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Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight


Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am

on dresses, marriage and patriarchy

with 2 comments

the spice of life

Canto: It seems some schools are still intent on having girls wear dresses to their classes. Why?

Jacinta: Because that’s what girls have traditionally worn. Because some schools insist on an absolute distinction between girls and boys.

Canto: Yes but they must be able to come up with good reasons for that, otherwise they’ll look foolish.

Jacinta: Well girls are girls and boys are boys, aren’t they? How can they be treated equally or identically? It’s obvious.

Canto: Ah, the obvious argument. Like Cook obviously discovered Australia. But this absolute differentiation between males and females has always been a horrible thing to behold. When such absolute differences are insisted on, it’s always accompanied by a sense of the superiority of one side of the differential.

Jacinta: Indeed, as one schoolteacher put it in an interview I saw recently, the dress thing in schools is essentially an insistence that girls should dress more for decoration than for practicality.

Canto: Yes, though there are conditions in which dresses are more practical, in which case they should be allowed for all genders. I’d still like to buy one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook a while ago.

Jacinta: It’s amazing that this gendered stuff hasn’t been questioned, or raged against, more vigorously before now, but the dress thing could be a wedge to open up a pack of gender issues.

Canto: And research has found that girls exercise less than boys, to a significant degree, and dresses undoubtedly contribute to that. It’s being pointed out that making simple changes to uniform policies might be a much cheaper way to address the problem than a ‘girls be active’ campaign.

Jacinta: And it requires leadership from, well, the leaders. Girls aren’t likely to go it alone and risk being mocked by their peers for being different. And it looks like if senior teachers or principals don’t engage in the exercise of change – at last! – then parents will have to make the move, possibly via legal action.

Canto: Yes, the refusal to allow girls to wear clothes appropriate for tree-climbing, mud-wrestling and other typical schoolyard activities is clearly discriminatory. Bring it on!

Jacinta: Seriously we know that both girls and boys, in terms of their mental and physical activities, cover the whole range. Forcing them into specific, gendered outfits inhibits that range. That’s the last thing the wider society wants. So now, due to the same-sex marriage issue and some silly remark from the no campaign about boys wearing dresses, the issue of girls’ uniforms is grabbing a moment’s attention, but will it die down again with no action taken? Our society’s inertia is lamentable, methinks.

Canto: Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to keep the issue alive after the marriage issue gets dealt with – letters to arch-Catholic schools, veiled threats, dress-burnings outside the railings.

Jacinta: Railings and wailings outside the railings. But not outside of individual schools, that would take forever. We need national action. Federal parliament needs a dressing down. But speaking of marriage, I just heard a sound-bite about a woman from Israel, a parliamentarian, who’s calling for a cancellation of marriage. She wants to get rid of it, apparently. Now that takes me back to the old days.

Canto: Is this a feminist issue? I mean, lots of people aren’t keen on marriage, including myself, but I never thought of it as a feminist issue, though of course it would be in more patriarchal cultures.

Jacinta: Well the ‘cancel marriage’ advocate is Merav Michaeli, who worked mainly as a journalist before entering the Israeli parliament, and in her TEDx talk she clearly sees it as a feminist issue and makes a number of valid points…

Canto: But how can this be relevant to gay marriage?

Jacinta: Yes, that could be an argument against her – marriage can evolve rather than be cancelled. She’s right about the history of the marriage arrangement and how it has disadvantaged women, quite massively in fact, but marriage is what we make of it and we can do a better job of the arrangement in the future. Having said that, I’d be quite happy for it to be scrapped.

Canto: I’ve always been interested in different arrangements for rearing kids, other than the two-parent thing. But let’s return to the small issue of dresses. The Western Australian labor government has upped the ante by making it mandatory for schools to offer girls the choice of wearing pants or a dress.

Jacinta: That’s great. I presume this is for primary school. And maybe high school, Though I recall in my high school, a long long time ago, the senior students were weaned off uniforms, in preparation for sensible adult life when they could at last wear what they wanted.

Canto: I’d love to hear the rationale of those schools who don’t allow girls to wear trousers or shorts. And I don’t think just offering the option of shorts for girls is enough – no girl wants to be the only girl in her class to not be wearing a dress. If shorts and trousers really do encourage girls to engage in more play – and they clearly do, then they should be encouraged, for their health’s sake.

Jacinta: It really is discriminatory, as many experts say. And it doesn’t reflect what grown-up women wear. I teach in a college with predominantly female colleagues. Not one of them wears a dress on a regular basis. Most of them have never worn a dress at work, as far as I can recall.

Canto: Which makes me wonder about the female teachers at these hold-out schools. Do they all wear dresses? Imagine a trousered teacher dictating the dress-only-dress code to her female charges. Wouldn’t be surprised if that hasn’t happened somewhere. It’s a weird weird world.

Jacinta: In some ways it might seem a trivial subject, given all the issues about clean energy and so on, things that we’ve been focusing on lately, but these apparently minor issues of dress go to the heart of patriarchy in many ways. After all, these rules are being forced on girls quite often, and they’re telling them something at a very impressionable age, and that’s not a good thing.

Canto: We must try to keep this one in mind, as the issue is likely to go off the boil again and may take decades to fix. I’d also like to know which schools are enforcing these rules. We might try to shame them.

Jacinta: I hear it’s often the parents that insist on it. They’ve sent their kids to a conservative school for a reason. In any case they should be forced to justify their attitudes. I’d like to see them try.


Written by stewart henderson

September 12, 2017 at 8:39 am

some more stuff we’ve learned about vaccines

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Vaccinology, I would say that it’s not rocket science. It’s a lot harder than rocket science.

Alan Schmaljohn, virologist, 2014


Canto: So, reading The Vaccine Race, by Meredith Wadman – maybe we should just do book reviews? – I find myself getting excited, or confused, by a passage, and wanting to do more research, and then forgetting about it…

Jacinta: It’s probably pretty normal to forget 95% of what you read within a week or so of having read it. You just hope the things you retain are the principal things.

Canto: Yeah well, I was probably hoping the book would help me get my head around how vaccines work, as well as providing juicy and inspiring tales of heroism and malpractice in the history of vaccine development, and it has helped, but I think I’d need to read half a dozen such books and watch a dozen videos before it penetrated my thick skull…

Jacinta: Yes, for example, when I found myself reading, well into the book, about Leonard Hayflick’s human diploid cells, taken from the lungs of an aborted foetus, which were used to provide a sort of base for creating vaccines against all sorts of diseases, most notably rubella, I thought ‘obviously the author has explained human diploid cells, probably in great detail, before, but I can’t recall a whit’…

Canto: That’s what comes of reading too many books at once, and spreading your focus. You know it’s a myth that women can multi-task better than men, but the major finding of research is that multi-tasking is bad for everyone. Let’s resolve to read books one at a time, from start to finish.

Jacinta: Resolved. Anyway, diploid cells are just standard human cells, with 23 pairs of chromosomes. The only other human cells are haploid sperm and eggs, with 23 unpaired chromosomes. Hayflick’s cell line, gathered in the fifties, was ‘cleaner’ than the cells previously used from other animals, such as monkey kidney cells, which contained many viruses. I used the index.

Canto: So these cells were taken from the lungs of a foetus, and Hayflick was able to produce a cell line from them, that’s to say a line of almost endlessly reproducing cells, I’m not sure how that worked, but these cells, which had to be free of every virus or pathogen, would then be somehow injected with, say, the rubella virus, in some sort of reduced form, so as to produce antibodies in those who are vaccinated. The trick with vaccinology, it seems, is to produce a safe vaccine with no side effects, or minimal side effects, but with enough potency to produce a reaction, thus producing antibodies to the antigens in the vaccine. The vaccine must contain antigens, must have some potency, otherwise it’s useless. And every immune system is subtly different, so producing a one-size-fits-all vaccine is in many respects a monumental undertaking. I may have this completely wrong by the way.

Jacinta: Probably only partially wrong, let’s not be absolutists. What about this difference between killed vaccines and live vaccines. Can we talk about that?

Canto: Well first I want to understand how a ‘cell line’ is produced. How were Hayflick’s famous WI-38 (human diploid) cells produced in a constant stream from the lungs of a single legally aborted foetus in 1962?

Jacinta: Let me try to summarise Wadman’s description of the process from this online article. The tiny lungs were minced up and then placed in a container with a mix of enzymes that separated them into individual cells. These cells were separated again into small glass bottles, and a ‘nutrient broth’ was added, causing the cells to divide. thus began the most thoroughly described, studied and utilised human cell line to date, from which was created vaccines for rubella, rabies, adenovirus, measles, polio, chicken pox and shingles.

Canto: A nutrient both? You mean ‘at this point a miracle happens’?

Jacinta: Well, this was a well-established miracle, only previously it was done with non-human cells, and still is. Monkey and canine kidney cells, chicken embryo fibroblasts, hamster ovary cells… Of course using human cells was bound to be controversial.

Canto: So – obviously the cells in these tiny lungs would’ve gone on dividing had the foetus survived, so microbiologists had worked out a way, of making this happen – mitosis, isn’t it? – outside the host. How long have they been able to do this?

Jacinta: Well the first vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in the late eighteenth century, but they weren’t actually culturing cells then. Cell culture is a broad term meaning a process of growing cells – obviously by cell division – outside of their natural environment, usually in a lab. A cell line (e.g. Hayflick’s WI-38 cells) is ‘a population of cells descended from a single cell and containing the same genetic makeup’, to quote Wikipedia. Cell culture started with the maintenance of cell tissue independent of the host animal in the late nineteenth century, but techniques advanced rapidly in the 1940s and 50s to support virology and the manufacture of vaccines. A key event was the growing of poliovirus in monkey kidney cells in 1949, for which John Enders, Tom Weller and Fred Robbins won the Nobel Prize. Their methods were used by Jonas Salk and others to produce the first polio vaccine.

Canto: But the problem with using monkey kidney cells was that they potentially carried their own viruses, right? Which may or may not be harmful to humans, and how would they know? Without using human guinea pigs?

Jacinta: Human subjects, yes. And there’s also the question of the potency of the virus being used, presumably to stimulate the production of antibodies. Is it just a question of stimulating enough antibodies? And isn’t there an obvious danger of infecting subjects with the virus itself? Presumably a killed virus solves that problem, but is it really effective?

Canto: Yes, Wadman’s book has been fascinating on the politics of the vaccine race, but I’m still left much confused – probably due to stupidity or inattentiveness – as to how some vaccines work better than others, and how a cell line – I know it’s essentially about exponential growth – can produce enough material for millions of vaccine doses.

Jacinta: Yes it’s about exponential growth, and it was once thought that, given the right conditions, these cells could go on multiplying ad infinitum, to immortality so to speak, but it was Hayflick who showed this not to be true in a much-cited paper. Even so, the number of replications of individual cells assured a sufficient supply of cells for generations. And since then, much more has been discovered about cell ageing and its causes, what with telomeres and telomerase, but that’s another story. As to why vaccines developed from the WI-38 cells have been so much less problematic than others, it clearly has much to do with their being ‘clean’ human foetal cells, with no other lurgies lurking.

Canto: So let me get this clear. The WI-38 cells are provided to different labs that are wanting to create a vaccine for, say, measles. Or that have already created a vaccine, or at least have isolated the virus – but then of course viruses can’t be isolated, they need cells to survive in. So they get the WI-38 cells, and then they inject them with the virus – killed or attenuated – and then they start trialling it on rats or mice or something, trying out different strengths of the virus, without really having much idea whether the dose will translate to humans, so they must find some willing volunteers (or, in the early days, orphaned or intellectually disabled kids) to experiment on, making sure they err on the conservative side initially, then upping the dosage? I’m no doubt simplifying and speculating wildly here.

Jacinta: yes and I’m no wiser  than you, but it’s a good thing we have people taking these risks, and working so hard in this field –  with clearer ethical guidelines than before – because millions of lives have been saved by vaccines, and so much has been learned about our immune system in the process of developing them.


Wadman, Meredith. The Vaccine Race. Doubleday 2017.

Written by stewart henderson

June 11, 2017 at 7:39 pm

More subsequent remarks preliminary to a voyage

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my officially incipient tache - a supposedly fun thing I'll never grow again

my officially incipient tache – a supposedly fun thing I’ll never grow again

So as flight-time draws nigh, it’s hard to describe my tangle of emotions. The first is dread that this is the end [litt ref 3.5, with apologies to the Doors]. I have a micro-fear of flying, and this’ll be the first long haul. I love embracing travellers’ lingo. We’re flying Emirates, stopping over at Dubai, but the thing is, we’re flying all night. I mean, how do the pilots see anything?

OK, I know it’s all ineffably hi-tech and the safest form of transport ever invented and night flights are pushbuttoningly routine, and Mick Jagger’s still alive and dancin after 10 zillion flights, but there have to be exceptions to prove rules perhaps, and when disasters do happen they’re always spectacular. I mean, you don’t get a dose of whiplash from a plane crash. They’re not called prangs. It’s, like, 279 dead, body parts spread over an xx-kilometre zone, so much for safety in numbers, and I’m wondering, as strangely-pathetically I often do, what will be the reaction to my passing…

But enough self-indulgence, I’ll be right on the night. Still the other emotions and stressors are pastel in comparison. In fact, actually, truthfully, the flight’s the only real issue. Money, la langue francaise, communications home, possible tensions with my TC, health concerns (not flu jabbed, tsk tsk), all mere nanothemes. I’m collecting gratis advice – take a KO dose of valium, get drunk, use nasal spray (done), chew gum (will do), sleep, get over it, enough self-indulgence.

The home I leave behind will be tenanted by a sweet young miss of whom I will say no more in the unlikely event that she reads this blog, and I must say I’ll miss the daily watched-kettle-not-boiling progress of the various building sites in my neighbourhood, with, as a neighbour pointed out, possibly lethally ambitious NYC names like the Bowery, the Beeline (or is it the Beehive?) and Park Central. Really. Cafés and R & R areas are proliferating and jackhammers and earth-pounding noise-makers are just starting to shape the projected City Square a few blocks away. How thrilling it’ll be to actually notice a difference come the end of May. I don’t feel at all cynical about it, as a relative newcomer to regular acceptable employment, a parvenu, a bourgeois – but not assez plat, to recall the slicing words of Stendhal [litt ref 4.5]. Besides, I’ve encountered a few of the occupants of the new medium density constructs sprouting around me (I mean sighted them, not met them) and mostly they look just as spivvy as myself. And the enviro-ideas shaping those buildings really are exciting, but I’m too excited – just about to be picked up and driven to the airport – to detail them now. I will survive [musical reference 1 – but then the Doors reference should really be a  musical reference not a half-litt reference – ok no more ref-mentions].

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm

does this change everything? Paris, Naomi Klein, extractivism and blockadia

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Canto: Well I’ve just managed to finish reading Naomi Klein’s great big book about the politics of climate change, This changes everything, and since this more or less coincides with the recent political decisions made about tackling climate in Paris, I thought we might spend this session, or even a few sessions, on the future of clean energy, the fossil fuel industry and so forth.

Jacinta: Ah yes, the Paris conference, can you fill me in on that? All I know is that the outcome is being touted as a turning point, a watershed moment, but I presume none of it is enforceable, and I can’t really see the fossil fuel giants giving up the ghost, or considering anything much beyond business as usual…

Canto: Okay, the UN climate change conference in Paris ended on December 12 2015, having run for about 3 weeks. The principal outcome has been the Paris agreement, which was a more substantive agreement on emissions reduction than has been achieved in the past. It apparently represents a consensus drawn from some 196 national representatives.

Jacinta: And I seem to recall the figure of 2% being bandied about. What was that about?

Canto: Ummm, I think you might be referring to the plan, or hope, to limit global warming to 2 degrees, through zero net greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the 21st century, globally.

Jacinta: Wow, that’s some hope.

Canto: Well the hope is to keep the warming to well under 2 degrees C, preferably aiming for 1.5, which would entail substantial reductions well before 2050, but of course this is all promises, promises.

Jacinta: So what about enforcement, and how is this going to be achieved nation by nation, considering that some nations are huge emitters, and some nations, like India, are still developing and industrialising?

Canto: Right so there are all these semi-commitments and promises, but crunch time starts in April 2016, from which time the relevant parties are asked to sign up to the agreement – that’s 197 parties in all, including all member nations of the UN, the European Union and some not-quite-nations like Palestine and the Cook Islands. They have a year to sign up, and the agreement will only come into force if 55 countries that produce 55% of global greenhouse emissions sign up.

Jacinta: Wait, does that mean all of the top 55 greenhouse gas emitters, or any 55 that together emit 55% of the greenhouse gases emitted by humans?

Canto: Uhhh, I’m not sure but I think it’s the latter.

Jacinta: Great, so Australia doesn’t have to sign. Quel soulagement!

Canto: Funny that, because the Wikipedia article on the Paris agreement, specifically mentions the climate change ‘skepticism’ of our conservative government…

Jacinta: Wow, what an honour.

Canto: Time to lobby our environment minister. Of course there are a lot of people protesting that this agreement doesn’t go far enough – not so much in the targets as in the voluntary nature of it all. I mean, it may not even come into voluntary force if nations don’t sign up to it, and of course there’s no enforcement mechanism. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the situation:

The Agreement will not become binding on its member states until 55 parties who produce over 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas have ratified the Agreement. There is doubt whether some countries will agree to do so. Each country that ratifies the agreement will be required to set a target for emission reduction, but the amount will be voluntary. There will be [no] mechanism to force a country to set a target by a specific date and no enforcement if a set target is not met. There will be only a “name and shame” system or as Janos Pasztor, the U.N. assistant secretary-general on climate change, told CBS News (US), a “name and encourage” plan.

Jacinta: Well I think it’s definitely a positive development, which will add pressure to the fossil fuel industries and their supporters. I notice that one of our green pollies was castigating the government the other day about the expansion of the Abbott Point coal terminal, citing the Paris agreement. That’s going to be a much repeated dagger-thrust into the future. So how does this all connect with Naomi Klein’s book?

Canto: Well I think you’re right to accentuate the positives. I mean, how can you seriously police or enforce such an agreement without interfering with the ‘national sovereignty’ that so many nations bellow about – especially when there’s a hint of criticism from the UN? So the first real positive coming from this confab is that all the parties are in agreement about the imminent threat of AGW, and they’ve actually managed to come to a broad agreement over a target and a goal. That’s a big deal. The second positive is, as you say, the impact of that consensus on the battle against the cashed-up fossil fuel industries, and the mostly conservative governments around the world that are still into science denialism, including our own government. As to This changes everything, Klein sees the AGW issue as a possible game-changer for the politics of global capitalism and free marketeering, which is rather ambitious, but she puts her faith in the protest movements, the indigenous rights movements and other grassroots movements who are, as she sees it, rising up more than ever before to create headaches for the business-as-usual model. She calls this grassroots approach ‘blockadia’, probably not an original coinage.


Jacinta: So she sees it as an issue to fight global capitalism, to replace it with… what? Surely the renewable energy industries are capitalist industries too?

Cant: Well yes, I think there’s a certain amount of idealism in her view, an old-fashioned back-to-nature ethic, and I don’t think she emphasises the solutions and the science as much as she emphasises the problems and the politics, but if you take the view that the fossil fuel industries need to be phased out, sooner rather than later, you’ll perhaps be as much inspired by the heroic and hard-working efforts to prevent mining and drilling – which, let’s face it, have caused huge devastation in many areas – as you will by the innovations and improvements in clean energy. Which brings me to the other term used a lot in Klein’s book – extractivism.

Jacinta: Which presumably stands not just for the fossil fuel industry but the whole mentality of ‘what can we extract from this entity?’, be it animal vegetable or mineral.

Canto: The ancient Greeks did it with their slaves, the British did it with their colonies…

Jacinta: And their slaves..

Canto: The tobacco industry are doing it with the resource of willing smokers in non-western countries, poachers are doing it with elephants in Africa, the porn industry is doing it with pretty and mostly impoverished girls in the US and Europe, multinational companies are doing it with cheap labour worldwide. Extractivism has always been with us…

Jacinta: Point taken but I think we’re getting a bit carried away here. I presume Klein was using the term in a more limited sense, though perhaps with a nod to broader extractivist tendencies. And I have to say, quite apart from the devastation caused by tailings and disasters like Deepwater Horizon, I’ve always felt there’s something not quite right about our recent cavalier exploitation of a process of incredibly slow transformation of once-living and evolving entities – our ancestors in a sense – into coal and oil. Doesn’t it seem somehow sacrilegious?

Canto: Well perhaps, but I’m not sure if ‘exploitation’ is the right word. People get exploited. Okay animals can get exploited. But dead matter turning into coal? All species do what they can to survive and thrive, and they don’t worry about the cost to others or to historical processes. Right now parrots are feasting on my neighbour’s fruit trees. They’re extracting what they can in one go, and they’ll be back for more unless someone stops them. My neighbours might consider the parrots a pest, but that’s only because they want to extract as much as they can from those trees, to make jam, or to add fibre and other nutritional elements to their diet. As to the fossil fuels I’m all for keeping them in the ground, but more because of the damage they do to our atmosphere than because it’s ‘nice’ and ‘respectful’ not to extract them.

Jacinta: Spoken like a true instrumental scientist, but I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than you say. But what do you think about the view that this is a game-changer for global politics? Klein subtitles her book ‘capitalism v the climate’, as if one or the other has to come out on top. Do you think that’s really the choice?

Canto: No I don’t, but I doubt that Klein really imagines, or even wants this to spell the end of capitalism. I’m no anti-capitalist of course, but then I see capitalism in much broader terms. Those parrots are capitalising on a resource previously unavailable to them, and they’ll continue to do so unless prevented, by netting or something worse. Fossil fuel companies have learned to capitalise on a resource previously unavailable to them, before we learned how to process and extract energy from such material, and they’ll continue to do so unless they’re prevented, by legislation, by blockadia, or by the availability of more attractive alternatives, such as the more effective exploitation of the sun. Or capitalising on the solar resource.

Jacinta: So you believe that all humans, or rather, all creatures are capitalists? Isn’t that a bit of a narrow view?

the capitalist menace

                                                                                  the capitalist menace

Canto: Well no, as I say, I think it’s a broad view of the capitalist concept. But of course you might say that this hardly accounts for blockadia. If we’re all capitalists at heart, how do we account for the amount of energy so many citizens put into blocking capitalist exploitation? But that’s easily explained by the parrots and fruit example. The parrots’ gain is the neighbours’ loss. The neighbours have gone to a lot of trouble cultivating the ground, planting the trees, watering and fertilising, and these pesky parrots have come along without so much as a by your leave, and devastated the crop. Similarly farmers who have put a lot of time and energy into cultivating their land, and indigenous people who have learned over generations how to fish and hunt in an area in such a way that stocks can still be replenished rather than devastated, are naturally outraged that these fossil fuel companies have come along and ‘poisoned the well’. The farmers and the indigenes are also capitalists, very effective capitalists for their own needs, but they’re faced with different types of capitalists with different needs. So, to me, it’s a matter of resources, needs, diversity and negotiation.

Jacinta: Hmmm, well I’m inclined to agree with you. Of course indigenous people, such as our Aborigines, like to talk of spiritual connections to the land and its bird and animal life, but I’m not much into spirituality. But I like the idea that even though they’re into hunting and killing those creatures in order to survive, they tell stories about them, and exhibit a great deal of respect and fondness for them. That seems healthy to me.

Canto: I agree completely. I’m not trying to say ‘all is capitalism’. There’s much more to life than that. The beauty of that story-telling and that affection for the land and its inhabitants and their ways is that it’s not a kind of master-race view. The Judeo-Christian view has been that all things, including all creatures, have been put here for our benefit. Of course modern Christianity has largely re-interpreted this as custodianship, which is an improvement, but I prefer the perspective that we’re all in this together, and we should look out for each other. Birds have to eat, and they like to eat fruit, and birds are fantastic creatures. They deserve our consideration.

Jacinta: Well that’s a nice note to end on. And what about the fossil fuel industry?

Canto: I think it’s had its day. It’s time to move beyond it.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2015 at 8:45 am

Traditional Chinese medicine? You must be joking

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bear bile, a TCM that tortures and kills bears and prevents humans from receiving effective treatments - just one of the horrors of TCM

bear bile, a TCM that tortures and kills bears and prevents humans from receiving effective treatments – just one of the horrors of TCM

If we don’t know what’s in them, it’s very difficult to predict the interactions, … that’s obviously of great concern if they are been given to children, or pregnant women, the potential outcomes there are very serious.

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker

There’s nothing particularly positive to say about naturopathic treatments generally – some of which (homeopathy, reflexology, iridology, acupuncture and cupping, to name a few) are not so much ‘natural’, whatever that means, as examples of comprehensively failed hypotheses (hardly worthy of the name). But so-called traditional Chinese medicine is on the lowest rung, considering how much damage it has done, not only to humans but to other species that have been horribly exploited in its name. The latest damning finding about what is actually contained in many of these unregulated pills will probably barely create a ripple amongst the anti-science crowd, but nevertheless it needs to get as much publicity as possible. You never know, maybe someone, somewhere will take notice (and we’re fighting a real battle here, because if you go online to find out about TCM, you’ll find the whole internet disturbingly skewed towards the positive). Please, if only for the sake of the children exposed to this crap by ignorant parents, let’s do something about this. It’s an effing outrage.

Written by stewart henderson

December 13, 2015 at 11:36 pm

HIT, mitochondria and health

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and for a gentler form of exercise...

and for a gentler form of exercise…

Jacinta: Well now, I know you’re dying to explore the recently touted benefits of your favourite exercise, so let’s have it.

Canto: Yes, I’m very much a HIT man, that’s high intensity interval training, highly recommendable because it takes so little time and only requires an exercise bike. I was put onto it by one of Michael Mosley’s documentaries, though I’ve been a rather theoretical enthusiast in recent times, having trouble overcoming my laziness and my pain-avoidance tendencies, because though it’s short exercise it is a little painful.

Jacinta: So the recent Catalyst episode has brought your enthusiasm surging back?

Canto: Naturellement, especially as it brings with it some new research to focus on. Mitochondria – what do you know about them?

Jacinta: That they are organelles in our cells, believed to have originated as bacteria but to have united with our eukaryotic cells way back in time in a process known as endosymbiosis. They’re also responsible for producing ATP, the energy molecules… though I’ve no idea how, or what an energy molecule actually is.

Canto: That’s music to my ears.

Jacinta: The dulcet tones of ignorance?

Canto: In the country of the blind the one-eyed science pundit is king, and I’d rather be a king than a commoner, so hear ye, my subject.

Jacinta: I may be blind but I’m all ears, Your Majesty.

Canto: Well, as the Catalyst program tells us, mitochondria are about a billion times smaller than a grain of sand, but the world at nanoscales has really opened up to us in recent decades. Mitochondria are good for us, and the more the merrier. And the evidence is that HIT exercise can not only increase the production of mitochondria but increase their function.

Jacinta: So how do we produce mitochondria?

Canto: Are you going to keep interrupting me with questions? Okay, the production of mitochondria relies on our oxygen intake. The story goes that we fill our lungs with oxygen and it enters the bloodstream for a specific purpose…

Jacinta: Hang on, we fill our lungs with air, not just oxygen, so how does the oxygen get separated, and how does the blood take up the oxygen? Aren’t you skipping a few steps here?

Canto: Yes, go and research it yourself and you can report on it next time. The destination of this inhaled oxygen is the mitochondria. There are billions of these mitochondria in our musculature, though the more fit and trained up you are, the more you’re likely to have. Mitochondria apparently comprise some 10% of our body mass, which I’m sure will come as a surprise. Now oxygen, as you know, acts as a corrosive through the process known as oxidation, which involves the loss of electrons…

Jacinta: Hang on…

Canto: Please shut up. So oxygen can have a negative effect on proteins, enzymes and even our DNA, but mitochondria uses this corrosive electron-stripping power to break down nutrients and to create energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Don’t ask! Of course this doesn’t just happen in humans but in all other mammals and complex creatures, and in plants. And that brings us to physical fitness, and the VO2 Max, which is, essentially, the measure of the fitness of our mitochondria. The term stands for volume (V), oxygen (O2), and of course maximum, though generally those concerned with aerobic fitness don’t make the association with mitochondria, they’re just looking at increasing their maximum oxygen consumption levels. Now it’s not an easy thing for impoverished nonentities like us to find out what our VO2 Max is, but it’s probably pretty pathetic. It’s something that endurance athletes tend to obsess about as they try to improve their performance – I believe rowers in particular have some of the highest levels. I notice there’s at least one VO2 Max app on the market – going very cheap too – but I’d be very sceptical about its reliability. In the testing facility shown on Catalyst they measure it via a version of HIT. They get the subject to ride an exercise bike, building up speed till she’s going as fast as she can, and she can go no faster and starts slowing down. That peak represents her VO2 Max. She will be tested 16 weeks later, after a mere 6 minutes of HIT a week, and you can bet your rented house that her VO2 Max will have substantially improved.

Jacinta: So for us low-lifes – excuse my interruption – who can’t easily or cheaply measure improvements in our VO2 Max or, say, our fat to muscle ratio, we just have to feel the difference in aerobic fitness, mitochondrial health and the like…

Canto: Yeah, and your weight will go down too, if you’re carrying a bit extra, as we both are. And the exertion will make you feel better and healthier, I guarantee it. We all know that the placebo effect is real after all. But seriously, I’m sure if we keep to a regime of HIT – say 3 bursts of 20-second full-pelt pedalling interspersed with a minute or so of more relaxed pedalling, or even if we start with 10-second bursts and then 15-second bursts, maybe eventually getting up to 30-second bursts, we’ll feel it getting easier, and it won’t be purely subjective even if we have no way of objectively measuring it.

Jacinta: But shouldn’t we consult a doctor beforehand? I already feel a heart-attack coming on.

Canto: I know you’re joking, but certainly anyone who has any kind of heart condition, or are diabetic or pre-diabetic or have any other serious chronic condition should discuss it with their GP, but really, apart from your couch potato tendencies, there’s nothing wrong with you.

Jacinta: You’re right, and I’m looking forward to the challenge, even though I’m already a to-die-for, effortlessly slim, perpetually twenty-two year old intellectual beauty..

Canto: And I’m the ultimate metrosexual hipster of indeterminate age and shoe size, discreetly tattooed and tucked…

Jacinta: Ah, yuck, you stupid twat, tattoos are the most repugnant fashion development of all time. At least you’re not a spornosexual, yuk, stay away from the gym or I’ll never speak to you again .

Canto: Promise? Anyway, around 35 is the average VO2 Max, but that’s a bit meaningless for us low-lifes as you say. Top athletes have levels in the 60s and 70s, with the highest ever recorded being around 96 or 97 for humans, but some mammals – like racehorses and Siberian sled dogs – can reach much higher levels. But there’s also going to be a big improvement in your fat-to-muscle ratio with regular bouts of HIT. In the Catalyst episode, the reporter took a DEXA body composition scan to measure this ratio. It also measures bone density. DEXA stands for Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry, that means you’re subjected to 10 minutes of very low-dose x-radiation at two different energy levels. It measures the relative densities of the different tissues. You can get this scan done in Adelaide, for a baseline measure, but it’ll probably cost an arm and a leg.

Jacinta: One way to lose weight. Cheaper to just take it for granted that you’re getting more muscular with every HIT.

Canto: Spoken like a true scientist. But generally, inactivity itself is a health problem, and anything that raises your metabolism, as HIT most definitely does, will be good for you, if it doesn’t kill you. And of course one of the most exciting findings in recent times is that your VO2 Max can be raised, with all the associated health benefits, without spending crazy amounts of time and money at the gym.

Jacinta: So how did they make this discovery?

Canto: Well I suppose they were doing a lot of experimenting and testing around the health benefits of exercise, but one test, a Wingate test, involved 30 seconds of all-out pedalling on an exercise bike, repeated a few times between periods of rest, to make up to two or three minutes of full-on exercise per session.

Jacinta: And this was for already-athletic types, right?

Canto: Yes – not advisable for middle-aged or post-middle-aged couch potatoes to start on that regimen. I’m currently doing three fifteen-second bursts, building up to 20-second bursts, then up to 30 seconds and no more. So researchers found that endurance levels can be dramatically improved after just six minutes or so of this kind of exercise. A doubling of endurance capacity, no less. Compare this to the current recommendations of 150 minutes a week. Who ever does that, apart from gym junkies?

Jacinta: So, it’s like this incredible short-cut to health.

Canto: Well of course it isn’t the solution to all ills, but among other things such a quick turn-around is a great motivator towards a healthier lifestyle all round. And it doesn’t have to be an exercise bike – you can adapt it, for example you can get yourself outside and do interspersed 30-second sprints, but I hate running and I’ve got a gammy knee so I’ll stay on the bike.

Jacinta: So, have they looked more into the actual science of this? What’s happening here?

Canto: Well again it seems to be about sucking in oxygen and providing a drug hit to the mitochondria. They did this rather nasty experiment with mice, genetically modifying them so that their mitochondrial DNA wasn’t functioning properly – their mitochondria were getting worn out. They looked pretty sorry-looking compared to the control mice, prematurely ageing as evidenced in their fur, their neural activity, heart function and sensory abilities. Their life-span was about half that of normal mice, and no drugs improved the situation.  Then they set them on a treadmill regularly, 3 times a week, at a brisk pace, for 45 minutes each session, which you might think would’ve killed them off all the more quickly, but the result was a spectacular improvement in mitochondria production and overall health and energy levels.

Jacinta: And this was in genetically modified mice?

Canto: Apparently so. The program didn’t go into detail about that, except to say that the bad mitochondria were apparently being selected against. Now of course we’re talking about mice here, and this was looking at endurance fitness rather than HIT, but it’s been shown that HIT does all the right things, and in some areas performs better than endurance training. Reductions in blood pressure, improvements in insulin sensitivity, in muscle to fat ratio, in VO2 max all in a matter of weeks, but the really interesting finding was that with HIT, improvement in mitochondrial function was significant – which wasn’t the case after endurance training.

Jacinta: How do they know that?

Canto: They took muscle samples and measured the ability of the muscles to produce oxygen – basically a measure of mitochondrial function. After just four weeks of HIT, mitochondrial function improved by up to 30%, while endurance training over the same period showed little or no change.

Jacinta: Wow. Doesn’t say much for endurance training.

Canto: Well endurance training does improve your VO2 max and it’s hardly bad for you. But the thing with these quick sprints is the difference at the muscle level. Sports medicine distinguishes between fast-twitch, slow-twitch and intermediate muscle fibres. HIT uses a wider range of muscles and muscle types than endurance work, and that seems to be the key. Improvement in mitochondrial function confers a heap of benefits, so this kind of exercise wards off neurological and other conditions, including muscle weakness and epidermal deterioration, the tell-tale signs of ageing. In fact all exercise does this. Ever heard of the stratum corneum?

Jacinta: Mmmm, corneum, cornea, isn’t that part of the eye?

Canto: Excellent guess but wrong in this case. The stratum corneum is the top layer of the epidermis, the skin. It starts to thicken as you age, and the layer underneath gets thinner as your mitochondrial function reduces. You can slow down that process quite significantly with regular exercise. They did skin biopsies of sedentary people over 65 before and after endurance training. After just 3 months the skin showed great improvement – a 20 to 30 ‘youthening effect’, according to one researcher. The dead outer layer thinned, and the dermis, full of collagen fibres, thickened. So, clearly, you’re never too old to start.

Jacinta: Or never too young. So okay I’ll start.

Canto: Great, but let me describe one more impressive study, being done on menopausal women using HIT. Menopause is about a major decline in estrogen, which has serious vascular, heart and metabolic effects, as well as insulin resistance. You tend to produce a lot of bad visceral fat which negatively affects the liver, due to the over-production of cytokines – but that’s another story. Anyway, the women were given a sprint regime, of just a short period of fast peddling interspersed with more relaxing peddling, amounting to eight minutes of fast but not hard exercise all up. The results of this research haven’t been published yet, but the women’s self-reporting is all very positive, which isn’t surprising. The research is also based on previous research with obese young men, and the exercise proved very effective. Visceral fat is generally much easier to reduce than subcutaneous fat.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re going to do this?

Canto: Absolutely. And finally, here are some links.


The Catalyst episode,

High-Intensity Training and Changes in Muscle Fiber, []

Written by stewart henderson

October 16, 2015 at 8:34 am