Scientific Revol(u)tion

Think of the things that are gross. You probably try to avoid these things as much as possible. You probably don’t want to think about them. So spare a thought for Dr Val Curtis, director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her job is to not only think about but also to talk about and study those things that make everyone else go ewww.

Dr Curtis studied engineering, epidemiology and anthropology. With so many different specializations The Word asked how she became interested in disgusting things.

Germs: A collective term for any microbe which causes disease.

“I was working on trying to understand why people would wash their hands, why they would avoid disgusting stuff – they didn’t want germs on their hands, but they also didn’t want germs in their bathrooms, or on their clothes,” she said. “I kept asking why – it’s yucky – why – but they couldn’t explain, and I realized I couldn’t explain it either.”

So she started making lists of what people all over the world thought were disgusting. The results showed a random collection of ideas. Then she realized the things were in an index of a book on infectious diseases. From this she got a theory.

Predator: An animal which hunts and eats other animals.

“There was a pattern, disgust evolved to protect us from infectious disease.”

Dr Curtis is interested in how behavior evolved. Fear protected us from predators. Disgust protects us from disease.

“Disgust is parallel to fear, disgust is very much like fear, we try to avoid tiny predators that can eat us from the inside versus large predators that eat us from the outside,” she said. “Disgust is the little brother of fear.”

Dr Curtis has just published “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch” which looks at the science behind revulsion. Since Dr Curtis researched people all over the world, is there such a thing as ‘global disgust’ – stuff everyone thinks is repulsive?

“We found seven components of disgust,” she said. “The themes are the same everywhere but the details vary from society to society.”

The seven areas which cause disgust relate to the body, especially what it produces; food, though this is different in each culture; sickness and deformity; dirt; sexual disgust and moral disgust.

Disgust could be more than protection. It could make us human.

“Disgust is fundamental to the human condition and it is so important to understand it, it’s a model for other emotions that are also good for survival,” she said. “Disgust matters because it is important to understand what drives us.”

Original article by Jacy Meyer – Phoenix, Arizona. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team 

Seeing Red

The landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover in August 2012 has done a lot to make the public interested in the Red Planet again. Curiosity is not the only earth-borne device to reach our second closest planet. But the rover’s discoveries and the clear images coming in of the reddish landscape make people wonder if humans will ever live on Mars.

An obstacle is a problem or difficulty.

Earlier this year NASA announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s. The announcement suggested that the mission would include private contractors. NASA did talk about several obstacles about putting people on Mars. These include life support and fuel storage and getting people off the Red Planet once they arrive.

The NASA announcement is not the first time a manned mission to Mars has been suggested. The Soviet Union developed a couple of proposals to send people by the 1970s. The US was the first nation to put a spacecraft on the planet – the Viking 1 in July 1976. They followed this success with Viking 2 arriving two months later. The Viking probes provided the first images of an alien landscape up close. No Martians were found, but scientists thought about the possibility of putting a person there.

Today, private companies have entered this new space race. The non-profit company Mars One has captured a lot of media attention. Mars One wants to establish a permanent colony by 2023. The argument in favour of a one-way trip is it would cost less money. However, there is the human cost. The people who volunteer will be stuck on Mars with each other, never to return to Earth, never swim in the sea, hear a bird sing or see loved ones face to face. Despite these sacrifices, over 200,000 people are trying to be one of the four crew members.

If something gives you pause, it means it makes you stop and think.

If the thought of leaving Earth forever doesn’t discourage people, perhaps the real physical dangers to astronauts should give them pause. The Curiosity mission included a radiation detector. Before the rover touched down on Mars, NASA scientists found out that the spacecraft received 0.66 of a sievert of radiation. Sievert is the unit used to measure the amount of radiation people absorb before it affects their health. One Sievert is the recommended dosage for a male astronaut over his whole career. To look at it another way, rescue workers who helped at the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster received 0.66 Sv. This amount of radiation greatly increases the risk of cancer. Mars One estimate that the radiation level will be half that because the craft will be easier to protect.

While the selection process for the Mars One mission is still happening, people will still debate the possibility. Right now, the psychological and physical risks seem to be worse than the possibility of actual colonization. But with so many volunteers, I don’t think anyone is going to stop dreaming of a mission to Mars.

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Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team

Funny Money

Australia hasn’t produced many famous firsts. The one which I think of is that it was the first country to replace paper money with plastic money. I don’t mean that you have to use credit cards in the Land Down Under. The nation’s larger currency denominations are printed on polymer banknotes. Since beginning in 1988, several other countries are using plastic money too. Canada will remove all paper notes in November this year.

If something counteracts something else, it has less of an effect on it. ‘The low price of the flight ticket counteracted the expensive spa where we stayed on holiday.’

Plastic money is preferred because it lasts longer. According to the Bank of Canada, the polymer notes last two and half times as long as the paper notes. But, the banknotes cost about twice as much to make. Because the notes last longer, they should counteract the increase in costs. Two more benefits are that the notes are more environmentally friendly and they are harder to counterfeit.

Some of the environmental benefits come because damaged notes don’t need to be replaced so often. The Bank of England, which is planning to introduce polymer notes, did an environmental study. They looked at all the stages of a banknote’s life. They thought about the new notes’ impact on “global warming potential, water and energy usage, ozone creation and environmental toxicity”. In all the areas except ozone creation, polymer notes had a lower environmental impact.

To forge something is to make an illegal copy of it. The noun is forgery.

Another reason for polymer notes is they are more secure. Polymer notes are meant to be harder to forge. The polymer notes are difficult to counterfeit because there are holographic tints in the images, embossed letters and numbers and transparent windows. Making fakes of polymer notes is not impossible. But because it is so complex, it is more difficult.

Hygiene is another good argument for polymer notes. Paper money is dirty and research shows that paper bills often get contaminated with illicit drugs. Because paper money has many tiny holes, small pieces can get stuck in the little holes. Polymers don’t have pores and so should be easier to keep clean. This reasoning was more support for Australia’s adoption of the polymer bills. The Bank of England is also using the same argument. It looks like the Isles will have new money – just not the euro.

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Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team.

Channelling London

One common complaint about visiting London is that it is an expensive city. But it is possible to have an enjoyable day which will cost you almost nothing. All you have to do is follow London’s canals.

We usually think of Venice or Amsterdam as the cities with canals. While these waterways are definitely impressive, London’s canels are worth exploring too. They are rich in history and you can see the city in different ways.

If something is ‘earmarked’ it is set aside or reserved for a special purpose.

There are 11 remaining canals – or artificial waterways – in London. The canals were built to move goods through the city. With the advent of rail and later the invention of the motor car, their use began to decline. In the 1960s the remaining canals were earmarked for closure. They would have been closed if it weren’t for the growing canal leisure industry which saw Britons enjoy slow cruises in houseboats or just walking along the paths.

If you ‘go by foot’ you walk.

Among the canals, Regent’s Canal is one of the longest in London. It probably has some of the most interesting sites, even if you go by foot. A good place to start along the Regent’s Canal is in Maida Vale at a place called Little Venice. No one knows where the name came from. One theory is that the poet Robert Browning who lived in the area gave the section of waterway its name. Another theory is that it was named by another poet, Lord Byron.

Soon you will reach Regent’s Park, also named after the former Prince Regent. The park is a popular place for picnics. Or you might want to save a visit to the park for another day because Regent’s Park is home to London Zoo, which you can see from the canal as you continue.

The next stop and another place to get lunch are the Camden Locks. Camden Town is famous today as London’s alternative district. The markets offer crafts, art, vintage clothes, second hand books and good places to eat for a fairly low price.

Camden is one of the quietest places in the city. From the canal, you come out to the Docklands. Not everyone likes this neighbourhood. It is a major centre of business in the British capital. Regent’s Canal is only one of the routes you can take through London’s history. Whichever one you choose will reveal some hidden side to this world city.

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Original article by Ryan Scott – Sydney, Australia. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team

Nature Gets Ugly

Most people know that giant pandas, lowland gorillas and monk seals are all high on the endangered species list. The animals are furry, their young are cute, and environmental campaigners know that this makes it easy to raise money to help these animals.

But what about the not-so-cute creatures of our planet who are just as in trouble? Humans have created many problems, so there are fewer fish, lizards, insects and other creatures in the oceans, trees, land and air. Despite what we think of these animals, each one has an important role in its ecosystem. Who will help the uglier creatures of earth? Meet Simon Watt.

Word play: Aesthetically challenged: This is a bit of humor based on the term physically challenged. It is a kinder way of saying ugly.

Simon Watt is a biologist and founder of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. Their motto on their website says: The Ugly Animal Preservation Society wants people to be aware of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically challenged children.

“I am a biologist and I grew bored of documentaries and the news only covering the same species over and over again,” Mr Watt told The Word. He started UAPS to talk about species which are often ignored. The organization uses comedy nights, which Mr Watt hosts.

“Each one (comedian) has ten minutes to champion a different endangered ugly species and at the end the audience votes one of those animals to be the mascot of the local branch of the society,” he said. He thought humor was important because conservation is “a depressing area of science.”

To name the global mascot, the Society teamed up with the National Science and Engineering Competition to create videos so they could have a worldwide vote for the society as a whole. The winner, announced in September, was the blobfish, which looks like a cartoon drawing of a squished fat bald man. The fish lives off the coast of Australia. Other contenders were a dung beetle and a pig-nosed turtle.

While the events and videos are fun, there is a very serious message too.

Amid the jokes there are plenty of facts,” he said. “If 200 species are going extinct each day then we need to talk about the threat to our planet’s biodiversity.”

Idiom: To capture someone’s heart: To make them love you.

And of all the unappealing creatures out there, is there one that has captured Mr Watt’s heart?

“If I had to pick one, I might go for the Canadian blue-grey tail dropper slug. It is Smurf blue and if you scare it, its bum drops off. This is a survival strategy as a predator will stop and eat the tail instead and the slug has time to escape.”

Original article by Jacy Meyer – Phoenix, Arizona. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team