Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. Pick Your Poison

    Today, Information is Beautiful have released their much gawked at info graphic of this century’s most common deaths. The image featured as the final piece in the recently closed Wellcome Trust exhibition entitled ‘Death’ and gives a fascinating overview of how life comes to an end in our modern time.

    Was humanity always such a successful killer?

    Information is Beautiful is headed by David McCandless, a London-based author, writer and designer, who describes his and his team’s aim in the following way:

    “Myself, and the rest of the crack team here at Information is Beautiful, are dedicated to distilling the world’s data, information and knowledge into beautiful, interesting and, above all, useful visualizations, infographics and diagrams.”

    Who can object to that?

    If you for some reason are a bigger fan of actual raw data than info graphics then that too is available here .

  2. The Price Of Your Body

    For those swinging by London in the next month and feel like learning more about the city’s gory past, I would recommend catching the latest exhibition at the The Museum of London entitled Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

    Just like the title gives away, it is about the peculiar part of London’s history when dead bodies were one of the more valuable goods to trade. In the 19th century, a time when disease infected much of the overpopulated city, surgeons needed to be educated well and fast. Leading to tradesmen, known as Resurrection men, ‘rising’ the dead hours after burial and selling them to hospitals for dissection classes.

    Visit the exhibition, open until 14 April, to find out just how far the professionals of this bizarre trade would go for their goods and how the government finally put an end to it.

  3. The Science Of An Aha-moment

    The latest challenge of some neuroscientists is to understand creativity. Is it possible to understand what happens when a creative brain is at work? Are we able to, aided by the latest techniques, see what parts of the bran are involved in problem solving and finding solutions? And if so, can we train our brains to become better at this?

    In the latest Horizon documentary from the BBC report on the details of the actual moment we connect the dots when solving a problem or riddle and the most up to date research in the field. Hopefully, you’ll have an aha-moment or two of your own.

    Those in the UK can catch it on BBC iPlayer and for those outside, the documentary might show up on YouTube sometime in the future.

  4. The Church vs Knowledge

    Finally, the Catholics finally got their new pope.

    To me, he seems pretty much like your standard head-of-church, described as being against abortion, frowning upon homosexuality and with a questionable past. But unlike many of his predecessors this man is a learned chemist. As a part of the Jesuit church, the science background is not uncommon. Apparently, a few prolific scientist have emerged from the church throughout history (but all references point to wikipedia, so beware considering that truth!).

    Read more about this clan in a post written for the Scientific American blog and ponder whether or not you are ready to forget some of the church’s previous scientific blunders: declaring women a “support” to men, holding back the enlightenment and denying evolution.

  5. Nature Or Nurture: The Importance Of Getting Your Genes Right

    Nature Or Nurture: The Importance Of Getting Your Genes Right

    On a dark evening in late February Steve Jones, Journalist and Emeritus Professor at Genetics at University College London was invited to London Metropolitan University to talk about Genetics and Journalism.

    2/3 of the people in this room will die because of their genes. Apparently, that is the way Steve Jones starts his first lecture on Genetics at UCL. He does that to emphasize how genetics impacts all aspects of our life. It decides our sexuality, social abilities, and many other non-scientific things in our lives. It is very hard to draw the line of what is inherited though the genes and what are consequences from our surroundings. The only true answer seems to be that they are impossible to separate.

    Throughout history, many have tried to find out why we share traits with our parents. In fact, it has been known since ancient times that that some ‘essence’ of our beings is passed on through the generations. Steve Jones himself pointed out Francis Galton as the first person to make plot of an inherited trait. He looked at height and used what we today refer to as biometrics, i.e. a large set of data and statistics, to get an insight into the heritability of height.

    Although these traits span from physical traits to personality characteristics, they are difficult to explain by genes only. In fact, we pass on all kinds of things to our offspring. As mentioned by Steve Jones himself, the most inherited trait in the UK is not one of these traits. It is wealth. He also added that height, which seemed pretty straightforward to Francis Galton, has been linked to many genes, that all somehow take part in determining our final height as adults.

    In some instances inheritability can be down to a definition. As in the case of the characteristic coat of the Siamese cat: white body and dark face, tail and legs, is caused by a defect enzyme. The defective enzyme will make the coat change colour in reaction to temperature. Cold temperatures lead to dark fur and warm temperatures lead to white fur (hence the dark extremities). Since the gene that produces the defective enzyme is inherited, but the surrounding temperature determines the actual colour of the cat, it can be argued that the characteristic coat of the Siamese cat is not inherited at all.

    Could such inheritable defects, which are brought out by environment, be present in humans as well? And how would society handle personal traits that are determined by our genes?

    Incidentally, there is such a trait.

    Criminality is an inherited trait, or maybe more specifically: violent behaviour, is inherited. The behaviour is passed on in a genetic mutation on the gene that produces monoamine oxide; an enzyme involved in breaking down food and that participates in brain signalling. The mutation makes the enzyme inactive and monoamine oxide levels in the body low. Today, we know there is a wide variance of different mutations in this gene, but they all lead to lower levels of monoamine oxide.

    Looking at large sets of data, it has been found that having low levels of this enzyme does not affect you, unless you come from poor circumstances. In these cases, men tend to grow up violent and highly likely to commit crime.

    This mutation is a sex-linked inheritance, meaning that the genetic defect is located on the X-chromosome. Since, men only have one X-chromosome, a defective gene will cause problems. Women, on the other hand, have two X-chromosomes and can function normally even if one of them has the defective gene. Therefore, these types of defects mostly affect men.

    It is a well known fact that men commit more violent crimes, like murders, than women. One of these, the 25-year-old Stephen Mobley, robbed the till at a Domino’s Pizza store in the US and then casually gunned down the manager. His defence attorneys had stumbled upon the monoamine oxide enzyme research and as part of their defence they wanted him tested to see if he had the ‘murderer gene’. The request was denied since genetics was deemed not enough to acquit him from the gruesome crimes he had committed. But it does highlight how important it is to get the details right and to not fall for the convenience of believing there is one gene for each trait and that a mutation forces you to act differently.

    As Steve Jones summarised himself, there more you know the less confident you feel about that knowledge. Genetics has moved from listing the genes we have in common, to grasping the different versions of these common genes. Any trait that can be linked to genetics is likely to be controlled by multiple genes that come in many different versions. And when unexpected things happen certain differences might benefit certain individuals, which enables the species to live on. As individuals, we might ultimately die from our genes, but as a species the genes make us able to survive.

  6. Living The Good Life... And Death

    mixel_Page_135

    Most people want to die at home, declares Donna Lansdale, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Princess Alice Hospice in Esher, Surrey. She was invited to the Wellcome Trust series of interviews known as Frontlines to talk about her experiences.

    Donna spends her days caring for those who are faced with the end of their lives. She urges her clients to think their options through and figure out a way they would be happy to end their days. In the region of England where Donna works, all hospital staff can access a database full of details of how and where their patients would like to die in case they were to have to treat these individuals.

    Over 90% of the patients have their wishes fulfilled by the health care staff. For some very frail patients it can be hard to grant their wish of avoiding hospital, but a new scheme where nurses stay in patients’ homes overnight can permit them treatment from home at anytime. According to Donna, most people diagnosed with terminal disease opt for treatment at home or at a hospice. Many people plead to not have to go back to the hospital once they have been permitted to leave. They fear lying on a trolley in A&E, being moved between wards and dread the lack of privacy of being in a room with lots of other patients.

    A post written by Ken Murray, Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at University of Southern California provides a physician’s take on the issue. When faced with terminal illness doctors know what will happen, they know their choices of treatment and can access any treatment they like. In spite of this, Dr Murray claims that many terminally ill doctors choose to not have any treatment. They let nature take its course and focus on enjoying the end of their lives instead. Reasons being, that doctors know about the limitations of modern medicine, but they also know that the most common fears at the end are dying alone and dying in pain. Those two fears can be controlled at home or in a hospice. He also refers to studies showing that hospice patients live longer than those suffering form the same condition but who receive invasive treatment.

    I guess that to fully live a good life you also need to have a good death.

  7. The Attractiveness Of Height

    mixel_Page_060

    Nature is full of animal displays associated with good genes. Animals can through sound, colour or just through sheer size attract a mate. From an evolutionary perspective, good quality genes would be those that minimize the risk of disease in future generations. The displays aim to show off your quality and persuade prospective mates that you are the one to go for.

    But just like the yellow eyed penguins with the most vibrantly orange eyes and feathers on their head are the ones with the most ‘mating success’, certain characteristics seem to be more important than others when determining attractiveness in humans.

    One of these suggested attractive features is height. Questionnaires have reviled that, in general, men prefer women to be slightly shorter than themselves and women want men to be taller than them. With increased female height, partner height also increases. These trends have been confirmed in real-life relationship data, so regarding our partners height, we actually manage to fullfill our wishes.

    With all of this importance attributed to height, it is easy to assume that the taller you are as a man, more you would appeal to the opposite sex. But the questionnaires also show that women accept shorter men. In fact, women usually find men attractive if their height ranges above or below her own height. Basically, there is a ‘too short’, a ‘just right’ and a ‘too tall’.

    Investigating the mating success in 3,500 men arrived at the conclusion that men of average height fared the best. They got married earlier and therefore had a head start at making babies. (Apparently, the study also confirmed that for men, having a high income helps and education hampers baby making).

    Fortunately, we come in all different heights and will therefore consider different people in our ‘attractive’-range. With the added dimension of different countries having different average height, most of us must be winners somewhere in the world. And for us who are not, ther are luckily many people who do not follow the popular trends.

  8. Try To Not Think Of A Bear

    mixel_Page_065

    I was 12 years old and gearing up to go cross-country skiing for PE (yes, it’s a useful sport). Most of the other kids had gone alpine skiing down steep mountains in France, but had never done it on a flat surface. Being brought up not too far away from a golf course (which obviously becomes a cross-country skiing field in the winter) and having parents that showed no interest in skiing down mountains (thank god!), I grew more confident that the two or three times I had gone cross-country skiing made me a pro in this crowd.

    With the skies fastened to my boots and a pole in each hand, I pushed to the front of the line declaring to everyone: “Follow me! We’re going to the golf course almost next to my house (an exaggeration). I have been there and done this many times before (another exaggeration). It won’t be difficult at all (delusion). Just watch me!”

    We all lined up, waiting for the teacher to make sure no one was missing and that everyone had tightened their skies properly. As we got the all clear to get going (knowing my 12-year-old self) I probably turned to the others around me and said something ridiculous like: “This is going to be a wild ride”.

    In the following second I got an image in my head. It was of me starting to ski, but getting tangled in the person next to me and tumbling down the small hill in front of us, before we even left the school grounds. It was a worst-case assessment and yeah it was pretty bad. I tried to ignore this new worry my brain had just delivered. I had done this at least a few times, it would be fine. Just push yourself down the small hill and get moving. Don’t worry about it.

    Of course, after my confident display and a head full of ideas of how I would fall, I found myself crawling on the ground trying to get up (which is not very straight forward with skies on). I was holding up the entire group of classmates behind me. As I finally got on all fours, I realised that it was better for me to stay down and let everyone pass rather than trying to get up further. So there I was, looking up at those judgmental glances as they passed one by one.

    We make many mistakes in a day. But the most annoying are those that appear from nowhere and leave a fail-sticker on your latest idea. Those that preoccupy your thoughts as you try your hardest to ignore them.

    According to ironic process theory, there might be a part of your brain that, while it is trying to suppress an idea, makes it more prominent. For instance, there is not much difference in mood between people that write about sad or happy memories, but ask them to suppress any feelings related to the memory and you’ll see a big difference in mood.

    Luckily in most instances these warnings are useful and help us to avoid disaster. But why they sometimes slip into action seems to be related to pressure or stress. Trying to name the colour of words related to a subject that you have been asked to suppress any thoughts on, is harder with some added stress. Processing the word interferes with naming the colour, showing that with stress the ‘forbidden’ behaviour is more prominent in your mind than the more sensible behaviour. This has been explained by two parallel thought processes going on in our heads. The operating and the ironic process, where the ironic one is guessed to be a back-up that sometimes is reviled under pressure or distraction.

    I will never get to rectify my amazing ski-related nosedive, but I learned an important lesson of what can happen when a lot is at stake and you let the doomsday part of your brain get to you.