All posts by Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?

Book Review – Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep

Reading Spindles is a bit like a restless night’s sleep. ‘Stories from the Science of Sleep’ is an anthology of fiction short stories sandwiched between commentaries by real scientists. Published by not-for-profit publishing house Comma Press, fourteen tales catch snapshots of the lives of fictional characters – and, in one memorable tale, Gods – whose lives are affected in some way by sleep disorders. Drifting between this eclectic mix of stories to the next is like journeying through strange and vivid dreams, some are good, and some you may not wish to repeat.

Comma Press specialise in promoting new writers and this book’s various, largely unknown, authors are paired with experienced scientists, on whose area of expertise they draw inspiration from. Each of dream-like story is followed a scientists’ afterword, which eagerly teases out the science from the fiction. They describe current theories and research that underpin the preceding story, while commenting on the plausibility of each. The mix of science and story-telling is a refreshing one that will appeal to science and fiction fans alike, and is reminiscent of Oliver Sack’s story-science technique used in his best seller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

The book’s editors tell us that most people’s understanding of what goes on during shut-eye is still stuck in century old science. Many of us still think, like Freud, that dreams always reflect repressed inner desires and lusts. The media and popular press haven’t kept up with innovations in sleep research, and so Spindles seeks to rouse us into the modern scientific era. The result is a collection of stories that vary greatly in both style and substance. Two stories in particular, by Martyn Bedford and Ian Watson, exemplify polar opposites of style. Bedford’s subtle writing draws you into his characters’ world without you even realising it. Whereas Watson’s short, emotive sentences are crafted to impart emotion, but falls rather flat.

The book’s editors tell us that most people’s understanding of what goes on during shut-eye is still stuck in century old science. Many of us still think, like Freud, that dreams always reflect repressed inner desires and lusts. The media and popular press haven’t kept up with innovations in sleep research, and so Spindles seeks to rouse us into the modern scientific era. The result is a collection of stories that vary greatly in both style and substance. Two stories in particular, by Martyn Bedford and Ian Watson, exemplify polar opposites of style. Bedford’s subtle writing draws you into his characters’ world without you even realising it. Whereas Watson’s short, emotive sentences are crafted to impart emotion, but falls rather flat.

Martyn Bedford’s story follows Kim, a ‘sleep technician’, whose job is to watch over Charlotte, a young woman who has been sleeping continuously for a year. Having suffered extended periods of blissful sleep broken by episodes of depression-filled wakefulness, Charlotte eventually slips into unending sleep. A media storm follows as the world waits for something – anything – to happen to this sleeping beauty. Bedford’s tale is full of empty space and silence, echoing the night-time world in which Kim watches and Charlotte sleeps eternally. Kim dwells on the increasing loneliness of her life and watches Charlotte’s mother, Evelyn, weeping over her daughter’s sleeping body. It is a wholly unsettling tale; the idea that one day you could go to sleep and simply never wake up is horrifying. Co-writer Professor Ed Watkins is quick to assure us in that such permanent slumber is not possible but hypersomnia – the condition of prolonged sleep – is very real. Professor Watkins explains that hypersomnia seems to be inextricably linked to depression but that there are, thankfully, biological limits to sleep duration. If sleeping beauty were to exist, she would be in a coma, not sleeping.

A vastly different tale is told by Ian Watson, who gives us a fast-paced, visceral and downright surreal glimpse into the night-time activities of ancient humans (including the narrator enthusiastically cheering on the people having sex in the next tree over). During a time of midnight wakefulness, Watson’s ‘hoomans’ become uniquely susceptible to the ‘culturing’ influences of an alien civilisation. These mysterious aliens use mind manipulation to promote self-awareness in the human race in an attempt to create a species with a consciousness to rival their own. (Don’t tell the conspiracy theorists!) Dr Thomas Wehr’s rather more down-to-earth afterword tells of his own research into the sleeping patterns of humans in a world before the advent of artificial light. He explains that, while alien civilisations aren’t likely to be speaking into anyone’s mind at night, there is some truth to the vulnerability of our night-time minds. In one of his experiments, he forced subjects into 14 hours of complete darkness every day for a month, discovering that rather than sleeping once per night, they slept twice in two 3-5 hour ‘shifts’ with 1-2 hours of wakefulness in between. In this period of night time wakefulness, hormone secretion mimicked meditation and the stage of sleep where vivid dreams occur. It was in this altered period of consciousness that Watson’s meddling aliens apparently brought us self-awareness.

In these tales and the many others in the book, Spindles succeeds in bringing modern sleep science into modern literature. But, as someone who likes to read about science, this focus on fiction seems to come somewhat at the expense of the science. Less than a third of the book is given over to the scientists, making this a recipe that will appeal most to fiction fans. Even so, the stop-start nature of short stories and shorter science makes reading Spindles a bit of a staccato experience. Fewer, longer stories and scientific interludes would give the reader more time to invest in the characters and so become absorbed in the science that affects them.

Nevertheless, Spindles does a good job of humanising sleep science in a way that is engaging for fans of short stories. Fans of sci-fi and fantasy epics may want to give it a miss, while science-lovers may be similarly disappointed with the brevity of the science sections. Despite this, Spindles provides a good entry point into the genre of popular science, giving written science sandwiched between thicker sections of non-fiction. The editors haven’t quite found the dream formula just yet.
The Verdict
Rating:3/5 stars

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Article by Kate Timms

April 11, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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Speedy Science News – 2nd-8th April

Time shy? Here’s everything you need to know about the week’s big science stories in under 50 words.

HIVAttempts to weaken HIV made it stronger

HIV embeds its DNA in human cells, making it incurable. A new gene-editing technology that scrambles HIV DNA in cells and stop it replicating has backfired. Whilst the virus was ‘killed’ in some cells, in others it became stronger. Hope lies in tweaking the technique to attack at multiple sites. [READ MORE]

black holeUniverse could be strewn with black holes

A supermassive black hole was found in a very unexpected place. These huge star-swallowers were thought to only reside at the centre of galaxies, but one has now been spotted floating around in empty space. This means that black holes could be much more common than previously thought. [READ MORE]

IMG_2995People get turned on by touching robot ‘genitals’

When asked by a robot to touch the places on its body where genitals would be, humans are measurably aroused and hesitant. No such arousal occurs when people touch robot hands or ears. Companies have now added clauses into buyer’s contracts to prevent people committing ‘indecent acts’ with their robots. [READ MORE]

DNADNA could be the hard drive of the future

We currently need lots of space to store all the data we create and countless photos we hoard, but we could one day switch from computer servers to DNA. Scientists have successfully used DNA to store digital images: images could be perfectly reconstructed from the information contained in the DNA. [READ MORE]

Neanderthal childHuman women and male Neanderthals had fertility issues

Analysis of the DNA of male Neanderthals shows that genes on their Y chromosome made it difficult for human women to bear their male children. Their prehistoric immune systems weren’t compatible, so even if humans and Neanderthals hooked up, women would probably have not been able to birth male babies. [READ MORE]

 

Image credit: Wellcome ImagesHubble ESAPierre MetivierCaroline Davis2010 and Jonathon via Flickr creative commons.

Article by Kate Timms

April 8, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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Sport’s Concussive Secret: head trouble in the scrum & the beautiful game’s ugly side

Rugby players who stick their heads in the sand

American Football has become infamous for causing concussion and life-altering brain injury in its players. But it isn’t the only sport needing to face up to the problem. Rugby, like American football, is a sport of increasingly large players hurling themselves against one another in a grapple to win the ball. And like in the NFL, concussions rates are rising. In the 2013-2014 English rugby Premiership season, concussions rose by 59% on the previous season. Rugby players don’t wear helmets and no one is quite sure whether they would help. Dr Stewart told us that helmets may make things worse, as players could use helmets to minimise the pain of head impact. “There may be a very good reason why it hurts to bang our head,” Dr Stewart says, “it teaches us not to do it and, in the process, protects the brain.”

A BBC documentary by the retired Scotland international rugby player John Beattie uncovered that many players simply refuse to admit to a head injury, for fear that they will be pulled out of the game by medics. The documentary also suggested that rugby players deliberately score badly in pre-season brain functioning tests in an attempt to hide concussions later on.

But pretending you haven’t been hurt is an incredibly risky strategy – as was shown by the tragic case of 14-year-old Ben Robinson, who died of ‘second impact syndrome’ after repeated head knocks during a school rugby match. Dr Stewart believes that the rules of rugby and the current “power-based” training culture are partly to blame. Ben’s father Peter Robinson now campaigns to raise awareness of concussion in sports, using the motto: ‘if in doubt, sit them out’.
The ugly side of the beautiful game: when headers are an own goal

You might have thought that of all sports, soccer was fairly brain-friendly. But, like rugby and American football, the beautiful game has a high incidence of ‘sub-concussive’ head impacts which are rarely picked up on (headers, anyone?). A high impact football to the noggin can cause concussion, as can head-on-head collisions that occur when several players try to head the ball at the same time. In November 2015, US Soccer took the unprecedented step of banning headers in under-11s – but only after 50,000 concussions were recorded in high school soccer in just one year. Dr McKee says that a number of soccer players who headed the ball regularly in their career have been subsequently diagnosed with CTE – some of whom were only in their 20s when they died.

For me, the danger of concussions in soccer was brought home in early April 2015, just two months before the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Sixteen minutes into the opening match of the USA’s National Women’s Soccer League, Washington Spirit captain and US right back Ali Krieger went down after a head-clashing leap to head the ball. She stayed down and it was soon announced that Krieger had sustained a concussion, which kept her out for several weeks.

Krieger was lucky to make it back in time for her USA team to win the World Cup; but she did so sporting a headband designed to distribute pressure from headers (see image). Unlike many other sports helmets, these headbands have been shown to reduce the risk of concussion in soccer, making it one of the few interventions that might make a difference. Even so, none of her teammates followed her lead and in the semi-final match of that tournament, a similar collision occurred between US midfielder Morgan Brian and German forward Alexandra Popp. Both went down but neither were given full concussion tests (they were back playing on the field long before that could have taken place). In a stadium packed with more than 50,000 fans, many of whom were young girls, it’s not the best example to set. Especially when in US high schools girls’ soccer is the second leading cause of concussion.

Dr Stewart says that women have greater risks as they have worse post-concussion symptoms than their male counterparts. Stewart thinks that this may be due to differences in the female brain although we know very little about concussion in women. The science – unsurprisingly – is rather male-focused. Dr McKee agrees, saying that not enough women’s brains have been examined to see if the there are any differences in CTE between men and women. “Determining if any of these differences exist is a very important step that needs to be taken,” Dr McKee says, “and to do so will require more female donors from a variety of different backgrounds.” Risks to women may be compounded further by the culture surrounding women’s soccer. Women often have to fight to be recognised as credible soccer players, meaning that they can often be seen jumping right back up after injuries rather than indulging in rolling-on-the-floor theatrics seen in topflight men’s football.

So the next time you sit in a stadium or switch on the big game, you may want take a moment to think about what that you are really watching. Are you watching the players you know and love being injured in ways that you cannot see? We sports fans may feel like we are just spectators, but we have a duty to push for rule changes – even the ones that we might not like. Limiting headers when a ball is passed into a crowded penalty box or insisting on protective headbands could be small, meaningful changes that could have a dramatic impact on the future health of our favourite athletes. And – who knows? – we might never shout “‘on your head, son!” in the same way again.

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Article by Kate Timms

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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Suspicious Minds Competition Winners!

In the spirit of Rob Brotherton’s five-star book Suspicious Minds, reviewed this issue, we asked you to get your subversive thinking cap on and invent your very own conspiracy theory. Three copies of the book were up for grabs for the best new conspiracy theories – all you had to do was come up with a theory that had the potential to convince a gullible person. Extra bonus points were awarded for being witty and making us laugh.

Judging by the entries that came in to our mailbag, it is obvious that there are some truly suspicious minds out there. Proposed conspiracy theories ranged from the sinister (such as flu jabs that kill the elderly to save healthcare costs) to the absurd (Father’s Day being a clandestine plot to emasculate men by eating chocolate.). The Bermuda Triangle, astrology and loyalty cards also all made their customary appearances. But alas, there have to be winners.

Runners up prizes go to Isobel Steer and Sean Mills, who each get a copy of the book. Isobel told us of a secret plot by an agricultural conglomerate (whose name rhymes with Nonsanto) to gain a monopoly on human fertility by flooding the market with genetically modified ‘locust seeds’. Sean made the stunning revelation that spectacles do not actually improve vision but are cunningly crafted filters devised to control our impulses – making us eat far too many potato chips.

The standout conspiracy theory came from Phil Boothroyd, who explained that pot plants are not as innocuous as they first seem. Congratulations on having the most creatively scheming mind in the world of Guru readers. We will never look at a Yucca in the same way again:

First Place – Phil Boothroyd

Potted plantEnjoy gardening? Like to have a few flowers in your house to brighten the place up? If the answer to either of those is yes, you are probably under the control of the ‘Bloominati’ – a group of highly intelligent psychic plants bent on nothing less than global domination.

On the face of it this may seem implausible, but think it through. While there is immense benefit to growing some fruit and veg and getting some tasty food for your efforts, what is the benefit to growing flowers? Absolutely nothing beyond a bit of colour. And even then only for short periods of the year. A longer lasting splash of colour could be created much more easily with a few pots of paint and an over enthusiastic toddler.

Which leaves only on explanation: we grow plants because they are controlling us, making us their slaves. We plant them, feed them and give them homes to live in. Think you bought that lovely house for yourself? No. You bought because of the psychic nudging of the flowers around you. That innocent looking Anthurium sat on your dining room table – it’s making you go to work to pay for its upkeep. It’s making you decorate the room so it has somewhere nice to sit. It makes you want to look after it. And at the weekend, when you should be resting, it compels you out into the garden to care for its Bloominati associates outdoors.

If you don’t believe me try throwing that potted plant on your desk away. Just try it. You will feel an aversion to it, a sense that what I’m asking you to do is ‘just plain stupid’. You will even get a desire to ignore my ‘ridiculous suggestion’. Those are not natural thoughts and feelings. They are the persuasive powers of the Bloominati.

Our two runners up came up with equally creative conspiracies.

Isobel Steer weaves a tale of agricultural giants and big pharma teaming up to steal your fertility (and then sell it back to you, of course.

Runner up – Isobel Steer

seedsTo whom it may concern (and trust me, you should be very concerned),


Have you heard about the plan by scientists to hold human fertility to ransom using GMOs? An unnamed agricultural conglomerate never really shelved those so-called ‘suicide seeds’ (designed without the ability to propagate, so the farmers would have to keep coming back every year to buy more). They claimed the public outcry convinced them to halt ‘suicide seeds’, but instead they developed a new genetically modified seed, called ‘The Locust Seed’, that, when eaten, would transfer that infertility gene straight to the human reproductive organs! This way, the parent company can sell your fertility back to you, via gene therapy available at its Big Pharma branch. The only sure test that you’ve ingested the Locust Seed is to shine a light in the eyes – a side effect is a build-up of metals in your body, which are deposited at the back of the retina. 

How did I find out about this fiendish plot, you ask? I am a scientist. I asked around. And, conclusively, no-one told me anything. Nobody acknowledged it at all. I’ve never seen a cleaner cover-up! The plot goes deep, my friends, very deep. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Dark looks in the coffee room. People suddenly stopping talking when I walk in. But the truth is out there. Do you want to believe?

Anonymously yours,

I.S.

 

Whilst Sean Mills theorises on the hidden purpose of spectacles and the altered world they make us see.

Runner up – Sean Mills

GlassesHumans are primarily visual: we extract a huge quantity of salient information from the environment from the pattern of light that reaches our retinas. A huge proportion of our brain is devoted to a complex visual system that has evolved over millions of years to make sense of this data. Vision is intricately entangled with our understandings of consciousness, attention, and memory. Light entrains our sleep cycles, and affects our mood and psychological health. Ultimately, to see, for many people, is closely tied to their fundamental experience of what it is to be human.

But you do not see clearly. And the answer is right on top of your nose.

6 out of 10 people in the developed world wear corrective lenses – pieces of glass that literally distort the image of the world in front of you. They are filters. They block light of certain wavelengths, they limit your ability to fixate to certain distances, they steam up when you drink coffee (making you look, as you always suspected, like a complete idiot).

Moreover, the potential clearly exists to use these filters to manipulate behaviour on a massive scale. What you see has been subtly altered to make you buy more things you don’t need, obey dubious corporate authority, and, once you pop the tin of pringles, not stop.

Not convinced? You may have noticed that people have an astonishing urge to try on other people’s glasses – if there wasn’t a global conspiracy why on earth would this be the case? Perhaps it’s a sign of our helplessness that every time this happens, and the disoriented glasses wearer gets a terrifying look at the world undistorted by the manipulated vision they have become so frighteningly accustomed to, they promptly demand their glasses back.

The terrible beauty of the conspiracy is this: What are you going to do about it? Pay to have lasers slice thin films from the surface of your eyes? Sure, that sounds nothing like a vast evil conspiracy, go ahead.

FAQs

Who’s responsible for this?

Aliens wearing human skin in order to disguise themselves as the lizard people who secretly run the CIA.

What about bifocals?

Twice as powerful.

Hey, you look great in that tinfoil hat!

Thanks. You too.

 

Congratulations to our three winners – the book is making its way to you via a Guru drone right now.

Honourable mention – James Lee

Alas, we only had three books to give away, but this entry by James Lee made us chuckle so much that we couldn’t resist sharing it with you:

“Facts: Chocolate is often given as a gift to fathers on Father’s Day. Chocolate contains oestrogen and fat, which and promotes the release of oxytocin (Ed – well close enough, it actually contains oestrogen-like substances). The fat and oestrogen (which, according to the MayoClinic, is used to alleviate the effects of delayed female puberty), promote breast growth, while the oxytocin (a key neurotransmitter in pregnancy and breastfeeding) induces the psychological change. The only side effect is the inevitable weight gain from the excessive amounts of chocolate. Another piece of damning evidence: the name itself. “Father’s Day” was originally spelt “Fathers’ Day” or “Fat-hers’ Day” or “large women’s day”.
 
Furthermore, the person who founded Fathers’ Day was a WOMAN, Sonora Smart Dodd. Her name being an anagram for “D man sorta dodos”, clearly signalling the intent to cause the extinction of male kind by comparing them to the dodo.
 
Case closed.”

 

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Image credit: Laura TaylorPremier Photo, mongo gushi and Pier Francesco Gallenga via Flickr creative commons

Article by Kate Timms

April 7, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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