All posts by Michael Mckenna

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

Atoms Under The Floorboards – a Guru book review

Title: Atoms Under The Floorboards

Author: Chris Woodford

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Kindle Price: £8.99

Hardback Price: £14.88

Get it here from Amazon.

“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking,” said Albert Einstein. Chris Woodford uses the idea of challenging our everyday thoughts throughout his book, Atoms Under the Floorboards, in which he offers a light-hearted look at how science is found throughout our daily lives. From the opening page, Woodford’s infectious enthusiasm sucks you in and, as he solves some of life’s more mundane mysteries, he exposes himself as a fun and slightly loopy character.

Woodford has authored and co-written no fewer than 35 science, technology and educational books and Atoms Under the Floorboards has been written with non-scientists in mind. An open mind is required, as he has no hesitation in pouring scorn on those who use mainstream news to gain insights into the scientific world, despite knowing that the stories are sensationalised. Atoms Under the Floorboards therefore sets out to educate, demystify, and entertain in a non-sensationalist manner.

With such noble intentions, it’s sometimes difficult to see which non-scientists Woodford is truly aiming at. His explanations bounce from being childishly simple to mind-meltingly complex, and at times he veers dangerously close to Einstein’s theories of relativity. The result is a somewhat confused collection of chapters, with several portions of the book offering nothing new to a reader with even a basic scientific education.

It’s a necessary evil that simplifying science often means making what you say less truthful, and this book is no exception. Nevertheless, Woodford tries to convey ludicrously large or unimaginably small numbers with everyday terms, regularly using the ‘bag of sugar’ as a handy unit of measurement. Analogies are abundant, and while useful for esoteric topics, are sometimes distracting and unnecessary. Telling us that 22 billion wheel-spinning hamsters are needed to launch a spacecraft conjures a humorous image, but does little to help us understand such numbers.

It is these daft comparisons that are also one of this book’s redeeming features. Woodford has mastered the art of making inane topics seem unforgettable: “If Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpeting cheeks had been made of hydro gels, he could have puffed each out to the size of his stomach,” writes Woodford.

It is a mixed bag but with lines like that, Atoms Under the Floorboards cannot be accused of being unoriginal. You can’t help but be enchanted by Woodford’s enthusiastic charm and zest to delve into the science of the everyday. What can a cyclist learn from a leaping salmon? Why can’t you cook a chicken korma with a smartphone? Why can’t you make light from a Scotsman’s beard? Each chapter begins with a curious question that you may have never asked – but want to know the answer to. (Spoiler alert: it turns out a Scotsman’s beard hair was one of the filaments Edison unsuccessfully tested during his development of the light bulb.)

For such an easy-paced book, Woodford crams in a lot of facts. Did you know, for example, that a Lego brick is theoretically strong enough to be stacked on top of one another to form a 2.2 mile tall tower? Woodford also does well to pay homage to science’s forebears, describing the importance of Newton’s apple, Rutherford’s bombardment of gold foil, and Marie Curie’s deadly experiments with radioactivity. If nothing else, Atoms Under the Floorboards provides a solid grounding in historical science as well as facts to impress your friends and family with.

The Verdict
Overall, this book is a fun and easy read. It offers little in the way of ground-breaking science, but does provide a quirky and less conventional look at science in everyday life, and is written in a way that really makes you think. And as an added bonus you even get the answer to the ageless question, how many hamsters does it take to launch a spacecraft…

Rating:3/5 stars


Article by Michael Mckenna

October 27, 2015

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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Paleo – a diet on rocky ground?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past ten years, you’ll probably have heard of the ‘paleo’ diet. It emerged from the primordial soup of the 1970s, but was popularised by scientist Loren Cordain in his 2002 book, Paleo Diet. The most Googled diet in 2013 with up to 3 million Americans estimated to be on it, the anciently modern movement looks like here to stay.

The Paleo diet involves turning back the clock 10,000 years to a time when eating was more ‘natural’ – namely the Paleolithic era. The diet turns out to be more than just mammoth-sized portions of meat and drinks served ‘on the rocks’. The Paleo diet encourages a high protein, low carbohydrate intake and shuns “recent additions” to the human plate, such as dairy and cereal grains. Coffee is off the menu and alcohol is a thing of the past (or not, as the case may be). And while fresh food consumption is encouraged, processed foods are rejected. In doing so, this eating regime is designed to prevent ‘Western diseases’ – diabetes, heart disease, and obesity – which are among the biggest killers today and are partly due to our modern diet.

It sounds like healthy ground rules but the paleo diet has attracted fierce opposition. The question is: is the paleo diet the key to a healthier life, or simply a fad best consigned to the history books?

Check the history books!

One outspoken Paleo diet critic is molecular anthropologist Christina Warinner who accuses the paleo diet of being based on a misunderstanding of archaeological data. In her 2013 TED talk, she points out that early human diets varied massively with location and were probably made up of whatever was immediately available. Diets almost certainly weren’t balanced and evidence shows that much of the meat our ancestors ate was actually scavenged – which conjures up a very different image to the Tarzan-esque hunter-gatherer we are used to seeing.

Of course, today’s paleo dieter would never dream of picking morsels from roadkill and are far more likely to be buying their meat at the local health food store (or perhaps tucking into a wild mushroom and red onion tartlet at Britain’s first paleo restaurant). Moreover, the plump fruits and vegetables that are a staple of the paleo diet only exist in their current form because of modern farming practices. Many of the ancient versions of modern vegetables were unsubstantial and had thicker peels and bigger seeds, strings, rinds and would add an element of volatility to your toilet trips.

Picking out the nutritional nuggets
These criticisms, while no doubt true, possibly miss the point. The validity of a diet should rest on its health benefits, not on whether dieters are swallowing the historical misinformation. Do paleo dieters really think that cavemen were the pinnacles of health? It seems unlikely. It is much easier to stomach the inaccurate and cynical marketing of this diet as ‘paleo’, knowing that many of its principles have solid grounding. And so the real question should simply be: is the paleo diet healthy?

Like the Atkins and South Beach diets that have gone before it, the paleo diet is low in ‘carbs’ (starch-rich foods such as bread and pasta). These diets are often successful because protein-rich foods are more filling than starchy foods, causing us to want to eat less. Carbohydrates are the major energy source for our brains and in very low ‘carb’ diets, the body resorts to breaking down the fats in our body to yield molecules called ketones. And as a stand-in brain fuel, ketones often leave low carb dieters with smelly breath, as any Atkins dieter can attest to. Forcing the body to create ketones is fine in the short term, but there is some evidence linking low carbohydrate diets to kidney problems, osteoporosis and a raft of other health issues if such diets are sustained for long periods.

Carbohydrates are also the major fuel source for muscles and high intensity exercise can be a struggle if it is eliminated from the diet altogether. Martin MacDonald, a clinical performance nutritionist and founder of Mac-Nutrition, one of the UK’s leading nutritional advice consultancies, tells us: “the paleo diet has the major strength [in] that it puts ‘junk food’ completely off limits” and that “its other benefits stem from a general increase in the variety of good food”.

Unearthing the truth
A particularly divisive topic is the exclusion of grains and legumes in the Paleolithic diet. As well as being dubbed “new” foods, the paleo diet prohibits these based on their high levels of phytic acid. Paleo diet advocate Dr. Loren Cordain describes phytic acid as “an antinutrient that binds many minerals thereby making them unavailable for absorption”. A look at the published research, however, shows that he is only half right: phytic acid has been linked to zinc deficiency but this generally only occurs in developing countries where mineral consumption is already low.

When asked about the exclusion of these food groups, Martin MacDonald says that “for the most part this is entirely unnecessary. Other nutrients co-ingested with phytic acid, such as vitamin C, reduce or negate [phytic acid’s] mineral binding properties. Only in very rare cases of poor mineral status would I consider putting a client on a low phytic acid diet.”

The omission of cereal grains and milk also highlights another evolutionary misunderstanding. Supporters of the paleo diet claim that humans have not evolved to digest lactose, a sugar present in dairy products; and that we are not equipped to digest gluten, a protein in wheat. Paleo critic and Men’s Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon begs to differ and asserts that “well over 90% of the population” are gluten tolerant. In a similar vein, a milk-digesting enzyme called lactase evolved in humans about 3,000 years ago, and is present in nearly all people in Northern Europe. This enzyme breaks milk sugar into glucose, letting us gain energy from cow’s milk. By ignoring these recent genetic adaptations, dieters may be denying themselves the fibre and vitamins offered by grains as well as the calcium present in dairy products.

What’s the verdict?
Evolution and archaeology aside, are paleo dieters on to something? As with many fad diets, paleo foodies give their anecdotes of weight loss and increased vitality which makes it difficult to pick apart these nutritionally important nuggets from the pseudo-scientific soup.

Cutting out processed foods is undeniably a step in the right direction, and one study found that participants on the paleo diet showed improved blood pressure control and reduced cholesterol levels. Additionally, research has shown that eating fewer processed foods can change our taste preferences, ‘training’ our minds to prefer healthier foods.

Ultimately, any change in eating habits should be something we can live with over the long term. Nutritionist and fitness coach Alessandro Gibilaro warns that the paleo diet is “no magic bullet”. “Cutting out any food group is preposterous”, making this diet “totally unsustainable,” he says.

Some therefore encourage an ‘80/20’ approach, where 20% of our food intake does not follow strict rules. In the paleo diet, this equates to about 500 calories from dairy and grains each day. Oddly enough, this “sounds a lot like conventional [balanced] eating” says Alan Aragon. For the moderate paleo-eater it may be wise, therefore, to start your paleo day with a bowl of cereal and milk.

Article by Michael Mckenna

October 21, 2015

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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Brain damage to Beethoven: How a head injury created a musical prodigy

mainImage“I was always around music – I just never played it,” says Derek Amato. This statement may not seem that extraordinary but, for Derek, it certainly is – at the age of 40, he awoke from a concussion as a musical genius. On October 27, 2006, Derek had gotten together with some friends for a pool party. They were playing football in the tiny back yard and, performing a macho leap, Derek jumped high over the water to catch the ball. Misjudging the depth of the pool, he crashed headfirst into the hard bottom of the shallow end.

“I didn’t lose consciousness right away,” Derek explains. “I came out of the water and immediately knew I was hurt. I thought my ears were bleeding and I couldn’t hear anything. My friends were talking, but I could only see their lips move.”

Noticing that Derek was hurt, his friends dragged him out of the pool and took him to hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home early next morning to rest. “I think they sent me home just because I was being an asshole,” Derek says, laughing. “You know, when you have a head trauma, you get rather frustrated and your triggers are short. I was pretty adamant that I was okay, and I just wanted to go.”

Derek slept nearly non-stop for the following four days. His mother woke him up every couple of hours to make sure he was still breathing, and put ice on his black eyes and forehead. He had a huge swelling from the bruise on the front of his head: “I looked like I’d been run over by a train,” Derek says.

On the fifth day he woke up and, as if a miracle, felt completely normal. He remembered he had had an accident, but he couldn’t recall the details. He didn’t even know where he was, or what the date was. In fact, he thought he was in Arizona training for baseball. Despite feeling completely beaten up, he told his mother he was recovered and then went to his best friend Rick’s house. This visit would reveal something quite astonishing.

Derek had never played the piano before. But, for some reason, Derek felt drawn to a piano he knew was upstairs. Sitting down on the piano bench, Derek started to play. His friend didn’t know what was going on. Neither did he. “I just felt this weird energy that made me want to go fumble around with it. I had no idea my hands would know where to go,” he tells us.

To both Rick and Derek’s astonishment, he played like a virtuoso. “I just sat down and played intensely. It wasn’t like someone playing ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’,” Derek says with an unexpected indifference. “It was like Beethoven snuck into my bloodline. All of a sudden someone turned on a switch: I played a classically-structured piece. I kept going for six hours.”

When Derek finally turned to look at Rick, his friend had tears in his eyes. “We didn’t know what to think,” Derek says. “We didn’t know if God was in the room. We didn’t know if we should have another beer! We didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

The next day, he talked his mom into going to the music store. He didn’t want to tell his mom about his new gift: he wanted to show her. Arriving at the store, he sat her down next to him and, putting fingers to keyboard, played like he had done the night before. His mom started crying. “What are you doing, Derek?” she asked. “I really don’t know, Mom,” Derek replied, “I really don’t.”

Before long, he was put in contact with a Los Angeles music business, who flew him out to California and put him on stage. The audience was astonished, the organizers dumbfounded – this guy really could play! This was Derek’s first flirt with stardom. Yet upon his return to his hometown of Denver, Colorado, he withdrew from the world. “I was trying to understand what my mind was doing. I was trying to get a grip on these changes that had kind of designed a whole new person.”

Since then, Derek has signed a recording contract, scored a movie soundtrack, and has even been invited to attend the 2013 Grammys. He’s been featured on television shows such as News on Fox, The Today Show, The Jeff Probst Show and the hit series Sons of Anarchy (his tattoos make him especially fitting for the show). Derek regularly travels around the country to perform at various sold-out venues, and was even called to share his gift at a TED conference in March 2013.

“It’s like a tickertape in my brain”

Derek explains that, after the accident, he began to see little black and white squares moving from left to right across his visual field. “It’s like a tickertape rolling around my brain,” he says. This constant stream of musical notation drives Derek’s compulsory movement of fingers up and down the piano. His hands read each square one at a time, each a musical note corresponding to a finger position on the piano. He uses six fingers to play – the thumb, index finger and ring finger on each hand. “I don’t know why all ten don’t want to play along. I suppose it’s a comfortable position for my hands,” he says.

The experience of seeing little black and white squares appears to be an unusual form of a condition called synaesthesia. In its most common form (called grapheme-color synesthesia), letters and numbers become associated with specific colors, textures and personalities. Other rarer cases may lead to people experiencing ‘ping’ sounds in response to familiar faces, or even complex geometrical mental images triggered by looking at or thinking about mathematical equations.

Though Derek’s case of synesthesia is rare, it is not uncommon for synesthetes to gain certain advantages. Jason Padgett, another individual we have been working with (and have written about in Issue Ten), is able to draw intricate geometrical designs by hand, on the basis of his synesthetic experiences. Many graphemecolor synesthetes have an enhanced memory of words and numbers, and some synesthetes experience months and time as located in an inner space, giving them an extraordinary memory for particular dates.

Music reshapes the brain

Research indicates that musical ability may lie dormant in all of us, waiting to be developed through practice or, as in Derek’s case, triggered if the brain undergoes massive restructuring. Recent research looking at what happens in the brains of trained musicians and non-musicians has shown many similarities: brains of both the musically talented and musically inept fire signals in precisely the same way when hearing musical mistakes and out-of-place notes. So certain basic musical abilities appear to be innate – ‘hard-wired’ into everyone.

But the brains of musicians and non-musicians differ in several important ways. Grey matter is the ‘meat’ of the brain, home to all the hardworking neurons. White matter is the space in between, mostly consisting of the wiring (axons) connecting neurons to one another. Musicians have more grey matter in the areas of the brain responsible for movement, sensation, and language processing – a difference that appears to be shaped through the right kind of musical practice. Put simply, professional musicians’ brains are shaped to allow for greater musical ability.

The musically trained brain is also more efficient: brain imaging studies have shown that musical professionals actually use less of their brains to initiate complex movement. So it is likely that long-term practice changes both the structure of the brain, and the way in which it executes complex repetitive movement.

Inner explosions

But how can a concussion lead to extraordinary musical ability? For the moment, this remains a mystery – but our knowledge of musical processing in the brain and what happens in traumatic brain injury have given us some ideas. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can occur either as a result of a blunt force or shockwave from a blast. In both situations, the inside of the rapidly-moving skull sends shockwaves throughout the soft brain tissue. If the striking force is strong enough, it can cause the brain to ‘bounce’ off the inside of the skull, resulting in further shockwaves. These waves emanate through the brain, twisting and pulling on the connections between neurons, tearing them apart and causing damage. TBI is a particularly devastating problem for soldiers who repeatedly sustain mortar shell attacks at close- to mid-range, many of whom report memory coordination problems years later.

During a concussion, the nerve function of several brain regions become paralyzed as the brain shakes inside the head. When this happens, salt levels, which are normally carefully balanced, are disturbed: potassium atoms inside the nerve cells leak out and calcium ions surge in. These drastic molecular changes shut down the neuron’s internal energy-generating engines, causing the huge, uncontrolled release of neurotransmitter chemicals, which bombard neighboring nerve cells. This bombardment causes the affected neurons to die off, leading to scar tissue, whereas other affected neurons gradually regain normal function.

Though we don’t yet fully know the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, it is possible that the uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters from dying neurons actually enhances brain activity in neighboring brain regions. We think this boost (in the musical processing areas, for example) could be permanent.

Derek’s black and white blocks might be explained in a similar way, with excessive brain activity causing visual images – images that make it possible for an unschooled individual to act in ways that would not otherwise be possible. So, Derek’s musical blocks are the brain’s way of translating new thinking patterns into action.

The cost of being a genius

The many changes brought about by this new found musical ability have come at a cost. He lost about 35 percent of his hearing from the damage to his brain and also lost the ability to dream for about seven years. He also became hypersensitive to light and sounds. “Fluorescent lighting makes me sick,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll pass out if the lighting is too strong.” He has memory problems and can’t always recall the musical pieces he has composed. But his hands usually can.

He also has what appears to be a form of dyslexia. “Sometimes when I’m physically writing with a pen, or even typing, I get the letters mixed up. I’m starting to spell a word – ‘loud,’ let’s say. I’ll write ‘l’ and then I’ll put a ‘d’ and then an ‘o’ and a ‘u’. It even looks right to me, but it’s frustrating.”

Derek’s sudden dyslexia could be the result of excessive electrical circuitry in the brain, brought on by his brain injury – and we asked if he would be willing to take some tests to find out. “No, I don’t know if I want to know,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to be labeled, man. The world is looking at my life. What if I have to get a real job some day?”

Despite these costs, Derek is grateful to be able to put some money away for his son and daughter. He even has a little left over for those in need. Running from film studio to film studio, recording music in between, Derek may seem flaky and swinish. But appearances can be deceptive. Derek doesn’t aim to be an avaricious Hollywood star. He is tenderhearted and philanthropic. “I want to spend the rest of my life giving. I want to feed homeless people,” Derek says in an interview with Ability Magazine’s Donna Mize. “I sleep on the streets with the homeless. I give them every last dime in my pocket. The material side of it all doesn’t matter. I haven’t had a car in five years. I don’t own a home. I float between my son’s house and staying with friends in northern Colorado. I only have a cell phone, so the kids can get me if they need me. I have nothing, and yet I have it all.”

Article by Michael Mckenna

May 20, 2015

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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The night the Earth roared: Personal experience of surviving an 8.8 magnitude earthquake

mainImageIt was 3.34am when the earthquake hit…

I was meant to fly home the next day but, in the end, I didn’t leave for another week. The airport had been broken into pieces.

In February last year, I was working at Buin Zoo in Chile, staying with the branch of my family that own the zoo. I had been in their house for a month. Nothing in the day itself gave a hint of what was to happen that night; I had spent most of the day saying my goodbyes. But that evening was different – odd in subtle ways. Having left my packing to the last minute, I was still throwing clothes into my suitcase at 2am. As I crammed and shoved items in, the night grew noticeably cooler. At 2:30am, I finally gave up.

Looking out of the window, I realised for the first time how quiet everything was. Living by a zoo meant strange noises were common and the house even had nine Alsatians living in the garden. But tonight there was nothing – not even a lonely bark.

The night felt oppressive; the air was heavy, as if trying to wrap itself around me. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard birds – hundreds of voices calling frantically. Ignoring them, I covered my ears with my hands and fell asleep. Forty-five minutes later, I awoke to a different noise. It was a sound unlike anything I had heard before: the Earth was roaring. As it got louder, the world began moving and the bed started shaking from side to side. “Just a tremor,” I thought, “it’s just a tremor…”

But this ‘tremor’ became so violent I was almost thrown out of bed. I heard a girl’s voice shouting “earthquake!” and I leapt to my feet. It’s hard to remember the next few seconds – the house was shaking so hard, it was impossible to stay upright. As we ran, we were thrown around the corridor like rag dolls.

Paintings smashed to the ground and the sound of broken glass merged with the horrible groan of twisting rock. I think I shouted something. Reaching the stairs, I didn’t stop. Running down them I can only remember feeling the wooden stairs undulating like a snake beneath my feet. I must have jumped the last flight because the next moment I was on the cold terracotta tiles of the entrance hall. Within another second I was under the main door frame – the strongest part of the house. I closed my eyes and waited for two more endless minutes.

The aftermath was somehow even more chaotic than the earthquake. Everyone was running to their vehicles. There was a great deal of worry as to whether any of the big mammals were loose or whether the reptile and bug houses had survived. With hundreds of poisonous animals inside, the outcome could have been catastrophic. As I stayed behind to look after the three children, a large water bottle was thrust into my hands by one of the family members. There were five clownfish floating around in the bottom – someone had thought to save them from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake.

We sat in the dark, sitting through the aftershocks. I have never longed for the sunrise so much. It was a primeval-like urge: all of us willing the dawn to break.

Sunrise eventually found us a few hours later. Sat in the kitchen, we took stock of the damage: shelves fallen, walls cracked, jars smashed. There were also small miracles, like a shelf of St Francis of Assisi figures which remained unbroken. Any household items found intact felt strangely like a victory – perhaps even a small triumph over nature.

Getting into the practical business of clearing things up, it didn’t matter that everything could get knocked to pieces again in the 600 tremors that followed. We wanted our house back and our human things in order; it was only after this that I felt prepared to get a flight out to Brazil and finally back to England.

The airport in Santiago had been turned into a giant white tent where you had to load your luggage yourself. Every tremor would topple the piles of suitcases placed on trolleys. It was a culture shock coming home. Everything in London seemed alien: too normal – as if nothing had happened. There were moments when I felt angry that no one here seemed to understand the enormity of what had just happened – over 500 people were dead and my aunt’s house had been swept away by the tsunami. Back in London, people kept complementing me on my tan!

It took several weeks to stop myself flinching whenever a lorry rumbled by. My memory of the event has become increasingly fuzzy but somehow the disaster has forged a link to Chile that wasn’t there before and, for that (as crazy as it sounds), I’m grateful.

Article by Michael Mckenna

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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