Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Another entry in the Public Address Medical Journal

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  • B Jones,

    I had a form 1 teacher with a guitar and a taste for top 20 hits. Back in the days before the internet, there was plenty of scope for eggcorns, though - Thorn in My Side had a line about "just put down the phone" rather than "shiver to the bone"; I Knew You Were Waiting had a bit about "when I paint the walls of disappointment", instead of thinking of all the disappointments.

    Before that, we had several waiata, lots of songs about rainbows, and Sailing Away. My sister's class had Lily the Pink.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Tim Michie,

    It'd be a bit like asking why gravity happens.

    Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory. Oldy-goody.

    Auckward • Since Nov 2006 • 614 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Nobody is really asking why it happens, are they?

    You mean apart from any researcher who wants to try to get to grips with superbugs and various other nasties that are evolving away from being affected by pennecillin and the like?

    Proper medical research using proper scientific theorising, y'see :)

    Evolution as theory and fact

    It'd be a bit like asking why gravity happens

    Well, there's plenty of debate around that, too.

    And plenty of money being spent trying to track down the elusive Bos'n Higgs and his mate Graviton, who've been on unauthorised shore leave for quite a while now.

    And I thought we had a pretty good idea of the how: natural selections of replicators, copying errors that give certain organisms a reproductive advantage. No?

    But the bazillion dollar question is why

    Why does life not just make a perfect copy? OK, we have a theory, as you have pointed out - reproductive advantage. But how did that come about? How did life know to introduce an error?

    Which leads to the really big questions: What is life? How did it come into existence? Why are we animate, and not just inanimate collections of cells? Why are we more than the sum of our parts?

    Who are we, and how did we come to be?

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    You mean apart from any researcher who wants to try to get to grips with superbugs and various other nasties that are evolving away from being affected by pennecillin and the like?

    Proper medical research using proper scientific theorising, y'see :)

    Are they really asking themselves why it happens? What good could that do? If they work out how to inhibit it, it will be ultimately because they've somehow isolated how it happens, not why. I'm confused, also because then the link you give about evolution as theory and fact says nothing about whys.

    Why does life not just make a perfect copy? OK, we have a theory, as you have pointed out - reproductive advantage. But how did that come about? How did life know to introduce an error?

    Reproduction is a messy process, even for a bug, its imperfections are consistent with the elements of casuality that we find in other physical phenomena everywhere else in nature. And of course the vast majority of mutations are disadvantegeous, so there is no evolutionary advantage in the process being error-prone per se; in other words, if mutation itself was a characteristic that organisms were somehow able to lose, they would have by now. But we can't reproduce perfectly in the same way as we cannot mutate into having X-ray vision. Physics and physiology still apply.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • JackElder,

    ... The Wiggles. BTW, am I the only one that finds it a little weird that, in a world prone to moral panics about child molestation, three rather creepy child-imitators are Australia's all-time top-grossing act?

    No offence, but how much Wiggles have you watched? For one thing, there's four of them. Plus, the major strength of the Wiggles is that they don't imitate children - they are clearly depicting adults, who occasionally interact with children. And I have it on good authority that their special Wiggly gesture (extend forefingers on each arm, make rapid back and forth hand gestures) is intended specifically so that you can always see where their hands are when they're having photos with young fans.

    I wouldn't sit down and watch The Wiggles for protracted periods by myself. But of the child-targeted media out there, I personally really rate the Wiggles as one of the better franchises. They beat the hell out of, say, Hi-5, who are genuinely a bit creepy and are sailing a little too close to the sexualisation of the presenters for my liking.

    Don't mind me, I'm still hacked off about the upcoming redesign of Dora the Explorer...

    Wellington • Since Mar 2008 • 708 posts Report Reply

  • JackElder,

    Reproduction is a messy process, even for a bug, its imperfections are consistent with the elements of casuality that we find in other physical phenomena everywhere else in nature. And of course the vast majority of mutations are disadvantegeous, so there is no evolutionary advantage in the process being error-prone per se; in other words, if mutation itself was a characteristic that organisms were somehow able to lose, they would have by now.

    A better argument is that imperfect reproduction is a good way of ensuring a range of physical characteristics within a population. Within a population, as long as the median physiological characteristics of the population cope nicely with the environment, you're fine. Outliers (individuals with atypical physiologies) will usually be less successful at reproducing, as you note. But if the environment changes, the presence of outliers enables the population as a whole to converge on the form most advantageous to the new environment.

    Or: you don't want perfect, asexual reproduction all the time, because you need some variation in the population in case the environment changes. Yes, severe mutation is likely to be severely disadvantageous; but minor mutation isn't likely to be bred out too quickly.

    This is just a point about how a minor degree of mutation can be adaptive when considered at a population level. Mind you, it's astonishing what's adaptive when you look at it at a population level. ;)

    Wellington • Since Mar 2008 • 708 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    A better argument is that imperfect reproduction is a good way of ensuring a range of physical characteristics within a population.

    Evolution doesn't care about the population, nor about long term surviva of the species, it cares about the single organism's ability to reproduce one more time. Since it's statistically better for the individual not to mutate (most mutations are bad for ya), it increases your chances of reproduction. Hence if it was somehow possible for a "stop mutating" mutation to develop, it would give an advantage to the carriers, and soon enough nobody would mutate anymore. But there is nothing that happens perfectly and always identically in nature, not even asexual reproduction is mutation-free.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    I personally really rate the Wiggles as one of the better franchises.

    I'm just saying: Yo Gabba Gabba. It is rad. Biz Markie teaches you how to beatbox.

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    Evolution doesn't care about the population

    We get no love even from abstract ideas?

    Hence if it was somehow possible for a "stop mutating" mutation to develop, it would give an advantage to the carriers, and soon enough nobody would mutate anymore.

    Until their failure to mutate led to them all dying out from their environment changing or something.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    No offence, but how much Wiggles have you watched? For one thing, there's four of them. Plus, the major strength of the Wiggles is that they don't imitate children - they are clearly depicting adults, who occasionally interact with children.

    You got me on the numbers - if only I'd taken the time to remember the colours. As it happens, I've been subjected to enough Wiggles to find them annoyingly smarmy - though, as you note, less so than their many imitators.

    What bugs me is the way their franchise is protected against even well-meant parody, such as the group of volunteer firefighters at Ararat in Victoria a few years back, who let it be known that they were preparing a "Giggles" skit as part of a fundraiser for bushfire victims. The Wiggles' lawyers served them with a cease and desist order, along with a demand to surrender their costumes. Intimidated by such formidable legal clout they quickly complied. I find that downright creepy.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4593 posts Report Reply

  • Stewart,

    Evolution doesn't care about the population, nor about long term surviva of the species, it cares about the single organism's ability to reproduce one more time.

    Evolution is actually a process without a care in the world. It is not a directed process so it has no over-riding direction; it tends to be reflected in the survival of individuals with traits that better suit them to the environment in which they find themselves.

    It annoys me that some people see humans as 'the pinnacle of evolution' rather than just a side-effect of cumulative selective pressures. We are just not that special*

    *PAS readers & posters excepted, natch

    Te Ika A Maui - Whakatane… • Since Oct 2008 • 577 posts Report Reply

  • Mike Graham,

    @Jack - couldn't agree more with what you said about the Wiggles and Hi-5. I didn't know about the re-design of Dora, but it was a favourite of my daughter.
    [Disclaimer: I've been to a live Wiggles concert in addition to watching both Wiggles & Hi-5 on TV!]

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 206 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    I have to own up and admit that the very brief "I'm a cow" song on an early Wiggles Video (Big Red Car possibly?) is one of my favourite songs ever.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • JackElder,

    Evolution doesn't care about the population, nor about long term surviva of the species,

    Evolution doesn't care any more than gravity does. ;)

    it cares about the single organism's ability to reproduce one more time

    No, what makes the difference is an organism's ability to have offspring that survive to be able reproduce themselves.

    ence if it was somehow possible for a "stop mutating" mutation to develop, it would give an advantage to the carriers, and soon enough nobody would mutate anymore.

    Only if the environment remained static. As soon as the environment changes - and the one thing you can guarantee is, the environment will change - a perfectly asexual reproducing being is going to be at a relative disadvantage to an imperfectly reproducing one with a greater variation in the population. Adaptation is inter-generational rather than intra-generational; the environmental change applies selection pressure to the population, and members more suited to the new environment gain a comparative advantage in survival/reproduction.

    Plus: there's no such thing as absolute advantage/disadvantage in nature; it's all about how you're doing relative to all other organisms competing for the same resources. If everyone's the same, it's basically going to be a lottery; if everyone's just a little bit different, you can expect small relative advantages to be reflected in genetic change over time.

    So I'm arguing that a purely asexual reproduction isn't adaptive. Even species that can reproduce asexually (say, most plants) also usually reproduce sexually, as it's advantageous to have some variation within the population.

    [Disclaimer: I've been to a live Wiggles concert in addition to watching both Wiggles & Hi-5 on TV!]

    We saw the Wiggles earlier this year. Best atmosphere at a concert I've been to in years. Standout moment was my five-year old turning to me in astonishment and saying "Daddy! They're REAL!"

    Wellington • Since Mar 2008 • 708 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    No, what makes the difference is an organism's ability to have offspring that survive to be able reproduce themselves.

    It's not what drives evolution though. According to the theory at least - it's natural selection of replicators, not natural selection of replicators one generation down the line. Not sure where you got that from - and I'm not saying sarcastically, I'd like to know where you got that from. Perhaps I misunderstand you or the theory.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Are they really asking themselves why it happens? What good could that do?

    Gio, you're missing the point.

    Asking 'why does X happen?' is the fundamental scientific starting point.

    Once we know why X happens, we can start to do something useful with that knowledge - we can apply it so that we act on our environment, and not the other way around.

    Take gravity. We know it happens. If I drop something, it will accelerate towards the centre of the earth at 9.81 m/s/s. We know this to always be true. But we don't understand the mechanism.

    Now, if those chaps in the white coats would actually pull finger, we could go some way towards understanding the mechanism, and using that knowledge, develop something of use. Like, say, that hoverbike I've been waiting 30 years for.

    Superbugs, as another example. We are always reacting - we are always one step behind.

    We develop a new antibiotic which kills most of them. The 10% which are resistant evolve and become the dominant strain. Process starts again. We are always on the back foot. If we understand the mechanisms of their evolution better, maybe we can get a jump on them.

    But it's not even a journey of a thousand miles we're starting with these single steps - it's effectively infinite.

    So you say

    If they work out how to inhibit it, it will be ultimately because they've somehow isolated how it happens, not why.

    Exactly. But the knowledge of 'how' will be one more step towards the 'why'.

    if mutation itself was a characteristic that organisms were somehow able to lose, they would have by now

    But why does it happen, or not happen, at all? Why are we animate, and not just a random collection of non-animate chemical compounds?

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Asking 'why does X happen?' is the fundamental scientific starting point.

    Once we know why X happens, we can start to do something useful with that knowledge - we can apply it so that we act on our environment, and not the other way around.

    Really? I'm kind of at a loss here. I used to study physics (I sucked, but let's not focus on that) and this is the first I hear about scientists being interested in why gravity - for instance - works, as opposed to how it works. We'd like to know what unseen forces are involved, but it's still part of description, it won't tell us a reason - reason in itself is metaphysical. Similarly, we'd like to know what happened in the millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second after the big bang. What happened, and how, not why.

    What answer could there possibly be to "why" viruses mutate? They do, if there was a way of stopping them from doing it it would still be part of how that process works.

    Unless we have a different understanding of the meaning of the words. I inhale asbestos, I get cancer. That's why, in a sense, but it's also how: what it is in those asbestos fibres that is carcinogenic, how the process works. Apply that to other similar materials in development, you might be able to prevent the introduction of another carginogenic material into our environment.

    So there's a why and a how that are difficult to prise apart. But in the case of evolution, what kind of why are you looking for? What would it look like? Wouldn't that be metaphysical?

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Wouldn't that be metaphysical?

    Yep, that's kind of what I'm clumsily struggling towards.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Favourite science passage from a work of fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Mars):

    About a year later Nirgal and the other children began to figure out how to deal with the days when they were taught by Sax. He would start at the blackboard, sounding like a characterless AI, and behind his back they would roll their eyes and make faces as he droned on about partial pressures or infrared rays. Then one of them would see an opening and begin the game. He was helpless before it. He would say something like, "In nonshivering thermogenesis the body produces head using futile cycles," and one of them would raise a hand and say, "But why, Sax?" and everyone would stare hard at their lectern and not look at each other, while Sax would frown as if this had never happened before, and say, "Well, it creates heat without using as much energy as shivering does. The muscle proteins contract, but instead of grabbing they just slide over each other, and that creates heat."

    Jackie, so sincerely the whole class nearly lost it: "But how?"

    He was blinking now, so fast they almost exploded watching him. "Well, the amino acids in the proteins have broken covalent bonds, and the bonds release what is called bond dissociation energy."

    "But why?"

    Blinking ever harder: "Well, that's just a matter of physics." He diagrammed vigorously on the blackboard: "Covalent bonds are formed when two atomic orbitals merge to form a single bond orbital, occupied by electrons from both atoms. Breaking the bond releases thirty to a hundred kcals of energy."

    Several of them asked, in chorus, "But why?"

    This got him into subatomic physics, where the chain of whys and becauses could go on for a half hour without him ever once saying something they could understand. Finally they would sense they were near the end game. "But why?"

    "Well," going cross-eyed as he tried to backtrack, "atoms want to get to their stable number of electrons, and they'll share electrons when they have to."

    "But why?"

    Now he was looking trapped. "That's just the way atoms bond. One of the ways."

    "But WHY?"

    A shrug. "That's how the atomic force works. That's how things came out-"

    And they would all shout, "in the Big Bang."

    They would howl with glee, and Sax's forehead would knot up as he realized that they had done it to him again.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    Wouldn't that be metaphysical?

    Yep, that's kind of what I'm clumsily struggling towards.

    But isn't metaphysics by definition not the concern of scientists? At least in the current setup, I mean.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Josh Addison,

    Re: "how" vs "why", it sounds a little but like you're phrasing the same question in different ways. Sort of like "Where is X?" vs "What is the location of X?" Same question, different W words ("how" starts with a W for the purposes of this analogy).

    Onehunga, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 298 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Hosking,

    Last time I looked in here the topic was eczema: I come back and its Neil Diamond. Only on PA...

    Re eczema: I've lately discovered myrrh is useful treating my eczema. I have it on the legs - as a kid it was all over my feet and legs, especially in the spring and early summer. The main ointment I recall being used was betnovate – buckets of the slimy stuff. I now see it has a host of side effects listed. Oh well.

    I also used to get it on the scalp but that doesn’t happen so much since my scalp became less of a sweaty rainforest and more like a fairly sparse savannah.

    I’d only ever heard of myrrh in the Bible – and in a Peter Cook sketch about Christmas – but a masseuse recommeonded it to me. She also slipped a bit in the oil she was using on me and didn’t tell me about it until the next visit. It had worked. So no placebo effect there.

    You can either rub it on or stick it in a bath (I do the bath thing, along with Epsom salts, which also help. Its also very relaxing. Deep sleeps.) You can get it in health shops etc. It smells like someone squeezed the juice out of some particuarly soggy bark.

    The benefit wears off after about a week – which is the same as happens with the steroid cream my doc has given me. But the myrrh of course has the advantage of not being a steroid cream.

    On the science/alternative medicne theme – I’m a natural skeptic on most of the alternative stuff but hey, if it works in practice I don’t care that it doesn’t work in theory.

    My other half, who has a first class degree in biochemistry and can’t really be said to have an unscientific outlook on life, sees an osteopath for her fybromyalgia. It helps better than anything else we’ve tried.

    On evolution being proved or not: a biologist friend once explained to me, in great and lengthy detail, that evolution is a theory but natural selection isn’t – it’s a solid scientific fact.

    ...although it may have been the other way round. Not sure now.

    I saw Neil Diamond! At the Houston Rodeo. He was actually kind of great, with a knowing cheesiness. And leather pants.

    This made me (a) laugh and (b) think of Graham Brazier.

    Neil Diamond did some classic 3 minute pop singles until about 1970. Then he tried to be a…not a prog rocker, perhaps a prog popper. Only without the whimsy. And it was never going to work without whimsy.

    I'm guessing someone had been told to include popular songs and so be relevant to the kids but hadn't really thought the whole thing through.

    My primary school supplemented the official song book (‘King of the Road’ was big, I seem to recall) with whatever last year’s ’20 Solid Gold Hits Vol xxx’ was. Which meant ‘Delta Dawnn, wots that flau-wa you have on…’ and ‘Down ba the banks/ of the Oh- High – Oh..’

    Along with selections from Joseph and His Amazing whosamy wotsit.

    We never had to sing 'Sounds of Silence' but in 4th Form we had to study it as a poem, along with 'Eleanor Rigby'. I think some teacher or curriculum setter had a thing for music from 1966.

    South Roseneath • Since Nov 2006 • 830 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    Diamond's in the rough... Golfing a dead horse?
    C'mon Joe - Captain Sunshine is a Neil Diamond song!! : )

    Beyond the Pale(ontologists)...
    Creation Museum visit

    Meat Physics...

    Evolution doesn't care any more than gravity does. ;)

    Gravity sucks!

    Yrs
    Ian Stein
    away with the theories

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7944 posts Report Reply

  • JackElder,

    It's not what drives evolution though. According to the theory at least - it's natural selection of replicators, not natural selection of replicators one generation down the line. Not sure where you got that from - and I'm not saying sarcastically, I'd like to know where you got that from. Perhaps I misunderstand you or the theory.

    True; I guess I'm talking about the broader sense of inclusive fitness (as in, it can be a useful construct to think of an organism as "more fit" if its descendents are similarly more likely to reproduce). This is a theoretical framework to consider the general movement of evolution across generations. Because, of course, evolution only happens across generations - individuals live, possibly reproduce, and then die, and the resulting change to the gene pool is evolution. Any given individual themself doesn't evolve (except in relation to their ancestors or descendents).

    But do you get my point about asexual vs sexual reproduction? I guess the point I'm making is that you seem to be arguing that asexual reproduction would avoid mutation and hence confer an advantage, but I think that one of the reasons that most species use sexual reproduction is because this isn't so. Even in species that are perfectly capable of reproducing asexually, the majority also still go through the tedious business of having sex to make babies as well.

    Apologies if I've missed your point, but. ;)

    Wellington • Since Mar 2008 • 708 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    Re: "how" vs "why", it sounds a little but like you're phrasing the same question in different ways.

    How is the journey, why is the reason.

    In which case I'd be tempted to suggest that evolution doesn't have a 'why', just a bunch of 'hows' flowing backwards through time.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

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