Field of Science

Review of the Year

The time of the year has arrived, where we all collectively look back, and go, what the hell was that ?
 I remember starting this year, with the absolute certainty that it was going to be terrible. VAT increases, job losses, public service cuts. 2010 was a year of extreme worry.
My Blogger traffic statistics hates 2010 so much that it has been completely expunged from the timeline.

But the traffic statistics also tell another story.
When I started this blog, nearly five years ago, it was purely as a revision aid, to help me set down my thoughts about certain subjects that I was studying. I didn't seek readership, and naturally I didn't get any, Then I started my PhD, and promptly forgot the damn thing existed.
Then in November 2010, I found myself directed to "science of blogging", and once again , enthused, I decided to start a blog. And then I found that Memoirs of a Defective Brain was still here. Everything was just as I left it, even though it had been such a long time. All of the posts that I published, all of the drafts that I intended to publish, but never did. I blew out the cobwebs, tightened up the site design, and started writing posts for research blogging, and for the MolBio carnival.
And something weird happened. People actually started reading. Every spike in my pageview statistics correlated with a spike in dopamine.  Of course finding the time to write the kind of blog posts I wanted was (and still is) time consuming. Nevertheless, when the Blogmaster solicited applications for new bloggers to join field of science, I signed up. Probably one of my best decisions ever.
That big spike in my stats in August came from a collaboration of multiple bloggers, where we each discussed the question "Are we doomed ?", and we got some excellent and creative posts about how dangerous viruses, Uncontrolled populations, Incredible Human Stupidity, and the universe is in general trying to kill us. I drew a silly comic where everyone had funny legs.
And since then , I've managed to keep a minimum of about 1,000 page views per month. My proudest achievement has my series on the history of scarlet fever. These have been in the works for a very long time, with many spare moments reading centuries old papers on scarlet fever and streptococci finally paying off. I learned about characters like Johann Weyer, Daniel Sennert and of course Thomas Sydenham, all of whom were interesting in their own right, and each of whom played a role in the History of Scarlet Fever.
And the process of researching and writing for this weblog has helped me innovate my own research, and those of my colleagues. But that's a story I'd like to tell another day, when I (or my colleagues) publish on it.
But it was not all happiness and blog writing. In the wider world, the year was not always so great.

Greece was caught out on it's tax returns, revealing the fragility of the european constitution, and bringing us to the precipice. We still don't know whether the european single market will collapse, and what effect that will have on the UK, but it's out of our hands, since we vacated our seat at the table.
Riots and protests have erupted worldwide. And when these riots turned up on my doorstep, I was surprised, worried and (shamefully) slightly thrilled.
But that same swell of global anger has shaken the foundations of governments worldwide. The Arab spring is the story of the year, with the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions toppling dictators. And every blow was filmed, tweeted and blogged. The power of protest had been demonstrated, and suddenly others worldwide found their voice. If they weren't happy about the way things were, there was something they could do about it. Suddenly financial centres worldwide began to attract occupiers. The idea of popular revolution, remixed and spread throughout the world.
And this is why I have hope for the next year. As hard as times get, humanities propensity for innovation will prevail. The ability to take one idea, re-assess it, improve it and develop and progress is our greatest strength.
And I can show one event that demonstrated this incredible ingenuity, of people taking one idea, and making it their own.

So what do we expect for 2012 ?

More posts on Scarlet Fever's History. You can look forward to learning about great doctors, like Francis Russell Elkington, and Robert Storr.
More Phylomon ! I have been lacking in inspiration lately, but next year I hope to start drawing more bacteria.
And of course, we can expect the giant space god of the Mayans to come down and say "Hey, you guys need a new calendar ? We heard your last one ran out".
And London 2012 will be so bad that the world will end out of sheer embarrassment.

Do you hate slow walkers? So does the Grim Reaper !

Researchers in Sydney, Australia were analysing mortality statistics, when they found an intriguing trend. They found that slow walkers tended to have a higher chance of dying early. Could this be a sign of an underlying lack of fitness in slow walkers? Or perhaps that laziness really can kill you ?
None of these explanations were satisfying. But then they realised the one unifying factor in these mortality statistics. Everyone had died. And as you well know, when you die, it is as a result of meeting that fabled entity, The Grim Reaper.

The Grim Reaper, the Harbinger of Souls, Friend to the Friendless, is known to stalk the halls of many a hospital. Despite the fact that this creature is believed to be responsible for 100% of all mortality statistics, it has barely been studied in the scientific literature.

So they did the sensible thing. They set up a study, and enlisted a number of participants, and measured their walking speed. They kept in touch with their participants, checking up on their health and ultimately recorded when they died.

They analysed the relationship between the average walking speed, and the likelihood of encountering the Grim Reaper. And they found that faster walkers do seem to outrun the Grim Reaper. To quote the paper
"Faster speeds are protective against mortality because fast walkers can maintain a safe distance from the Grim Reaper."
"The Grim Reaper prefers to walk at 0.82 m/s (2 miles (about 3 km) per hour), with a maximum estimated speed of 1.36 m/s (3 miles (about 5 km) per hour)"
Older men wishing to outrun the Grim Reaper should maintain walking speeds above these levels. The researchers did say "However, as it is possible that Death’s walking speed varies between work and leisure time,"
In terms of study limitations, they highlighted other problems:
"A further limitation is that we were unable to collect data on the presence of resources that have been reported as enabling people to avoid Death, such as invisibility cloaks, resurrection stones, and elder wands (collectively known as the Deathly Hallows)

They recognise that it is possible to trick, and /or outwit the grim reaper, and to investigate this they propose future work.
"Future research could investigate whether a person’s level of cunning, measured on a suitably developed scale such as the potential CCATBS (the Cunning, Conniving and All-round Tricky Bastard Scale), enables them to walk at slow speeds while still avoiding Death."

So avoid tragedy this Christmas. Walk Faster !

Stanaway FF, Gnjidic D, Blyth FM, Le Couteur DG, Naganathan V, Waite L, Seibel MJ, Handelsman DJ, Sambrook PN, & Cumming RG (2011). How fast does the Grim Reaper walk? Receiver operating characteristics curve analysis in healthy men aged 70 and over. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 343 PMID: 22174324

When Phylomon fall from the sky

The winter winds are blowing. These cold winds whip bacteria up into the atmosphere. These tiny specks of life, unaware of the vast sphere turning beneath them, feel only the cold. 
And one particular species of bacterium does something quite special. This bacterium is known as Pseudomonas syringae.
Usually, this unassuming life form lives in plants. It has a number of strategies to attack its plant host, to break apart the cells of a plant to release the delicious nutrients within. Usually, this involves a number of virulence factors, lethal proteins which it injects into the cells. But as winter sets in, this becomes more difficult. The bacterium begins to freeze. But this bacterium still has a trick up it's metaphorical sleeve.
It uses winter as a weapon. As winter sets in, it produces special proteins. These proteins allow ice to form around them, such that they grow out like daggers. These pierce into it's host, ensuring that there will be a nutrient rich bounty waiting for the bacterium when the thaw comes.
But occasionally, a strong wind will blow the bacterium away.  And as the bacterium gets higher in the atmosphere, it senses the chill. And, just as it would on a plant, it produces nucleation proteins. Ice crystals begin to form around it. It becomes encased in the heart of a snowflake, and returns to earth.

Olfactory Reference Syndrome: My attempt at self diagnosis

When one is in their first relationship, mistakes are made. There are certain unspoken rules that a novice can accidentally break. Forgetting to hold the door open, laughing at the wrong moment, or believing them when they say "I don't want a Valentines day gift". I had watched many colleagues fall foul of these errors, and vowed to not make these errors with my first girlfriend. I was young, naive and almost certainly scared.
You see, my first girlfriend had several burly, older brothers, which as you may imagine, raised the stakes somewhat.
So the situation is thus. After a day at her place, her mother kindly decided to drop me off at the station so that I could go home. Of course my girlfriend decided to ride along, because it was the decent thing to do. 
 A perfectly innocent situation, the only risk being the necessarily stilted conversation with the mother. Keep to short sentences. The less words said, the less chance of causing offence.
But then the worst thing that could possibly happen in an enclosed space with both my girlfriend and her mother. But soon, there was something else in the room. It announced it's presence in the most subtle of ways. It was barely audible.
The sound of a zipper being pulled very slowly. As it got louder, it's pitch deepened. Soon, we were regaled with the wet baritone creak of a troubled colon. I didn't, and still don't understand how such a small girl could have created such a noise. I may have been able to keep my composure, if I hadn't had to cope with the humid stench that enveloped the car.
"Did you just fart ?!" I exclaimed.
"No" she responded, with an angelic expression.
"I'm pretty sure...." 
" No, I think that was you" With absolute conviction.
At this point , my subconscious began to ring alarm bells. I was about to get into an argument in front of her mother. If I came across as too confrontational, her mother would probably assume that I was a wife beater, and I would have to go to prison, where I would get the stuffing kicked out of me by the aforementioned brothers.*
Just by giving into the juvenile impulse of naming and shaming those who loudly produce gas, I had stumbled into minefield. 
What could I do? I could simply keep telling the truth and call her a liar. I could accuse her mother, who was also another person in the car who didn't fart. Only one other option remained.
"oh, err, my mistake" were the words that I probably mumbled. Perhaps this was another one of those unwritten chivalric rules that are alluded to but never mentioned. Maybe all men take responsibility for whatever untoward smells that emanate from their partners. Unless there's a dog present .Then blame the heck out of it**. Dogs don't care. 
Or maybe I actually did emit the horrible fart. That would make far more sense*. Perhaps in it's eternal plots against me, my rectum finally devised a way to sneak odours past me without my knowledge. Worst of all, it had learned to throw it's voice. This one incident may have triggered a disorder knonw formally as "Olfactory Reference Syndrome".
This disorder has been recognised in psychiatry under a number of different names since the 1890's, and a recent systematic review set out to examine this as a disease in it's own right.
They set out three diagnostic criteria:

1) The belief that one emits a malodourous smell ("it does not have to be delusional")
2) This belief causes clinically significant distress
3) This is not a manifestation of another disorder, and that this was a unique condition in it's own right.

So they scoured the literature, and found 180 reported examples of this disorder between the years of 1890, to 2009. Of these, only 82 cases were suitable for analysis. Of these, the majority of the victims were male, and the median age of onset was 15.
Often, this disorder would be triggered by a precipitating event, such as the one I described above. So perhaps this psychological trait could explain why I spent the rest of my teenage years doused in aftershave.
On the basis of this trawl through the literature, the authors suggest that this should be recognised as it's own disorder. However, It should be noted that a large proportion of the cases excluded from this study were done so because the delusional odour manifested as a part of different psychiatric disease.
But here is the thing. Whilst I may have gotten slightly paranoid over this event, it never got to the point where it caused significant distress. The "significant cause of distress" in my life dumped me soon after this event. Whilst I woried about it, it never spilled over into the kind of pathology seen in real sufferers from this disease. People who genuinely smell odours that are not there, people who end up obseesively trying to manage odours that aren't present. In some cases, it ended up getting to the point where their doctors had to prescribe medical treatments to get them to stop.
My technique of occasionally dousing myself in aftershave before meeting people seems tame by comparison. Like many psychological traits, this syndrome can manifest at many levels of severity, and only a relatively small portion of people express it severely enough to actually qualify as sufferers. My case was easy enough to get over. I now have a huge collection of aftershave that I no longer use. Although people still keep giving them to me at birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgivng, and Ohmygodgetyourarmpitoutofmypostcode day.

* this was what passed for logical thinking when I was a teenager.
** For a long time I suspected this was the real reason rich girls carry dogs around in handbags.

Begum M, & McKenna PJ (2011). Olfactory reference syndrome: a systematic review of the world literature. Psychological medicine, 41 (3), 453-61 PMID: 20529415