Category Archives: science

What IS the deal with airplane food?

I know this gets brought up a lot. But seriously, what is the deal with airplane food?

It’s always horrible, and tasteless, and features some frankly bizarre choices.

Like the butter you get is always a frozen solid block. Wanna try warming it up by placing it on the cover of the hot section? Congratulations, you now have a a pool of grease over your lap.

And why are there always so many ‘bits?’ Do I really need a starter, main, pudding, AND a bread roll AND fruit juice AND a cup of tea? I’ve been on flights before where this is all followed an hour or two later by a wrap, a bag of crisps, and a Gü yoghurt. Why? Why does that happen? Just gimme a sandwich; I’ll live.

It’s always nice when the airline tries to make an effort and offer something exotic – like a curry. But it still ends up being all bland and horrible. But wait, is there a good reason for this?

SCIENCE

So apparently your taste buds are less, erm, good at tasting things at higher altitudes? And this means that airlines have to adapt their meals. Which is why they taste weird.

But that’s not all! It’s not just the altitude. The dryness of the cabin has an effect too, which makes you feel all thirsty. Your nose also gets all dried out, which has a negative effect on your olfactory senses.

I’ve also read that the noise on planes can have an impact too. Basically, the idea is that it’s so noisy that you enjoy your food less. Cool, huh?

So, to answer the question of what the deal of airplane food is…

  1. Altitude affects your taste buds.
  2. You get all dried out.
  3. It’s noisy.
  4. Airlines try to counteract the above by changing the recipes. And it all ends up kind of weird.

THAT’S THE DEAL WITH AIRPLANE FOOD, GUYS!

Still doesn’t explain the bizarre portion sizes though…

Why I don’t like TED talks

I’ve only ever seen two TED talks that I liked. Here’s the first:

That’s one of my comedy heroes, Ryan North. He’s talking about what it’d be helpful to know if you ever got sent back in time for some reason. So it’s useless information, practically, but it’s an entertaining little talk. That said, I pretty much just adore everything North does without hesitation, so I’m not really being fair.

Second is this one:

I like this one because he’s literally just mocking all TED speakers. I don’t really know how they let him do that, but it’s pretty great. And when I watched this I realised something, I don’t really like TED at all.

It’s hard to place my finger on exactly why though. In theory I should be all for it. Bringing science to the masses in an engaging way can only be a good thing, right? As a pseudo-academic, I should be celebrating such a lively festival of ideas and discussion. But it just never quite sits right with me. Whenever I try to watch a TED talk, I usually switch off pretty quickly.

Maybe science is just too boring for me to get into? But how can that be the case when you’ve got Neil Degrasse Tyson on a stage showering you with wonders of our incredible universe? What’s the source of my disconnect?

But now, I think I’ve figured it out – and I’ll do my best to articulate it. Basically, I’m uncomfortable with a quasi-demagogic delivery of scientific ideas. Yes, that is a super pretentious sentence – so let’s break it down.

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TED is full of people like this. Individuals who are experts in their field coming along to tell you how EVERYTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE soon or EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ISN’T ACTUALLY LIKE YOU THINK IT IS. TED talks are on hefty subjects like the future of the human race, or even the entire universe.

So you sit there, enticed by a video with a title such as “the wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn” and then sit through about 20 minutes of lecture. Note the principle at work here, it’s pretty similar to clickbait article like Buzzfeed. The promise of something earth-shattering that draws you in to engage. But then the actual video itself is devoid of much real content. What you actually get is something along the lines of:

  1. A long-winded introduction of who the speaker is
  2. A long-winded explanation of what the speaker’s relation to the question at hand is
  3. A long-winded anecdote of a personal experience of the question at hand
  4. Some slides with some graphs on them
  5. A short history of what the subject and why this changes everything
  6. Some cursory remarks actually related to the question
  7. Lots of unsubstantiated conjecture
  8. Heavy use of rhetorical questions to imply depth
  9. LONG PAUSES AFTER EVERY SENTENCE SO YOU CAN DRINK IN THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WHAT WAS JUST SAID

Basically, it’s a bad way of taking in information. The emphasis at TED is on entertainment over real science, no matter how it tries to convey itself. The speakers are there to amaze and dazzle you, which real science actually makes very hard to do.

Here’s a tweet I just saw, which is sort of relevant to the point I’m trying to make here-

This is something I touched on in my Big Bang Theory post recently. I’m against the ‘popularisation’ of science insofar at that means it being dumbed down (in principle, I’m all for more people getting into science of course). As this tweet says, it’s become cool to be ‘into science’ (thanks, TBBT!) but the ‘science’ that people are getting into is just this weird meme-tastic thing that is like science’s odd cousin. Sure, the basis of the stuff is science but it’s not actual science.

Basically I’m highly sceptical of the possibility of a single individual to deliver a meaningful explanation of any scientific topic within twenty minutes. To even reach an elementary understanding of many scientific principles requires years of study. I didn’t do any science subjects beyond GCSE, so even A-Level knowledge is technically beyond me. Could someone explain these principles to me? Sure. Could they cover a single subject in twenty minutes whilst also being entertaining? I doubt it.

Plus some of the speakers just come across as highly arrogant and patronising. Like shut up already, Bill Gates.

I’m not writing off all TED talks though. I’m sure there are some great ones out there that cover very specific topics. But I don’t feel they’ll ever be able to do justice to real scientific work. The work that takes years of experimentation, research and peer review. The real changes in science come gradually, only a few breakthroughs are ever made overnight.

A twenty minute talk can’t change the world. Twenty years of hard, highly specialised work can.

I couldn’t end, though, without sharing this. It’s a talk by Matt Inman (of The Oatmeal fame). It’s the kind of talk I like. It’s very funny, doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and manages to even smuggle in a few thought-provoking points without ever being grandiose. (Note that this isn’t a TED talk).

How I learned to start worrying and hate my genes

Genes! We’ve all got them. But what do they actually do? And can they predict the future?

Earlier this year I was reading a news story about how such-and-such genes can increase your risk of such-and-such. And I couldn’t help but find that terrifying. I mean, having it hard-coded into your DNA (literally speaking, not the horrible way this is used everywhere now) that you’re susceptible to things more than other people, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it, is pretty terrifying. A real life fatalist nightmare.

And worse still, unless you get tested there’s no way of knowing what your genes are. You could be sitting on a ticking time bomb of cancer risk genes right now and not even know it. Hell, you could wake up one day and have your head just suddenly explode! With genes, anything could happen.

As such, I couldn’t help but take interest when I noticed people talking about online gene analysis sites. Specifically, I saw some buzz around the site 23andMe – an online genetics report site, so called for the 23 pairs of chromosomes we have. With far too much time on my hands, I decided to give it a go.

Ordering the kit was a bit fiddly, since it was coming from America. The $99 for the kit wasn’t so bad, but I had to basically pay that again in shipping fees. But the kit arrived promptly within a few days.

I then had had the tricky task of using the kit. This involved snapping a load of tags and flasks and beakers and fluids and things, and spitting into a test tube. Not just a little spit either, like enough to fill a large dish. Seriously, it took me like 20 minutes and was pretty disgusting.

Next up, I had to return the thing. This took a few days as I had to schedule a DHL Express pickup and fill out a load of customs forms. I also had to answer the difficult question of what was in the package a few times, to which I just replied “er.. genetics..stuff?” The package itself had this written on it, which made it look even more suspicious:

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In any case, it seemed to arrive back at the lab without any trouble.

Now, I was in this for the whole health information aspect – I wanna know how I’m gonna die. But 23andMe has a strong focus on genealogy and all that, using the markers in your DNA to tell you where your ancestors came from. That’s all pretty interesting I guess, but it’s not that big of a deal for me. However, it quickly turned out that I should have done a bit more research, as the FDA shut down all other aspects of 23andme’s service. This meant they could only offer the genealogy stuff, and not the health stuff. Oops!

So anyway, the latest is that they’ve received my…sample and analysis has begun. Surprise surprise my genetic history is from Europe/Middle East, much like most people in Europe. Well, that’s kind of a letdown.

But it doesn’t end there. Turns out you can export the raw genetic data from 23andMe to other sites. Take THAT, FDA! Yay! So for a small £5 fee I sent my genetic code off to the good people at Promethease. 20 minutes later, I had my results.

And this is where it gets interesting.

The data is a bit hard to work through, as it’s all very technical and cross-referenced with actual genetic research sites. But Promethease do a pretty ok job of allowing you to navigate your results to find what you want. A lot of it looks like this:

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I don’t know what this means but it has a “Repute” value of bad. And that’s bad. And filtering by “Good”, “Bad” and neutral, I was able to get a good idea of what’s going on with my genome. Here are some highlights.

Starting with the Neither Good nor Bad:

  • GS144 – Male. Great! So at least we know this thing’s accurate.
  • GS114 – Western Europe Haplogroup Y. Again, yup! Pretty cool you can figure out where I’m from based on DNA.
  • RS1426654 – probably light-skinned. Bingo!
  • GS157 – more stimulated by coffee. Yeah, ok! I suppose. Maybe..
  • GS256 – blue eyes. Er, no? Apparently though “there seems to be a distinction between the dark brown eyes typical for asian and african ancestry, and ‘blue’ for lighter eyes found in europeans” so they get this one.
  • GS285 – you will lose 2.5x as much weight on a low fat diet. Cool, diet advice!
  • RS3124314 – straighter hair. Nice.
  • RS4570625 – higher scores on anxiety-related personality traits. It’s like they’re reading my mind!

And so on. These were all spookily accurate, giving me confidence in the other results too.

Next, the “Good”:

  • GS273 – Lowest risk (13% of white women) of Atrial Fibrillation reported by 23andMe. Yay!
  • RS9536314 – intelligence; longevity. Woo!
  • RS1815739 – Mix of muscle types. Likely sprinter. Erm, well I probably have done a sprint in my life at some point?
  • GS101 – probably able to digest milk. Uh, yeah, probably.
  • RS1042725 – ~0.4cm taller. Ladies.
  • RS671 – Alcohol Flush: Normal, doesn’t flush. Normal hangovers. Normal risk of Alcoholism. Normal risk of Esophageal Cancer. Disulfiram is effective for alcoholism. Cool.

And so on. Some less accurate stuff there, but pretty radical nonetheless.

Now the, er, “Bad”:

  • RS1333049 – 1.9x increased risk for CAD (Coronary Artery Disease). Well that sucks. Nothing I can do about it, looks like I’m gonna die of some huge heart attack 🙁
  • RS738409 – higher odds of alcoholic liver disease, increased liver fat. Combined with the whole “you’re good at alcohol” thing above, this kinda sucks too.
  • RS1021737 – significantly higher plasma total homocysteine concentration. GODDAMIT (?!)
  • RS1801282 – watch out for high fat in diet. Shut up, genes!
  • RS1042522 – Slightly shorter lifespan ;(
  • RS2180439 – Increased risk of Male Pattern Baldness. At this point, I stopped reading. My hair is my life.

There were a lot more scary ones too, which I didn’t like so much.

Can you genes tell you how you’re going to die? Well…. probably not. The results above are really just “x amount of people in this survey with this gene showed a tendency for y”. And lots of these are super common anyway (I think pretty much everyone is going to die of heart disease it seems).

So it’s kinda scary, but not really the worst thing ever. I’ll live!

Still kinda miffed about my homocysteine concentration though. Really thought I had that nailed down.

The many truths to be learnt from Facebook like pages

The search for truth is an endless one. I spent three years at university studying philosophy, attempting to come to terms with some of the ultimate realities of the universe. And before me, hundreds of scientists and thinkers have devoted their lives to the study of what is true.

Imagine my surprise then, when I learnt that the answers were within our grasp all along. I’d noticed a trend of articles being shared by my friends on Facebook, each with the promise of some hidden truth. And I’d never heard any of these before! Here are some examples:

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I mean, wow! The vibratory power of sacred words! We should probably let those scientists know about this right away, yeah? What a breakthrough!

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Cannabis-based batteries? Oh my god! This changes everything! The implications for mobile technology alone are enormous!

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Again, wowsers! A huge breakthrough about Stonehenge that changes everything! Of course, this probably should be documented in some archeological review journal rather than “www.collective-evolution.com” – but that’s just the beauty of the openness of the internet.

Fascinated by this sub-culture devoted to unearthing hidden truths that mainstream science refuses to acknowledge, I embarked on a project to submerge myself in it as fully as possible. I liked a number of Facebook pages, as shown here –

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For the record, I liked The Soulful Woman purely for balance. Who knows what advances that page might uncover that I’d miss if I didn’t like the page?

Anyway, I was quickly learning lots of new facts about the world. For instance, did you know that reincarnation is TRUE? As in, there’s like scientific evidence that proves it. Oh my god, right?

And every morning I’d have the distinct pleasure of reading inspirational quotes from famous historical figures such as Buddha and Einstein.

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And that really means a lot to me. It’s so deep and insightful.

But the real joy came from actually interacting with all this content. Underneath every post there’d be people celebrating the fact that this knowledge was now freely available to everyone. Or sharing tips on how to align their chakras with crystal harmonies. Basically all the things they don’t teach you in school!

I even began sharing the articles with others myself. After all, this stuff isn’t making the news (crazy right?) so it’s up to us to forma  kind of grassroots movement to put the info out there. I’d encourage you to do the same.

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And just check out that positivity! 20 minutes after I’d commented, the page admin themselves (surely a top scientific researcher at the Fractal Enlightenment labs) took the time to reply to me with thanks. Truly a humbling experience.

So the takeaway from this is that I’d encourage you to go out and seek these groups on Facebook for yourself. I guarantee you’ll learn something new and insightful.

You’ll thank me for it!