Now that’s what I call history

September 25, 2009

I first heard about Big History around a year ago and it really caught my imagination. Big History is a new way of looking at the subject, which attempts to examine history on a large scale across long time frames through a multi-disciplinary approach. The starting point is the origins of the Universe some 13.5 billion years ago. And it continues with the creation of stars, planets, including our own Earth. Finally it charts the evolution of life on Earth and the appearance of humans, which is nearly halfway through the course. In fact really humans should appear much later in the course but it would probably be too much of a blow to our egos.

 I really like the multi-disciplinary approach. It draws on such fields as anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, biology, climatology, cosmology, geology natural history. You may find this too broad but I really enjoy this big sweep. Too often we compartmentalise things and we fail to see the interconnectedness of events. To limit history to the written word is a mistake; Big History makes use of all possible time scales – not just those used in traditional history. The biological, geological and cosmological time frames give us a much deeper understanding our place within the Universe and enable us to see the underlying unity of modern knowledge

As an academic discipline Big History began in the late 1980s. One of the pioneers was David Christian, who started an experimental course with help from scientific colleagues. He rather frivolously coined the term Big History but it stuck. Christian now teaches at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The discipline was helped by some important breakthroughs that enabled scientists to date the origins of the universe. By using Radiometric dating techniques, scientists can construct a coherent and rigorous scientific explanation going right back to the Big Bang.

In order to explain Professor Christian uses eight thresholds, events which were real turning points:

Threshold 1—Origins of Big Bang Cosmology

Threshold 2—The First Stars and Galaxies

Threshold 3—Making Chemical Elements

Threshold 4—The Earth and the Solar System

Threshold 5—Life

Threshold 6—What Makes Humans Different?

Threshold 7—Agriculture

Threshold 8—The Modern Revolution

This gives you a good idea of the vast time scale of the course – events like The French Revolution hardly get a look in.  Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything touches on many of the themes in Big History. If you want to a more academic approach into the subject, Professor David Christian has a book called Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. There is a problem with this material – it can overwhelm you. I have big problems getting a handle on quantum mechanics or superstring theory; I was one of those people who hated science at school. But like the aforementioned Bryson I have now developed a keen interest in science. I know it’s not always possible to understand everything but you can still get some appreciation of the forces that brought us here.


Put-pocketing and other new words

September 25, 2009

Here is a selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

 

put-pocketing

Putting an object into a person’s pocket without that person knowing it. Also: putpocketing.

 

mumblecore

An independent film genre characterized by low-budget production values, unknown actors, and a constant stream of low-key, semi-improvised dialogue.

 

digital nomad

A person who uses technology, particularly wireless networking, to work without requiring an office or other fixed address.

 

YIMBY

A person who favours a project that would add a dangerous or unpleasant feature to his or her neighbourhood. [Acronym from the phrase yes in my back yard.]

 

SPF creep

The gradual increase in sun protection factor (SPF) numbers in sunscreens and some cosmetic products.  In the US they now have SPF 100. Is this advanced protection…or advanced hype?

 

frequency illusion

The tendency to notice instances of a particular phenomenon once one starts to look for it, and to therefore believe erroneously that the phenomenon occurs frequently.

Illusion, to use the term coined by linguist A

 

intexticated

Preoccupied by reading or sending text messages, particularly while driving a car.

 

Wikipedia kid

A student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically.

 

carrotmob

An event where people support an environmentally-friendly store by gathering en masse to purchase the store’s products. Also: carrot mob.


My media week 27/09/09

September 25, 2009

Salon.com has a piece, Is the Internet melting our brains?, about moral panics created over new communication technologies. It is an interview with Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and author of A Better Pencil. Here is an extract:

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won’t have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there’s no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant — it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of “this is going to revolutionize everything” versus “this is going to destroy everything.”

 

The Bottom Line came back on BBC Radio 4 this week. The business discussion programme dealt with managing expectations and why the dreaded business meeting is still very much on the agenda.

 

 John Kay has written this piece: The Reform of Banking Regulation. He sets out his vision for the future.

 

The Onion features this article: Nadir Of Western Civilization To Be Reached This Friday At 3:32 P.M.

 

John Crace’s digested read dealt with the new Dan Brown bestseller The Lost Symbol.


My new toy

September 20, 2009

About a year ago I did a post called Some Thoughts on Books. In it I mentioned The Kindle, Amazon’s electronic book. I expressed some scepticism about this kind of device. However I now have availed myself of an electronic reading device – but not the Kindle. I plumped instead for the Sony PRS 505, which cost me £159 at WH Smith I’ve had it for just over a month now and so far I have read nine books and the experience is very satisfactory.

           

            My one is silver. It weighs around 260 grams and its size is a very convenient 175mm by 122mm by 8mm. The great thing is that it is compatible with a lot of different formats, which is not typical for the Japanese multinational. The internal memory of 200MB holds around 160 e-books, although this depends on the size of the book and also the format. PDF files can take up a lot of space. For example, a 250-page book on PDF could use up a lot more space than War and Peace. SD and Memory Stick slots can be used to expand the memory but surely 100 books is enough? I prefer to keep the rest of the books on my computer. The e-book comes with a CD featuring 100 classic works – Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde to name but a few authors. It’s incredibly easy to use – its navigation very intuitive. The page turning does take a split second to refresh the page. Some people find this slow but when you are reading a normal book, it also takes a time to turn a page. This page turning is what uses up the battery. You can do some 7,500 turns before you need to recharge the battery, which for me is about two weeks. The recharging can be done with the USB port of the PC. It is compatible with a lot of different formats, which is not typical for the Japanese multinational.

 

 

            What are the pros and cons? For me the biggest advantage is space. My house is already overflowing with books. I love being able to have my books stored on my computer just like with music. There is so much stuff available for free on the Internet. The reading experience is also excellent; e-ink is nothing to like reading on a computer screen – it’s very easy on the eyes. With the option of three font sizes, it is actually more comfortable for me.

 

        For me the con is still the price. In the future I hope there will be a models costing under  100. What  I would like is a simple model without too many bells and whistles. The Kindle has a lot of gee-whiz technology; you can order a book and have it on the device in one minute. You don’t even need a computer. This is all great but I feel that the cost of e-books doesn’t reflect the savings in materials and transport. As a person who would always wait for the paperback, $9.99 is a bit steep for a book.

         What is the future of these machines. I really don’t know because these gadgets are constantly changing. They say that dedicated devices are on the way out and we will have multipurpose machines are the future. I have noticed that when I show it to people they don’t say I must buy that. I also never see commuters on the underground reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on an e-book . Maybe it is just going to be a niche market. What I don’t know is how I’m going to find time to do my blog with the thousands of books I have to read.


Dan Brown’s 20 worst sentences

September 20, 2009

This week Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol came out and the Telegraph celebrated with a piece about Brown’s 20 worst sentences. The critics do not share the public’s enthusiasm. The article quotes Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum says “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.”  I’m sure the author won’t be too bothered and I have to confess I shall be one of those reading it. Anyway, here is the Telegraph’s top 20 with comments:

 

20. Angels and Demons, chapter 1: Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal — wisp of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. They say the first rule of fiction is “show, don’t tell”. This fails that rule.

 

19. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 83: “The Knights Templar were warriors,” Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space. “Remind” is a transitive verb – you need to remind someone of something. You can’t just remind. And if the crutches echo, we know the space is reverberant.

 

18. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: He could taste the familiar tang of museum air – an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon – the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors. Ah, that familiar tang of deionised essence.

 

17. Deception Point, chapter 8: Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes. It’s not clear what Brown thinks ‘precarious’ means here.

 

16. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. A silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away. What’s wrong with this picture?

 

15. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he’d suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces – elevators, subways, squash courts. Other enclosed spaces include toilet cubicles, phone boxes and dog kennels.

 

14. Angels and Demons, chapter 100: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata. The Rio de la Plata. Between Argentina and Paraguay. One of the major rivers of the Old World. Apparently.

 

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 5: Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué. A keen eye indeed.

 

13 and 12. The Lost Symbol, chapter 1: He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.  The Da Vinci Code, chapter 17: Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office. Oh – the Falcon 2000EX with the Pratt & Whitneys? And the Manurhin MR-93? Not the MR-92? You’re sure? Thanks.

 

11. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters. Do angry oxen carry throw their shoulders back and tuck their chins into their chest? What precisely is a fiery clarity and how does it forecast anything? Once again, it is not clear whether Brown knows what ‘forecast’ means.

 

10. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Five months ago, the kaleidoscope of power had been shaken, and Aringarosa was still reeling from the blow. Did they hit him with the kaleidoscope?

 

9. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 32: The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. “SmartCar,” she said. “A hundred kilometers to the liter.” Pro tip: when fleeing from the police, take a moment to boast about your getaway vehicle’s fuel efficiency. And get it wrong by a factor of five. SmartCars do about 20km (12 miles) to the litre.

 

8. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 3: My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.

And they say the schools are dumbing down.

 

7 and 6. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 33: Pulling back the sleeve of his jacket, he checked his watch – a vintage, collector’s-edition Mickey Mouse wristwatch that had been a gift from his parents on his tenth birthday.

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 6: His last correspondence from Vittoria had been in December – a postcard saying she was headed to the Java Sea to continue her research in entanglement physics… something about using satellites to track manta ray migrations. In the words of Professor Pullum: “It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance to what is being narrated.”

 

5. Angels and Demons, chapter 4: learning the ropes in the trenches. Learning the ropes (of a naval ship) while in the trenches (with the army in the First World War). It’s a military education, certainly.

 

4, 3, and 2. The Da Vinci Code, opening sentence: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Angels and Demons, opening sentence: Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Deception Point, opening sentences: Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him. Professor Pullum: “Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence”.

 

1. The Da Vinci Code: Title. The Da Vinci Code. Leonardo’s surname was not Da Vinci. He was from Vinci, or of Vinci. As many critics have pointed out, calling it The Da Vinci Code is like saying Mr Of Arabia or asking What Would Of Nazareth Do?


QI: A selection #4

September 20, 2009

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

French fries were invented in 17th-century Belgium as a substitute for, rather than accompaniment to, fish. When the rivers froze and fish couldn’t be caught, potatoes were cut into fishy shapes and fried instead. The Dutch call chips Vlaamse frieten (Flemish fries). The first recorded chip shop, Max et Fritz, was established in Antwerp in 1862. The Belgian’s often claim the term “French fry” came from British and US troops exposed to their national delicacy during the First World War, but the expression “French fried potatoes” had been in use in America long before the Great War.

In 2005 the British Cheese Board organised a study involving 200 volunteers in an attempt to nail the old wives’ tale that eating cheese before sleep gives you nightmares. The results revealed a different story: more than three quarters of the participants, who ate 20 grams of cheese before going to bed, reported undisturbed sleep, although the majority of them were able to recall their dreams. More surprisingly, the different varieties of cheese seemed to produce different kinds of dream. Cheddar induced a higher proportion of dreams about celebrities; Red Leicester summoned childhood memories; Lancashire generated dreams about work; while Cheshire inspired no dreams at all. The overall conclusion was that cheese was a perfectly safe late-night snack which, because of its high levels of the serotonin-producing amino acid tryptophan, was far more likely to induce sleep and reduce stress.

 

Clouds are classified according to their height and appearance. The 10 basic categories were first agreed by the Cloud Committee of the International Meteorological Conference in 1896 and published as the International Cloud Atlas. Their classifications were based on the pioneering work of Luke Howard (1772-1864), an English Quaker and pharmacist, who published his Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1802. In it he gives Latin names to the four main cloud types: cirrus, “curl”; stratus, “layer”; cumulus, “heap”; and nimbus, “rain cloud”. The early theorist of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had suggested an earlier system in French but it didn’t catch on – his names included “hazy clouds” (en forme de voile), “massed clouds” (attroupes), “broom-like clouds” (en balayeurs). Before Howard and Lamarck, clouds were simply named after their appearance: white, black, mare’s tail or mackerel. In Iran clouds are good omens. To indicate someone is blessed they say: dayem semakum ghaim, which translates as “your sky is always filled with clouds”.

 

The largest bank note in England is the one hundred million pound note, nicknamed a Titan. It is only used internally at the Bank of England, and there are only 40 in existence.

 

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) actually lasted 116 years and didn’t acquire its popular name until 1874. It was a series of skirmishes fought between two French families, one of whom claimed the French throne (Valois), while the other claimed both France and England (Plantagenet). The eventual victory of the Valois came at a high price – France’s population was reduced by two-thirds over the period and England was left isolated from the rest of Europe, speaking English rather than French.

 

Giant Sequoia trees are the heaviest living things to have existed on Earth: they can weigh more than 6,000 tons, reach 311 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter. Their bark is up to four feet thick, but the seeds are tiny, weighing 1/3000th of an ounce each, approximately one billionth the weight of the fully grown tree. Also known as Wellingtonia trees, Giant Sequoias are native to California but have been planted worldwide. They are also the fastest growing trees in the world. Paradoxically, forest fires are essential for their survival. Because of their thick bark, sequoias survive fires which completely destroy all other trees, leaving the forest clear of undergrowth, which enables the sequoia’s absurdly tiny seeds to survive. The trees also rely on the heat of the fires to open their tough seed cones and to expose the bare soil. Because of this the US Forest Service now regularly sets fire to their sequoia groves on purpose.

 

Iceland is a bigger land mass than most of us realise. At 39,000 sq m (101010 sq km) it is the same size as Cuba, 25 per cent bigger than Ireland and 50 per cent bigger than Sri Lanka. Despite this its population is slightly smaller than that of Croydon: 310,000. This means that, per head of population, Icelanders read more books, eat more sugar, keep more shotguns, drive more four-wheel drives, produce more poets and have more Nobel Prize winners (just the one) than any other nation. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the United Nations. In 2003 three Icelandic banks – Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir – began buying foreign assets, building up a joint portfolio of $140 billion (£92 bn). By 2006, the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, but the prosperity ended abruptly in October 2008, when the three banks failed. Iceland now faces an economy saddled with debts running at 850 per cent of GDP, or £224,000 owed for every man, woman and child in the country. The UK deposited more than £30 bn into Iceland. Educational institutions have been particularly affected –Oxford University alone has lost £50 million.

 

The most plausible biological explanation for kissing is that it allows prospective mates to sample one another’s pheromones and test them for biological compatibility (although experiments have so far been unable to establish if human sex pheromones really exist). It takes a lot of muscular co-ordination to kiss properly – 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are involved.

 

The early uses for chocolate were medicinal and in recent years bold claims have been made for its therapeutic benefits. Chocolate contains serotonin, phenylethylamine (the so-called ”love chemical’’) and endorphins which, it is claimed, can relieve pain, reduce stress and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, the beneficial chemicals come wrapped in a thick coating of sugar and (often) dairy fat, the negative effects of which more than outweigh the chemical upside. Interestingly, in blind tests where chocolate lovers were given cacao capsules (containing the same balance of chemicals) they didn’t report any of the same psychological benefits they had experienced when allowed to eat a bar of their favourite chocolate. This suggests that the positive effects come from having satisfied a craving; like other sweet and fatty foods, chocolate is habit forming. And yet, so powerful are the pleasure centres in our brain, that sucking on a piece can make your heart beat faster and for longer than a passionate kiss.

 

The astronomical name for our Sun is Sol. Everything about Sol is big: it makes up 99 per cent of the mass of the solar system (all the planets and asteroids added together only account for 1 per cent). It burns 700 million tons of hydrogen a second yet it takes a million years for the energy created in its core to filter out to the surface, which is 3,000 times cooler than the centre (16.7 million C). Every second, Sol produces energy equivalent to 35 million times the annual electricity consumption of North America. Sol is 1.3 million times bigger than Earth and at 93 million miles distance, its rays take just eight minutes and 19 seconds to reach us. Despite these figures, Sol is an average to small star, known as a white dwarf, halfway through its life. Close neighbour Betelgeuse (one of the constellation Orion’s ”shoulders’’) is 700 times bigger and 14,000 times brighter. Sol is only one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is itself just one of an estimated 125 million galaxies in the observable universe.

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

 

French fries were invented in 17th-century Belgium as a substitute for, rather than accompaniment to, fish. When the rivers froze and fish couldn’t be caught, potatoes were cut into fishy shapes and fried instead. The Dutch call chips Vlaamse frieten (Flemish fries). The first recorded chip shop, Max et Fritz, was established in Antwerp in 1862. The Belgian’s often claim the term “French fry” came from British and US troops exposed to their national delicacy during the First World War, but the expression “French fried potatoes” had been in use in America long before the Great War.

 

In 2005 the British Cheese Board organised a study involving 200 volunteers in an attempt to nail the old wives’ tale that eating cheese before sleep gives you nightmares. The results revealed a different story: more than three quarters of the participants, who ate 20 grams of cheese before going to bed, reported undisturbed sleep, although the majority of them were able to recall their dreams. More surprisingly, the different varieties of cheese seemed to produce different kinds of dream. Cheddar induced a higher proportion of dreams about celebrities; Red Leicester summoned childhood memories; Lancashire generated dreams about work; while Cheshire inspired no dreams at all. The overall conclusion was that cheese was a perfectly safe late-night snack which, because of its high levels of the serotonin-producing amino acid tryptophan, was far more likely to induce sleep and reduce stress.

 

Clouds are classified according to their height and appearance. The 10 basic categories were first agreed by the Cloud Committee of the International Meteorological Conference in 1896 and published as the International Cloud Atlas. Their classifications were based on the pioneering work of Luke Howard (1772-1864), an English Quaker and pharmacist, who published his Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1802. In it he gives Latin names to the four main cloud types: cirrus, “curl”; stratus, “layer”; cumulus, “heap”; and nimbus, “rain cloud”. The early theorist of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had suggested an earlier system in French but it didn’t catch on – his names included “hazy clouds” (en forme de voile), “massed clouds” (attroupes), “broom-like clouds” (en balayeurs). Before Howard and Lamarck, clouds were simply named after their appearance: white, black, mare’s tail or mackerel. In Iran clouds are good omens. To indicate someone is blessed they say: dayem semakum ghaim, which translates as “your sky is always filled with clouds”.

 

The largest bank note in England is the one hundred million pound note, nicknamed a Titan. It is only used internally at the Bank of England, and there are only 40 in existence.

 

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) actually lasted 116 years and didn’t acquire its popular name until 1874. It was a series of skirmishes fought between two French families, one of whom claimed the French throne (Valois), while the other claimed both France and England (Plantagenet). The eventual victory of the Valois came at a high price – France’s population was reduced by two-thirds over the period and England was left isolated from the rest of Europe, speaking English rather than French.

 

Giant Sequoia trees are the heaviest living things to have existed on Earth: they can weigh more than 6,000 tons, reach 311 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter. Their bark is up to four feet thick, but the seeds are tiny, weighing 1/3000th of an ounce each, approximately one billionth the weight of the fully grown tree. Also known as Wellingtonia trees, Giant Sequoias are native to California but have been planted worldwide. They are also the fastest growing trees in the world. Paradoxically, forest fires are essential for their survival. Because of their thick bark, sequoias survive fires which completely destroy all other trees, leaving the forest clear of undergrowth, which enables the sequoia’s absurdly tiny seeds to survive. The trees also rely on the heat of the fires to open their tough seed cones and to expose the bare soil. Because of this the US Forest Service now regularly sets fire to their sequoia groves on purpose.

 

Iceland is a bigger land mass than most of us realise. At 39,000 sq m (101010 sq km) it is the same size as Cuba, 25 per cent bigger than Ireland and 50 per cent bigger than Sri Lanka. Despite this its population is slightly smaller than that of Croydon: 310,000. This means that, per head of population, Icelanders read more books, eat more sugar, keep more shotguns, drive more four-wheel drives, produce more poets and have more Nobel Prize winners (just the one) than any other nation. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the United Nations. In 2003 three Icelandic banks – Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir – began buying foreign assets, building up a joint portfolio of $140 billion (£92 bn). By 2006, the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, but the prosperity ended abruptly in October 2008, when the three banks failed. Iceland now faces an economy saddled with debts running at 850 per cent of GDP, or £224,000 owed for every man, woman and child in the country. The UK deposited more than £30 bn into Iceland. Educational institutions have been particularly affected –Oxford University alone has lost £50 million.

 

The most plausible biological explanation for kissing is that it allows prospective mates to sample one another’s pheromones and test them for biological compatibility (although experiments have so far been unable to establish if human sex pheromones really exist). It takes a lot of muscular co-ordination to kiss properly – 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are involved.

 

The early uses for chocolate were medicinal and in recent years bold claims have been made for its therapeutic benefits. Chocolate contains serotonin, phenylethylamine (the so-called ”love chemical’’) and endorphins which, it is claimed, can relieve pain, reduce stress and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, the beneficial chemicals come wrapped in a thick coating of sugar and (often) dairy fat, the negative effects of which more than outweigh the chemical upside. Interestingly, in blind tests where chocolate lovers were given cacao capsules (containing the same balance of chemicals) they didn’t report any of the same psychological benefits they had experienced when allowed to eat a bar of their favourite chocolate. This suggests that the positive effects come from having satisfied a craving; like other sweet and fatty foods, chocolate is habit forming. And yet, so powerful are the pleasure centres in our brain, that sucking on a piece can make your heart beat faster and for longer than a passionate kiss.

 

The astronomical name for our Sun is Sol. Everything about Sol is big: it makes up 99 per cent of the mass of the solar system (all the planets and asteroids added together only account for 1 per cent). It burns 700 million tons of hydrogen a second yet it takes a million years for the energy created in its core to filter out to the surface, which is 3,000 times cooler than the centre (16.7 million C). Every second, Sol produces energy equivalent to 35 million times the annual electricity consumption of North America. Sol is 1.3 million times bigger than Earth and at 93 million miles distance, its rays take just eight minutes and 19 seconds to reach us. Despite these figures, Sol is an average to small star, known as a white dwarf, halfway through its life. Close neighbour Betelgeuse (one of the constellation Orion’s ”shoulders’’) is 700 times bigger and 14,000 times brighter. Sol is only one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is itself just one of an estimated 125 million galaxies in the observable universe.


My media week 20/09/09

September 20, 2009

We have all heard of             Christian funamentalism but this week The New Humanist has a feature about Harun Yahy, a Muslim creationist who wants to demonstrate the superiority of “Koranic science” over “the evolution lie”. Sex, flies and videotape: the secret lives of Harun Yahya.

 

NPR has a feature about Google and its digitalisation of all the world’s books. Here is the introduction:

Before Gutenberg, books were precious commodities, literacy was equally rare, and the flow of ideas scarcely amounted to a trickle. Movable type made printing easy and cheap. All kinds of books became available to a much wider audience, and the world changed. We may be at such a moment right now. Millions of books are being scanned into digital libraries that should make enormous volumes of material available to anybody. And this time, the agent of change isn’t Gutenberg but Google. How all this will happen is important and the subject of argument among writers’ groups, publishers, libraries and privacy advocates, but that it will happen seems beyond dispute.

Who Should Control The Virtual Library? This audio comes with a transcript.

 

The Independent has a piece about the French attempt to aprovide an alternative to GDP: Sarkozy’s happiness index is worth taking seriously.


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