Archive | December, 2013

Eat Like a Hobbit

17 Dec

dragoniconFor my entire life, I have been a voracious consumer of the smorgasbord of stories inherent in the worlds of Science Fiction and Fantasy (sometimes collectively lumped together as “speculative fiction”). My early years were filled with activities like watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family, re-enacting scenes from Star Wars and Jurassic Park with the neighbor boys, and burning through every book in my local library that had a dragon on the cover. Hell, I even taught myself to play Magic: The Gathering simply because it gave me an excuse to talk to the boys at camp.

My love for such stories has not abated in the least, but my appreciation of them has changed over the years. One noticeable shift is that as I have become a better scientist, I have become better able to see science-related holes in these stories. Many of these holes I’ve noticed are within the realm of biology. I mean, nerd-core fanboys will sit around for days debating reasoning to explain the physics of warp drive and lightsabers, but did no one else notice the fact that in Star Wars Episode III, that lizard-thing that Obi Wan rides at high speed through the canyon was moving in an undulating side-to-side motion, a movement pattern which–in Earth reptiles–actually blocks the lungs from inflating, which prevents the animal from breathing, and thus prevents prolonged aerobic activity except in short bursts? Also the dragons in Anne McCaffery’s classic Dragonriders of Pern series are supposedly boron-silicon based, rather than carbon-based, but boron and silicon are elements that are both heavier than carbon, a subtle difference which adds up when you multiply the number of atoms exponentially to make a full organism, but Pern supposedly is equivalent to Earth in terms of gravity so how the hell do those things fly??

Anyway. What I’m getting at is that as I have learned more about human nutrition and how it relates to health, I have also started to become gratingly skeptical of how food and health are portrayed in such stories. Continue reading

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I For One Welcome Our New Overlords

5 Dec

If evolution is the name of the game, then the winning strategy for the game is variation. In this case, genetic variation. A genetically-variable population is well-insured for survival. Specifically, if something changes in an environment, introducing a new variable that affects a population’s survival, maybe there is a genetic variation somewhere in the population’s gene pool that just happens to allow them to adapt to this change and survive.

Although we sometimes like to think of modern humans as representing a pinnacle of evolution, the truth is we are still part of the game. Whether we realize it or not, new genetic combinations and variations are showing up in our vast gene pool all the time, through sexual reproduction and even random mutations. Most of these variations are benign. Some accidentally lead to bizarre genetic-based diseases and conditions that might end up negatively-affecting an organism’s survival. But some genetic variations, against all odds, create some genuinely spectacular effects.

One example of this is so-called “human magnetism.” People with this trait are able to stick metal objects to their skin, sometimes with an amazing amount of strength:

Imagine, never losing your keys again….

The effect is well-documented but until recently the cause was a mystery. Researchers knew it wasn’t “true” magnetism since the effect also works with other smooth objects like glass and plastic. The answer finally came when studies found a mutation in these people that gives them unusually smooth, elastic skin. When this skin comes in contact with another hyper-smooth surface (like metal, plastic, and glass), the high-degree of surface-area contact creates a very strong degree of friction, preventing the objects from falling (at least immediately). It may not be magical, but it’s still a wondrous example of the possibilities inherent in a genetically-variable population.

I recently learned of another, lesser-known example of “magical” abilities that is probably due to an unusual quirk of genetics and is tangentially related to the greater paleo community, which is why I share it with you today. Continue reading