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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Look at me when I'm talking to you

Since my last post I've had a couple of requests for more smart stuff about the brain. Now I have to say this is not one of my main areas of expertise. 

"What is?" Susan says, looking over my shoulder, which is something I've hated since primary school, when Miss Jamieson, as suited to teaching as I am to international diplomacy, read sneeringly aloud my fleeting ambition to be a flower-arranger.  

Jamieson had a booming voice and a chest like Ben Venue and as a seven-year-old I was equally scared of both. I never got the hang of keeping her happy. Quite the reverse. She'd be driven at times to heights of maniacal frenzy I have not encountered in my life as a grown-up. 

"Kids, women, engineering," I tell Susan.

"Ha!" she says and wanders out to the garden, which is looking lovely at this time of year. Pink roses, yellow honeysuckle, purple clementine ... I suppress my inner flower-arranger and get back to the story.

So your brain has three main parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brainstem

The cerebrum is the grey, wrinkly bit you see in all the brain pictures. It has two hemispheres - the northern, where most people live, and the southern which has penguins. No, hang on. 

The cerebrum has a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. These are connected by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. If a surgeon cuts this, which used to be a treatment for epilepsy, the halves can behave like two people in the same body. One guy even got stuck in a loop, with his left hand pulling his trousers down and his right pulling them up again. 

And here's a strange thing. The left hemisphere of your brain controls the right half of your body and the right controls the left. Nobody knows why. Maybe God read the wiring diagram wrong. 

But I have a better theory. 

Flatfish such as plaice and flounder have two eyes on one side of their body. They don't lie on their tummies on the seabed, as you might think, but on their sides. So as a flatfish develops, one eye migrates round to the other side of its body.

I believe something similar happens to our heads. They start off facing backwards, with brain and body halves aligned. Then nature looks down, sees heels instead of toes and realises it's cocked up again

So it slowly turns the whole head around. The face is now in the right place but the brain is back to front, relative to the body.

Now you might think this is a stupid theory. I'm pretty sure you do. But plenty of seemingly stupid science theories turn out to be true. Time travel, quantum mechanics and evolution, for a start.

And I have evidence to support my theory. When I worked at British Aerospace my section head Dennis Anderson told me a story about the manager director, whose mum he knew well. When this guy was born they got a big fright, she'd told Dennis, because he seemed to have no face.

"It was a terrible shock," Dennis said. "Then the midwife took a closer look and found the face. What a relief! It was round the side of his head. Over the next week it gradually migrated to the front and he's been normal ever since. In fact, he's a high-flyer, as you know."

Now babies' skull bones are malleable and a tough birth can squeeze them out of shape for a while. My own head was squished pretty flat when I was born. There was some talk of sending me home by post, to save money, and getting me popped through the letter-box. But my mum didn't have a stamp so we had to go on the bus. 

A face right round the side of the head is different though, and I think it's strong evidence for my theory. 

"What theory is that?" Susan says, coming in from the garden with a bunch of pink roses and reading over my shoulder again.

"The human face starts out at the back of the head," I tell her. 

"Yours should have stayed there," she says, heading through to the kitchen to find a flower-vase and laughing like a drain.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Did meat make you smart?

Before relating this week's encounter, I need to slip you some skinny on the human brain. 

Mine weighs about 1.5 kilograms. Yours might be a little more, because I'm guessing you didn't superglue your index finger to your thumb yesterday.

"Be careful," Susan tells me, as I'm dripping liquid UHU onto a plastic doofer I've shaped to fit into a rough-edged hole inside the drum of her washing-machine that's tearing her clothes every time she does a washing. "Superglue can be dangerous."

"Give me some credit," I say. "Do you know how long I've been using tools? Have you any idea how much skill has seeped into these fingers? Can you imagine the depths of knowledge ... Oops."

"What have you done," she says, with that long-suffering drop in intonation I often hear at the end of women's sentences when they talk to me.

I raise my left hand, which looks like I'm doing a shadow-puppet goose.

"Do not," she says. "Move a muscle. I'll google what to do next."

But I reckon time is short. So surreptitiously I start to pull finger and thumb apart, testing the relative breaking strengths of the new superglue bond and my old outer layer of skin. Sensitive to small clues others might miss, my finely-honed engineer's brain tells me the former is weaker, so I exert a greater force.

"'Do NOT try to pull finger and thumb apart,'" Susan reads from her computer

"Aaagh!" I squeal.

"Pillock," she says.

So Carol's theory, which she explains to me in the garden at little Sally's second birthday party, is that the brains of seabirds are evolving so fast they will soon be the dominant species on Earth.

"They've moved inland to live off humans," she says. "So they're getting more protein than ever before. That's what gave human brains a big boost, back in our days on the African Savannah. 

"You remember them?" she adds, unnecessarily.

"And here's the thing," she continues, indicating two yellow-eyed herring gulls perched on the back fence, coveting their neighbour's birthday cake. "When those buggers rule the world, it's going to be Hell. You know why? They're Nazis."

This seems over the top to me. Did gulls annex the Sudetenland? Hardly. Did they invade Poland when I wasn't looking? I don't think so. "They are just birds trying to earn a crust," I tell her.

"No they're not," she says. "They're evil. They'll be goose-stepping around in jackboots any day now. They'll enslave all humans and conduct fiendish experiments on us."

"No they won't," I tell her and I'm pretty sure I'm right. See, here's the thing about young Carol. She is prone to hyperbole for humorous effect. But study the content of her conversation, no matter how far-fetched, and there's usually some interesting truth in it. 

So when I got home I looked this one up. And it turns out there's science behind what she was saying.

Now I'm not telling you seagulls are going to drop bombs on London. Nor that we will have to fight them on the beaches. Far less that there's a little corporal seagull with a black moustache somewhere, writing a manifesto for world domination.

The science is about how humans got big brains. It's called the expensive tissue hypothesis and it goes back to a 1995 scientific paper by Aiello and WheelerFor the full story you'll need to go to our smart sister site, Three Minute Learning. 

The basic idea is that big brains need lots of energy. But humans burn only about the same as other apes of similar body weight. How can that be?

We do it by saving energy on another expensive organ, said Aiello and Wheeler - our guts. Long intestines are needed to digest vegetation. Short ones do meat. Human guts are shorter than those of other apes. So our ancestors' brains were able to grow as a direct result of eating more meat which let them have shorter guts.

This paper was bad news for vegetarians. The carnivores now had a scientific stick to beat us with. "Meat made us smart" crowed the Mail and Sun, contradicting the evidence on every page. 

But here's the thing about science. Like a man on hot coals it never stands still. In 2011 a bunch of Zurich scientists made Swiss cheese of the smart meat story, by punching big holes in it. 

If the expensive tissue hypothesis were true, animals with bigger brains should have smaller intestines, said Ana Navarrete and her colleagues. So they studied the organs of 100 mammal species and found no trace of that correlation. 

But this left a fact without an explanation. Humans and apes of the same weight burn the same amount of energy. But human brains need more energy than ape brains. Where was it coming from?  

Energy efficiency from walking on two legs was part of the answer, said Navarrete. The other is that humans carry more fat than the rest of the apes. Compare lean body weight rather than total and we humans are burning more energy than other apes.

So not only was the expensive tissue hypothesis disproved. There was no need for it in the first place. 

So nice try Carol and bad luck seagulls. But I'm wondering if evolution is all it's cracked up to be.

When did you last see a gorilla superglue its index finger to its thumb?

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Sweet scents in the afternoon

My reaction is all wrong. I know it is. I shouldn't be so prejudiced. But it all goes back to Jim Girvan, my best pal in primary school. 

I made the mistake of telling Jim, when we were about 10, that I fancied going to university to become a scientist. I hadn't a clue what a university was, or a scientist come to that. But I'd discovered a dusty, blue-bound book in my Aunt Mary's attic in Kirkcaldy. It had glossy black-and-white photos of spiral galaxies and far distant nebulae.

The size and beauty of the universe took my breath away. It really did. I forgot to breathe for half a minute, then I gasped. The book was called The Marvels and Mysteries of the Universe. My Aunt Mary said I could keep it. That made me happy.

But it horrified Jim. "If you go to university you'll get posh and never speak to your old pals again," he said. 

I assured him no such thing would happen, but our friendship was never relaxed after that. I tried too hard not to be posh around him and it made me stiff and uncomfortable.

I'm still trying. I can feel him in there now, disapproving. Which is why I'm less enthusiastic about the new supermarket than young Rachel. "It's a better form of business," she says, as we pass the adverts for Barbour jackets and cello tutors. "There's no shareholders and the staff get a share of the profits. And they treat farmers better than other supermarkets."

"Ah ha!" I say. "That's your ethical system right there, isn't it? What's good for farmers is good, period. That's because you're a farmer's wife. I'm not so keen on farmers. They pollute the atmosphere."

"You don't half talk shit," she says.

"Precisely," I say. "We had farmers' sons in our class, Jim and me. Sweet scents wafted off them in the afternoon. 'A fine healthy smell,' they'd tell us. But it wasn't. It was cowshit. Or maybe horseshit. I'm not a shit expert."

"You're a shit judge of shops," she says. "This one's lovely.

"Yeah, if you like buttercup petal tea," I tell her. "Or yak's milk cheese. Or quails' eggs dipped in dark chocolate, with a hint of mint. 

"Look at this!" I shout, picking up a long, thin can with a sea-green label, and getting a sharp glance from a couple of blondes of uncertain age and eyebrows. 'Octopus testicles.' That's appalling. What kind of pervert eats octopus testicles?"

She takes the tin off me and reads the label. "Tentacles, you fool," she says. "Octopus tentacles."

"That's just as bad," I say. "Poor old octopus."

"Listen, I know what you'll like," she says. "It's very satisfying."

"What?" I say.

"Charlie's marmalade."

"That's some kind of euphemism, isn't it?" I say. "'Let's invite the neighbours around for a spot of Charlie's marmalade.' I think it's disgusting what you people get up to."

"Put a sock in it," she says, taking a jar off the shelf and pointing to the label. 'Duchy Originals, thick cut orange marmalade.' That's the company Prince Charles founded."

I take a look. "Read the rest," I tell her.

"Rich bittersweet marmalade made with fine Seville oranges, hand-stirred in open pans for a chunky texture and robust flavour," she reads. 

"Would you like a slice of toast and mahmalade, my deah?" I say, in my southern stupid voice. "It's hand-stirred in open pans for a chunky texture and robust flavour."

I shake my head. "I got to get away from here."

Outside in the car-park I sit sadly on the fence and look at the sky. Blue all over with a little fluffy job in one corner and the sun in the other. A blackbird trills in a nearby sycamore. It's kinda peaceful.

Rachel walks across the tarmac and sits beside me, annoyance all gone. "Listen pal, I bet Jim Girvan lives in Bearsden now, drives a four by four, grows aubergines in his garden and has beautiful vowels." 

She pats me on the head sympathetically. "It was a long time ago," she says. "You're middle class now. It's all right. Honest it is."

I am not convinced. And I hate it when posh people pat you on the head. I really do.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Stress-free living

Woman gets carried away, bell-ringing. Telegraph, Oct 2009 
"I'm John," announces the new arrival to our evening chat, pulling up a rusty chair and sitting beside us around the small garden pond.

Dark hair, forty at a guess, wearing a burgundy sweatshirt with the logo, Guildford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers

A campanologist. Only my second in a lifetime of meeting people, the first being a bad-tempered, smooth-skinned engineer called Tod whom I worked with briefly at Rolls-Royce. 

Turns out this John is 62, same age as Harris. I'm astonished but detect a pattern. 

"John is a lifelong bachelor, I'm guessing," I tell Harris later, when we're sipping Glenmorangie in his lounge on a comfortable couch, looking out at the Surrey countryside, having learned much, in the meantime, about carillons, clappers and cats' ears.

"Still lives with his mum," he says. "How did you know?"

"Coupla clues," I say, trying to tap the side of my nose and missing. "Look at us. You have less hair on your head than on the soles of your feet. I have more snow on my upper slopes than Kilimanjaro. We look our age and then some.

"John on the other hand has silky skin and hair like a raven's wing. His jaunty air speaks of a stressless life, free of all responsibility. Where you and I worry about health, family and the price of beer, he strolls across the village green of a sunlit evening and pulls mightily on his big bells. He is carefree and will live forever. Why? I'll tell you why."

I take a long sip and look straight into Harris's eyes, which seem strangely unfocused for one so smart. "The single source of all the stress in the world is absent from that man's life," I say, pausing to consider the sentence and feeling slightly surprised that it came out so well. 

"The single source of all the stress in the world," I say again.

"What are you talking about?" Harris says, swaying slightly in his seat.

"Sit still man and listen," I tell him. "John has had no contact with the one thing that has turned you and me grey, bald, wrinkled and grumpy."

"Drink?" Harris says.

"Women," I tell him.

"Ah," he says, pulling the cork out of the bottle with a satisfying squeak-pop and sloshing whisky into our glasses. 

"Women," I repeat and nod knowingly, as does he. 

"Bloody women, you might say," he says. 

"No, no," I say, shaking my head and wishing I hadn't. "You can't say blubby women. Walls have ears."

He peers closely at the walls of his lounge. "Mine don't," he says.

"Yes they do," I tell him. "Your sister Susan might be 500 miles away, but I bet she can hear us."

"Don't be daft, man" he says. "You're a physis... You're a physisiss... You're an engineer. Talk sense."

"I'm talking sense. All I'm saying is if you want to look young and healthy, stay away from women. I'm not saying it's their fault. Correlashish... Correlation is not causation."

"I've often thought so," he says. "You're a very wise man, Douglas."

"So are you, Harris," I tell him. "Where's my bed?"

"Top of those stairs on the right," he says.

I lean my head back and contemplate the stairway, winding above us like the north face of the Eiger. 

"This is a very cumchy couf," I say, prodding it with my finger. "I shall sleep here tonight."

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Annoyance art

George Wyllie and his Robins
One reason I like learning about art from my student son, rather than the experts, is that I can understand what he says. Mostly. 

Art critics seem to favour a style that packs the least meaning into the most words. You get the same thing with French intellectuals, as I've mentioned before.  

It's called obfuscation. It's not big and it's not clever. It just sounds that way if you're easily impressed, as some of them even admit themselves.

So when the lad starts talking about relational aesthetics, which I've never heard of, I try to concentrate, but it's not easy with my sis fussing around and offering us heaped dishes of the food she's spent the past week preparing for our first dinner at her place with Dug and Linda.

"Relational aesthetics is the idea that art has to engage with people," Dug says. "It was supposed to be a move away from elitism. Goes back to a guy called Bourriaud in the 1990s, who saw artists as facilitators and art as information exchanged between artist and viewers."

"Do you want some of this," my sis asks, offering him a huge dish of golden meringue. 

"Yes please," he says and she drops a lorry-load on to his plate. 

"So I'm like, I don't think so," he says. "Why can't art be about annoying people?"

I laugh and he says, "No, seriously."

"You mean making people think?" my sis says.

"No I mean making them annoyed," he says.

"Oh, right," she says, dubiously. 

"Winding them up," he says. "I think a lot of good artists are slightly piss-takers, you know? Kinda wind-up merchants."

"Would you like toffee ice-cream with that?" my sis says. "Or chocolate sauce?"

"Both please," he says, and the same it's nice-to-be-appreciated smile appears on her face that I used to see on my mum's, when I scoffed everything she put on my plate and went back for more.

"People like George Wyllie and Ian Hamilton Findlay," he says. "They've all got that gleam in their eye."

"George Wyllie?" I say. "Surely not. I used to see his stuff in schools. He was child-friendly. Started out as an engineer and only got into sculpture in his 50s. Teachers liked him."

"The Arts Council hated him," he tells me. "He didn't conform to their ideas about art."

"Ice cream or chocolate sauce?" my sis says, hovering over my plate.

"I'm trying to cut down," I say. "I've put on weight since the operation."

"That's neither, then?" She starts to walk away.

"Both please," I say and she looks smug.

"Could you two put each other down for five minutes?" I tell the young couple, since they're holding hands again and looking into each other's eyes. 

"You mean when the old people are around?" Linda says. "Don't be so Victorian, Douglas!"

"Nothing wrong with the Victorians," I tell her. "They had standards. People knew their place in those days. Women did what they were told and weren't allowed to express opinions when the men were eating."

Silence falls. A dog barks in the distance. The wind moans in the old chimney, left over from the days of coal. Linda stares at me through narrowed eyes and I sense my sis standing behind me holding something heavy. 

"See that's exactly what I'm talking about," my son says, breaking the tension, and I make a mental note to buy him a beer at the first opportunity. "You took a little grain of truth, combined it with a load of bollocks and managed to get on everybody's tits. 

"We'll make an artist of you yet." 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

We have ways of making you wince

J├╝rgen Goertz sculpture at Berlin Hauptbahnhof 
When Al catches sight of me in the mirror that lines one wall of the gym, so you can admire your own gorgeous body as you pump iron, he grins, turns quickly, extends his right hand to shake mine and grasps my shoulder firmly with his left.

"Good to see you, man," he says. "You don't look bad for someone who's had all his internal organs removed."

"They left a couple," I say, reaching for my shirt buttons. "Heart, lungs, giant brain. Can I show you my war wounds?"

"Put them away," he says. "C'mon, I'll buy you a beer."

"How did you get on with the Germans then?" he says, when we're comfortably seated at the little table by the fire in the Burnbrae Hotel. 

"I liked them," I say. "Only spoke to 50 or so, mind you, out of 80 million. So it's maybe a daft thing to say."

"You never been there before?" he says. 

"Walked across the Rhine in Strasbourg once," I say. "But my only other experience of Germans en masse is groups of research physicists over the years - who are pretty much physicists, wherever they come from. So I went there speaking not a word of German and had to start every conversation with, 'Do you speak English?'"

"That's just rude in someone else's country," Al says, ordering the macaroni cheese from the white-smocked waiter, while I go for a light, do-it-yourself lunch of chips and green veg, and instantly regret it when the aroma of roasted cheese wafts towards me from the next table.

"Wouldn't have done it if I'd had more time to prepare," I say. "But virtually everyone I spoke to was smiley and helpful." 

"And efficient?" he says.

"Not so much," I say. "Went for two trains when I was there. One never appeared and the other was 15 minutes late." 

"So are you back to work now?" he says.

"Doing a bit but I get tired. So I'm pottering around the house, fixing things. Got a man coming to put blinds on my big front window. Those vertical, fabric jobs. Thought they might help keep the heat in, but the ones he showed me were kinda thin and flimsy."

His macaroni arrives, all brown and sizzling, and my mouth starts to water. "I'm sure you can get thermal blinds," he says. "Made of the same material they use for thermal underwear." 

He shoves a large forkful into his mouth and goes "Mmmm" with obvious pleasure while I study my stringy beans with far less. "Or," he says, waggling his empty fork at me. "You could just staple several sets of long johns to the outside of your curtains. That would be cosy in the winter.

"I did tell you about my own wee problem in the groinal region?" he adds. 

"The expanding testicles?"

"Testicle," he says. "Just the one. It would have been less frightening, the first time, if it was both. Well it's back."

"You don't seem bothered," I say. 

"Fear comes from ignorance," he says. "I know what it is now. Fluid retention - hydrocele. It's harmless."

"You not getting any treatment then?" I say.

"I could but I'm in no hurry. They use a big needle and a syringe to suck the fluid out." 

I wince. "Exactly," he says. "So I figure I'll leave it alone until it starts to get in the way."

"In the way of what?" I say.

"Traffic," he says.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Started thinking last week about people I haven't seen for a while and would like to, and Bob came top of the list, and wouldn't you know it the very next day I got an email from the man. 

You could have knocked me down with a feather, as my old granny used to say, although most of the time I knew my granny she was younger than I am now, which isn't all that old but seemed ancient to me then. Perspectives eh? 

Where was I? 

Yeah, I lost touch with Bob after the two of us and Iain went to a Dylan concert at Stirling Castle about ten years ago. I hadn't seen him for ages before that though, which was puzzling, because at university we were close. Suffered the stresses of a final year of theoretical physics in a flat together. Played poker, talked about life, music, women, football.  

Like me Bob was a big Scotland fan, scarred for life by some of their dreadful performances, like the 1975 game against England, when the teams were evenly matched outfield, but every England shot went past our gormless goalkeeper Stewart Kennedy for a 5-1 thrashing. 

Bob was one of those guys you imagine you'll be friends for life with, but life kinda gets in the way. His decision to set up home in the same street as my ex-wife, and well within the blast damage radius, restricted my access to him. Inverallan Drive is one of those places, like Kabul and Baghdad, that I'd need an Iron Man suit and a large life insurance policy to enter these days.  

Bob was a tall, good-looking guy, with a serious style of speaking that held your attention, punctuated by flashes of humour that were all the funnier for their origins in a brain that thought deeply about life, people and quantum mechanics.

In our final year at university Bob and I were sent away for a week of nuclear physics at the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, where we shared a room with another classmate called John, a nice enough guy but more middle-class than we were. His chat was peppered with strange concepts like money, flushing toilets, three meals a day and babysitters.

Not only had John been looked after by a string of these as a teenager, he told us, as we sat on our beds in the cramped accommodation, rather too close for working-class comfort to this long-haired, well-manicured, slightly-scented guy. But he had seduced every babysitter but one. She was only resistant to his manly charms, he reckoned, because she was a nervous, highly-strung sort of person. 

"If I unzipped my jeans she would run a mile," he told us, and I had no idea how to respond. Bob did. 

"So would we," he said.

I am really looking forward to meeting up with young Bob again, particularly as he seems to have retained his sense of humour in the face of life's tendency to toss large lumps of shite at good guys.

"What stage are you at in your recuperation?" he asks in his email. "Are you fully oot and aboot? How's the wayward leg? I broke my ankle two years ago, having sprained it painfully earlier in the day and tried the drinking-lots-of-whisky pain relief therapy.

"I then got up in the middle of the night for a piss and took a header down the stairs. Still managed the piss, only I was inverted at the time. Took two ambulance crews to dislodge me and get me on to a stretcher. Not my finest hour, I can tell you."

Nice one, Bob. I'll see you soon, I hope.