern feminism); that capitalism is not the only desirable form of economic order; that progress does not mean marching linearly toward a predetermined goal; that the quality of life need not be measured in economic and material terms only; and that in human affairs aesthetic judgement is just as important as economic judgement.

Eh? Essentially this comes down to the idea that there is no one preferred way of doing things or making sense of the world. What does this mean for sport? During the preindustrial era, sport was unorganised and local. Violence was tolerated and sport was closely connected to the customs of the community. There were no governing bodies and the local town or village was the focal point of a tribal passion.

However, with capitalism came a transformation of sport, with violent and disorganised sports giving way to carefully regulated sports that were adapted to the constraints of time and space of the industrial city. By the end of the 1970s, sponsorship and media rights rivalled gate receipts, and television had created an audience that was a hundred times larger than ground attendance. Spectators and viewers were attracted as much to spectacular, time compressed contests, as they were to the traditional tribal performances of the past. This is highlighted by cricket's postmodernisation with World Series Cricket. Sport became entangled in a complex web of commercial arrangements, legal constraints and marketing deals.

Rugby was slow to come to the postmodern party due to its ties to its old-school traditions (remember, Rugby is named as such because it was first invented at the exclusive 'Rugby School' in the town of Rugby - many other British public schools had their own games played by no one else.) Finally by the 1990s, rugby decided its amateur traditions were no longer appropriate or relevant to its players or its fans.

Rugby SchoolThe authors conclude that postmodernism has removed the traditional metaphysical, mythical and social barriers that were thought to have divided business from sport (come on, you were just thinking that...) Rugby during the 1990s shows how traditional sporting values and practices were undermined by the postmodern forces of global consumer capitalism. Rugby's foundation of amateur values could not be sustained under the weight of global commercial forces. The rules and playing schedules had to change to meet the needs of customers and TV viewers. Simply put, the game had to managed not only as a sport, but also as a business.

Have a read the original article - it's a good read! The evolution of rugby is an interesting read for rugby fans and culture buffs alike. Sometimes it's nice to indulge some philosophy when you have your head in numbers all day!

Geek Pop 2010

This year’s Geek Pop festival launches on 12 March. Previously an online-only event, the festival is in its third year and is now adding live music to the programme, with gigs in Bristol and London.

Geek Pop is a celebration of science-inspired music and geek culture, featuring artists from around the globe. More than 30 artists are signed up to perform across its virtual and physical stages in 2010, with music from every set available to download for free.

Sponsored by Computer Geeks and the British Science Association, the Bristol live gig at Cube Microplex will kick off proceedings on 11 March, just ahead of the virtual launch. Geek Pop crew member Jim Bell is organising the Bristol event. “It’s been a huge undertaking this year,” he says. “But we’ve got some great geeky acts booked and there’s no doubt that adding live gigs to the programme has really helped get the word around.”

Many artists involved this year have been writing and recording new material specifically for the festival. Canadian hip-hop artist Baba Brinkman, known for his unique fusion of rap and evolution (or all things...), will be unveiling his rationalist anthem “Off That” at Geek Pop. And returning for the second year in a row, UK-based Spirit of Play will be performing brand new and specially tailored science songs at both the online event and London gig at The Miller on 18 March.

According to Festival Organiser, Hayley Birch, the festival has evolved rapidly since 2008. “In the first year, we only had about ten artists and none of the music was specifically written for us,” she says. “It’s great to see we’re establishing ourselves as an annual event and especially that we’re giving creative inspiration to musicians to make music about science.”

Previous years saw musicians perform online across the Tetrahedron and Reproductive stages, and Tesla Tent. This year, organisers commissioned Bristol-based illustrator Sam Church to re-design the site and have added another stage, The Comical Flask, where acts will be entertaining audiences with nerdy, science-based comedy.

From 12 March, festival-goers can experience the virtual festival from the comfort of their own homes by typing visiting the geekpop homepage. Further details of the Bristol and London live gigs, including how to buy tickets, are available. Given March 14th is pi day, I think the festival's timing is apt!

I spoke to Hayley Birch in 2008 about their inaugural festival - check out that interview in Ep 94: The Geek Pop Virtual Music Festival.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Correlation of the Week: Cocaine overdoses and the weather

Next time you head out for a big, expensive, lairy night out, check the temperature.

Amy Bohnert, Marta Prescott, David Vlahov, Kenneth Tardiff and Sandro Galea, in their paper Ambient temperature and risk of death from accidental drug overdose in New York City, 1990-2006, published in the journal Addiction, have found that there is a significant correlation between deaths due to accidental cocaine overdose and the temperature.

Using New York City mortality data from 1990 to 2006, and temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the researchers found that accidental overdose deaths due to cocaine in NYC rose significantly when the average weekly temperature passed 24 degrees Celsius.

The study showed no difference in the number of drug overdoses when the average weekly temperature was between -10 and 24 degrees Celsius. However, above 24 degrees Celsius, there were 0.25 more drug overdoses per 1,000,000 residents per week for every two degrees increase.  For New York City, this means that at least two more people per week will die of a drug overdose for each two degree rise in temperature above 24 degrees Celsius. There were approximately 7 weeks a year between 1990 and 2006 that had an average weekly temperature of 24 or above in New York City.

Cocaine-related overdose deaths increase as the ambient temperature rises because cocaine increases the core body temperature, impairs the cardiovascular system’s ability to cool the body, and decreases the sense of heat-related discomfort that ordinarily motivates people to avoid becoming overheated. Cocaine users who become overheated (hyperthermic) can overdose on lower amounts of cocaine because their bodies are under more stress.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Ep 123: Remote Medicine

Wadeye is a remote town in Australia's Northern Territory. It has a population of roughly 2500 people, 2200 of whom are Indigenous Australians, and as such is one of Australia's largest indigenous communities. The town is over 200 km southwest of Darwin, and during the wet season the only way in and out of the town is by air, as the roads are completely cut off.
Uploaded onto flickr by sarah_brooke00
The town has a number of social issues, with gang violence making international headlines in 2006. On average there are 16 people per house and the median age at death is an astoundingly low 46 years. This compares to the medium age at death of a non-indigenous person in the Northern Territory of over 70 years, and over 80 in other states (data here).

Wadeye's remoteness, social issues and cultural differences present a considerable challenge to the provision of quality health care. There is only one general practitioner in town with serious cases referred to Darwin. Victoria Bond (who you may have heard as a regular contributor to the Diffusion Science Radio Show) has taken a posting in Wadeye as part of her medical degree. I chatted to Victoria about the unique medical issues that have arisen in Wadeye, and what it's like as an American student in such a remote place.

To listen to this show, tune in here (or press play below):