Daryl Ilbury

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Hey, let’s drop some acid on the bunny’s skin!

In Eish!, Fools on December 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

A sign that could be seen on a bottle of sulphuric acid

Here’s an idea to put the fun back into Christmas shopping – don’t buy anything, just read the labels and then put the stuff back.

And what are you looking for? Misleading claims.

In order for a claim on a consumer product to be misleading, it doesn’t need to be proven false, it just needs to prove that the claim has no scientific foundation. Case in point: “dermatologically tested”. This appears on so many skin care products, and the assumption by the consumer is that it is everything from safe to put on their skin to not having been tested on animals.

Dermatology is that branch of medicine that focuses on the study and diagnosis of skin disorders; so the assumption is that if something has been “dermatologically tested”, then streams of specialists wearing lab costs and swirling fluids in conical flasks have submitted the potion to intense scientific scrutiny.

But if this was the case then you’d find the procedure buried deep in a research paper.

But it’s not, it’s plastered all over the packaging…and that’s the ringing bell. This is all about marketing…it’s all about ‘spin’ (market speak for ‘bullshit’).

In market research speak, if I drop acid on the nose of a bunny and it writhes in pain, then I have “dermatologically tested” it. It didn’t pass, but it was tested…on skin. Those “89% of women who agree their skin felt smoother” after using a product, were probably a handful of women from the company’s marketing department.

Be a critical consumer this Christmas.

Sorry, creationists

In Eish!, Science on December 14, 2011 at 8:31 am

"These fins were made for walking..."

Creationists battle with the concept that all mammals share a common ancestor. They believe that humans (and all animals) were created separately by the hand of some other-worldly sapient being.

Of course our understanding of genetics has shown a remarkable degree of similarity between, say, humans and primates. We also know that if, as some religions believe, the first woman on the planet – Eve – had indeed been made out of Adam’s rib, then she would have had his exact DNA and therefore would have been a clone of him.

But I digress, purely in the process of stirring.

One of the images some people find hard to visualise is that of sea life emerging from the primordial soup – that heaving mass of organic compounds in the primitive oceans of the earth, from which life is hypothesized to have originated. Fish walking out of the sea? Puh…lease!

Meet the African lung fish, which, according to BBC News, can walk on its fins.

This means one of two things: it’s either a remnant or a repeat; i.e. it’s either a left over from those fish that first took steps towards emerging onto land; or evolution is on its way to being repeated, in which case Mother Nature isn’t all that happy with what we’ve evolved into.

African Sky Blue…will you see me through?

In Eish! on December 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm

African Sky Blue over Newlands

Perhaps it’s time for a story that’s a little more personal.

My first piece for the City University MA Science Journalism website Elements was called It’s a SAD time of the year. It was about Seasonal Affective Disorder – a disorder that affects hundreds of thousands of people in the further reaches of the northern hemisphere every year at this time.

It’s brought on by the shortening days and is triggered by the pineal gland, a small pine-nut shaped gland in the middle of the brain. It’s chief function is to secrete melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate our sleep/wake cycle.

As the skies grow dark the pineal gland tells us it’s time to sleep, but the bright lights of the workplace tell us to remain with our shoulder to the wheel. As the days grow shorter, the pineal gland kicks in earlier, other parts of the brain fight it, and the result for many is SAD.

The symptoms include deep anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders, physical fatigue, sexual problems, social withdrawal and suicidal tendencies.

Quite ironic that it should co-incide with the season to be jolly.

I have to admit that as a South African living in London, it’s hit me quite hard. Travelling underground on a packed tube last Friday, I was reminded of the photo (above) my son had just e-mail through from the cricket at Newlands; and Johnny Clegg’s “African Sky Blue” [click here to listen to it and to follow the lyrics] started filtering into my mind , especially the lines…

The warrior’s now a worker and his war is underground
With cordite in the darkness he milks the bleeding veins of gold
When the smoking rockface murmurs, he always thinks of you
African sky blue, will you see him through?

God, I miss it.

The problem with wind power…

In Eish! on December 9, 2011 at 8:19 am

When things get a little breezy...

As someone who drives a Land Rover Defender, I embrace alternative forms of energy production.

Of course that doesn’t make sense, but I’m pragmatic in that if we rely of fossil fuels for energy, we put ourselves in the hands of those who control access to those fossil fuels. Hence, fuel prices are high because of demand by people such as myself and my Defender is high and because supply is controlled.

It’s the same when it comes to the energy that fuels our our prolific electricity use; which is why the possibility of popping a solar panel onto the roof and erecting a wind turbine outside our own homes seems so attractive.

But wind turbines do have their problems, especially, it seems, when things get really windy.

A turbine in Ardrossan, North Ayrshire, Scotland burst into flames and crashed to the ground recently during strong winds. The blades had been locked because of fears the National Grid couldn’t have dealt with the sudden power surge the strong winds would have produced with the turbines.

The Daily Mail are carrying a sequence of images by local photographer Stuart McMahon showing the turbine disintegrating into flames.

The irony? Thousands of people in Scotland are without power because the winds also destroyed power lines.

Pain, it seems, may be a little sexist

In Eish!, Science on December 3, 2011 at 11:54 am

"Doc, it seems I may have come to some 'arm"

My wife always rolls her eyes back whenever I tell her I feel a cold coming on, because she knows that I am soon going to start whining like a baby because my head hurts and I that “don’t feel very well”. She will naturally mumble something that will include the words “typical” and “men” in the same sentence. Little does she know that I’m just using it as an excuse for some lovin’. She also doesn’t know that her (and most women’s) assumption of men’s supposed inability to deal with pain and discomfort – as compared to women – has been disproven by science.

If anything, it seems the opposite is true.

A recent report by Serge Marchand, Ph.D. and Isabelle Gaumond, Ph.D., two researchers at l’Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada, has shown that sex hormones play an important part in the experience of pain. Working with rats they found a difference in pain perception between rats that had received a gonadectomy (castration in males and ovariectomy in females) and those that hadn’t. They also claim that any difference in pain perception between human males and females is absent before the onset of puberty.

This suggests that sex hormones play an important role in the perception of pain. Importantly, their research suggests that when it comes to experimental pain, women have a lower pain threshold and perceive a stimulus of the same intensity as more painful than men.

Of course, ‘pain’ is a highly complex concept; and it has a wide range of determinants that are not only biological, chemical, and physiological, but also emotional, psychological and even social.

I know what you’re thinking – what about childbirth? Women use men’s pathetic whining when they have a cold as evidence that they could never endure the pain of childbirth. Marchand and Gaumond have an answer for that, and again it’s to do with sex hormones: “Pain threshold is significantly higher during pregnancy, most probably because there are important hormonal changes during this phase”.

Whatever science’s answer is, I was lucky enough to be present at the birth of both our children, and all I’m saying is that I have the greatest respect and undying admiration for my wife’s physical and emotional strength…and pain threshold – anyone who lives with me must have the capacity to deal with a real pain in the ass!

Hello…? Anyone heard of COP17?

In Eish! on December 2, 2011 at 1:45 pm

...er, it's a GLOBAL climate change thing...

As someone who emotionally, psychologically (and dare I say it, spiritually) straddles the globe’s two polar hemispheres, I am constantly intrigued by what makes the news in the UK and in South Africa. This past week, while the world has been in Durban attempting to shore up some measure of momentum around addressing climate change, the UK has been intent on navel gazing.

There have been worries around strikes, that continual nagging from Europe and that rather horrifying story of an old woman who got a splinter from her rolling pin while making a steak & kidney pie.

OK, so I made up the bit about the old lady…the fact is there has been close to zero coverage of COP17 in the British media this past week. Just to make sure it wasn’t me I went to google.co.uk, typed in ‘COP17’ and selected ‘news’. Sure, there was news coverage alright, but it was all on South African-based news services such as Business Day, Independent News, my old radio alma mater East Coast Radio, and my favourite daily The Daily Maverick.

I wonder if the issue of global climate change really is a global issue.