Trouble in Paradise: Bama Yao Waters of Life becoming Polluted

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Bama Yao is an autonomous County in the Guangxi Provinced in Southeastern China. You may have heard of it. It’s often featured on programmes about longevity and prolonging life. That’s because a very high proportion of the people who live there, are over 100 years old.  The number of centenarians (those who are 100 or over) is almost double the United States average.

This is despite the fact that many cancer patients declared as incurable and near life’s end have made a pilgrimage to Bama. In fact the county has the highest density of incurable cancer patients outside of hospitals anywhere in China.

While there’s no scientific proof that the waters there have life-increasing properties,  people there drink the spring water and breathe in the morning and evening mists. This has happened since the Qing Dynasty.  It’s not just drinking in the mists and water; various other methods for prolonging life have been tried there. Some people wear gloves and crawl barefooted on the surrounding hills like a dog, believing their organs will massage each other and draw energy from Bamo’s earth. Others believe that drinking the urine of the native people in Bama has therapeutic effects. Nice. There are also “magnetic therapy” sessions within a cave in the County where the spring is located.

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Some rich people have Bamo water shipped to their home towns or cities, but some say that the water loses its elixir of life quality once taken outside the County’s boundaries.  That has led to many people travelling to Bamo to take in the waters of life. Locally they are known as “migratory birds” and resented by the locals. Richer people from the Yangtze River Delta are buying or building properties there. This has led to accusations, with some foundation, that the influx is killing the goose that laid the Golden Egg. Tourism development and the immigrant population have overwhelmed the area, causing the mother river to become polluted.  Will this lead to people leaving and the area becoming once again a haven of longevity for the exclusive few?

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Who knows, but the fact is that current 39 centenarians living there are lamenting the publicity their County has attracted, and wondering if their days are becoming (more) numbered than hitherto. Trouble in paradise indeed.

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Kushwant Singh: Ways to Live Beyond 100 Years of Age

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While we wait for a miracle drug or DNA implant to give us immortality or at least exceptional longevity, there are other practical steps you can take to prolong and enjoy your life well into your 9o’s and 100’s. Ask Kushwant Singh

Kushwant Singh  (born 2 February 1915) is a well-known Indian novelist and journalist. He is 98. He intends to live a lot longer. He is a witty secularist. He is a recipient of the second-highest civilian award in India, the coveted Padma Vibhushan.

He first thought that he owed his longevity and good health (both physical and mental) to his parents’ genes, as they lived well into their nineties. However his brothers and sisters have not fared so well in the longevity stakes and are no longer alive, so he has modified and redefined his views and advice to those who wish to emulate him.

Much of what he preaches is simple stuff, but he makes a lot of sense. His first “mantra” is to prepare for old age. Don’t ignore it. Be ready to embrace it.  He says that you need to exercise your limbs and lungs regularly to avoid them seizing up. He was still playing tennis when he was 85.  Swimming and long walks are also recommended by him.

He also recommends a regular and vigorous massage routine- both giving (it makes your hands and arms work hard) and receiving. A daily one hour massage is the way to go to keep your body tones in your older years.

Khushwant

On food and drink, he recommends cutting down drastically on all forms of food and drink. This is not just to prevent obesity (or to reduce weight if you are overweight) but to make your body work most effectively in turning meagre rations into energy. For example he starts each morning with a fruit juice, then has scrambled egg on slice of toast. Lunch is a light vegetable South Indian curry. Come evening he has a shot of whiskey before a light tea. The food should be carefully and fully masticated (chewed) in silence to allow better digestion. The amounts on a spoon or fork should be small and not heaped. He says that should never allow yourself to be constipated saying that the stomach is a storehouse of all kinds of ailments. He is quite vociferous on this, and says that he would rather take enemas and laxatives than become constipated and have food non-moving and blocked in your lower intestines. The timing of food and drink intake should be regular. Such as breakfast each and every day at 6.30am, lunch at midday, tea/supper at 7pm.

Smoking is, of course, out, as is anything that has been proved to raise your risk of illness/ill-health.

Turning to mental health he believes that the national Indian motto is one to rule you: Satyamev Jayate- only truth triumphs. He advocates never telling lies, trying to achieve peace of mind- never losing your temper or arguing. He argues that there is joy in giving things away- not necessarily money, but gifts you have made (toys or food for example).

He says that unlike many old people (especially in India) he does not spend long periods immobile in prayer. You can find your god in gardening, helping children with their homework, playing, walking, swimming and other forms of activity be it social or solitary. A sort of “meditation on the move”!

As I turn 60 next year, I shall certainly be trying some of these techniques!

 

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Oldest Animal Was Over Half a Millenium Years Old

Ming, RIP

Ming, RIP

What’s the oldest living animal on the planet? A human? No, the oldest one died recently at 118. An elephant? No 89 years. What about a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands? 255 years old (although there are disputes on this down to some calendar jiggling). How about.. wait for it 405 years old???

A youngster at 255 Years Old!

A youngster at 255 Years Old!

Yep. An animal was brought ashore from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean a few weeks ago that was born when Elizabeth the First was our Queen, and Shakespeare was penning the Merrie Wives of Windsor! Sadly, by the time the scientists undertook experiments and carbon dating to establish its age, the Methuselah Clam had shrugged off its mortal coil. But Help the Aged, the well-known UK charity donated a cool £40k for tests and research to try to find out why a denizen of the seabed south of Iceland managed to exist for more than four centuries. In fact more recent tests at Bangor University in Wales have revised its age and has shown that the Clam was more like 507 years old, putting it back to the times of Henry VII!

It’s a type of  Icelandic clam known as Quahog (Ring a bell Family Guy fans?) and even has been given a name, Ming: It was named after the Chinese Ming dynasty, which was in power when it was alive. Sadly Ming was killed by the Bangor researchers when opening the mollusc’s shell to see how old it was. A sad end for a venerable seabed denizen of the deep.

Cheng Zu, Ming Emperor

Cheng Zu, Ming Emperor

Paul Butler, an Ocean Scientist as Bangor talking to Science Nordic magazine said:

“We got it wrong the first time and maybe we were a bit hasty publishing our findings back then. But we are absolutely certain that we’ve got the right age now.”

Much as a tree’s age can be found by cutting it down and counting its rings,  a bivalve mollusc’s age is calculated by totting up growth rings – the lines left annually on the shell by seasonal variations affecting how quickly they grow.

Ming’s original age had been calculated, wrongly,  by counting the growth rings on the hinge of the clam, but as the creature was so old the rings had crowded together making them difficult to distinguish,  even with a microscope, with more than 500 packed into a space just a few millimetres across.

The new age of 507 years was calculated by instead counting the rings on the shell’s exterior, where they were more evenly spaced.  But in so doing this, one of the world’s oldest animals went up to the Clam Bed in the sky.

Butler told Science Nordic:

“It’s worth keeping in mind that we caught a total of 200 ocean quahogs on our Iceland expedition. Thousands of ocean quahogs are caught commercially every year, so it is entirely likely that some fishermen may have caught quahogs that are as old as or even older than the one we caught.”

Ming’s long life was due to the clam’s incredibly slow metabolism. It’s unlikely that the secret of Ming’s longevity can be usefully transferred to humans. Its DNA is likely to be and good for us, and unless we want to stick around on the seabed doing, well, not very much at all, our metabolism can’t be changed to that of the clam.

Ming RIP

Ming RIP

 

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“Who Wants To Live Forever?”

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Well, from all the scientific research that seems to be going on across the globe, it seems the answer to that is… most of us! From naked mole rats to skin stem cell stimulation it seems like longevity, perhaps even immortality is the next barrier for mankind to burst through.

A naked mole rat held by Dr Chris G Faulkes

But the quote in the title, wasn’t the full quote. For military historians they may well recognise the full quote, as uttered by Marine Sergeant-Major Daniel Joseph Daly. Highly decorated throughout his fighting career, he is famous, more probably infamous, for having said to have yelled, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to the men in his company prior to charging the Germans during the Battle of Belleau Wood in WW1. So he was encouraging his men to grip their courage and charge an enemy position without regard to the fact that they may lose their lives.

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So why do we want to live forever? The scientific and biological research seems to be far ahead of those contemplating the social, economic and environmental consequences of mankind living for far longer, perhaps even for ever. It always makes me laugh when I see in an obituary that someone’s death has been described as “untimely”.  There are very few people who would describe a death as “timely”. Even at the end of a long debilitating illness, most people and families would try to cling on to life, for those few extra seconds before departing into the great unknown.

The average life of man has increased over tens of thousands of years. The average life-span now of man in a developed country in around 80 years old (more in Asia- discuss…). But it has taken an awful long time in evolution to get there, from the dawn of the first homo erectus. But is it evolution? And has it really increased by that much?

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Using measurements from teeth, skulls and bones that have been found, it seems that many early cavemen actually lived to a ripe old age of 30 or beyond. And the main reason that they failed to live longer than that was not some biological evolutionary stuntedness, but simply their susceptibility to disease, lack of food, heat, and of course predators. Remove those obstacles to longevity and it is likely that early man, on average,  could have lived to the age we live to now. So perhaps we have not evolved to live longer, it is just that our circumstances and environment now permit this? No doubt advances in medicine have ensured people don’t die prematurely from accident or disease, but are we actually prolonging man’s innate longevity or merely preventing premature death?

While advances in medicines (a cure for cancer anyone?) are likely to further prevent unnecessary death, it is the actual quest to unlock some secret to longevity and perhaps immortality that intrigues me. Other animals that have been on the planet as long, if not longer, than man, live to approximately the same age as they did tens of thousand of years ago. They have not evolved to live longer, just as I argue that neither has man. So if the biological and scientific tampering with the very heart of man does produce and elixir of longevity, or perhaps even immortality, would the basic DNA of the human not be affected in some way? Is there not some body-clock trigger that would kick in to prevent us living forever? We don’t know, but some commentators argue that just as it is not possible to travel faster than the speed of light, physics and biology will not permit man to cheat death. Is there a “death gene” that simply cannot be by-passed?

Moving on, if we are able to overcome a potential in-built preventative fail-safe mechanism, and live for 200, 300, 400 years or more… How much research has been undertaken and published on the consequences for mankind, and the planet? Back to the quote: Who would want “..to live forever?” on a planet crowded with more and more people who just won’t move on and die and make room for new people. Imagine the conservatism of politics for those who have seen it all before in the hundreds of years they have already lived here? What about food? air? pollution? And what about those of a religious persuasion who consider that man is cheating their God’s will by artificially extending their life beyond three score years and ten? Will they stand idly by as non-believers swell in number?

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Then on a personal level, what happens to our brains, our humanity, when we are faced with the prospect of being around the same people, the same friends and family.. forever? How to spring from bed each morning to embrace a new day that you know will never be your last, or anyone else’s? How to motivate oneself to enjoyment, work, study, development and making new relationships… knowing that they stretch away into infinity? My guess is that self-termination; suicides,  would become the solution for those unable to appreciate the wonder of living forever.

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All food for thought, and probably the kind of thoughts that don’t enter into the minds of scientists hell-bent on “curing” death. Which may not be an illness at all, but the key to man’s continued existence on the planet.

A journey-all journeys- have to have a beginning a middle and an end. Without an end it is not a journey, and there is no purpose in travel. We would become as a painting of soft fruit in a bowl- rotted- still life. And gain a living death by cheating it.

One third  - a project on food waste

 

 

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“Turning off” bad Genes in Cells Could Prolong Life and Cure Cancers

Fat Cells in Adipose Tissue

You know the old saying; you wait ages for a bus and then three come along together? It seems we wait ages for scientific advances in one field or another and suddenly there are a plethora of papers, breakthroughs, new ideas and innovations. In the field of longevity, anti-ageing and even immortality the last year has been a bumper one- and it looks like it’s going to continue into 2014. Perhaps we are about to see some real advances in the next five years? We’ve seen naked mole rat DNA, stem cell stimulation to prevent ageing, and now there’s another declaration: Don’t purchase that life assurance plan just yet!

The spotlight shifts to Israel’s Tel Aviv University where researchers have developed a computer algorithm that predicts which genes can be switched off to create the same anti-ageing effect as calorie restriction.  The findings of the research were reported recently  in the leading journal on biology and associated fields; “Nature Communications. . The findings and research, if built upon, could lead to the development of new drugs to treat ageing.

Traditional  research in this field has looked for ways to kill off bad cells, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy and radiation are ways to treat cancerous cells and stop them multiplying. But they involve the destruction of the cells, which can leave a patient invalided or unable to perform certain functions that they could before the cancer took hold. The new research looks at ways of transforming a diseased cell into a healthy one. No steamhammer to crack a walnut, but a subtle terraforming of a cell from being a bad’ un to being a good ‘un.

Prof Ruppin

This may seem similar to other recent discoveries, but the Tel Aviv laboratory of Professor Eytan Ruppin (pictured above) is a leader in this growing field of something called “genome-scale metabolic modeling” or GSMMs.  Ruppin and his researchers use mathematical equations and computers, to understand how GSMMs describe the metabolism, or life-sustaining, processes of living cells. Without getting too technical the algorithm MTA can take information about any two metabolic states and predict the environmental or genetic changes required to go from one state to the other. Such as diseased or non-functioning, to restored and active. “Gene expression” is the measurement of the expression level of individual genes in a cell, and genes can be “turned off” in various ways to prevent them from being expressed in the cell.

The study used yeast.  And the algorithm predicted how old yeast could be made to look like new yeast.  Why yeast? Because it is the most widely used genetic model as so much of its DNA is preserved in humans. Now you know!

By turning off two genes in real yeast, the researchers found that the yeast’s lifespan could be extended, significantly. By up to nearly a third. While currently there is no way to verify the results in humans, many of these crucial genes are known to extend lifespan in not only yeast, but worms, and mice. That’s where the research will go next- tests on mice.

The glittering prize at the end of this road would be an extended lifespan for we humans, and for finding cures for metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and of course, the big one, cancer. And maybe extending skin life so that you need never worry about wrinkles, crow’s feet and a saggy neck!

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To Stem Ageing: Could Skin Stem Cells be the Solution?

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The secret to the fountain of youth lies in awakening ‘sleeping’ stem cells in the skin, according to new research.  We know that stem cells are supercells that can control the creation of other cells. They are crucial to repairing damaged skin, but as we get older these stem cells seems to suffer a regeneration forgetfulness and allow the skin to become wrinkled and lose its elasticity. British and U.S. scientists say the breakthrough may open the door to the development of better beauty treatments to zap wrinkles and saggy skin for good.

As you may have guessed this study and report was sponsored by skin product manufacturers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the findings are iffy.  The University of Sheffield did the research, in conjunction with well-known Olay skin cream makers Procter & Gamble. It was published in Nature Scientific Reports. The study stretched (like skin?) over three years and tested the three most popular considerations and hypotheses about skin regeneration.
SHANNONLI
Engineer Dr Xinshan Li (pictured above) said:
“‘The theory which seems to fit best says skin has a population of “sleeping” stem cells, which sit in the lowest layer of the skin but do not constantly divide to make new cells. However, these sleeping cells can be called into action if the skin is damaged, or if the numbers of other types of more mature skin cells decrease, ensuring the skin can be constantly regenerated under all conditions.

Co author of the report Dr Arun Upadhyay, a computational biologist at Procter & Gamble, said: ‘

“These models permit exploration of hypotheses in very short periods of time, relative to the lab based bench work. The ability to follow virtual skin models over decades may be especially important to skin cancer research. Environmental damage caused by ultraviolet radiation or chronic wounding can cause sleeping cells to harbour the mutations which cause skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, a very aggressive type of skin cancer.”

Simply put the trick then is to stimulate “good” stem cells whilst keeping mutant stem cells latent (lest they cause cancers). While the research has a long way to go to fruition to create a pill or cream that can activate the best stem cells and cause them to regenerate “old” skin for many many years, while leaving the bad stem cells dormant, this is an important first step. A road map has been created and all that’s required is time, energy, money and innovation to travel that road to a successful conclusion. And to skin that regenerates on demand; surely an elixir of eternal youthfulness and longevity as was found in Sir Rider-Haggard’s character in his book “She”  in Shangri La?

SHE

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Ingested Sensors are Coming!

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Just as “wearable technology” is becoming “de rigeur”, with cameras in hats, wrist watch internet computers, and sensor/computer glasses with built in sat-nav, be prepared for the next logical step: under-skin technology.  Yep,  while it may seem like it has come from a Michael Crichton sci-fi story, we will soon all be able to have sensors and micro-chips inside out bodies. For some people it’s here already. Think pacemakers for those with heart disease; the latest models can be scanned by clinicinas to access information about how the assisted heart is performing.

Picture courtesy bc.co.uk

Picture courtesy bc.co.uk

“We are going to see more sensors everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before those migrate under our skin into our bodies,” said Peter Eckersley, the lead technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (photo below).

Peter Eckersley

But with advances in miniaturisation, data collection, storage and access, it’s probably only round the corner when a tiny probe in the body could supply you and your doctors with a mass of information about your body’s functions. Clearly this would have great advantages in helping to treat chronic illnesses. You could go to your own PC or lap-top and allows it to pick up from your body-sensor relevant information about your condition, and send it via the internet to a clinician who can  monitor the real-time information and let you know what’s happening and why within your own body. No more having to go in to a hospital and wait to be hooked up to a machine.

The types of information that can be collected from ingested sensors include how the patient’s body reacts to drug regimes, the patient’s dose timing and other physiological responses like heart rate, activity levels and skin temperature. In ten years’ time, some experts are saying that a third of people in developed countries could have sensors inside their bodies, either temporarily or permanently.

However as with any new breakthrough, there could be side effects- not those that affect your health, but those that affect you pocket. Could you imagine a time when health insurance companies refuse to give you beneficial premiums unless you are prepared to have ingested sensors and permit the companies to have access, and perhaps even own, the data about your own body? How would the privacy protectors feel about that?

With new advances in technology it’s important that there are similar advances in responsibility for making sure that the advances are used only for the benefit of mankind, and that by allowing a mini-probe to be sited within you, you have not surrendered your individuality, privacy and soul to others!

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The Naked Mole Rat: The Key to Increasing the Human Life-span?

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The naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber)  is an unappealing un-cuddly subterranean rodent with wrinkled hairless skin, virtually blind, and large sharp curved upper and lower incisors. It lives all its life below the surface of the earth, has never seen or felt the sun, and often lives in toxic conditions with the sort of lack of oxygen and CO2 concentrations that would kill all other mammals.

For its size, its life-span should be 2-3 years.  For all other mammals the life size is related too size, so the bigger the mammal the longer they live- ergo elephants and whales. But the mole rat lives to a ripe old age of 30 plus. Not only that, a mole rat has never been found that has had cancer, and is almost impervious to disease. It also doesn’t age. A 6 month old Mole Rat looks no different from one in its final year. It is also impervious to pain.

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Scientists are studying the mole rat to see if they can find anything in its make-up, DNA, life-style, diet or lack of exposure to the outside world that makes it such a survivor. If the replication of the naked mole rat characteristics could be harnessed and applied to humans we could expect to live up to 6 times longer than now, without ageing- that’s nearly 500 years!

One just hopes that it doesn’t require us to shave all our skin every day,  live underground, and feed on a  diet of plant tubers!

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Of Mice and Men…and Reversing Ageing!

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While one may want to argue the merits of living forever, or the burden that will fall on the young as the old get older and live longer, but who would not jump at the chance for a magic pill to stop or even reverse the ageing process? Oh to regain that lost youth (and retain our experience)  that, as Oscar Wilde said was “wasted on the young”.

Researchers in the US (Harvard University)  and Australia (University of New South Wales) anticipate that an anti-ageing product can be trialled on humans in 2014, following success in reversing the ageing process in muscles in laboratory mice.

It involves a process of restoring the efficiency of cells: Two-year-old mice were given a compound over a week, moving back the key indicators of ageing to that of a six-month-old mouse. Researchers said this was the equivalent of making a 60-year-old person feel like a 20-year-old:  As a man nearly at his sixtieth the birthday, the idea of springing out of bed one morning, cycling to the bowling alley and clocking up strikes and spares galore like I did 40 years ago is somewhat appealing!

Anti-Aging

But if successful, the compound may not just reverse ageing, but also reverse and roll-back (and therefore treat) diseases such as cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Without getting too technical, the research concentrated on an area of cells, called mitochondria, which produce energy. Over time, the vital communication between this area and the cell nucleus degrades, leading to the ageing process. Researchers injected a chemical called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, which reduces in the body as we age. The addition of this compound led to the breakthrough reversal in the ageing of the mice. The process was also rapid- almost overnight the reversal of ageing began. The compound is also based on something that naturally occurs in the body and so no or few side effects are expected. It may not allow us all to live till we’re 200, but will mean we will be healthier in our later life.

As always there’s a cloud to ruin an otherwise azure summer sky. This one is cost. The one-a-day magic pill made from the compound for a human would cost about $50,000. Imagine then a world where rich people live longer, healthier and presumably happier than the rest of us. Wait a minute doesn’t that occur already?!!

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“Of mice and men” is of course from the John Steinbeck novel, which in turn took the line from the penultimate stanza of Scot’s poet Robbie Burns’ “Ode to a Mouse”:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

 

 

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The Kraken Wakes…

Giant octopus attacking a sailing ship in medieval times

..or at least seems to be in the news a lot this year.  There have been tales of ships pulled down to their watery doom by a kraken; a sort of octopus/squid/whale hybrid of massive proportions- as visualised in the Pirates of the Caribbean-

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Could it have been that a dinosaur-sized aquatic creature survived the meteor that wiped out its landlubber cousins and survived through to the ascent of man, occasionally plaguing their ocean-crossings?

Professor Mark McMenamin, a paleontologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, thinks so. He claims to have discovered markings on the remains of sea creatures which proves that an ancient, giant species of octopus – like the mythical Kraken – was behind their demise, and supports the claims of human mariner survivors to have witnessed ships succumbing to its tentacled overtures.

Prof McMenamin says his evidence of the Kraken, which would have been up to 100 feet long, comes from the vicious injures it inflicted on the giant marine dinosaur reptile ichthyosaurus, either by drowning the creature or snapping its neck. He claims he can tell by examining the placement and sucker markings on bones.

The Professor also noticed, because of the arrangement, that they had been carried away from where they were killed, leading him to think they had been dragged to the Kraken’s lair and dumped in the pattern of the mysterious creature’s tentacles in what is known as a ‘midden’ – a pile of remains accumulated by the beast.

Could the Kraken still exists? In another report, a few months ago, scientists filmed the first video of a live giant squid swimming some 2,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The footage was shown on the Discovery Channel and is due to be repeated over this Christmas and the New Year.

Image: Still image taken from video shows a giant squid near Ogasawara islands

The largest squid ever caught was 55 foot long (see photo below). The one filmed (see above) was at least 100 foot long. While something that size may not be able to pull an ocean-going galleon down to its doom, a smaller craft such as a dingy or small yacht may not be safe from its suckered embrace!

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tunity like this.”

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Are you Sitting Comfortably? The Universe is about to End!

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Well we may all be congratulating ourselves that on 21 December last year the world didn’t end, but whereas the end of the Mayan calendar didn’t wink us out of existence, the reversing of the Big Bang may. And it could be happening sooner than you think.

It’s been long thought that the expansion of the universe that took place after the Big Bang (with the red shift effect- everything moving away from everything else) was slowing down and would eventually stop. And then go into reverse, contracting back to a central point when another Big Bang might occur.

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It used to be thought that this scenario would happen millions of years hence, but physicists now say it could happen sooner rather than later. It’s a team at the University of Southern Denmark that have calculated that a universal “phase transition” could start at any point after every particle in existence becomes “extremely heavy”.

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It’s all rather complicated and involves the Higgs Boson “God” particle- the one that gives matter mass, shifts to a lower vale than before making all elementary particles inside the field becoming super-heavy and causing as chain reaction that would pull apart the universe at the seams.

Let’s hear from Jens Frederik Colding at the University’s Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology:

“Many theories and calculations predict such a phase transition– but there have been some uncertainties in the previous calculations. Now we have performed more precise calculations, and we see two things: Yes, the universe will probably collapse, and: A collapse is even more likely than the old calculations predicted. The phase transition will start somewhere in the universe and spread from there. Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe. Maybe a collapse is starting right now right here. Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years.”

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Hardly precise measurements- no need to cancel getting next year’s diary. And there are counter arguments. Some scientists say there may be other undiscovered particles in the universe that would prevent this reaction occurring. So in summary, business as usual. Probably.

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E-Formula 1 is Coming!

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For over a hundred years, the world of motor racing, and Formula 1 has meant noise, fumes, speed, excitement, thrills, spills, and merchandising. Imagine all that, but without the noise and fumes. Can it be done? I recently saw a prototype GT racing car speed round part of the old motor racing circuit at Crystal Palace, South London. It was silent. It was, well, weird. I could hear the bloke next to me saying under his breath “t’ain’t right…”

But there could be a bright future for electric cars to race thanks to support from one Leonardo DiCaprio, actor, film star… and now it seems, e-race enthusiast. The 39-year-old star has teamed up with Venturi Automobiles owner Gildo Pallanca Pastor to create the team, which will be based in Monaco, where the “real” Formula 1 takes place each year.

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Ok. Electric cars are hardly cutting edge science and technology, but they have an image problem. They are dullsville.  This may just change things. Starting next year, Formula E will feature battery powered racing cars, similar in design to today’s Formula 1 cars. The aim is to attract more car buyers into the electric vehicle market and to speed up development of E cars by manufacturers. It’s to be an international  Formula One, with ten of the world’s leading cities, including Beijing, Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Buenos Aires, all to host races.

It’s also not being sneered at by the established teams; Renault and McLaren, as well as technology group Qualcomm, tyre manufacturer Michelin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group are all investing in the series.

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DiCaprio, who has long been recognised for his green credentials and environmental work, said:

“The future of our planet depends on our ability to embrace fuel-efficient, clean-energy vehicles.”

Of course they may have to be fitted with! artificial engine sound creation devices to make them sound like the real macho fossil-fuelled Formula 1 engines cars! And will they have real drivers behind the wheel, or robots controlled from the pit-lane?

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Are We Alone in the Universe?

Goldilocks-planet

The universe is a big place.  In the 6th century BC Anaximander suggested that other worlds were endlessly forming and disintegrating in a universe of infinite size. In the 5th century BC Democritus, a Greek philosopher argued that there were countless other worlds containing countless other lives. Into the medieval ages and beyond, telescopes became more and more powerful, yet still the edge of the universe could not be found.

Bust of Democritus

Bust of Democritus

Today we can watch stars forming in the nebulae of dust and gas, and from the Hubble telescope a snapshot of 10,000 galaxies- each containing billions of stars.  And the theory is we are still only seeing 95% of what there is out there. Statistical extrapolations for the 1000 potentially “Goldilocks planets already identified lead to the conclusion that there are about 20 billion earth-like planets in our galaxy.

Yet… we have never found evidence of extraterrestrial activity. It was eloquently put by Enrico Fermi in his book “5 billion years of solitude: “Where the hell are they?!”

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

If we assume that there are many planets capable of having intelligent life spawn on them, and that those planets will allow civilisations to develop for at least as long as our human ones, then why indeed have we not had any contact from them? One theory is that the distances between earth and other earth-like planets are simply to vast to be traversed. If we can never travel faster than the speed of light, and there aren’t thinks like wormholes in space, then we should resign ourselves to the fact that even if we are not alone, we will never meet another extra-terrestrial species.

The other theory is more interesting. They are avoiding us. For whatever reasons (and maybe we don’t look very nice as a species from our history) intelligent life out there has no wish to contact us. Perhaps they consider that species should rise and fall without any foreign intervention. Perhaps they are afraid of us. Perhaps they just wish to make us remain in splendid isolation, less we taint others with our warlike tendencies. Maybe they have evolved to another level of life where physical bodies have been dispensed with and we would not be able to see or understand them even if they were skimming past earth.

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Whatever the reasons, we still spend a lot of time, money and effort in trying to see if there is intelligent life beyond earth. Perhaps as science develops apace in the next few hundred years we will have made some progress towards extra-terrestrial contact. Or perhaps we are just doomed to having another 5 billion years of solitude.

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A Nutty Way to Cheat Death?

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Eat nuts, and live longer. That seems to be the outcome of a large study supported by National Institutes of Health and a research grant from the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. One of the key findings was that people who ate a daily handful of nuts were 20 percent less likely to die from any cause over a 30-year period than those who didn’t consume nuts. And this conclusion isn’t from a bunch of wobbly pseudo-scientists; the people who were engaged to do the spadework were  say from the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital  and the Harvard School of Public Health. Their report was published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine.

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The research also found that regular nut-eaters were slimmer than those who didn’t eat nuts. It was previously believed that heavy nut-eaters were prone to obesity. The report also looked at the protective effect of nut-eating on specific causes of death.

Charles S Fuchs, the Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Centre at Dana-Furber, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the report , said;

“The most obvious benefit was a reduction of 29 percent in deaths from heart disease — the major killer of people in America. But we also saw a significant reduction — 11 percent — in the risk of dying from cancer.”

The reduction in mortality was similar for both peanuts (a legume, or ground nut) and for tree nuts — walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, pistachios, and pine nuts.

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What about previous studies on the effects of nuts on life and death?

Several previous studies had found an association between increasing nut consumption and a lower risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, gallstones, and diverticulitis. Higher nut consumption also has been linked to reductions in cholesterol levels, oxidative stress, inflammation, adiposity, and insulin resistance. Some small studies have linked an increase of nuts in the diet to lower total mortality in specific populations.

As part of the study, participants in the studies filled out detailed food questionnaires every two to four years. With each questionnaire, participants were asked to estimate how often they consumed nuts in a serving size of one ounce. A typical small packet of peanuts from a vending machine contains one ounce. The researchers found that individuals who ate more nuts were leaner, less likely to smoke, and more likely to exercise, use multivitamin supplements, consume more fruits and vegetables, and (perhaps surprisingly) drink more alcohol. However, the detailed analysis was able to isolate the association between nuts and mortality independently of these other factors.

Ying Bao of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and first author of the report said:

“In all these analyses, the more nuts people ate, the less likely they were to die over the 30-year follow-up period. Those who ate nuts less than once a week had a 7 percent reduction in mortality; once a week, 11 percent reduction; two to four times per week, 13 percent reduction; five to six times per week, 15 percent reduction; and seven or more times a week, a 20 percent reduction in death rate.”

One thing is for certain, there’s always going to be a bowl of nuts on my coffee table from now on!

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The Haunted Launch Pad

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It’s a sombre, desolated place. Weeds growing between the concrete cracks, a wind that whines through the remaining structure that was once LC-34.  People visit it regularly, read the two plaques, and bow their heads in prayer or sorrow.  This is launch pad 34, the pride of Cape Canveral, Florida in the early sixties. It was primarily used to launch the giant Saturn 1 and Saturn 1B rockets heaven-wards.

So why then do people claim that they hear not just the mournful wind, but the screams of men? Why have the authorities stopped official tours to the location? Why do certain groups want to have the place exorcised?

The answer lies in what happened on the evening of Friday 27 January 1976. Three of the United States’ finest astronauts were aboard for Project Apollo: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. First off Grissom complained of a foul odour- like sour buttermilk. Air samples showed nothing wrong.  Roger Chaffee climbed aboard, taking the right-side seat, and Ed White took the centre seat. The command module’s hatch was closed, the Saturn IB boost cover was sealed and pure oxygen was steadily pumped into the cabin. Their fate was sealed.

There were lots of minor problems, mainly with the communications and the countdown was stopped a number of times. Suddenly the controllers noticed the crew’s biomedical readings jump. This was a tell-tale indicator of increased oxygen flow in their space suits. At the same time, around 6:30:54 pm, other sensors registered a brief power surge aboard Apollo 1. Ten seconds at 6:31:04 later came the first cry and only from the spacecraft that contained language. It was the voice of  Roger Chaffee. The word was “fire”. The other sounds were distressing screams as the men expired.

Five days before on  22 January 1967, shortly before flying to the Cape for a ‘plugs-out’ launch pad test, Grissom plucked a lemon from a tree in his Houston backyard, flew it to Florida in his baggage and hung it over the Block 1 spacecraft’s hatch. He had no confidence in the mission.  It was a combination of  an “atmosphere” in the cabin of pure oxygen and an immovable hatch, that was coupled with a mysterious ignition source, never traced, that would spell incineration for Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a chamber of death.

Many visitors, relatives and witnesses to the tragedy, including NASA employees, say a weird feeling comes over all who approach the now-abandoned launch pad and some habe heard the mercifully  brief dying screams of the astronauts, and the single word “fire”. As the space programme moved, LC-34 was closed to the public. No one wanted to be reminded of one of the darkest days at Cape Canaveral, and relatives didn’t want to risk hearing the screams of their loved ones each year when visiting the shrine to their ambition, and the place of their death.

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Did Aliens Kill off the Dinosaurs?

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While the generally supported theory is that a freak asteroid hit lead to the demise of the dinoasurs, alternative theories suggest that it was no accident.

Consider the likelihood that there is intelligent life on other planets. Most scientists now think that even if life is as rare as hen’s teeth, the number of stars  makes it likely that there will be Goldilocks planets circling some of them, and that some of those planets are a lot older than earth. It is also feasible that a new form of propulsion might have been discovered by some of those alien races that enable them to traverse the gulf of space and develop interstellar travel. Be it some form of ion drive, or wormhole jumping, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that these advanced aliens came upon the Solar System many years ago:

They see a young world that has almost arrested development. Dinosaurs have been the dominant species on the planet for million of years. Evolution is so painfully slow, that it is unlikely they will ever devlop into intelligent life even given many more millions of years. Intervention?

Some might argue that an advanced alien race would have a “no interference”  policy when coming across inhabited worlds, much as wildlife documentary makers don’t interfere when a lion brings down a gazelle, or a pack of hyenas ambushes a baby giraffe. But what if they have some higher, more lofty goal? What if they believe that they should encourage the development of intelligent life on planets in the multiverse? It might be some quasi-religious drive that spurs this apparent altruism towards giving worlds a helping hand towards more advanced development. Rather like in the film 2001:A space Odyssey, they trigger a rush in progress of apes to man- except that this race visited earth long before the mammals, at the time of the dinosaurs. And perhaps they realised that mammals would never become dominant, and that dinosaurs could never develop into intelligent life. What to do?

Rightly or wrongly they decided to end the dinosaurs. Deflect a metoer to cause extermination of almost all life, but allowing mammals a chance to flourish. Did that really happen? Did aliens play God? No evidence, but it’s a plausible story.  One wonders what we earthlings would do if we developed interstellar travel. Would we just leave a planet and its inhabitants to evolve (or not) or would we try to encourage creation in our own image?  Well, we can put that question on hold until after we’ve developed a practical means to travel to the stars. Unles there’s life on Mars….

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The Memento Mori Watch – Remember You Will Die

Memento Cover

If you are still, like so many of us, blind to the fact that our lives are limited and short, then this may be the watch for you. It is to remind us that we too will die. The watch is a link to the venerable tradition of the memento mori – an object designed to remind us that life is brief and that we should seize the moment while we are here. It is designed to make us aware of the time we have and that we are indeed here to use that time wisely. Let’s not be ignorant of the fact of death. We don’t like talking about it and yet everyone will sooner or later die. If you wear the watch, then you will most likely enjoy your life just a little bit more!

 

The watch can be bought here

 

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The Lightning Conductors

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They say lightning never strikes the same place twice – and we all may think that’s probably not true- but how about lightning striking a person twice?  Very rare, yes? Three times? Unheard of??  Four times? No No No!  You’d be forgiven for thinking that you must be some kind of human lightning conductor, Does he wear metallic underwear and walk around in the open with a large metal rod in the air, with a T-shirt saying “strike me again-I dare you!”

The country is South America, and the man has been treated in hospitals there for four separate lightning strikes to his body. And he’s still alive to tell the tale. But unsurprisingly he tends not to go out in thundery weather…

While we’re on about acts of God- well, Mother Nature- what about the time when an entire Congolese Football Team was killed while playing a game. Even more startling was that the opposing team went back to the changing rooms unscathed. Perhaps it was something to do with their rubber-soled Adidas soccer boots?  Kinshasa daily newspaper L’Avenir said local opinion – known to believe in charms and spells – was divided over whether someone had cursed the team. The two sides were drawing 1-1 in the match in eastern Kasai Province when the lightning struck the visiting team.

Then there’s the incredible report  of a Croatian motorcyclist who got a lightning bolt to the penis while stopping for a roadside pee.  Wow, that must have been some whack-off!

With more people in the world and climate change bringing more electric storms, expect to see more tales of human lightning conductors.

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Hair Loss? Researchers Re-Grow Hair In Mice, Offering Hope For Hair Loss

Mouse with hair

Researchers found a way to regenerate hair growth using stem cells.
Here is a step-by-step simplification of the process the researchers used:

1. They removed a strip of skin from the back of the head (where hair is still growing)

2. From the strip they extracted dermal papillae cells, which contain genetic instructions for growing new hair.

3. They grew copies of the dermal papillae cells in a three-dimensional tissue culture. (The tissue came from infant foreskins discarded after circumcisions, a fact that many news reports chose to highlight.)

4. During the cell culture process, they turned the dish to foster clumping of the cells.
Once the scientists had the newly grown skin tissue complete with human papilla cells, they grafted it onto mice. Five of the seven mice used in the experiment experienced hair growth that lasted at least six weeks. The hair was then tested and found to contain the DNA of the original human donor.

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Artificial Blood Is Nearly Reality

Artificial blood

Avid True Blood fans are well aware of the importance of synthetic blood, but even without considering Vampires, In the United States alone, a transfusion is required every two seconds. Scientists in Romania have come close to a substance that may well replace blood very soon. The blood is composed of expected ingredients like water, salt, and albumin, but it also contains proteins from an unlikely source: marine worms. The iron protein, hemerythrin, is responsible for oxygen transport and storage.

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