Daryl Ilbury

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Be on a national DNA database? Pass an earbud!

In Eish!, Fools, Science on February 17, 2012 at 8:38 am

"Here's a little tip in your ear...bud"

I used to be a fan of the hit US TV series CSI: Miami until I stumbled upon their formula. I also started questioning their rather bizarre timeline: a body would be found in a crowded bar and the CSI team would chat to suspects, take their DNA, go to the crime lab, go somewhere else to speak to someone, then back to the crime lab, then back to the bar…and everyone would still be there, just milling around!. How superfast were the CSI team that they could get the results from their forensic investigations and question a suspect while everyone in the bar was still finishing off their drinks?

The secret, we’re led to believe, is in the technology and the resource of a complete national DNA database. Swab a mouth with an earbud, snip the tip, drop it in an eppendorf tube, squirt in some distilled water, give it a quick spin in a centrifuge, and the name of the killer pops on a screen…slip on the shades, Horatio, and say something cool.

The problem with a DNA database is that it’s been criminalised. In the US it’s managed by the FBI and in the UK by the National Policing Improvement Agency.

There are attempts in the UK to encourage the development of a DNA database for the purposes of medical research, and because it’s a particularly good idea, there are organisations that object to it. Cloaked in robes of moral righteousness, they quote concerns about privacy and fears about the data falling into the hands of those with nefarious intent – marketers – who could use the information to deliver personalised advertising: “We see you have a 53.8% chance of developing skin cancer – have you ever thought of using Derma-lite?”

Those who object to a national DNA database fail to understand that in the UK an average of 1 million people sign up to Facebook each month, and in the process leave their data DNA scattered across the globe. Privacy, as we once knew it, is dead.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to know about any genetic predisposition I may have to, say, skin cancer before the mole on my back turns nasty; and I’d like to know that the health prospects of any future grandchildren I may have will be improved because the insight gained from analysing a national DNA database has accorded the necessary research to national demand.

I also have no intent to involve myself in any serious crime (I still have that overdue library book from primary school), so I have absolutely no qualms about giving the police access to my DNA; but I am suspicious of those who hesitate.

In fact, I’m going to swab my mouth with an earbud and hand it to a parking meter maid today.

[Note to self: must use a clean earbud]

Man loses teeth working in nuclear power station

In Eish! on February 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm

This is a classic case of clever/sneaky/shoddy journalism; depending on the way you look at it; and it’s from that custodian of responsible science reporting: Aunty BBC.

The headline actually read: Lost false teeth claim by Dounreay nuclear plant worker.

When I stumbled across this story, the journalist red light in my head started spinning and I instinctively reached for my notepad, images of nuclear fallout or long-term exposure to radiation swimming in my mind.

The chances are, reading the headline, you entertained similar notions.

So imagine my surprise, and mild annoyance, when it emerged it was a story about a worker at a nuclear power plant who, when he sneezed rather emphatically, watched his false teeth fly out and drop down into the depths of the inner workings of said nuclear power plant.

No nuclear rods were harmed in the process.

You can read the story here.

Back…and humming

In Eish!, Science on February 2, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’m back in London after a 6 week self imposed exile from science and journalism; and I did it in style – basking in the sun at home in Cape Town, surrounded by my family.

One of the first things I came across when I opened up my trusty MacBook Air and logged on to my apartment’s wireless network was an article by the British Psychological Society exalting the power of the famous BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs, which recently celebrated its 70th birthday (make a noise!….quietly). This makes it the longest running factual radio show in the world.

For those not familiar with the programme, each week a famous person is invited into the studio to talk about eight bits of music, a book and a luxury item they would like to have with them if they were stuck on a desert island. I would choose food, water and some sunblock – but that’s just me.

Anyhoo…apart from being irritating ‘cos they always fade the songs early (so if you get invited, forget choosing ‘Stairway to Heaven’), it does make interesting listening.

However, it seems there is something more to it. According to Dr Mike Lowis, a chartered psychologist quoted in the article, “The listener can obtain quite a different picture about a well-known personality than previously compiled from the usual utterances and news stories”. A listener finding out that a well-known person places emphasis on the same piece of music as they, gives the show a different dimension.

He goes on to say, “Another important property of music is that it can evoke memories, especially of events that were emotional and were accompanied by similar music. Examples include weddings, funerals, and experiences during formative periods of life including romantic episodes (the ‘darling, they are playing our tune’ syndrome).”

Of course as someone who has been in radio for over 20 years, this is not news to me. I am well aware of the positive psychological effect music can have on people, especially if it evokes powerful memories. It’s why ‘the classics’ and swaying stadium rock love songs are the cornerstones of radio formats targeted at people for whom puberty is a distant memory.

Of course listening to Desert Island Discs isn’t always good for the soul. Imagine listening to some pea-brained, B-Grade reality TV show celebrity saying that their favourite album is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue…