BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for October 2008

Is the way you dance written in your DNA?

Tom Feilden | 17:09 UK time, Monday, 20 October 2008

What does the way you dance say about you? Or more specifically, what does it reveal about the quality of your genes - your 'fitness' as a potential mate?

It's a question that's obsessing cognitive psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt and his team at the University of Hertfordshire. But now he thinks he's come up with the perfect experiment to test the links between genes, physical attraction and dance.

A former professional dancer, Peter Lovatt has put together a series of short videos demonstrating subtly different styles. By varying both the scale and complexity of the moves (and blurring his own features to rule out the influence of factors like hair or eye colour), he believes he's developed a model to which men can compare themselves, and crucially, by which women can rate them.

It turns out that women prefer small to medium size movements, and enjoy a level of complexity that includes an apparently random element. Perhaps unsurprisingly John Travolta's controlled flamboyance wins out over David Brent's monster of the dancefloor approach in "The Office".

It might seem bizarre, but scientists have known for some time that there's a strong correlation between physical features like the symmetry of men's ears and limbs, the length of their fourth finger as compared to their second, and their exposure to elevated levels of testosterone in the womb - widely regarded as an indicator of overall genetic quality.

And it seems that women are pre-disposed to pick up on these subtle cues, consistently rating men with the most symetrical features (and longest fourth fingers) as more attractive. But what about cultural rituals like dance? Could our genes be quietly advertising their suitability through the shapes we cut on the dance floor?

Peter Lovatt certainly thinks so, but to prove it he needs your help. Armed with the results of his research into what women like, he wants to know if it's the men with the highest exposure to prenatal testosterone who are delivering on the dancefloor.

If you want to take part in the survey watch the video below to assess your own style of dancing and then click on the link to fill in a simple questionaire. At the very least you should be able to pick up a few pointers that could help with your technique.

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Take part in Dr Lovatt's survey.

Do cells think...and is this what it sounds like?

Tom Feilden | 08:20 UK time, Monday, 20 October 2008

I am a cell, therefore I think. Apologies to Descartes, but then the famous 17th century French philosopher never heard the sound of neurons "chattering" amongst themselves.

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That sound, recorded by professor Brian Ford, shows that single-celled organisms are much more than lowly, one-dimensional structures: nature's "nanobots" dumbly performing mundane, repetitive functions to a simple stop/go template.

Professor Ford compares the sound to seabirds wheeling over a cliff-top colony, and claims it demonstrates a problem solving propensity....intelligent behaviour. The manifestation of mental ability, he argues, is not a feature that emerges from the complexity of higher organisms, it is inherent in each individual cell.

NeuronsIt's a radical new take on intelligence. Scientists are well used to the idea of intelligent behaviour being exhibited by colonies or groups of organisms that appear to be capable of a level of ingenuity that is more than the sum of their parts.

This kind of organisational or 'swarm' intelligence has been of particular interest in robotics, and a great deal of time and effort has been spent on developing computer programmes that enable robots to co-operate on tasks that would be beyond each individual.

But many single-celled organisms are also capable of constructing elaborate homes, repairing themselves, and even hunting for food. When we consider the significance of these observations, professor Ford concludes, we must acknowledge that these cells are taking decisions, adapting to situations, and working out what to do when confronted with a problem.

This, rather than group action, is the basis of intelligence. Cells think - and neurons, it seems, like to chat amongst themselves while they do it.

Drugs on test

Tom Feilden | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 17 October 2008

Herceptin  Well, at least one thing is clear: when the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) approves a new drug for use in the Health Service we can be sure it's been through a rigorous and extensive appraisal involving a series of randomised controlled trials...or at least we could.  

In an astonishing turn of events the chairman of NICE, Sir Michael Rawlins has turned this established wisdom on its head. Arguing that RCT's have been elevated to an "undeserved pedestal" and holding out the prospect that, in future, some drugs could be approved without meeting this exacting gold standard.

Talking at the Royal College of Physicians Sir Michael said the current methods for testing the effectiveness of new drugs were flawed, and the NHS needs a new, more flexible, system for assessing clinical evidence that takes more account of observational studies.

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Randomised trials are certainly expensive: according to one manufacturer the average cost per patient rose from £6,300 in 2005 to £9,900 in 2007. Where the benefits of a drug are obvious or dramatic RCT's are often unnecessary, and where the treatment is designed to target a rare condition the results can be inconclusive.

NICE has come under sustained attack in recent years over the length of time it takes to assess new drugs. In August the National Kidney Foundation branded the regulator's decision not to licence four new kidney cancer drugs as "barbaric, damaging and unacceptable". At the time Sir Michael responded by launching his own withering attack on the pharmaceutical industry and the overpricing of medicines to boost profits. "We are told we are being mean but what nobody mentions is why the drugs are so expensive".

It may be that in appealing for more flexibility Sir Michael is hoping to develop a little more wiggle-room to approve drugs that, although safe and effective, don't perform well in randomised trails.

Shedding light on dark matter

Tom Feilden | 06:35 UK time, Thursday, 16 October 2008

darkmatter203.jpgScientists in Canada have taken a big step forward in the search for dark matter - the enigmatic "stuff" that makes up 23% of the Universe.

The Picasso group, based at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory near Ontario, have been using a bubble chamber at the bottom of a disused mineshaft to listen out for the sounds made by dark matter particles as they pass through a superheated fluid.

Until now this distinctive dark matter signal has been drowned out - lost in the background noise created by alpha particles. Alpha particles are relatively common on earth (they're emitted in the radioactive decay of elements like uranium) and were proving hard to eliminate from the experiment.

But now the Picasso scientists have discovered a subtle new way of distinguishing between alpha and dark matter particles. Montreal University's professor Viktor Zacek says it's a bit like tuning a radio. "If there's too much hiss you can't hear the programme properly. You need to screen out the noise without losing the music," he says.

Picasso experiment

Tuning out the background chatter means the Picasso detector is now free to concentrate on isolating the signals left by dark matter's Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPs.

But the SNO-lab team aren't the only ones in the hunt for dark matter. At the bottom of a Yorkshire potash mine another team of British, American and European scientists are waiting for a WIMP to pass through their 100m long "Zeplin 3" detector.

In Italy, scientists working deep beneath the Gran Sasso mountain in Abruzzo claim they've already detected dark matter in the form of theoretical particles known as axions.

And at CERN, where the Large Hadron Collider briefly flared into life last month, scientists plan to manufacture WIMPS as a by-product of proton-proton collisions.

Spinning fast

Any one of these lab-based experiments could be first in the race to end one of science's biggest mysteries. A mystery sparked by the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky 70 years ago when he noticed that galaxies like the Milky Way were spinning much faster than they should given the amount of material they appeared to contain.

There must be something else, he argued, some other "stuff" we can't see or measure (hence "dark" matter), that accounts for the extra gravitational attraction we observe.

And observing dark matter - or at least its consequences - is something astrophysicists are getting very good at.

A spectacular series of images from the Hubble and Chandra X-ray telescopes published earlier this year show the distorting effect of dark matter on a massive collision between two clusters of galaxies 5.7 billion light-years away. As the two clusters collide the visible matter slows down, but the dark matter at the heart of each galaxy sails on regardless.

The latest astronomical observations suggest that dark matter accounts for about 23% of the universe. Ordinary matter - the galaxies, stars, gas and planets - makes up just 4%. The rest is made up of an even more mysterious quantity - dark energy, which is responsible for speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

Can machines think?

Tom Feilden | 09:51 UK time, Saturday, 11 October 2008

turing203.jpgWhat is the measure of intelligence? And can an inanimate machine - however sophisticated - ever be said to be thinking for itself?

It's a question that has preoccupied computer scientists - and inspired science fiction writers - in equal measure.

But it wasn't until 1950 that we even had a definition of what constitutes independent thought by a machine. That was when Alan Turing, the father of modern computing who helped to break the enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II, came up with a "test" to assess whether a computer was thinking for itself.

In the Turing Test a machine seeks to fool a group of judges into thinking they're holding a text based conversation with a person in another room. The idea is that if, after a five minute conversation and asking anything you like, you still can't tell you're talking to a machine then (to all intents and purposes) it can be said to be thinking for itself....the machine wins.

It's a feat no computer has yet managed, and I have to say I find it strangely reassuring that humour is usually the stumbling block. But on Sunday six Artificial Conversational Entities from all over the world will compete in the 18th Loebner Prize being hosted at the University of Reading.

Professor Kevin Warwick, who's organising this year's contest, believes it's only a matter of time before a machine beats the judges. We could even see more than one winner amongst this year's finalists, and if we do it would rank alongside Deep Blue's achievement in beating reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997.

But even if a computer can hold up its end of a conversation for five minutes does that really constitute intelligence? The Turing Test seems to follow the logic that if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck....then it must be a duck.

But can that really be said to be intelligent thought?

And what happens if one of the ACE's in this year's contest asks not to be switched off at the end of the conversation....would that be murder?

Is human evolution over?

Tom Feilden | 12:03 UK time, Monday, 6 October 2008

Human evolution

What if this is as good as it gets?

Melvin Udall's wicked one liner in the film "As Good As It Gets" may have been intended to pile on the pathos for a group of depressed psychiatric patients, but the phrase works equally well as a sub-heading for Steve Jones' lecture on human evolution.

The point the celebrated geneticist and author is making is that we've reached Nirvana: If you want to know what utopia looks like, he says, just look around you. The human race has reached the point where it can step off the evolutionary treadmill.

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Advances in technology, medicine and culture mean it isn't just the fittest who get to pass their genes on to the next generation. In ancient times half our children would have died before the age of twenty. In western societies today 98% survive to the age of 21, and life expectancy is so good that even eliminating accidents and infectious disease would only raise it by another year or two. These days almost everyone gets to hand their genes on through their children.

Mutation too is slowing down as the average age at which men reproduce has fallen. Unlike women, men never rest...when it comes to making sperm. By the time the average man is 28 he's copied and pasted the original sperm - the one he got from his father - about 300 times. The figure for a fifty year old man is well over a thousand. So the fewer older fathers there are the less chance there is for random mutations to slip into the copying process and be passed on to the next generation.

The increasing ease of global travel also means that modern human populations are continually stirring and homogenising the genetic pot. While small, isolated populations can evolve quite quickly, a global gene pool acts to block evolutionary change - the future is brown.

The result is that we're no longer subject to the driving force of evolution - natural selection. We've reached stagnation.

It's a controversial view, and plenty of geneticists believe it's a mistake to try and predict future patterns in evolutionary development. Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum points to the fate of early hominids like the neanderthals. Natural selection was driving stone age people to get bigger and stronger, but then quite suddenly, they were replaced by smaller, lighter people migrating out of Africa.

Others argue that humans are becoming less brainy and more neurotic, and still others that we're getting more brainy but less robust.

So what's the prognosis for a species that ceases to evolve? Well, presumably there's a chance that others, perhaps our closest relatives like Chimps and Gorillas might catch us up. Then again maybe the challenge to our supremacy will come from an unexpected quarter...perhaps Dolphins will inherit the earth.

Given the glacial pace of evolutionary change we probably won't have to worry about that for thousands of years. But the steady accumulation of random mutations in the gene pool does pose more of a problem. Without natural selection to winnow out the weak medical science could have its work cut out in years to come.

Then again, perhaps we'll get so smart we'll be able to repair and augment our children's DNA. Then we really will have triumphed over evolution.

Blue skies versus applied research

Tom Feilden | 06:55 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Should science be about discovery for its own sake or about solving the most serious problems of the day?

It's a question that's almost as old as science itself. The earliest reference I could find comes from Plato's Republic, where Socrates takes Glaucon to task for worrying about whether Astronomy is a worthwhile pursuit.

But it's also a question that's got today's scientists arguing amongst themselves.

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The former chief scientist Sir David King sparked off the row when he said it was "astonishing" that we were spending so much time and money on the Higgs Boson when there were much more pressing problems like climate change and environmental degradation to address.

His timing - he made the speech on the day the Large Hadron Collider was switched on - also seemed designed to provoke.

And what a reaction he got. It takes quite a lot to get Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, riled up, but he branded Sir David's comments both "misguided" and "mistaken".

Perhaps more worrying has been the steady swing of the funding pendulum towards applied research. The government has been rightly applauded for a big increase in the science budget, but increasingly ministers - and the Treasury - have emphasised tangible applications and quantifiable benefits.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to see a return on investment, or on insisting that money is efficiently spent. But 'picking winners' is a fool's game.

As Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith (the man who commissioned the LHC) says, it's not a zero sum game: you must have both blue skies and applied research.

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