Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

More exciting news about our nearby Universe has come to light, if you will pardon the pun, Dear Reader.


A newly discovered exoplanet has a lot of astronomers excited, and for good reason.

The exoplanet, dubbed GJ 1132b, is about the size of Earth and lives in a solar system roughly 39 light-years from Earth, a team of scientists reported in the November 12, 2015, issue of the journal Nature.

Furthermore, the exoplanet is the closest rocky Earth-sized exoplanet ever discovered, by far.


The exoplanet 'GJ 113b' is about the size of Earth. Photo: Dana Berry/ NASA

The exoplanet ‘GJ 113b’ is about the size of Earth. Photo: Dana Berry/ NASA

The planet is a real near neighbour, just over the garden fence in celestial terms. The next closest is about three times farther away.

GJ 1132b’s size and distance are what have astronomers like Drake Deming at the University of Maryland — who was not part of the study — saying that this planet is “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system,” he told The Guardian.

The reason is because GJ 1132b is close enough for astronomers to point their telescopes at it and sniff out any traces of an atmosphere.

Atmospheric signatures of life

Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets for signs of life is the next big step in the search for extraterrestrial life beyond our solar system.

But it’s an extremely difficult project because most Earth-sized planets — the exoplanets that astrobiologists think are most likely to harbor life — are too distant to study in any detail.

One of the ways astronomers determine the chemical composition of gases on planets in our own solar system is by studying the light passing through their atmospheric layers, like Earth’s shown in the photo below with our crescent moon in the foreground.

Chemical compounds and molecules interact differently with different energies of light, and, as a result, each molecule leaves a unique fingerprint that scientists can see when they map out the light over what is called a spectrum.

But when an object is hundreds of light-years away, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the light that’s passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere from the light that’s emanating from the larger, brighter host star.


Photo credit: Reuters

A significant stepping stone

Now, GJ 1132b has changed that, offering astronomers a perfect specimen to test their instruments and methods for detecting life.

“It’s nearby, it’s Earth-like, and its star won’t interfere,” Deming told The Guardian.

This newly discovered exoplanet is, however, just a stepping stone.

The possibility of finding life on it is practically zero. GJ 1132b might be only 16% larger than Earth, but it’s surface temperature is a balmy 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we’ve found a twin Venus,” David Charbonneau, a co-author on the new paper and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a press release.

“We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere, too, and if it does we can’t wait to get a whiff.”

The reason for these toasty temperatures is because GJ 1132b sits just 1.4 million miles from its host star — 26 times closer than Mercury is to our sun.

It takes just 1.6 days for GJ 1132b to complete a single orbit around its star, which is very different from our sun.

The most common star in the galaxy

The star is what is called a red dwarf, which astronomers suspect is the most common star throughout our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Red-dwarf stars are cooler, smaller, and dimmer than our sun. The one that GJ 1132b is orbiting is about one-fifth the size of our sun and only emits about 1/200th the amount of light.


Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here (Gliese 229A), would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, which would change their habitability, probably inducing tidal lock, for example. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here (Gliese 229A), would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, which would change their habitability, probably inducing tidal lock, for example. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

Just because they’re different from our sun, however, doesn’t mean life couldn’t spawn around them. It just means that the habitable zone — the region in space where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface — is closer to the star than it is for our sun, as seen above.

Some astronomers estimate that red-dwarf stars comprise 75% of all stars in the galaxy. This means that most of the exoplanets in our galaxy are likely orbiting red-dwarfs.

Whether any of those planets are habitable, however, is a subject of intense debate, which is why the discovery of GJ 1132b is so exciting. And while GJ 1132b is not likely habitable, it’s possible that it has some neighbors that are.

To first spot GJ 1132b as it passed in front of the star, scientists used the MEarth-South array, a group of telescopes at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Now that they know it’s there, the researchers have requested time on the Hubble Space Telescope (which observes the same type of light we see with our eyes) and the for sky gazers (which observes longer wavelengths than Hubble, in the infrared range) to study GJ 1132b more fully.

With the viewing powers of Hubble and Spitzer combined, the scientists could get a much broader spectrum of light to study even more chemical compounds than they otherwise would with just one of the telescopes.

With the recent discoveries on Mars, these are exciting times for sky gazers!

(With thanks to Yahoo UK)

Potentially deadly.

Potentially deadly.

Dungeness and rock crabs in California have been found to contain toxic levels of an acid that can kill.

The authorities in California are advising people to avoid consumption of crabs contaminated by a natural toxin that has spread throughout the marine ecosystem off the West Coast, killing sea mammals and poisoning various other species.

Kathi A. Lefebvre, the lead research biologist at the Wildlife Algal Toxin Research and Response Network, said on Wednesday that her organization had examined about 250 animals stranded on the West Coast and had found domoic acid, a toxic chemical produced by a species of algae, in 36 animals of several species.

“We’re seeing much higher contamination in the marine food web this year in this huge geographic expanse than in the past,” Ms. Lefebvre said.

She said that the toxin had never before been found in animals stranded in Washington or Oregon, and that there were most likely greater numbers of contaminated marine mammals not being found by humans.

The guilty algae’s growth has been exponential recently, largely because of record temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Warm water causes the toxic algae to divide more rapidly and to outcompete other species in the water. The algae then becomes a more prominent element of local plankton, a kind of marine trail mix made up of tiny particles that various species of aquatic wildlife subsist on.

The California Department of Public Health recently advised people to avoid consumption of certain species of crabs because of potential toxicity. Razor clam fisheries in Washington have been closed throughout the summer for the same reason.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the California department said that “recent test results” indicated dangerous levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and rock crabs caught in California waters between Oregon and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that in severe cases can cause excessive bronchial secretions, permanent loss of short-term memory, coma or death in humans, according to the California department’s statement. Milder cases can result in vomiting and diarrhea.

A release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries specified that “commercial seafood remains safe and state public health agencies monitor recreational fisheries for algal toxins.”

Pseudo-nitzschia, the type of algae that produces the acid, is a single-celled organism consumed directly by marine wildlife like anchovies, sardines, krill and razor clams. Those species are then eaten by larger predators, and the acid makes its way up the marine food chain.

This summer, the West Coast experienced the largest algal bloom that scientists have on record. Ms. Lefebvre said that though there was not a lot of monitoring for species that had consumed domoic acid in Alaska, it was likely that the blooms reached the Alaskan coast as well.

Michael Parsons, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University, said there were several hypotheses for why Pseudo-nitzschia produces acid.

“We’re not sure exactly why they do it,” he said. “Maybe it’s meant to keep things from eating them. It might be a result of stress.”

If acid secretion is meant to deter predators, it is clear that it is a failing strategy on the part of the algae. Ms. Lefebvre expressed concern that the acid poisoning of sea life would continue to spread.

“My concern is that we’re going to see an increase in the number and geographic range of marine mammals being affected,” she said.

Or in other words, global warming is killing the seas, and now it can kill you too. And that’s before we even return to the topic of ocean acidification and its affect on our food chain. Or how this news will affect commercial fishers, and restaurants.

But don’t worry, everyone, go back to sleep, go back to sleeeeeeep ….

(NY Times and others)



When Robin Williams killed himself in August 2014, depression was considered the culprit.

But the beloved film star and comedian was in fact struggling with a demon even more sinister: Lewy body dementia, a little-known and often misdiagnosed disease that manifests as a combination of the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Robin Williams’ widow, Susan Williams, shared this diagnosis, which was revealed in an autopsy, Tuesday in an interview with People magazine and ABC.

A few days after Williams’ death, his media representative, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement: “He has been battling severe depression of late.”

rubberNow we know that wasn’t the full story: “Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one,” Susan Williams said Tuesday, in her first public interview since her husband’s death.

Lewy body dementia, she said, “was what was going on inside his brain, the chemical warfare that no one knew about.”

And even if the 63-year-old had not ended his own life, the disease would have killed him within a few years, she said.

Lewy body dementia usually strikes at age 50 or later. Like Parkinson’s, it begins with abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies, which disrupt brain cells’ normal functioning and later cause them to die. The disease’s plethora of terrifying symptoms start slowly but worsen over time, and include: Alzheimer’s-like memory loss and dementia; Parkinson’s-like tremors and loss of balance; and terrifying, schizophrenia-like hallucinations. The symptoms “present themselves like a pinball machine,” Susan Williams said. “You don’t know exactly what you’re looking at.” Perhaps worst of all, at least at first, the patient can be fully aware of his or her own decline.

After it is diagnosed, Lewy body dementia usually kills a person within five to seven years. There is no cure or effective treatment.

Despite the fact that it is little known, Lewy body dementia is not rare; in fact, it is one of the most common forms of dementia, affecting more than 1 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Ageing. But because it bears many similarities to other degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it is frequently misdiagnosed. It can take more than a year and visits with multiple specialists to get a correct diagnosis. According to Susan Williams, a coroner’s report revealed signs of Lewy body dementia, as well as early-stage Parkinson’s.

Although Williams didn’t know he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, he seemed to know he was losing his mind.

“He was aware of it,” Susan Williams said. In her opinion, she told People and ABC, his suicide was his way of taking control of an impossible situation. “He was just saying no,” she said. “And I don’t blame him one bit.”

The news may reignite the ongoing debate about “dying with dignity”. For a man of the intellectual and emotional depth of Robin Williams, the perception – even if not yet formally diagnosed – that he was losing his cognitive function would have been unbearable. Especially as we know he had concerns that his career was faltering and he faced certain financial pressures.

It may be that depression contributed to his death, or it may be that it was a carefully-considered and rational response to an awful situation that he felt would only get worse. As his wife says: “taking control”.

We will never know, but it is something to ponder … It is also worth considering that a different cultural response to chronic illness and dying might have encouraged him to hang around a little longer, and to end his life more gently, in the bosom of his family, with the people around him given an opportunity to say goodbye.

Again, we will never know.

(Slate and others)

So Hurricane Patricia has come and gone without causing the widespread chaos in Mexico that was feared. Thankfully not a single fatality has been recorded, and surely the weather forecasters and the Mexican Government deserve credit for better forward planning and better disaster management protocols.Thousands of residents and tourists ended up in improvised shelters, but many felt they had escaped lightly. Nice to have some good news to report for a change.

The 1959 hurricane killed 1800 people.

The 1959 hurricane killed 1800 people.

With past experiences in mind, Mexico prepared for the worst as Patricia approached. Before and after the hurricane, warnings blared on radio and television broadcasts across the region, and government pickup trucks with loudspeakers made their way through neighborhoods.

Tens of thousands of people along the coast were evacuated into shelters and out of the danger zone. Some piled into cars and buses; others took government-provided flights and ground transportation.

States of emergency were declared in Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco states, which include the tourist resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

About 3,000 soldiers and more than 800 federal police officers were dispatched to the area. More than 1,200 shelters were set up, able to accommodate 240,000 people. Schools were closed and three airports shut down.

The alternative was starkly demonstrated the only other time a Category 5 hurricane hit the area.

The 1959 Mexico hurricane was the only other Pacific storm in recorded history to make landfall at Category 5 intensity. In addition, with 1,800 fatalities, it was the deadliest eastern Pacific tropical cyclone on record.

First observed south of Mexico on October 23, the cyclone tracked northwest. It intensified into a Category 3 hurricane on October 25 and reached Category 4 intensity the following day. After turning toward the northeast, the hurricane attained Category 5 status and made landfall near Manzanillo, Mexico. The system continued on that trajectory prior to dissipating on October 29.

Impact from the hurricane was severe and widespread. Initially forecast to remain offshore, the system instead curved northeast and moved ashore, becoming one of Mexico’s worst natural disasters at the time. Up to 150 boats were submerged. Countless homes in Colima and Jalisco were damaged or destroyed, large portions of the states were inaccessible by flash flooding, and hundreds of residents were stranded. All coconut plantations were blown down during the storm, leaving thousands without work and instating fear that it would take the economy years to recover.

Torrential rainfall across mountain terrain contributed to numerous mudslides that caused hundreds of fatalities.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, convoys delivering aid were hindered by the destruction. Residents were vaccinated to prevent the spread of disease. Overall, the hurricane inflicted at least $280 million (in US$ 1959 value) in damage.

It’s good to know we’re getting better at predicting and handling severe weather events. As climate change kicks in, they will become increasingly common, and increasingly deadly.

Clinton makes an ill-advised pitch for the youth vote.

Clinton makes an ill-advised pitch for the youth vote.


Hillary Clinton inspires me. But not for the reasons you might think. No, not because I’m a bit of an ironed-on old leftie and she’s the likely small-l liberal winner in 2016. No. In point of fact, Hillary’s probably a bit right wing for my taste. I’d prefer Bernie Sanders (who despite his populist appeal is not going to beat her), or perhaps Elizabeth Warren, who chose, sadly in our view, to keep her powder dry this time round.

No, she inspires me because the very likely next President of America is 68 today.

As we all live longer – and not just longer, but more healthily, too – the cult of youth that has pre-occupied the Western world since the youth revolution of the later 1950s and 60s appears increasingly silly and unwise.

Other sixty plus leaders still doing the rounds include the impressively successful Angela Merkel at 61, the forceful Vladimir Putin, who is 63, and Tunisia’s first freely-elected President Beji Caid Essebsi really leads the way, being just a month from 89.

And at the eye of the perfect storm, Mahmoud Abbas is still the President of Palestine – juggling one of the most difficult jobs in the world – at nearly 81.

And with age does come a certain perspective. As Clinton herself has said: “I think that if you live long enough, you realise that so much of what happens in life is out of your control, but how you respond to it is in your control. That’s what I try to remember.”

Which is why it is more ludicrous than ever that businesses often discard employees in their fifties and sixties, or don’t employ job-seekers in that age group.

It could be argued, one supposes, that younger employees have more energy or ambition than older ones, but with those traits can also come impulsiveness, foolishness, or simple lack of knowledge. They may also have more distractions, one supposes.

So whilst I would dearly love not to have a sore shoulder – gardening, grrrr – and a bung knee – too much sport as a kid, I fear – and I do not always take the counsel of my own body gracefully – I am not so curmudgeonly as not to recognise that I am, despite myself, improving as a person. Late in the day, mayhap, but unmistakeably.

At 58, I am not the same cantankerous person I was twenty years ago, when I thought I probably knew everything. Or even ten years ago, when I was sure I did.

And largely, the late changes in my character have been improvements that make me much more useful organisationally.

I am slower to anger. Later in life, I discover that anger is always exhausting, and rarely useful. So I look for alternatives.

I also have less need to always be “right”. (It’s now honestly more important to me that the group is right.)

I now find it easier to see other people’s point of view, whilst still maintaining my own politely if I think it’s justified. I can discuss, more often, and more easily, rather than argue.

I have also found dealing with inter-personal conflict easier in recent years (which has always been a thorny area for me) as I have gradually realised that though it feels like personal conflict it is actually very rarely truly personal, in reality.

People turn conflicts personal because they are not taught how to resolve them less antagonistically. Once I realised this, it was easier to learn how to de-personalise conflicts and resolve them more easily.

I am not sure that was an option when my testosterone levels were at their tippty-top. Nowadays, my gradually but inexorably appearing pate is evidence that they are dropping, and as they reduce so I have definitely become more skilled at defusing grumpy colleagues or customers.

I have also given up the need – at least in part, I am trying, Dear Reader – to control every last feature of my life. Sometimes, letting go of overt control can reduce not just your blood pressure and anxiety levels but also increase your chance of resolving a problem successfully.

Not everything matters equally, and sometimes stepping back can let things meander their way to a good conclusion without one having to be personally involved. As you gradually reduce the sheer number of items you’re worrying about – and let someone else worry about them – you can do a better job of resolving the ones that really matter.

Additionally, everyone has problem-solving skills. If you try and control every solution all the time you unsurprisingly tend to get the same sort of solution all the time, when other answers may in fact be preferable, but other people will never use their problem-solving skills – that might be better or different to those you exhibit – because you’re always pre-emptively using yours. Dumb.




And then there is always the point that we shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”. It’s easy to say, and hard to do. But look: whether one has carrots or peas with that evening’s lamb chops doesn’t really matter, in the scheme of things. Does it? Really? Do you have to have an opinion? Do you have to dominate the planning?

You like both carrots and peas, yes? Or at the very least you can tolerate one or the other. Far better to focus instead on the things that we have to solve, because only we can solve them.

Just go with the flow. “Hey, it’s carrots tonight? Yay!”

Last but by no means least, when one is in one’s 20s or 30s, the sheer amount of time hopefully stretching ahead of one rather oddly creates an impatient and insistent pressure to “achieve”. With no apparent reason why we can’t do everything on our bucket list, ironically the extra time available just makes us anxious to make sure we “do it all”.

When one gets a little older, it’s obvious that one can’t do absolutely everything one could possibly imagine because one literally doesn’t have the time left, so one becomes more selective and thoughtful about what one does do with one’s life. And as one subtly becomes more “on purpose” with ones deepest needs and desires, one’s sense of well-being duly improves as well, and we become nicer – and more productive. We become better people.

This is not by any means an argument against younger leaders. Quite the opposite. Younger people have much to recommend them, including a mind less ossified by past experiences – Einstein remarked that he never had an original idea after 21 – and, of course, that ebullient energy mentioned earlier.

But it is an argument that we discard productive people to their metaphorical pipe and slippers far to quickly, and that we are very foolish to do so.

So thanks Hillary. We might run for Prime Minister yet.

And Happy Birthday.

This fascinating series of photographs shows what happens when humankind abandons its structures. They have an eerie beauty, modelled, moulded and affected by weather, and the natural world around them.

It is an interesting idea, in an idle way, to wonder how long it would take for most or all of humanity’s structures to be overtaken by the natural planet should we all somehow suddenly disappear. We reckon within a couple of hundred years you almost wouldn’t know we’d been here at all. For those afflicted by human hubris, that’s a sobering thought.

Our favourite is the Hotel in Columbia. Yours?


Abandoned Blade Mill, France

Abandoned Blade Mill, France



Abandoned city of Keelung, Taiwan

Abandoned city of Keelung, Taiwan


Abandoned dome houses in Southwest Florida

Abandoned dome houses in Southwest Florida


Abandoned 1886 mil in Sorrento, Italy

Abandoned 1886 mil in Sorrento, Italy


Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy

Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy


Abandoned train depot, Częstochowa, Poland

Abandoned train depot, Częstochowa, Poland


El Hotel del Salto, Colombia

El Hotel del Salto, Colombia


Fishing hut on a lake in Germany

Fishing hut on a lake in Germany


Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay, USA

Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay, USA


Kolmanskop. Namib Desert, Namibia

Kolmanskop. Namib Desert, Namibia


Miiltary rocket factory, Russia

Military rocket factory, Russia


Maunsell Sea Forts, Redsands, Thames Estuary, England

Maunsell Sea Forts, Redsands, Thames Estuary, England


Sunken yacht, Antarctica

Sunken yacht, Antarctica


The remains of the SS Ayrfield in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia

The remains of the SS Ayrfield in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia


Car graveyard, Chatillon, Belgium

Car graveyard, Chatillon, Belgium


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Wellthisiswhatithink’s Mum used to scoff oysters with cheerful excess until one day she ate a bad one. She was so crook she never touched another one for the next thirty years till old age carried her off.

Well, oysters now appear to be an important link in the transmission of norovirus among humans, according to new research from China.

Norovirus — better known as “cruise-ship flu,” “stomach flu” or “winter vomiting flu” — is one of the world’s most common causes of gastrointestinal distress. Although most patients recover after a few days of misery, and sometimes ruined vacations, the virus can sadly be lethal to infants, older adults and people with weak immune systems.

It is highly infectious — especially in confined environments like ships — but exactly how it is transmitted has been a mystery.

The unwashed hands of food workers have been blamed. But recently, scientists at North Carolina State University built a “vomiting machine” that showed tiny infectious droplets of vomit can fly through the air to infect other people, just as droplets from a sneeze will do.

In the current study, published last month in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, researchers analyzed the genetic sequences of 1,077 samples of noroviruses found in oysters. Some sequences had been stockpiled in genetic databases since 1983.

The scientists found that 80 percent of the known human noroviruses matched those found in oysters. The majority of the matches were in oysters from coastal waters, more likely to be contaminated with human sewage.

Noroviruses mutate very quickly, as do influenza viruses, and big outbreaks usually begin after a new strain emerges. There was a “convergence” between new strains circulating in oysters and those circulating in humans, the researchers also found.

Yongjie Wang, a food science specialist at Shanghai Ocean University and lead author of the study, concluded that oysters were an important reservoir for human noroviruses — a place where they can hide between outbreaks and mutate. They also can be transmitted back to humans, presumably when oysters are eaten raw. A way to detect noroviruses in oyster flesh and in the beds where they grow needs to be developed, Dr. Wang said.

Alternatively, avoid enclosed spaces where people are vomiting, and go easy on the seafood buffet.

(NY Times)

Hidden remains of an extraordinary neolithic monument that could be unique have been found buried about 1.5km from Stonehenge. More than 4500 years ago, at least 90 huge stone monoliths lined an impressive “arena” that may have been used for religious rites or solstice rituals.

Now lying on their sides covered by three feet of earth, they remained undiscovered until archaeologists equipped with ground-penetrating radar probed the area around the famous stone circle on Salisbury Plain.

An artists impression of the neolithic monument that was found beneath the surface near Stonehenge. Photo: AAP

They are the most important find to emerge so far from the Hidden Landscapes project which is using state-of-the-art technology to map “invisible” archaeological features embedded in the Wiltshire countryside.

The stones, some measuring nearly four and a half metres, were placed along the south-eastern edge of what later became the Durrington Walls “superhenge” — a circular enclosure ringed by a ditch and bank that at nearly 1.5km across is the largest earthwork of its kind in the UK.

An artists impression of the neolithic monument that was found beneath the surface near Stonehenge. Photo: AAP

Experts believe the stones, which may have been imbued by local people with magical properties, were not originally part of the henge but were deliberately toppled before being incorporated into it.

Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford, one of the archaeologists leading the project, said:

“We’re looking at one of the largest stone monuments in Europe and it has been under our noses for something like 4000 years.

“It’s truly remarkable.

“We don’t think there’s anything quite like this anywhere else in the world.

“This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary.” He added: “We presume it to be a ritual arena of some sort.”

“These things are theatrical. They’re designed to impress and impose; to give the idea of authority to the living and the dead. It really does create a massive impression and was clearly important enough to have been drawn into the developing landscape.”
Ninety stones have been discovered so far and there may be more. What kind of material they are made of is unknown but they could be similar to the giant sandstone “sarsens” of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge as we know it. Photo: Getty

Prof Gaffney believes the stones may have been planted by the same people who built Stonehenge, but is sceptical about a direct link between the two monuments.

They were placed along a steep slope, or scarp, cut into a natural dry valley to form a C-shaped feature. But precisely why the stones were put there remains a mystery.

Part of Durrington Walls is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which may be significant.

The archaeologists believe that at some stage the stones were pushed over and incorporated into the emerging henge.

An aerial view of the Stonehenge we see today. Photo: Getty

This was not an act of vandalism but a deliberate attempt to preserve whatever it was about the stones that seemed so important.

“There was a transformation in the landscape that we do not understand,” Prof Gaffney said. “The stones had significance.”

“These are special places. Societies are mobilised, as with the great cathedrals, to create these things.”


Three storms have been found simultaneously belting their way through the Pacific Ocean for the first time in measured history. And although tropical storms Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena haven’t made landfall, they’re making part of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii resemble a scary version of a Van Gogh painting.


Here’s a photo showing Hurricanes Kilo, Ignacio, and Jimena from left to right. Photo: NOAA


This is the first time three Category Four storms have been seen in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean at one time, according to The Weather Channel. Category Four hurricanes have wind speeds anywhere from 209 to 251km per hour.

Hurricanes are categorised primarily by wind speeds: the higher the sustained wind speed, the stronger the hurricane.

A Category One hurricane has winds up to 119 to 152km per hour, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says even those are typically expected to cause some damage to buildings as well as power outages for a few days. These aren’t Cat 1. They’re ALL Cat 4.

A Category Four hurricane is considered catastrophic, with severe damage to buildings and power outages for weeks if not months.




Climate Change Deniers like to find any random fact they can to debunk the reality of climate change. Why is a more complex question to answer, as they and their children are threatened just like everyone else.

Recently they have taken to noting that the year 1934 was a very hot year in the United States, ranking fourth behind 2012, 2006, and 1998. Skeptics like to point to 1934 in the U.S. as proof that recent hot years are not unusual.

However, this is yet another example of “cherry-picking” a single fact that supports a claim, while ignoring the rest of the data.

Globally, the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998, with 2005 and 2010 as the hottest.

Remember, global warming takes into account temperatures over the entire planet. The U.S.’s land area accounts for only 2% of the earth’s total surface area. Despite the U.S.heat in 1934, the year was not so hot over the rest of the planet, and 1934 barely holds onto a place in the hottest 50 years in the global rankings – in fact it ranks 49th.

global_warming3The fact that there were hot years in some parts of the world in the past is not an argument against climate change. There will always be regional temperature variations as well as variations from year to year. These happened in the past, and they will continue. The problem with climate change is that on average, when looking at the entire world, the long term trend shows an unmistakable increase in global surface temperatures, in a way that is likely to dramatically alter the planet.

In fact, the recent uptick in hurricane activity is consistent with recent climate-change-affected El Niño predictions. What climate change deniers (like most of the Liberal Government in Australia, and virtually everyone on the right of politics in America) fail to understand is this simple equation:

The scientific community agrees (well over 95% agreement across a variety of scientific disciplines, not just climatology but also biology, oceanography, geology and so on – way in excess of the agreement we should need to feel “certain”) that humanity’s activity in the last 250 years or so has caused the planet to get hotter.

  • Yes, the planet has warmed in the past, but never as fast, never as consistently, and never like this during the period of human civilisation.
  • Global Warming causes Climate Change.
  • Climate Change doesn’t mean everywhere will become warmer. It means some areas will be colder, some hotter, some wetter, some drier, some windier and some less windy.
  • In addition, the seas will become more acidic, reducing biodiversity in the oceans, affecting the food chain, and threatening a widespread die off of species.

This is just the latest example of “extreme weather events” becoming more common, emphasising the need for concerted international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from “dirty power” generation, heating, vehicles, farm animals, and industry.

So what’s your latest head-in-the-sand response to these storms, Dear Climate Change Denier?

  • Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes
  • New finding is first example in humans of the theory of epigenetic inheritance: the idea that environmental factors can affect the genes of your children
  • The team’s work is the clearest sign yet that life experience can affect the genes of subsequent generations.

In a fascinating study discussed in the Guardian newspaper and elsewhere, it seems that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations.

holocaustThe conclusion from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war.

They also analysed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

Her team’s work is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.

The idea is still highly controversial, as scientific convention states that genes contained in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations. However, our genes are modified by the environment all the time, through chemical tags that attach themselves to our DNA, switching genes on and off. Recent studies suggest that some of these tags might somehow be passed through generations, meaning our environment could have and impact on our children’s health. If so, it will provide a whole new area of preventative health care.

Other studies have proposed a more tentative connection between one generation’s experience and the next. For example, girls born to Dutch women who were pregnant during a severe famine at the end of the second world war had an above-average risk of developing schizophrenia. Likewise, another study has showed that men who smoked before puberty fathered heavier sons than those who smoked after.

GenesThe team were specifically interested in one region of a gene associated with the regulation of stress hormones, which is known to be affected by trauma. “It makes sense to look at this gene,” said Yehuda. “If there’s a transmitted effect of trauma, it would be in a stress-related gene that shapes the way we cope with our environment.”

They found epigenetic tags on the very same part of this gene in both the Holocaust survivors and their offspring, the same correlation was not found in any of the control group and their children. Through further genetic analysis, the team ruled out the possibility that the epigenetic changes were a result of trauma that the children had experienced themselves.

“To our knowledge, this provides the first demonstration of transmission of pre-conception stress effects resulting in epigenetic changes in both the exposed parents and their offspring in humans,” said Yehuda, whose work was published in Biological Psychiatry.

It’s still not clear how these tags might be passed from parent to child. Genetic information in sperm and eggs is not supposed to be affected by the environment – any epigenetic tags on DNA had been thought to be wiped clean soon after fertilisation occurs.

However, research by Azim Surani at Cambridge University and colleagues, has recently shown that some epigenetic tags escape the cleaning process at fertilisation, slipping through the net. It’s not clear whether the gene changes found in the study would permanently affect the children’s health, nor do the results upend any of our theories of evolution.

Whether the gene in question is switched on or off could have a tremendous impact on how much stress hormone is made and how we cope with stress, said Yehuda. “It’s a lot to wrap our heads around. It’s certainly an opportunity to learn a lot of important things about how we adapt to our environment and how we might pass on environmental resilience.”

The impact of Holocaust survival on the next generation has been investigated for years – the challenge has been to show intergenerational effects are not just transmitted by social influences from the parents or regular genetic inheritance, said Marcus Pembrey, emeritus professor of paediatric genetics at University College London.

“Yehuda’s paper makes some useful progress. What we’re getting here is the very beginnings of a understanding of how one generation responds to the experiences of the previous generation. It’s fine-tuning the way your genes respond to the world.”

Can you inherit a memory of trauma?

Researchers have already shown that certain fears might be inherited through generations, at least in animals.

Scientists at Emory University in Atlanta trained male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossom by pairing the smell with a small electric shock. Eventually the mice shuddered at the smell even when it was delivered on its own.

Despite never having encountered the smell of cherry blossom, the offspring of these mice had the same fearful response to the smell – shuddering when they came in contact with it. So too did some of their own offspring.

On the other hand, offspring of mice that had been conditioned to fear another smell, or mice who’d had no such conditioning had no fear of cherry blossom.

The fearful mice produced sperm which had fewer epigenetic tags on the gene responsible for producing receptors that sense cherry blossom. The pups themselves had an increased number of cherry blossom smell receptors in their brain, although how this led to them associating the smell with fear is still a mystery.


The implications of this study are surely enormous. One can only imagine the impact on children of parents living in vicious war zones like Syria and Iraq. The children of parents suffering the horrors of famine in Africa. What changes are we wreaking in our gene pool from the modern day stress of living in overcrowded urban environments, especially those that are grindingly poor, such as in Mexico, Brazil, the Phillipines, India and elsewhere?

And very close to home, what are the impacts on the eventual descendants of the poor people trapped in seemingly never-ending detention in the Australian  immigration system: people who have already suffered the trauma of leaving their homes as refugees, escaping persecution.

We have often heard “the sins of the fathers are vested in the children”. Now it seems their innocent suffering may be, too.

‘Heat dome’ covers the Middle East to bring temperatures up to bring ‘feels like’ temperatures up to 74 degrees.

An “heat dome” has fallen on the Middle East to create “feels-like” temperatures as high as 74 degrees. The people of Iraq were given a four-day holiday last week after the government declared soaring temperatures too much to deal with. Authorities in the Middle East cautioned residents to drink plenty of water and stay out of the sun.

earth on fire
The Iranian port city of Bandar-e Mahshahr recorded an extreme feels-like temperature of 74 degrees on Friday based on a calculated heat index. The formula combined the actual air temperature that peaked at 46 degrees with the highest humidity – or dew point – temperature reading that topped 32 degrees. A dew point exceeding 26 degrees is said to be oppressive on the human body as it struggles to deal with the heat through perspiration.

“That was one of the most incredible temperature observations I have ever seen, and it is one of the most extreme readings ever in the world,” said AccuWeather meteorologist Anthony Sagliani in a statement. Sagaliani pointed to a high-pressure system that has cloaked the region since July for the heat surge, making one of the world’s hottest places even hotter.

The heat dome is a high pressure ridge over the region which makes normal hot temperatures seem even hotter.

The UK’s Telegraph newspaper reported that the “heat index” – a measurement of what weather feels like – is the highest ever recorded. The scientists monitoring the heat index say Iran are probably enduring among the hottest temperatures ever experienced by humans.

Meanwhile it has been warm across the globe with the north-west US and eastern Pacific starting to feel the effects of El Nino in recent weeks following the deaths of hundreds in May’s heat wave across South Asia.

climate-change-denial-350x242And Australia has since an unusually early start to bushfire season with one blaze in the Blue Mountains being fought into its forth day only two weeks after the mountains were blanketed in snow. Northern Australia also had record-breaking July with Gympie noting its hottest July day since records began in 1908 with the temperature reaching 29.4 degrees, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

It’s happening.

And it may already be too late to prevent the low end of temperature rise predictions, let alone the high end. Tell someone.


Koreans seem quite calm despite living in a state of perpetual tension on the Korean peninsula. Maybe their huge consumption of Kimchi has something to do with it.

Koreans seem quite calm despite living in a state of perpetual tension on the Korean peninsula. Maybe their huge consumption of Kimchi has something to do with it.

Anxious about that big date, crucial meeting or family gathering?

You may want to prep with a cup of yogurt: a promising new study in Psychiatry Research has found that people who eat more fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and kimchi, have fewer social anxiety symptoms. But note, some of these foods, such as kombucha – a fermented tea popular in the Far East and Russia – have had adverse health reactions in some people.

Researchers surveyed more than 700 people and found that the more fermented foods participants ate the less likely they were to experience social anxiety – anxious feelings of distress that interfere with daily social interactions. Even wilder is that this benefit was greatest among people who had the highest rates of neuroticism, a personality trait characterised by anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness.

What makes those foods so powerfully calming? Based on this study alone, the authors can’t say for sure, but previous research points the finger at probiotics, the good-for-you bacteria found in fermented foods. “Social anxiety has gastrointestinal symptoms,” says lead author Matthew Hilimire, assistant professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary, “and probiotics have been shown to reduce gut inflammation. So as the gut becomes less inflamed, some of those anxiety-related symptoms are reduced.”

Eating probiotics has also been shown to affect brain chemistry in a major way, triggering a neurotransmitter called GABA that calms the nervous system – the exact same neurotransmitter targeted by anti-anxiety drugs like Valium, Hilimire explains. The researchers hope that fermented foods could someday be a low-risk treatment for anxiety.

If you don’t want to live on yoghurt or plough through masses of sauerkraut (which wouldn’t be a problem for Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink, but Lord above it’s a problem for anyone sleeping in the same bedroom) the simplest solution might be to trial some of the many probiotics supplements now freely available.

We have long suspected that reducing “inflammation” in the system is a key way to not only improve mood but also defer illnesses like cancer. As in all things, a balanced diet seems the most sensible approach. The ancient Chinese concept of the body becoming “over heated” through the consumption of certain foods may end up being shown to be worthwhile.

chinese pharmacistChinese medicine is, indeed, interesting. On a business trip there many moons ago we were struck down with the most miserable dose of a cold or flu which then settled on our chest, and we ended up feeling very sick indeed.

Travelling alone we really didn’t have the faintest idea what to do, so wandered into a traditional Chinese chemist, full of herbs and potions and things that didn’t really bear too close an examination. The man in the white coat took one look at the hacking, sputum-fountain of a guailo in front of him and sold us a bottle of obscure liquid which as soon as we started quaffing it back at the hotel made us feel remarkably better.

So much better, in fact, that instead of discarding it when we recovered, we took it home and showed it to our GP, telling him how wonderful Chinese medicine is, and we should eat the stuff in Australia.

He asked his Chinese-speaking assistant to decipher the label, then turned back and smiled drily. He said it was hardly surprising that we felt on top of the world when quaffed it, as he strongly suspected the stuff was about 80% morphine. He quietly disposed of it in his office bin.



Wandering around the worldwide interwebs can bring up a clutch of conspiracy theories, to be sure, but this link offers some of the more interesting UFO and “ghost” sitings recently captured on video.

Are these UFOs? Ghosts?

If you have five minutes spare, click the link, have a look and tell us what you think.

Have you ever seen what you consider to be a UFO? Or a ghost?

We happen to think, based on no evidence whatsoever, that sometimes universes in the “multiverse” bump into one another in a way we don’t understand, and we see shadows of what’s going on there.

We recently watched one of those brain-snapping TV speculative science shows that argued there was an infinite number of number of universes in which with every action – in every moment, for the whole of time – the universe continually splits. Turn left walking down the street, one universe is created. Turn right, a different one is. Both then exist side by side, interminably, constantly re-splitting.

Apparently the maths works. And no, we don’t pretend for one instant to understand it.

Are these UFOs? Ghosts?


We also think that in the future conquering time travel is inevitable, and in the universe as it stands right now, we can’t possibly be alone. So the idea of future beings or aliens checking us over doesn’t scare or surprise us at all.

Hey. Other recent research argues that aliens will look like us, pretty much. And if all the aliens look like Scarlett Johansson, frankly we say they can invade tomorrow.


Pope Francis. Photo: 14 June 2015

Pope Francis will call for swift action to protect the Earth and fight global warming, according to a leaked draft of the pontiff’s encyclical. Pope Francis puts much of the blame for global warming on human activities.

The document – published by Italy’s L’Espresso magazine – says global warming is directly linked to human activities and the intensive use of fossil fuels.

The Vatican called the leaking of the draft a “heinous” act. It said the final version would be released on Thursday as planned. However it will once again confirm this Pope as one of the most reforming and progressive in the Church’s history, and given the Roman church’s attitude to the infallibility of the Pope’s utterances, swing hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics behind the movement to combat man-made climate change. The Pope’s rumoured attitude has already brought attacks from right-wing Protestant Republican politicians in America.

One, Rick Santorum, argued the Pope should leave science to scientists, somewhat idiotically ignoring the fact that the Pope is, in fact, a scientist. Back when Pope Francis was still going by the handle of Jorge Bergoglio, he earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires.

The pope’s career path isn’t all that unusual. His Jesuit order has a history of producing men with one foot in the spiritual world and another in the scientific realm. Czech astronomer and Jesuit Christian Meyer did pioneering work studying binary star systems in the 18th century. Bavarian-born Jesuit Franz Xaver Kugler did triple duty as a chemist, priest, and researcher of cuneiform tablets. And modern-day science writer and Jesuit Guy Consolmagno studies asteroids and meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.

“Doing science is like playing a game with God, playing a puzzle with God,” Consolmagno once told the Canadian Broadcasting Center. “God sets the puzzles, and after I can solve one, I can hear him cheering, ‘Great, that was wonderful, now here’s the next one.’ It’s the way I can interact with the Creator.”

Gregor Mendel was the founder of the science of genetics.

Gregor Mendel was the founder of the science of genetics.

Significant Roman Catholic contributions to science aren’t limited to the Jesuit order, though. The Augustinian friar Gregor Johann Mendel bred pea plants in the garden of his monastery and discovered the principles of genetics.

In 1927, Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre discovered the “redshift” phenomenon that describes how the farther away a galaxy is from Earth, the more of its light is shifted toward the red end of the visible spectrum. This was two years before the more widely reported discoveries by Hubble.

‘Enormous consumption’

The 192-page draft of the new encyclical – which is the highest level of teaching document a pope can issue – is entitled “Laudato Si: On the care of the common home”.

In the paper, Pope Francis presents both scientific and moral reasons for protecting God’s creation.

He puts much of the blame for global warming on human activities, mentioning the continual loss of biodiversity in the Amazonian rainforest and the melting of Arctic glaciers among other examples.

The draft also says that developing countries are bearing the brunt of the “enormous consumption” of some of the richest.

The pontiff calls on all humans – not just Roman Catholics – to prevent the destruction of the ecosystem before the end of the century and to establish a new political authority to tackle pollution.

The encyclical has been months in the writing, and the Pope is said to be keen for it to set the tone for the debate at a UN summit on climate change in November in Paris, the BBC’s Caroline Wyatt says.

(BBC and others)

The controversial poster has since been removed. Photo: Facebook

The controversial poster has since been removed. Photo: Facebook

The Australian Vaccination Skeptic’s Network (AVSNI) circulated a controversial image on social media this morning, comparing childhood immunisation to rape.

The post, which has since been removed from the organisation’s Facebook page, featured a disturbing image of a woman in distress, with a man who is covering her mouth with his hand. The accompanying text reads:

“FORCED PENETRATION: Really- no big deal, if it’s just a vaccination needle, and he’s a doctor. Do you really ‘need’ control over your own choices?” Almost immediately, supporters expressed their disgust at the image.

It’s not the first time the controversial group have likened being pro-vaccination to rape. According to the Sydney Morning Herald the organisation compared the court ordering a five-year-old girl to be immunised to “court orders rape of a child” in a tweet in 2011.

More: Measles outbreak fuelled by parents who failed to vaccinate children

In this latest post, the group responded to one comment, defending its decision. “This post isn’t tasteless – it’s honest. What truly IS tasteless is our elected government trying to tell us that we have to vaccinate our children even if we don’t believe it’s the best for their health,” the organisation said.

The anti-immunisation group has been rallying against pro-immunisation views of the wider medical community by claiming that vaccination can lead to autism and should be a personal choice. It’s potential influence has led to government intervention and them being ordered to change from their previous name, the Australian Vaccination Network, after the Administrative Decisions Tribunal deemed it misleading.

While the group were obviously trying to use a provocative campaign to spread their message, it has clearly backfired. Quite apart from the trigger effect on women who have been assaulted or raped – a point they apparently ignored – the picture is not just tasteless, it is insulting to people’s intelligence. As one commenter wrote:

“This is disgusting. And here is a reason people will not listen to AV supporters. If you can’t have your argument respectfully, you’ve already lost.”

Parents in the "third world" know what internet-fueled idiot parents in the West have forgotten - preventable diseases kill. Here mothers in Zimbabwe queue for MMR vaccine in 2006 after a measles outbreak killed 16 children. Measles still has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of children annually, and is currently held at bay by UN health campaigns.

Parents in the “third world” know what internet-fueled idiot parents in the West have forgotten – preventable diseases kill. Here, mothers in Zimbabwe queue for MMR vaccine in 2006 after a measles outbreak killed 16 children and maimed others. Measles still has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of children annually, and is currently held at bay by UN health campaigns.

We heartily agree.

And for the record, we believe not vaccinating your children against preventable diseases that can maim or kill – when there is NO evidence that vaccination can cause harm except in a miniscule number of cases worldwide, far outweighed by the millions of children’s lives saved – is akin to child abuse. And when the direct result of your propaganda is that preventable diseases are returning, communal child abuse. When will you be satisfied? When we have iron lungs in our hospitals filled with children again?

Zero tolerance. Not interested in discussion. Anti-vaxxer comments will not be approved for publication, please don’t bother.

(Yahoo and others)

Woman finds twin growing in her brain

Yamini Karanam got quite a surprise when doctors revealed the results of her brain tumour. Photo: GoFundMe

Yamini Karanam got quite a surprise when doctors revealed the results of her brain tumour.

In fact, it wasn’t a tumour at all. It was her embryonic twin.

The 26-year-old found herself struggling with reading and speaking and was diagnosed with a brain tumour that was feared to be cancerous.

“Problems with reading comprehension, listening comprehension. If a couple people were talking in a room, I wouldn’t understand what was happening,” Karanam said.

After many discussions with confused medical staff, Karanam underwent keyhole surgery.

Doctors made a half-inch incision into Karanam’s brain that enabled an endoscope to reach and carefully chisel away at the ‘tumour’.

Her surgeon, Dr. Hrayr Shahinian, explained to Karanam when she woke that the ‘tumour’ was a teratoma which was her embryonic twin complete with bone, hair and teeth.

Yamini Karanam woke the the news that her ‘tumour’ was a teratoma, which was her embryonic twin complete with bone, hair and teeth. Photo: NBC

She joked about how the ‘tumour’ was actually her ‘evil twin sister who’s been torturing me for the past 26 years’.

Dr Shahinian said this is the second time he has found a teratoma in his work, having performed over 7000 of these procedures.



Nom, nom, nom – AND good for you.

By now, we all know that a little bit of healthy fat is good for us. And that butter – as we have always said – is much better for us than polyunsaturated spreads, which turn into deadly trans-fatty acids at body temperature. IE, when you eat them.

But a lot of one fat might be even better – at least, in the case of avocado.

Apparently, eating an entire creamy green fruit every day could significantly lower your cholesterol, say new avocado industry-funded findings published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers put 45 healthy, overweight adults on an average American diet (read: heavy on the saturated fat and carbs) for two weeks. Then, they switched them to a low fat (24% fat) or one of two moderate fat diets (34% fat) for five weeks. One of the moderate fat diets contained so-called healthy fats like sunflower and canola oil; the other got the majority of its fat from one whole avocado per day.

Each of the new diets improved participants’ LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), likely because all three were significantly lower in saturated fat than the average Western diet. But the avocado eaters fared the best: their LDL cholesterol dropped 13 points, compared to around 8 points for people on the low-fat or avocado-free moderate-fat diets.

You'll be amazed what can be done with avos if you hunt around.

You’ll be amazed what can be done with avos if you hunt around.

Why? Well, all sources of monounsaturated fat – including avocado – contain fatty acids that can help lower cholesterol and boost heart health.

But according to the researchers, the guacamole staple seems to have additional cholesterol-lowering properties, like fibre and plant sterols, plus a type of sugar that might increase satiety. (That’s how “full” you feel, so you stop eating.)

Even so, a medium avocado packs around 320 calories and 30 g of fat – and eating a whole one every single day doesn’t exactly seem realistic. So replacing some less-nutritious foods with half an avocado per day is more doable – and still beneficial.

“Eating that amount has still been shown to reduce total cholesterol and LDL levels,” says registered dietician Tina Ruggiero. Try mashed avocado instead of mayo in your sandwich, diced avocado instead of sour cream or cheese on your black bean soup, or half an avocado with lime juice and sea salt instead of a granola bar for an afternoon snack.

Sounds pretty darn delicious to us.

Oh, an interesting little factoid. Over 98% of shoppers squeeze an avocado in the store before buying it. Admit you, you do.

PS We really mean it about butter. Have a look at Why Margarine Will Kill You.

We were fascinated by this exploration of the presentation of the female face throughout western art history, and grateful for Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink spotting it.

What is remarkable is how consistent what artists consider to be beautiful really is, despite the huge differences in representative style. Do take two minutes to watch it, as it is mesmerising and genuinely interesting. The Yo Yo Ma cello soundtrack is nice, too.


What is considered “beautiful” in a female face seems unchanging when viewed by many for whom visual appreciation is all. The symmetry of the two sides of the face … the eyes locked onto those of the viewer, or if gazing elsewhere, their openness and appeal … and often, the combination of challenge and supplication in the stare. Absolutely enthralling to see it demonstrated in this way.

The subject of what makes a woman beautiful – or anyone, for that matter – is often discussed on blogs, because, we suspect, everyone would like to think they are beautiful or could aspire to be “not bad”, at least.

Here’s a good example:  The writer notes the role of symmetry, but also the crucial role of “averageness”.

Men are apparently more inclined to consider a woman beautiful if she has an average face.

That’s to say not too obviously pretty, not too obviously disjointed or unbalanced, not too obviously out of the norm.

The example the writer uses is Keira Knightley, the Brit actress whose face has launched a bazillion magazine covers. Men eulogise about her. But women? Nah, not so much. Interestingly, the writer proposes, and we agree, that Knightley’s appeal is that she isn’t perfect. Her nose has a bump in it. Her forehead is probably a bit expansive. Her teeth need fixing. And without professionally applied make-up she looks, well, ordinary. Those famous knife-edge cheekbones aren’t so obvious without skilful etching with blusher and shade. So: she’s cute, but ordinary.


Other women find those women uninteresting.

Jolie plays a man in Salt.

Jolie plays a man in Salt.

I have always found it fascinating that in answer to the parlour-dinner party-game question to straight women “So, come on, if you absolutely had to turn, which woman would you find attractive enough to bed?” the answer – way above a median average – is Angelina Jolie.

Whilst she has her male admirers, to be sure, (including, of course, the man often considered the most beautiful in the world by many, her husband Brad Pitt) men are far more equivocal about her appeal, but she comes up in straight womans’ lists all the time.

We have often thought that it is because her face has the capacity to be considered “fine”, “strong”, and “handsome” rather than girl-next-door-pretty, and also because so many representations of her in movies have been of her being, well, not to put too fine a point on, rather like a male action hero.

stewartWhen the first Twilight movie came out to very mixed reviews, long before the Twihards took control of the process and turned it into such a successful movie franchise, we remember seeing a review of the movie which (amongst other criticisms) complained of Kristen Stewart being “blandly” beautiful.

It struck us as a rather odd and snippy comment at the time as she appeared to us then (and now) to be extremely pretty. But in light of the finding that we find average looking people “beautiful”, it makes perfect sense. Stewart is essentially a gawky kid grown up. Her eyes are a bit narrow – not giant and rounded like a sweet anime character – her lips are a bit odd – and her nose ends in a snub. Nevertheless, she has been on almost as many covers as Knightley.

In our experience, women loathe her.

Googling “stars without makeup” – for which there are umpteen thousands of web pagesScreen shot 2015-03-31 at 3.45.27 PM – shows how fascinated we are with the raw material that make-up artists are working with. But what is more interesting, we think, is that time after time what is revealed by the un-caked original form of the face is someone who could really be living, un-noticed and un-remarked, next door.

And how, very often, the un-made up star is actually – somehow, counter-culturally, even oddly – more alluring than the perfectly “crafted” version of her face. The German/American busineswoman, model and occasional actress Heidi Klum looks way more beautiful, in our opinion, in the picture on the left rather than on the right? No?

So we must come to the conclusion, we guess, that many girls and women who don’t think they are attractive might actually be hugely attractive to many men. Which is something to be celebrated, indeed shouted from the rooftops, we think.

The comment “Pffft – I just look like the girl next door” could actually be the key to landing the boy of your dreams.

As to what the boy of anyone’s dreams looks like, that’s another whole thing. Thank the good Lord that we don’t all have to look like Brad Pitt to find a girlfriend or even a mate, or the Wellthisiswhatithink line would have come to an ignominious and crashing halt.

And yes, we know that all beauty is really on the inside, before some spoilsport decides to tell us, but that’s not the point of the article. So shove off. :-)


This image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows a simulation of asteroid 2012 DA14 approaching from the south as it passes through the Earth-moon system on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. The 150-foot object will pass within 17,000 miles of the Earth. NASA scientists insist there is absolutely no chance of a collision as it passes. But next time? (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A simulation of an asteroid approaching from the south. The kilometre-wide object will pass close to the Earth. NASA scientists insist there is absolutely no chance of a collision as it passes. But next time? (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A massive asteroid, capable of wiping out an entire country, or maybe the entire planet, is on a near-collision route towards Earth. Once again, the world will be completely focused on our complete inability to deal with a giant asteroid hitting the surface of the planet.

The 1000-metre wide mammoth asteroid has sparked fears of an unprecedented disaster, as it travels at a speed of more than 23,000 mph.

Small meteorites pass by Earth regularly, but one of this size is an occurrence that only happens once in 5000 years.

The impact would reportedly trigger earthquakes, tsunamis and devastating changes in climate.

If the asteroid, called 2014-YB35, did collide with Earth, it would unleash an explosive force equivalent to more than 15,000 tonnes.

“Smaller scale events like Tunguska (see below) are absolutely a real risk, largely they are undiscovered and so we are unprepared,” Bill Napier, professor of astronomy at the University of Buckinghamshire, told the Daily Express. “With something like YB35, we are looking at a scale of global destruction, something that would pose a risk to the continuation of the planet,” he continued.

If an asteroid this big was to hit Earth, it is possible that plumes and debris thrown into the atmosphere would change the climate and potentially make the planet uninhabitable.

“The real risk is from comets, which even if the Earth passes through the tail, can generate a massive plume of smoke with hugely significant consequences,” Napier said.

NASA has said they expect the YB35 to pass within 2.8 million miles on Friday.

The rock was detected by the Catalina Sky Survey last year and has been closely watched this week.

And astronomers have named June 30 as Asteroid Day to highlight the dangers of potentially dangerous asteroids.

“It just takes one asteroid to completely destroy life, not just humanity, but all species,” said initiative co-founder Grigorij Richters.

Keen observers of the issue will remember the Hollywood movie Armageddon when Bruce Willis and assorted other heroes used the Space Shuttle to blow up just such an asteroid before it wiped out the species. Sadly, no actual plan to do that – or anything else – exists. So if an asteroid was on collision course, we would all be well advised to remember the crash landing instructions heard on most commercial jetliners.

“Lean on the seat in front of you, grasp your knees firmly, and kiss your arse goodbye.”

OK, we added the last bit.

But we don’t have to experience an “Extinction Level Event” to see an unprecendented disaster. Imagine a Tunguska-style event took place over …. Melbourne? New York? Rio? Munich?

The year is 1908, and it’s just after seven in the morning. A man is sitting on the front porch of a trading post at Vanavara in Siberia. Little does he know, in a few moments, he will be hurled from his chair and the heat will be so intense he will feel as though his shirt is on fire.

That’s how the Tunguska event felt 40 miles from ground zero.

And after more than 100 years, scientists are still talking about it.

“If you want to start a conversation with anyone in the asteroid business all you have to say is Tunguska,” says Don Yeomans, manager of the Near-Earth Object Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It is the only entry of a large meteoroid we have in the modern era with first-hand accounts.”

Trees felled in the Tunguska event

Trees felled in the Tunguska event

While the impact occurred in ’08, the first scientific expedition to the area would have to wait for 19 years.

In 1921, Leonid Kulik, the chief curator for the meteorite collection of the St. Petersburg museum led an expedition to Tunguska.

But the harsh conditions of the Siberian outback thwarted his team’s attempt to reach the area of the blast. In 1927, a new expedition, again lead by Kulik, reached its goal.

“At first, the locals were reluctant to tell Kulik about the event,” said Yeomans. “They believed the blast was a visitation by the god Ogdy, who had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing animals.”

While testimonials may have at first been difficult to obtain, there was plenty of evidence lying around. Eight hundred square miles of remote forest had been ripped asunder. Eighty million trees were on their sides, lying in a radial pattern.

“Those trees acted as markers, pointing directly away from the blast’s epicenter,” said Yeomans. “Later, when the team arrived at ground zero, they found the trees there standing upright – but their limbs and bark had been stripped away. They looked like a forest of telephone poles.”

Such de-branching requires fast moving shock waves that break off a tree’s branches before the branches can transfer the impact momentum to the tree’s stem. Thirty seven years after the Tunguska blast, branchless trees would be found at the site of another massive explosion – Hiroshima, Japan.

Kulik’s expeditions (he traveled to Tunguska on three separate occasions) did finally get some of the locals to talk. One was the man based at the Vanara trading post who witnessed the heat blast as he was launched from his chair. His account:

Suddenly in the north sky… the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash. The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.

see captionThe massive explosion packed a wallop. The resulting seismic shockwave registered with sensitive barometers as far away as England. Dense clouds formed over the region at high altitudes which reflected sunlight from beyond the horizon. Night skies glowed, and reports came in that people who lived as far away as Asia could read newspapers outdoors as late as midnight. Locally, hundreds of reindeer, the livelihood of local herders, were killed, but due to the sparse population in the area there was no direct evidence that any person perished in the blast.

“A century later some still debate the cause and come up with different scenarios that could have caused the explosion,” said Yeomans. “But the generally agreed upon theory is that on the morning of June 30, 1908, a large space rock, about 120 feet across, entered the atmosphere of Siberia and then detonated in the sky.”

It is estimated the asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere traveling at a speed of about 33,500 miles per hour. During its quick plunge, the 220-million-pound space rock heated the air surrounding it to 44,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At a height of about 28,000 feet, the combination of pressure and heat caused the asteroid to fragment and annihilate itself, producing a fireball and releasing energy equivalent to about 185 Hiroshima bombs.

“That is why there is no impact crater,” said Yeomans. “The great majority of the asteroid is consumed in the explosion.”

Yeomans and his colleagues at JPL’s Near-Earth Object Office are tasked with plotting the orbits of present-day comets and asteroids that cross Earth’s path, and could be potentially hazardous to our planet. Yeomans estimates that, on average, a Tunguska-sized asteroid will enter Earth’s atmosphere once every 300 years.

“From a scientific point of view, I think about Tunguska all the time,” he admits. Putting it all in perspective, however, “the thought of another Tunguska does not keep me up at night.”

We’re not so sure about that.

wasp nest

The European wasp Vespula germanica is native to Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. Records show that the European wasp first reached Tasmania in 1959, where it soon became well established. However, it was not until 1977 that the European wasp was first recorded on the mainland in Melbourne.

About a year before the European wasp reached Tasmania, the English wasp Vespula vulgaris was recorded in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It is a close relative of the European wasp and has very similar colour markings. The English wasp has not enjoyed the same success as the European wasp and has only spread to the eastern parts of Melbourne and Gippsland. But for all practical purposes (venom potential, nesting position, biology etc) the European and English wasps may be considered as the same. In the remainder of this article, we only refer to the European wasp, however, many of the comments are equally applicable to the English wasp.

Research has shown that the spread of the European wasp has been greatly aided through hitching rides on human transportation. So the European wasp probably arrived in style by boat or plane!

At present, the European wasp distribution appears to be restricted to the cool and wet climates of coastal southern Australia. It occurs throughout most of Victoria and Tasmania. In country New South Wales, nests have been located at Coonabarabran while several nests have been recorded in south-east Queensland. In South Australia, the European wasp is well established throughout the hills surrounding Adelaide and Adelaide itself. And in Western Australia, it has been recorded from Perth and Albany.

Unfortunately, the European wasp is here to stay in Australia and eradication of this annoying pest is no longer an option. Despite early frantic reports labelling it as a ‘Killer Wasp’, no human deaths have been recorded in Australia. However, we must learn to live with this nuisance or pest and take precautions when eating and playing outside.

First aid

From personal experience, the sting from a European Wasp is more painful than a sting from a honey-bee. We were once stung on the leg when a wasp flew up it when we were making a major presentation at the Studley Park BoatHouse. Needless to say, the event was paused while ice was applied.

For most people, a painful reminder of the sting, sometimes lasting several days, is the only after-effect they will suffer.

Applying an ice-pack to the sting site helps reduce the pain and swelling. The ice-pack should contain a mixture of ice and water rather than placing ice directly on the skin.

Some sting victims may have a hypersensitive reaction, while others who have suffered several stings, may develop an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions to a sting may involve puffiness of the skin extending well beyond the sting site, or the development of an asthma-like condition making breathing difficult or, in severe cases, the heart may stop beating.

wasp applying ice using inhaler

If a victim is suffering breathing difficulties, then a salbutamol inhaler (‘Ventolin’) should help breathing. Needless to say, if this does not settle the problem, an ambulance should be called immediately.

When a known wasp-allergic person is stung on a limb, the recommended first-aid treatment is the same as for snake bite, ie. the pressure-immobilisation technique.

The limb is kept still while a bandage is wound around the sting site. Wrap the bandage around the limb a few time away from the heart side of the sting (ie. towards the fingers or toes), then firmly wrap as much of the limb as possible bandaging upwards to the groin or shoulder.

applying bandage applying bandage

The wrapping pressure should be firm but not constrictive. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Never apply a tourniquet.

Locating a Wasp Nest

The easiest way to confirm a European wasp nest is to see a stream of yellow and black wasps flying in and out of some site.

European wasp nest site

European wasps usually forage for food within 50 to 250 metres of their nest, although in some instances they have been recorded flying several kilometres for food. If you have a large number of European wasps interrupting your outdoors activities, then you can probably assume you have a nest nearby.

Whatever the wild-eyed amongst us might say, do not, under ANY circumstances, seek to deal with a wasp nest yourself, unless you want to risk spending time in hospital from hundreds of stings. Just call a pest control company, for goodness sake.

About 80% of European wasp nests will occur in the ground with the remainder usually found inside buildings.

Why are there so many wasps about right now? In all probability it’s because we’ve had a dry winter followed by a mild, dry summer. No underground flooding has happened to restrain their lifecycle.

Remember, Europeans live with these wasps and have done for centuries. Their sting is nasty, but not deadly. Ice really will help, as will any well-known anti-sting ointment, and if the swelling bothers you perhaps an anti-histamine tablet.

Four key tips:

Stay still.

If you’re afraid of bees and wasps, this may sound as reasonable as eating jelly with chopsticks. But the worst thing you can do when a wasp flies around your head is swat at it. What would you do if someone took a swing at you? Right. So if a wasp comes near you, just take a deep breath and stay calm. It’s just trying to determine if you are a flower or some other item useful to it, and once it realises you’re just a boring, un-tasty person, it will simply fly away.

Think about your garbage.

Wasps love sweet things, like empty soda and beer bottles with dregs in them, and will check out any food waste in your garbage, too. So don’t let food residue build up on your garbage cans. Rinse bottles before throwing them away, rinse your bins well now and then, and always make sure your bins have tight-fitting lids on them to keep wasps away from your garbage. This will substantially cut down on the number of wasps hanging around your home.

Feed your pets indoors

Wasps nests can live on the food you put out for Fido, and his bones. Bring his food bowl inside, and any bones you give him to chew, at least during peak wasp season. It will make it less likely he’ll get stung, too.

Think about what you wear

Wasps are mainly looking for flowers stuffed with lovely nectar. Don’t wear floral prints outside. Dur. There’s a reason bee keepers and pest exterminators wear white: flying insects tend to ignore the colour.

In summary

wasp trapWasps are with us, bugger all we can do about, basically.

It’s essentially pretty simple. Don’t make your home attractive to wasps, and they’ll go elsewhere.

If that’s too hard, then build your own wasp traps with old soda bottles and one-way entries.

The ‘net is full of examples, just look around, or you can buy them at hardware stores, too.

Be aware that spraying wasps with some knock-down glop may or may not help defend you. They don’t succumb as quickly to popular insecticides as flies, for example. And you should be aware that a downed wasp may or may not be dead, and their stinging mechanism is one of the last things to decline as they die. Also, the Queen is popping out new wasps much faster than you can kill them, so it’s probably a fruitless effort, unless you can locate the nest and remove it. Ignoring them may take resolute willpower, but it’s probably the way to go.

One old wives solution is possibly good advice, as it they often are. If you’re picnicking, and there are wasps around, then locate a small quantity of something sweet and attractive 25 yards or so from where you’re sitting. My Mum always used to use a piece of cardboard with jam smeared on it. Worked a treat.

Just be careful out there.