Friday's Factoids and Quirky Quotes

By Grant Jacobs 13/08/2010

They’re fun, eh?

And the staple diet of cable TV science… Yes, I’m lowering myself to this.* Sigh.

It’s Friday, a good time for something digestible in one bite.

Here’s a collection from recent reading: most short, a few a little longer.

This is the opening paragraph of Wikipedia’s pithy and entertaining biographical entry for William Stark:

William Stark (1740 or 1741—1770) was an English physician and medical pioneer who investigated scurvy by experimenting on himself with fatal consequences. He devised 24 restrictive diets, such as bread and water with a little sugar for thirty-one days, but died after only eight months whilst living exclusively on honey puddings and Cheshire cheese.

A diet of honey puddings and Cheshire cheese, eh? (HT: @JenLucPiquant & @edyong209)

One way to estimate the amount of ancient rainfall is to measure the size of fossilised Chinchilla faeces. (I’m wondering if this will turn up in the up-coming poop-themed inaugural edition of the Carnal Carnival.)

Some sources claim half of all natural deaths of all humans that ever walked the earth were killed by Plasmodium, the parasite of malarial mosquitos. Sonia Shah’s The Tenacious Buzz of Malaria in Wall Street Journal (HT) does. I have some reservations about this being accurate, but if true** it’s a telling statistic. Probably well-known to others, but news to me, is that apparently every Western kids’ favourite magical spell, ‘Abracadabra’, was a Roman-era incantation against malaria (and other fevers) recommended by the emperor’s physician, Serenus Sammonicus.

Apparently Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein character was, in part, inspired by physician Andrew Ure’s experiments of applying electric current to various parts of a convicted murderer’s body, which he describes thusly:

When the supraorbital nerve was excited ‘every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expressions in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of Fuseli or a Kean. At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.’

You can just imagine this inspiring passages of her novel, can’t you? While the science of this is now well understood (and thus isn’t the macabre thing this can be made out to be), the idea of a public demonstration of this kind clearly belongs in another age! (A quirky connection between Andrew Ure and William Stark is that Ure was the son of a cheesemonger.)

One for genetics geeks: the most abundant, ubiquitous gene in life is transposase (Aziz et al; open access). I’d explain transposases for those who are not genetics geeks, but that’d take a blog post. (Nutshell: the gene coding for the enzyme that allows transposons for move, or transpose, from one place in a host genome to another. Because these things keep making copies of themselves, there are lots of copies of this gene in most genomes.)

Staying with biology is a very recent report of likely of a photosynthetic endosymbiont in a vertebrate. Endosymbiosis is where the body of one animal lives inside another. It turns out that bright green colour of spotted salamander embryos is due to a photosynthetic algae living inside the embyros. Not just alongside or on them, within the cells. Further work shows this occurs throughout the body of the salamander and may provide energy from photosynthesis to the animal. It would be stunning news if true. The short article on Nature News is well worth reading.

Ending on a more sober note, anorexia nervosa has a hereditary element: some cases tend to run in families. Read scicurious’ excellent blog article covering the recent research paper exploring this.


* Fun as they can be fact-checking factoids (don’t laugh) is no joke. Some certainly seem a little embellished in the re-telling. I’ve already removed several I suspect have to have been over-played…

** I haven’t able to locate a research-based source for this and haven’t time to look further. It was cited as for non-violent deaths (i.e. not war or accidents) in the 1998 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, but, then, I don’t entirely trust that either! (See sidebar in this article; note this will almost certainly have been added by the writer rather than cited by the researcher interviewed.) Note I’ve elaborated Shah’s claim to non-violent deaths; she cites all deaths.

Other articles on Code for life:

Somebody is wrong on the internet

Preserving endangered species – of gut microbes

Rex and The Wrong Trousers – uncanny resemblance?

Vitalism ideology in chiropractic advertising

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