Natural Wonders

Latimer: It’s been very hectic these last few weeks here at M. Latimer-Ridley! We’ve been busy with Unbroken Ties, Keeping Secrets 2… and editing the follow-up, Keeping Secrets 3!

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Added to all that – I’ve just moved country! Yup, for now I’m M. Latimer-Ridley’s London correspondent, at least for the foreseeable future!

I’ve been trying to get out and see things, subliminally advertised to me via the London Underground! There was recently an exhibition in the Natural History Museum, so last Saturday I took myself off to see some Mammoths and Neanderthals!

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I made the mistake of thinking London would maybe not be packed with tourists (this will never happen I’m sure)! There was a big queue to get into the museum, a queue to get to the exhibitions and a queue to see the dinosaur skeletons, which happen to be super popular (I’m not surprised, dinosaurs are great!).

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The Natural History museum is amazing. No one does buildings quite like the English – always so grand!

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The Mammoth exhibition was very cool; the museum had on loan Lyuba, the baby mammoth that was found in Russia – the most intact specimen of a woolly mammoth, she even has hair!

photolyuba

I also learned here that ‘woolly mammoth’ is just a type of ‘mammoth’ and the biggest was actually the Columbian Mammoth. They had a life-sized model of it and it was amazing. I could have stood starring at it for hours. Nearby there was also a statue of a Short-Nosed Bear; which basically dwarfed a grizzly.

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The Proboscidea family tree!

The Proboscidea family tree!

This all led me onto the ‘evolution of man’ exhibition. I love me some evolution!

The great man himself!

The great man himself!

Recently, in the last few years the Neanderthal genome was sequenced, and it turned up some interesting details. Among other things, the results showed that non-African populations had some Neanderthal markers in their genomes, indicating that there had been some crossovers, and interbreeding between Neanderthal’s and modern humans in Europe.

It appears that when our common ancestor moved out of Africa they migrated north and eventually became Neanderthals, who were adapted to survive in the frozen climate. While, the African common ancestor evolved to become modern humans. Some of these modern humans then migrated north and became lighter skinned Europeans, and encountered their cousin the Neanderthal.

It was assumed that Neanderthal couldn’t talk, but actually the genome work showed that they have a similar gene to us called the FOXP2 gene that is involved in speech and language.

In the exhibition they also said that the Neanderthal markers that are present (to varying degrees, about 2%) in Europeans, largely affected the immune system. So it poses some interesting questions about responses to diseases.

There were also more ‘types’ of humans than just Neanderthal’s wandering around at the time, and they may have also contributed to the modern genome. This all raises the question of what we actually mean now when we say ‘modern human’.

Anyway, these were some great exhibits and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they show during the year!

And of course, I’ll be doing a series of museum hops around the city while I’m here 🙂

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One Lovely Versatile Blogger Award

We’d like to thank Livvy @ Nerdy Book ReviewsChristina and Steven Leo Campbell for nominating us for the ‘Versatile Blogger Award’ and the ‘One Lovely Blog Award’. We’ve had so much fun blogging over the last year. It’s fantastic and humbling to have been nominated for these awards! It also gives us a chance to share, ‘random facts about MLR’. 

These are the rules:

Nominees must: Tell seven things about themselves, pass the award on to 15 other blogs and thank the person who nominated them for the award. Also no one is obligated to take the award, so don’t feel you have to accept it.

And so it begins……….

Caesar Flickerman stepped up to the stage, the lights blinding him. He straightened his tie. A stage-hand appeared at his shoulder, talking into a headset; “1mins to go!” he warned, ducking away in a hurry. Flickerman shuffled the papers in his hand, he took a deep breath. The intro music started to play.

5…4… 3… 2…1…

He ran a hand through his blue hair.

“Show time!”

He stepped out to greet the crowd, “Are you all ready?” They cheered.

“Let’s introduce our guests! Latimer and Ridley!”

Two girls dressed in red, fiery dresses appeared on the stage. The crowd rose to it’s feet screaming…

Caesar guided the girls to their seats. “Ladies, congratulations on not one, but three nominations! How do you feel?”

“Thank you Caesar.” Ridley slipped into her seat and fanned her tears away. “We’re so happy. We’d like to give a shout-out to Livvy, Christina and Steven! Without them none of this could have happened.”

“Shout out!” Latimer screamed randomly. Ridley shushed her. “Shout out…” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

Caesar waved towards them with a flourish. “So, Latimer, Ridley, how about you tell us all some interesting facts about yourselves!”

Ridley scratched her head with a confused frown. “Oh, well I love ketchup! I put it on everything!” She gave a rapid nod and swung her arm. “Mash potato, curries, I’ve even had ketchup flavoured Pringles, they were lovely-“

“They were disgusting,” Latimer interrupted, punching the air.

“To you!” Ridley crossed her arms with a pout, then pressed on, “I wear fluffy socks in bed.”  She wiggled her feet, her sparkly high-heels caught the light and flashed out at the audience. The people in the front row covered their eyes with a grimace. Ridley shot them an apologetic shrug. “I recently found out this is actually weird as supposedly very few other people do this.”

“Sweaty feet! Stinky,” Latimer tittered.

“Quiet you!” Ridley coughed, “Don’t mind her. Another, semi-interesting thing about me is I have an obsession with stationary, I love pens, colouring pencils, highlighters, A4 pads, notebooks…” Her list petered off as a dreamy expression crossed her face. She shook herself from her stupor and frowned. “I hate to see pages torn out of a properly bound notebook (where the pages aren’t meant to be torn out, not like in a spiral one) Latimer knows of this particular OCD!”

“Don’t dog-ear my books; number one rule of borrowing from Ridley. I am always afraid when reading her paperbacks- must not break the spine, she’ll kill me,” Latimer added. Ridley nodded in agreement and slashed a finger across her neck with a wide grin.

Ridley pointed at Caesar. “I’m scared of clowns.”

He frowned at her. “I’m not a clown.”

“Hmmm…you’re very colourful.” Her pointing finger hovered in front of his face.

Latimer slapped her hand down. “Don’t mind her Caesar. She loves you really, she’s just a suspicious sort.”

“Of course! Of course…” Caesar gave a forgiving smile and smoothed back his blue hair.

Ridley rubbed her hand. “I find clowns quite creepy, with their wide smiles and abilities to squeeze into small spaces like mini cars. I also hate heights, which rules out all extreme sports to do with being up high and generally falling. Spiders make my skin crawl, this hatred of them started as a child. I read that in a year we all swallow six spiders in our sleep.” Everyone cringed. “As to mice, I have no problem with them, I think they’re cute and I often save them from my sadistic cat!”

“Imagine swallowing six mice a year…” Latimer added. Ridley shuddered.

Ridley scratched her head and then brightened. “My last interesting point or not…I’ve tried in the past to become a morning person, force the dawn cheeriness into me. I can really appreciate the beauty of a rising sun, however not matter how many times I’ve tried, I wander around like a bleary-eyed bear for the first few hours after getting up. I prefer night time! I think I’ll just have to stick to sunsets!”

“When we used to live together during college years, I was afraid of Ridley in the morning. I would be up eating my breakfast watching kids cartoons, and she would walk out of her room, like she was furious with the world,” Latimer nodded.

“And Latimer, tell us some interesting facts about yourself,” Caeser smiled.

“Righty-oh. Ahem; I love red things; given the chance at any option I will always pick the red thing- food, item etc. I love red me.”

She held out her hand counting off the various points. “Ridley says I look like a rabbit when I cross the road- darting and scuttling. She yanks me back from cars when they are about to run me over! Also, if other people around me start running I will automatically also start running (I don’t need to know the reason, I’ll just do it!).

I get obsessed very quickly with random things (face cream and body lotion, namely Burt’s Bees), countries (Japan..) and stories (eg. comic book characters backstories). I will find out everything about said obsession- I will often tell people, I am a fountain of useless information.A sponge for the unimportant.

“It’s true. A giant sponge.” Ridley held her hands out wide.

Latimer tapped her chin with a long pale finger.“My obsessions often have no rhyme or reason; currently I love Sons of Anarchy and contrasting that, I’m crazy about girly anime (shoujo) and asian dramas. 🙂 Most recently; I’m obsessed with San Diego Comic Con. We both really want to go!”

“If you win the games,” Caesar said with a grin. The crowd errupted with laughter and applause.

“Games?” Latimer glanced at Ridley. She shrugged.

“Err, okay… anyway, another random fact- I have a bamboo plant in my room… his name is Herbert.

If I lock a door, I will leave the door walk away then run back to check it’s locked, up to, but not limited to 3 times. No.. I don’t have OCD. No.. I don’t have OCD. No.. I don’t have OCD….

Once I did a tandem sky-dive and a canyon swing- I didn’t ever realise it, but I could be an adrenaline junkie if I lived in a place that had these things on the doorstep! Ridley will watch me fall from the sky with an expression on her face that says she’s going to be sick. I’ll scream ‘look at me!!!!!!’ as I plummet with a smile on my face.”

“Death wish…” Ridley muttered with a shiver.

“I often make up words; when I go to bed, I don’t say goodnight to people, I say good-noooot… and sometimes I say ‘good-noooot lemon spoot’ I don’t know why.”

“Cause you’re nuuuuts….” Ridley giggled with a hand over her mouth and then gasped as she got a sharp elbow in the stomach from Latimer. “Ooh, me intestines…”

“That’s pretty much all I can think of,” Latimer said with a thoughtful look. There was a small pause, Caesar smiled at them both. Ridley had started playing with her dress, spinning the cloth and making small fires dance up her leg.

“Pretty…”  she sighed. When she looked up and the crowd was staring, she patted the fires down with a dreamy smile, “Haha, yep, nothing more to add.”

Caesar clapped and the crowd joined in, bringing the interview to an end. Flickerman leaned forward in his chair, the leather creaked.

“One final question ladies… are you ready to play the Hunger Games?”

Ridley smiled, “Of course…” She looked confused for a moment, her expression unsure. Her eyes widened and she turned sharply. “Wait… what?”

Latimer jumped to her feet, a manic look on her face. Diving off the stage, she shoved all the strangely dressed people out of the way, screaming,  “I’m out of here! You’ll never take me alive!!”

Ridley scrambled away from Caesar. Her heels snagged on her dress and she fell face first off the stage. Leaping up, she stared round with wide eyes at the vibrant colours and weird outfits of the audience and shrieked. “Aah, clowns!”

She hitched up her dress and raced after Latimer.

“Wait for me rabbit girl!!”

Now for Something Completely Different

Latimer is made of star stuff? Hurrah!

Latimer: Okay, so in this post I well and truly get my nerd on. What follows is an indulgence of my science fetish!

It might come as a surprise that I am a factual being, when my dreams are so rooted in the fantastical. But sometimes the truth is just as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the dream. I think that science is the great dream; the greatest mystery.

Recently I went to a general science conference, covering everything under the sun. It was the European Science Open Forum (ESOF) which was held in Dublin this year (Dublin is the City of Science for 2012 🙂 ).

This conference was incredible; for a start the program included five Nobel Laureates. Heavy-hitters as I was calling them.                                                                                 

The conference had two speakers that without a doubt I had to see: Prof. James Watson and Dr. Craig Venter. They’re like celebrities in science.

Now, you may or may not know who these men are. If you don’t, let me explain…

A conversation with James Watson

Professor James Watson, co-discoverer of the struture of DNA

Prof. James Watson co-discovered the structure of DNA in the 50’s with Dr. Frances Crick. He is quite an incredible man- at 84yrs of age, he is still active in research today!

The talk was a ‘conversation with James Watson’. It was very interesting. He can be quite controversal though.

He wrote a book called How to Avoid Boring People; one interest thing he said was to avoid being in a room with more than 2 Nobel Laureates (you have to laugh at the likelihood of that happening).

Watson said he hated going to the Nobel meetings because you end up with 10 Nobel Laureates in a room and they are incredibly boring. He snorted thinking you’d have to be boring to be one and that he was the exception.

It was amazing to get the opportunity to see him.

Dr. Craig Venter: ‘From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code’

Dr. Craig Venter, the background shows the cover of Science, the journal in which his group published their sequencing of the human genome in 2000

Dr. Craig Venter, sometimes called the ‘bad boy’ of science, was involved in the sequencing of the human genome. There were two groups racing to sequence the human genome at the time; the public group led by Dr. Frances Collins and the private group lead by Venter.

Venter had declared to the public group that his company could sequence the genome faster and for cheaper than they could. This kicked off the race between the two groups, leading to the genome being sequenced far faster than the public group had estimated it would be (3yrs ahead of the expected time-frame).

Craig Venter’s synthetic micro-organism, a bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0

In recent years, more famously perhaps, Venter’s research group made the first synthetic organism.

It was very interesting to hear what his group (or an assembly of many groups) was up to and also to hear his thoughts on the future of science. 

He believes, for example, that in the future, during disease outbreaks, it will be possible for people to download vaccines from the internet and use boxes, containing his technology, to synthesize the vaccines themselves.

What an amazing thought eh? And not that farfetched.

Prof. Brian Greene: ‘The State of String Theory’

Professor Brian Greene

This was an incredible talk (even though I don’t do or understand Physics!). I am fascinated by the science of the universe.

Did you know- the heavy elements in our body came from the heart of an exploding star? All the particles that make up this universe have always been and always will be; how incredible is that?

It leaves you with a sense of belonging to the universe.

Prof. Greene also mentioned the multiverse- the notion that we are only one of many universes.

If these multple universes exist, it is believed that they would collide with one another and cause ripples to pass through each universe. 

Prof. Greene said, if we could detect these ripples, we could prove the existence of other universes. He said people were working on searching for these ripples (and they would be possible to find, if they exist).

Wow.

The infamous strings of String Theory… hypothecially!

Specifically though, Prof. Greene was talking about String Theory.

The idea behind it is that, if proven, it would be the unifying theory of physics- explaining all the parts that make up the whole universe and the energy in it.

It is a very complicated idea, and one that I can’t explain- so I found this brilliant TED talk that Prof. Greene gave (and it’s very similar, down to the letter in some parts, to the talk I heard). It’s about 20mins long, but it’s fascinating and he explains it in a clear way, so it’s easy to follow, if you are interested, I highly recommend it!

I left his talk feeling invigorated, awed and amazed. I had to jot down all I could remember.

Prof. Rolf-Dieter Heuer: The search for a deeper understanding of our universe at the Large Haldron Collider: the world’s largest particle accelerator

Large Haldron Collider at CERN

I couldn’t miss this talk. CERN is all over the media at the moment.

Prof. Rolf-Dieter Heuer (a particle physicist and Director General of CERN) was talking about the Higgs Boson. Which he said, if you ask him professionally he would say, ‘we have probably found it’, if you ask him personally he would say, ‘we have found it’.

Scientists, we are always so careful!

Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN

He was a brilliant speaker, very funny and very interesting.

Professor Peter Higgs, Theoretical Physicist who first predicted the existence of the Higgs boson

Briefly (and in a very simple way, because I am no physicist!), the Higgs Boson, when found (as it likely has been), would prove the existence of the Higgs field.

The Higgs field is the way a particle gains mass (by interacting with the field). The stronger the interaction with the field, the larger the mass of the particle.

The field also has a peculiarity, in that, it can interact with itself.

So, again, a particle gains mass by interacting with the Higgs field, in theory, but in order to prove that the field exists at all- you must find the Higgs boson.

But why?

Why would finding the Higgs boson prove the existence of the Higgs field?

Prof. Heuer had a brilliant way of explaining the reason why:

He used this analogy: if he walked into a room full of journalists (representing the Higgs field). He could pass through the crowd, unnoticed, because they don’t know who he is.

The journalists don’t react to him.

Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN… pointing!

However, if Einstein passes through the crowd, the journalists will react and crowd in on him.

And so Einstein gains mass (which is what the Higgs field does to particles).

The more known to the journalists, the more massive that person becomes (as they are all crowding in on them).

This is an explanation of how a particle gets mass in the Higgs field.

But, Prof. Heuer said, if for example he whispers a rumour into the room of journalists. They start to crowd in on each other, saying, “what did he say? Oh? Who?”.

This is a self-interaction of the field.

This forms the Higgs boson- self-interaction of the Higgs field= Higgs boson!

WOW! We all cheered. What a perfectly simple explanation of something I did not understand at all.

Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN
“So, particle physics is really easy!!”

After he explained this, Prof. Heuer said: “So, particle physics is really easy!” (His wry smile implied he was making a funny; everyone laughed).

You might wonder, this is all very well and good, but how does the Higgs boson help us really?

Well, Prof. Heuer made this point; the internet was developed in the 80s at CERN. It was developed by the scientists so they could transmit their research to one another in a quick manner. At the time, they didn’t envisage any other purpose for the internet. But in later years, obviously they realised it could be used for other things. And it was only later that other uses became known.

Prof. Heuer doesn’t know yet what the Higgs boson can be used for, but in the future who knows?

I really loved this talk.

Prof. Heuer is amazing. I want to go to CERN and follow him around and have cups of tea with him and get him to tell me about the universe!

Would it freak him out? If I was in his shadow, with a cup of tea in one hand and a notepad in the other, going:

“Okay Rolf, tell me about the universe!” Latimer

“How did you get in here?!” Rolf

“I live here now…” Latimer

“Security!” Rolf

“Shush; I locked them in the Large Hadron Collider- anyway, let’s talk physics!” Latimer.

Ha…

‘What does Art bring to Science?’

Moving away from Physics now, I also went to a series of talks on; ‘What does art bring to science?’

The most interesting of these was the story of an American painter, William Utermohlen, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This of course is incredibly sad, but Mr. Utermohlen gave a valuable, as before unseen insight into this progressive, destructive disease, by charting its progression with his self-portraits:

I found them haunting and somewhat disturbing to be honest, particularly the final portrait. It does illustrate a clear decline though, in a media that had not previously been shown.

It gaves the disease a very human element.

This was a very interesting talk; Mr. Utermohlen’s story really stuck with me.

Prof. Christian Keysers: ‘The Empathic Brain’

Professor Christain Keysers

Carrying on from this, I delved a bit more into the brain.

This was a brilliant talk about the biological basis of empathy.  Prof. Keysers gave an overview of empathy research.

He explained to us that empathy is not localised in a single area of the brain, rather empathy for different things is localised in different areas of the brain.

So,  people with damage to the brain, could loose the ability to feel certain types of empathy, but retain the ability to feel other types.

In terms of loosing the ability to feel empathy, Prof. Keysers said, if you loose the ability to feel e.g. disgusted, then you also loose the ability to feel the empathic disgust of others.

There was an interesting study carried out, where two groups, one male one female, were shown a card game. While they watched, the researchers monitored their brain activity.

The groups were shown a person playing fair and a person cheating, and winning. The cheater was punished and given an electric shock.

While watching the fair plays, both men and women had the same empathy levels. While watching the cheater being shocked, women had slightly reduced empathy, but they still had some empathy (sharing the cheater’s pain at being shocked).

However, men had no empathy while watching the cheater being shocked- in fact, it had activated a reward sensation in the brain! Indicating that the men were happy to see the cheater being punished, while the women were still empathising with the pain the cheater felt!

This begged the question of men and war, versus women and war. That perhaps there might be more psychological impact on women and this perhaps should be monitored more carefully.

Interesting right?

There was also a study carried out on ‘reading about emotions’. This study showed that people could empathise by reading; for example, they had a paragraph describing something disgusting and people felt disgusted by reading it.

The study suggested that people who read more may have more heightened empathy; but the reason why is not known.

Is it because people read more, that they have more empathy? Or is that they get more out of reading because they have the ability to empathise more with the characters (and that’s why they read more)?

Prof. Keyser mentioned something his old poetry teacher, from school, told him and it sort of stuck with me in terms of writing.

The teacher said that if you want to describe a person sailing on the ocean for the first time, don’t tell your readers what the ocean looks like, they already know- tell them about the person.

Tell them about their expressions. This is more informative, because this way they empathise more.

And in a scientific sense, you are activating the right parts of a person’s brain to feel attachment to your characters. So talk about the person, not the scenery.

Prof. Keyser wrote a book called The Empathic Brain and it’s a self-published one.

It describes an overview of empathy studies (not just his own). I haven’t read it, I did buy it though, it’s waiting on the Kindle- with many others, ha. But he said it was for everyone, so it’s not written in an overly scientific way.

Well, the conference was absolutely amazing.

I wanted to share some of the things I learned, though I appreciate that I might have rambled on a little. I hope it was clear and maybe a bit interesting in some way!

Being at this conference reaffirmed my love for science 🙂