Pandemics

Today’s news is littered with reports of Monkeypox, long Covid, variants BA.4 and BA.5 and their skill at evading previous immunity, and rising rates of reinfection.  And the serious and death rates keep rising.  But this isn’t new news. 

  • In 1346-53 the Black Death caused an estimated death of 25 million people across the world in the 14th century. According to scientists, the outbreak was caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. This Bubonic Plague lasted for about four years. 
  • Flu pandemics in 1889-90, 
  • Spanish flu 1918-20, 
  • Asian flu 1957-58, 
  • AIDS in 1981, 
  • Ebola, SARS
  • and on they go

Covid and Plague similarities

The Bubonic plague, wiping out 25 million people and Covid with 6.5 million deaths are both deadly epidemics. Both evolved from the East, spread among the population in cities and towns, and made its way to different countries through international trade. There is  mounting evidence that an Ebola-like virus was the actual cause of the Black Death and not spread by flea-ridden rats.

Safeguards for Covid include face masks and full protection suits or PPE. For the Black death the European ‘plague doctor’ ( Medico della Peste), wore a long cloak and grotesque bird-like mask. The eccentric headpiece served as a kind of primitive ‘gas mask’ for medical practitioners in 17th-century Europe, designed to protect its wearer from the foul odours associated with the plague.

The plague doctors primary responsibilities were more administrative and laborious to tally and keep track of casualties, assisting in the occasional autopsy, or witnessing wills for the dead and dying. By the time of the 17th-century though, physicians had subscribed to miasma theory, which was the idea that contagion spread through foul-smelling air. Prior to this time, plague doctors wore a variety of protective suits but it wasn’t until 1619 that a “uniform” was invented by Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician to Louis XIII. This uniform consisted of a waxed leather coat, leggings, boots, and gloves intended to deflect miasmas from head to toe. The suit was then coated in suet, hard white animal fat, to repel bodily fluids. The plague doctor also donned a prominent black hat to indicate that they were, in fact, a doctor.

PPE – Then and Now

The full PPE for today’s medical staff consists of a tight fitting surgical face mask, articulate filter respirators (such as P2 or N95), gloves, goggles, glasses, face shields, gowns and aprons.

Viruses

We live in a world of viruses that are unfathomably diverse, immeasurably abundant. The oceans alone may contain more viral particles than stars in the observable universe. Mammals may carry at least 320,000 different species of viruses. About 60% of infectious diseases can be attributed to viruses, bacteria and pathogens. Viruses evolve fast. Exceptionally fast. Faster than any other organism on Earth—and the new coronavirus is no exception.

As long as there are vulnerable populations that can be infected, the virus will transmit, replicate, and mutate, evolving as it spreads. Evolution by natural selection is a law of biology in the same way that gravity is a law of physics; it is a literal force of nature. Continued spread of this virus will lead to further mutation, new variants, more deaths, and an ongoing pandemic.

The human body contains a plethora of microscopic bugs – bacteria, Protozoa, fungi etc. Very few cause disease, and the majority exist in a symbiotic relationship. Some devour dead skin, others help to break down indigestible molecules, whilst our bodies provide food and shelter.

Bacteria v Viruses

Bacteria are the direct descendants of earliest life on earth and are the smallest microbes which can survive without help from any other living thing. A virus is up to 500 times smaller than bacteria. The word ‘virus’ means a submicroscopic entity.

Viruses on the other hand cannot ‘graze’ on us.  They have to penetrate our living cells in order to survive. They are parasites, taking what they need and giving mouthing in return. They are clever, subversive, subtle and ingenious.  They appear to plan an attack and survival strategy, but have no brain.

Virus activity

Once a virus is in a host it has but a short time to invade a cell and establish an infection. War is declared between the host’s immune system and the virus. 

As a virus replicates, its genes undergo random “copying errors” (i.e. genetic mutations). Over time, these genetic copying errors can, among other changes to the virus, lead to alterations in the virus’s surface proteins or antigens. Our immune system uses these antigens to recognise and fight the virus. This change of mutations in the surface proteins of the virus is antigenic.  

  • “Antigenic drift” where the surface proteins trigger immune responses in the host.  The small changes that occur from this antigenic drift usually produce closely related viruses with similar properties. However, the small changes associated with antigenic drift can accumulate over time and result in viruses that are antigenically different such that a person’s existing antibodies won’t recognize and neutralize the newer viruses.
  • Another type of change is called “antigenic shift.” Shift is an abrupt, major change that can result in a new subtype – a new novel virus. Fortunately these Shifts happen less frequently. When a virus undergoes both antigenic drift and shift then this can give rise to a pandemic.

How did viruses evolve?  

Were they rogue pieces of genetic material that have broken free from chromosomes and reproduce independently.  ‘Jumping genes’ free themselves from the DNA chain of a chromosome and rejoin at another site but are trapped within a cell.  The answer is not clear and scientists are still investigating.

Understanding Viruses

Scientists studying the ‘flu virus and how it changes to escape natural or vaccine-elicited immunity, have a clearer understanding of viruses. That’s why they constantly update influenza vaccines as they change in the two main ways, antigenic drift and antigenic shift.

However without viruses humans wouldn’t have evolved.  There are two lengths of DNA that originated from viruses and now reside in the genomes of humans and other primates, for instance, without which—an astonishing fact—pregnancy would be impossible. 

Although viruses are parasites, sometimes that parasitism is more like symbiosis, mutual dependence that profits both visitor and host. Viruses are easier to describe than to define. Each viral particle consists of a stretch of genetic instructions (written either in DNA or that other information-bearing molecule, RNA) packaged inside a protein capsule (known as a capsid). The capsid, in some cases, is surrounded by a membranous envelope (like the caramel on a caramel apple), which protects it and helps it catch hold of a cell. A virus can copy itself only by entering a cell and commandeering the 3D-printing machinery that turns genetic information into proteins. If the host cell is unlucky, many new viral particles are manufactured, they come busting out, and the cell is left as wreckage.  However if the host cell is lucky, the virus could simply settle back by going dormant or back-engineering its genome into the hosts.

The future

How viruses originated or how they are able to mutate and survive is still keeping scientists busy.

How dull would it be?

Have you ever thought how life would be if you couldn’t read or write?

Tom Mole’s book “The Secret Life of Books” summed up our love of books and how they transformed us. I found this book was well written, humorous and convincing.

In Maryanne Wolf’s book “Reader come home: the reading brain in a digital world” she chronicles changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium and is concerned over the inability of young readers to concentrate completely and develop a deeper and questioning mind whilst reading. Wolf is a cognitive neuroscientist and an advocate for children and literacy around the world. The reviews on her book are mixed. The book is written as a series of letters to enhance a more personal feel for the reader. I found I lost interest and agreed with some of her reviewers. One stated “ Wolf never uses 15 words where she can use 60. She never uses a ‘common’ word when she can use a longer, lesser-known one.” Another reviewer stated “Almost every page in this book has a pithy quote or anecdote from three or four different literary/historical figures and it’s just so tiresome I can’t continue.” She blames digital interruptions, for example adverts, and wandering off topic, and skimming as reasons for loss of attention. As an adult I would argue that it is only true if one lets these distractions dictate one’s reading. The arguments weren’t balanced. There are good reasons for skimming. Learning to keep focused despite the distractions is a discipline but not impossible to achieve.

There is a school of thought that reading on e-readers or digital devices is the death of the paper books. I like both forms. I prefer the convenience of being able to carry several books on my e-reader and also being able to curl up in bed with a book in a lightweight device. Also I don’t feel reading on my Kindle stops me from being transported into the world the author has created. Wolf believes reading paper books in the early years leads to a better deeper understanding and better concentration.

Were our brains made for reading?

Human brains are naturally wired to speak; they are not naturally wired to read and write. With teaching, children typically learn to read at about age 5 or 6 and need several years to master the skill. Reading and writing are acquired skills for which the human brain is not yet fully evolved (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989). Sophisticated reading comprehension is the goal of 8 to 16 more years of schooling.

It’s been over a century since scientists identified an area of the brain that serves as its “letterbox.” The “visual word form area,” or VWFA, recognizes letter and word shapes before sending them on to the brain’s language regions for processing.

The researchers found that even in the newborns who were less than a week old, the VWFA was different from the visual cortex in that it already had connections to the language areas of the brain. While the VWFA and visual cortex share some characteristics — they both require high spatial resolution in order to accurately comprehend what they’re seeing — the study reveals that “the VWFA is specialized to see words even before we’re exposed to them.”

Students with a reading disability, including dyslexia, are not able to access the reading centres in rear left of the brain. Wolf argues that Dyslexia is the result of a brain that’s organized in a different way that needs different teaching methods. If they don’t receive tuition to read they show anxiety and frustration

Learning to read involves training our visual system to recognize patterns—the patterns exhibited by text. You can approximate the feeling of illiteracy by taking a page written in a familiar script and language and turning it upside down. Try this now and attempt to read the following paragraph. This exercise only approximates the feeling of illiteracy. You will discover that the inverted text appears foreign and illegible at first, but after a minute you will be able to read it, albeit slowly and laboriously.

˙ʞǝǝʍ ɐ sǝʇnuᴉɯ 06 ɹoɟ ǝnbᴉuɥɔǝʇ sᴉɥʇ ƃuᴉɔᴉʇɔɐɹd ʎlǝɹǝɯ ʎq sʞǝǝʍ 0Ɩ ɹǝʌo ǝʇnuᴉɯ ɹǝd spɹoʍ ϛƐ ʎq pǝǝds ƃuᴉpɐǝɹ uʍop-ǝpᴉsdn pǝʌoɹdɯᴉ ǝldoǝd punoɟ ʇɐɥʇ ʎpnʇs ㄣƖ0ᄅ ɐ uᴉ pǝlɐǝʌǝɹ sɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ ˙ǝʌoɹdɯᴉ uɐɔ ǝuoʎuɐ ʇsoɯlɐ ɥɔᴉɥʍ ʇɐ llᴉʞs ɐ sᴉ sᴉɥʇ ‘ɹǝʇʇǝq uǝʌƎ ˙pɐǝɹ noʎ ʇɐɥʍ ɟo sǝᴉɹoɯǝɯ ɹnoʎ sǝʌoɹdɯᴉ ʎlʇuɐɔᴉɟᴉuƃᴉs uʍop ǝpᴉsdn spɹoʍ ƃuᴉpɐǝɹ

Learning to read also involves training the brain’s systems that control eye movement to move our eyes in a specific way over text. The main direction of eye movement depends on the direction in which the language we are reading is written. Our eyes constantly jump around, several times a second. Each of these movements, called saccades, lasts about 0.1 second. Saccades are ballistic, like firing a shell from a cannon: their endpoint is determined when they are triggered, and once triggered, they always execute to completion.

When we read, we may feel that our eyes scan smoothly across the lines of text, but that feeling is incorrect. In reality, our eyes continue with saccades during reading, but the movements generally follow the line of text. They fix our fovea on a word, pause there for a fraction of a second to allow basic patterns to be captured and transmitted to the brain for further analysis. then jump to the next important word.

Restricted lending?

The Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more, including a useful site for reviewing older website pages. They announced that they were fighting the right for libraries to lend books freely. Four large publishing companies have filed a lawsuit to criminalise lending. The Internet Archive and other libraries make and lend out digital scans of print books in our collections, subject to strict technical controls. Each book loaned via CDL has already been bought and paid for, so authors and publishers have already been fully compensated for those books, but the claim is that this violates their copyrights.

The question is “Should we stop libraries from owning and lending books?”

Dinosaurs and Sex ?

This year 2022 appears to be a record breaking one for dinosaur discoveries. 

A 10 metre skeleton found in Rutland, UK; a new species of dinosaur, with disproportionately short arms like those of Tyrannosaurus rex, discovered in Argentina; another similar one unearthed in Egypt and pregnant ichthyosaur fossils with intact embryos discovered from the Tyndall Glacier in Chile’s Patagonia region.

The cloacal kiss ©BBC.com

Sex – how?

This question has kept scientists puzzled for ages. The remains have been skeletal until a recent find was made of their soft tissue and genitalia. The news seems engrossed with dinosaurs having sex!  Imagine these heavyweights, often with huge muscular tails, razor sharp fins and teeth trying to have it off. They had to do it somehow.

The Messel Pit in Germany, is the richest site in the world, providing unique information about the early stages of the evolution of mammals.  It includes exceptionally well-preserved mammal fossils, ranging from fully articulated skeletons to the contents of stomachs of animals.

An amusing and factual article by Zaria Gorvett from BBC Future on discovering how the giants of yesteryear – aka the dinosaurs did it.  Jakob Vinther at the University of Bristol, UK, describes a remarkable find in the fossil record. A psittacosaurus, literally “parrot-lizard”. This sweet little beaked herbivore and close relative of the triceratops has revealed its bottom!  And the scientists rejoice.

The psittacosaurus potters over to the water’s edge on two feet – she stopped walking on all fours as she got older – but then tragedy strikes. Just as she’s leaning down for a sip with her parrot-like beak, she slips, falls in and drowns. As she plunges to the bottom of the lake, she ends up inelegantly splayed on her back  – accidentally preserving her genitals for future apes to wonder over.

BBC.com/future – Zaria Gorvett

Prefer to watch and listen? BBC also posted on Youtube a short video of how they may have done this – this way or that way, but definitely carefully. 

And not to be outdone, Sir David Attenborough’s new show Prehistoric Planet also delves into this unexplained mystery.  

Scientists have discovered plenty of other interesting facts about these prehistoric animals.  There was even one spiky, heavily armoured herbivore, Nodosaur, that was Ginger!

Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs were a diverse set of reptiles that existed some 245 million years ago.  Estimates vary, but in terms of extinct non-avian dinosaurs, about 300 valid genera and roughly 700 valid species have been discovered and named. The most iconic of all is the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex. However recent studies published in 2020 and 2021 show that these large dinosaurs shouldered out their carnivorous competition by changing dramatically as they aged. While young tyrannosaurs were lithe and only capable of hunting small prey, a teenage growth spurt turned the meat-eaters into huge, bone crushing predators.

Dinosaurs can be classified into various groups of which there are seven major ones.  The most basic subdivision of dinosaurs is based on their hips. This was proposed by Harry Sheely in 1888 but has subsequently been challenged. 

Non-avian dinosaurs (all dinosaurs besides birds), which are now extinct, varied greatly in shape and size. Some weighed as much as 80 tons and were more than 120 feet long. Others were the size of a chicken and weighed as little as 8 pounds. They all lived on land. Some may have gone into the swamps and lakes for food, but they did not live entirely in water. Meat-eaters walked on two legs and hunted alone or in groups. Plant-eaters walked on either two or four legs and grazed on plants.

During the Triassic, and for most of the Jurassic, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were high and caused intense temperatures. There is no evidence of polar ice caps then, and excavations have shown that deciduous forests grew in polar regions. At the end of the Triassic, a geologically brief period of perhaps a million years saw the extinction of more than three quarters of all terrestrial and marine species on the planet, including shelled creatures, corals and all sizeable reptiles.

A new study turns the idea of heat-loving dinosaurs on its head.  Evidence has found that the minor group of Triassic dinosaur species were relegated to the polar regions.  Here they adapted to the cold, thereby surviving when the earth got cold. There is also evidence that most dinosaurs had primitive feathers, if not for flight or mating but as insulation.

In contrast to the conventional imagery of dinosaurs always living in lush tropical jungles, this new research shows that the higher latitudes would have been freezing and even covered in ice during parts of the year.  Dinosaurs living at high latitudes just so happened to already have winter coats [while] many of their Triassic competitors died out, according to Stephen Brusatte, professor of palaeontology and evolution at the University of Edinburgh.

What happens when you read?

As any book lover knows, diving into a great novel is an immersive experience that makes your brain come alive with imagery and emotions. 

But do you also know that the process of reading causes the structure of the brain to be physically changed? 

Brain Activity when you read

Reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain.  When you read the brain links each word to the spoken equivalent.  One part of your brain analyses the word’s meaning, while another part makes it possible to automatically recognise words.  Reading stimulates the left part of the brain where you use your imagination.  Some scientists show that reading is an empathy workout, putting the reader in the character’s shoes.  For example if a character plays a sport, areas of your brain are activated as if you were physically playing the sport.

Over the years, doctors, scientists, and researchers have confirmed that reading is a stress-reducing activity that can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s been proven to improve people’s memories, increase brain power, and even enhance empathic skills. 

There are differences between reading paper books and digital readers.  With the paper version the reader takes more time to process the narrative  and increases the capacity for longer attention spans.  Which do you find more easily to remember the contents by, their title, their cover or whether they were in paper or electronic for?

Scientists say that reading e-books lack “spatial navigability”, physical clues like the number of pages which gives the reader a sense of location.  The brain can adapt to e-books quickly as little as 7 days. Some e-readers include spatial landmarks like page numbers, percentage read to help overcome the physical lack of the book. 

How did humans start this literary experience?

Today we take the inseparable twins, reading and writing for granted.  But what would life be like with nothing to read?  So when did people start to write?  By drawing pictures?  When did speech evolve into writings?

A quick troll on the internet showed these were not easy questions to answer.  But in general four independent writing systems have been identified.

  • Mesopotamia  between 3400-3300 BC.  Pictorial signs  were gradually substituted by a complex system of characters of the Sumerian language.  From 2900BC these characters started to be impressed into wet clay  with a reed stylus, known as cuneiform.
  • Egypt around 3200 BC.  Their writing was in the form of hieroglyphics, in ink on papyrus. Remember the Rosetta Stone?
  • Shang dynasty in China around 1300 BC, This style of writing is known as oracle bone script – etched pictures on bones.
  • Mesoamerica (lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala, between 900-600 BC.  The most widely known, is the classic Maya script.

Australia

Geoscientists have confirmed that the Australian land is the oldest mass on earth, and is about 4.4billion years old.  It took a long time before our ancestors appeared,  about six million years ago and the modern form of humans, homo sapiens only evolved about 200,000 years ago. 

Aboriginal Australian genomic sequence obtained from a 100-year-old lock of hair donated by an Aboriginal man, support the hypothesis that present-day Aboriginal Australians descend from the earliest humans to occupy Australia, likely representing one of the oldest continuous populations outside Africa, upwards of 65,000 years ago. The remains of Mungo man and woman who lived some 42,000 years, are perhaps the most important human remains found in Australia.

So why haven’t any Australian writings been found before the historic letter Woollarawarre Bennelong wrote to Governor Arthur Phillip in 1796, after his return from England?   He was an aboriginal man who learnt English and became the go-between and interpreter for the governor. 

https://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2013/08/08/3821136.htm#:~:text=Woollarawarre%20Bennelong%20was%20an%20initiated,bridging%20two%20very%20different%20cultures.

The Aboriginal people have an oral history dating way back with stories being told and passed down from generation to generation.  Their rock art employs two main designs, one uses engraved geometric shapes – circles, arcs, dots or animal tracks and the other contains figurative forms.  The  oldest one, in the Kimberley region is a kangaroo and dates back 17,300 years. 

Other interesting facts

The origins of writing still interest anthropologists as shown in the rare African writing system – the Vai script of Liberia, first created from scratch in about 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries.

The earliest known female author named in history, the Akkadian princess and High Priestess Enheduanna, who composed temple hymns around 2300 BCE and signed her name onto the clay tablets on which she inscribed her works. 

Early written texts were meant to be read out loud, as most people were illiterate.  The text was a continuous stream of words that had to be disentangled. Reading initially was only for the privileged, wealthy people, and the church. When education became more widespread, most women were still denied the pleasure of reading until well into the 19th century.

Punctuation was used for the first time only around 200 BCE, and was erratic well into the middle ages.  Has it reappeared in today’s writing?

Alexander the Great is thought to be the first person who read silently in 330BC. Silent reading made reading a private activity – making room for more options in the choice of a reading nook.

Chaucer recommended reading in bed in the 14th century, Omar Khyyam and Mary Shelley advocated outdoor reading, while Henry Miller and Marcel Proust preferred the absolute solitude of the bathroom. Even today it is not unusual to find a small stock of reading material in the privy.

Printing

The earliest printing technology originated in China, Japan, and Korea. The imperial state of China produced a large volume of printed material, printed by rubbing paper against inked woodblock, to sustain its extensive bureaucratic system. This system attained widespread popularity by the 15th century. In the 1430s, Johannes Gutenberg developed the first mechanical printing press at Strasbourg, Germany.  

Churches all over Europe embarked on a spree to educate the masses, and through the establishment of village schools, literacy grew. Periodicals started being published in the early 18th century, increasing further the population of dedicated readers. in 1849, Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers was serialised in a magazine, and attracted many readers with the affordability of magazines.

Earliest printing methods

Woodblock printing (also known as xylography) started in China in 593 AD. In the woodblock technique, ink is applied to letters carved upon a wooden board, which is then pressed onto paper.  The woodblock technique starts with the transcription of the manuscript nto thin slightly waxed sheets of paper by a professional calligrapher. The wax prevents the ink from being as readily absorbed into the paper, allowing more ink to be absorbed onto another surface. The paper is placed ink side down onto a wooden block on which a thin layer of rice paste has been thinly spread. The back of the paper is rubbed with a flat palm-fibre brush so that the wet rice paste absorbs some of the ink and an impression of the inked area is left on the block. The engraver uses a set of sharp-edged tools to cut away the uninked areas of the wood block in essence raising an inverse image of the original calligraphy above the background, just as you would with a linocut.

The other method was moveable type printing, where the printing  board is assembled using different letter types.  A precursor to lithography. In china Bi Sheng developed the first known movable-type system for printing around 1040 AD  using ceramic materials.  When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

Sneg moveable type system

Libraries

The Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal in the 7th century BCE, compiled a library of clay tablets in Nineveh (modern-day Iraq) and threatened anyone with terrible fates if they were misplaced. Centuries later Ptolemy, a successor of Alexander the Great founded the library of Alexandria with the short-term purpose of organising the vast reams of documents that had been stockpiled in the city, and all ships stopping at Alexandria had to surrender all books on board to be copied (or retained) at the library.  The history of cataloguing existed way back with the Sumerian record keepers.  The library of Alexandria was later catalogued by titles into lists according to categories and used an alphabetic order within the categories.

Writing started out on clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, folded works, parchment, velum, and paper and eventually books. In the Asian world, such as China, writing is based on characters Japanese and Korean, vertically in columns going from right to left.  In the Western world writing is based on an alphabet.   There is a science behind why a line is about 66 characters long – it is the in the art of saccading (the rapid movement of the eye).  Too long and we get lost, two short and we become distracted by the frequency of the movement. 

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, a delightfully well-written account of the evolution of the reader through the ages.  Some readers have mentioned this book is not as interesting as his others. He also wrote books on reading that children could enjoy such as  “How Pinocchio learned to read” and “Magic land of toys”.

The teaser for Tom Mole’s book “The Secret Life of Books” states  “We love books. We take them to bed with us. They weigh down our suitcases on holiday. We display them on our bookshelves, give them as gifts, write our names in them. We take them for granted. And all the time, our books are leading a double life. The Secret Life of Books is about everything that isn’t just the words. It’s about how books transform us as individuals, the stories they tell us about ourselves. It’s about how books – and readers – have evolved over time”the inseparable twins”

Viking Ships Unearthed

This Norwegian funerary warship was the grave of two women, one aged about 75 and the other 50. The women’s identities still present a mystery.  They died in A D 834 and had a magnificent burial, judging by the treasures they left behind.  Possibly Queen Åsa, the grandmother of Harald I (A.D. 860–940), the first king of united Norway, or maybe a sorceress.    

Reading this discovery of the Norwegian Oseberg oak longship in a farm near Tønsberg, Norway, reminded me of the historical novel “The Dig”  by John Preston and the subsequent film of the same name. 

On farmland in Sutton Hoo overlooking the river Debden in the UK,  the landowner Edith Petty wanted to discover what were the mysterious barrows on her land.  Ipswich museum introduced the landowner to Basil Brown, a Suffolk  labourer, insurance agent  and self taught astronomer and archeologist.  His finds did not sit nicely with men from the British Museum and Cambridge University who muscled in to take over. Brown’s discovery caused history books to be rewritten, but his name was only recently associated with the discovery.  But although his crucial contribution is now acknowledged, there is much that remains uncertain about the ship burial. Who was it honouring? The lead candidate is Raedwald, a powerful regional leader who died around 624, and who was part of a dynasty that claimed descent from the Norse god Woden. He was the first English king to convert to Christianity, while also being cannily careful not to upset the pagan gods.

The book, The Dig is a gripping and interesting read.

John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal, about the disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe.  After discovering that his aunt, Peggy Piggott, an archaeologist, prehistorian, and finds specialist, had been one of the key participants in the actual dig, Preston wrote the book The Dig, as a novelised account.

The film received five BAFTA awards. It is available on Netflix and in DVD form.

Energy Storage

Some experts say that a cleaner future will mean focusing on ever-larger lithium-ion batteries. Others argue that green hydrogen is better – as in a hydrogen refuelling station, sitting by the road in the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the north-east coast of Scotland.  

And then there are those placing their bets not on chemistry, but the limitless force that surrounds us all: gravity.

“What goes up, must come down” – this is the immutable Newtonian logic underpinning gravity batteries. This new field of energy storage technology is remarkably simple in principle. When green energy is plentiful, use it to haul a colossal weight to a predetermined height. When renewables are limited, release the load, powering a generator with the downward gravitational pull.

Gravitricity, an Edinburgh-based green engineering start-up, successfully trialled a gravity battery prototype tower above ground, and is now looking to sink its own purpose built shafts using disused deep mine shafts.

Southern Switzerland has a gravity battery space prototype from Energy Vault.

Innovative experiments

The 130-square-foot two-story Solar Greenhouse is at Valldaura. The team of students and researchers from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalina (IAAC) designed a prototype that could be used in both rural and urban areas to generate both energy and produce food  without emitting greenhouse gases. 

What about power being generated from pond scum? Researchers from the University of Cambridge have successfully kept a computer running from blue-green algae for 6 months. Read more

The South Koreans designed a 20mile long bicycle lane, in the middle of a highway covered with a solar panel roof.  And the Dutch invented The solar bike path.  Located in one of the busy suburbs of Amsterdam, It covers a modest stretch of 70m long and 3.5m in width. The path is made of concrete slabs with a layer of crystalline silicon solar cells and covered with strong protective translucent tempered glass, which allows the light to penetrate through.

Primary energy from clean sources

In 2020 renewable energy sources included hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, wave and tidal. Our World in Data website has different interactive maps showing this worldwide distribution.

Since the industrial revolution, about half of the UK’s slag – a stony by-product of making iron and steel – has been used as a construction material. But the other half is an unseen and unused potential resource, with around 180 million tonnes.

As an alkaline material, slag can react with CO2 in the air and lock it away in solid minerals, offering a long-term form of carbon storage.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves capturing, transporting and storing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power stations, energy intensive industries, and gas fields by injecting the captured greenhouse gases back into the ground.

What’s under the crust?

No this isn’t about pies I read an interesting account about the earth’s deep blobs, the size of continents, that sit in the lower mantle of the earth, which is just above the earth’s core.  This mantle is a layer of abundant rocks and dry oceans.  The rocks are interspersed with a kaleidoscope of crystals, from diamonds. They survive under immense pressures that if they could be brought to the earth’s surface would break up.  In addition to the rocks is an “ocean” which doesn’t contain any liquid; the water being trapped within the mineral olivine.

The rocks are mainly bridgmanite and davemaoite.  Bridgmanite has also been found in minute quantities in meteorites and US geologists have found tiny amounts of davemaoite in a diamond from the Orapa kimberlite pipe in Botswana,

Davemaoite was the name given to honour the prominent experimental high-pressure geophysicist Ho-kwang (Dave) Mao.  Bridgmanite is named in honour of the physicist Percy Bridgman.  It is  the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle of the earth.

These elusive minerals can only be seen in their natural form when they become trapped inside diamonds brought to the surface. Even then, what these crystals would actually look like deep inside the Earth is impossible to predict, because their physical properties are so altered by the pressures they usually exist under.

Understanding the blobs could help to unravel some of geology’s most enduring mysteries, such as how the Earth formed, the ultimate fate of the “ghost” planet Theia, and the inexplicable presence of volcanoes in certain locations around the globe. They may even shed light on the ways the Earth is likely to change over the coming millennia.

The Russians embarked on an ambitious exploration into the earth and in 24 years had reached some 12,000m underground until the drill became stuck as the granite ceased to be drillable due to the intense heat of the earth’s interior.  

Even using seismic instruments and methods geologists have a lot to discover about the structure and composition of the earth’s inner mantle.

Read more  

Looking at a map of Earth today may appear differently in the future.

Geologists know that supercontinents disperse and assemble in cycles: we’re halfway through one now. So, what kind of supercontinent might lie in Earth’s future? How will the landmasses as we know them rearrange over the very long-term? It turns out that there are at least four different trajectories that could lie ahead.

Earthquakes of this scale usually happen on or near major subduction zones, where oceanic plates plunge beneath the continents and are melted and consumed in the hot mantle. They involve collision and destruction. The 1755 quake, however, happened along a “passive” boundary, where the ocean plate underlying the Atlantic transitions smoothly into the continents of Europe and Africa.

Joao Duarte, a geologist at the University of Lisbon, realised that, if this happens, it could lead to the Atlantic eventually closing. And if the Pacific continued to close too – which is already occurring along the sub-ducting “Ring of Fire” circling it ­– a new supercontinent would eventually form. He named it Aurica, named because the former landmasses of Australia and the Americas would sit at its centre.

The four scenarios

He combined with another geologist Hannah Davies, and oceanographer Matthias Green at Bangor University. Their work led to four scenarios. They then collaborated with Michael Way, a physicist at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Way’s modelling of the supercontinent climates – which took months using a supercomputer – revealed some striking variations between  the four scenarios.

This modelling is speculative, and there may be unanticipated geological surprises that change the outcome. However, what can be said for certain is that the landmasses we take for granted will one day rearrange into an entirely new configuration. Countries once isolated from one another will be close neighbours.

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Which Strategies Does Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia Have? — Damon Ashworth Psychology

Chronic sleep problems such as insomnia do not go away without appropriate treatment1. Once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaviours around sleep that worsen their problems over the long run2. Fortunately, cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can improve your sleep, as it directly targets these unhelpful thoughts […]

Which Strategies Does Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia Have? — Damon Ashworth Psychology

The Importance of Sleep for Good Mental Health — Damon Ashworth Psychology

Having difficulty sleeping? It’s not uncommon.

Once you cannot sleep well Worse still, Insomnia does not tend to go away on its own without appropriate treatment. This is because once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaving around sleep that make their problems worse over the long run.

Psychologists often use a method called CBTI. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I or CBTI) is a short, structured, and evidence-based approach to combating the frustrating symptoms of insomnia.

Research shows that CBT-I consistently reduces the time taken to get to sleep, decreases the amount of time spent awake during the night, and improves sleep quality and efficiency, with improvements persisting after treatment finishes. This is unlike sleeping pills, which typically lead to sleep difficulties coming back once people with insomnia stop taking them.

Damon Ashworth describes this in more detail in his blog.

Learning about positive sleep habits is a core part of CBT-I. Tailoring recommendations is best done with the help of a doctor or CBT-I provider. In the meantime, here are some basic tenets of sleep hygiene that anyone coping with sleep issues may find helpful.

  • Maintain a sleep schedule: Having a regular, predictable sleep schedule can help your body maintain a rhythm and make it easier to fall asleep. This includes weekends too, which are a common time to forget about the importance of sleep.
  • Don’t lie awake in bed: If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and find something relaxing to do until you feel tired again.
  • Create a nightly routine: Give yourself enough time to get ready for bed. Turn off your electronics early and find some relaxing activities that help you wind down before sleep.
  • Consider daytime activities: What you do during the day really counts. Even a small amount of exercise can help you sleep better. Also try to avoid eating, alcohol, and caffeine too close to bedtime.

Wanderings – down memory lane

MartinsBank Crest

I used to work at Martins Bank – a private one in the City of London.  Its logo contained a grasshopper. Tradition has it that Thomas Gresham founded the bank in 1563.  His family crest included the grasshopper. The Martin family was one of the early London Goldsmiths. The bank was bought by Barclays Bank in 1969.

Curiously the Grasshopper could be seen on the top of the Royal Exchange. This building was originally founded in the 16th century by Thomas Gresham, a Tudor financier. The building was destroyed in 1666 by The Great Fire of London, rebuilt in 1669, repaired in 1821 and was again destroyed by fire in 1838. 

The golden Gresham Grasshopper weathervane was rescued from the 1838 fire and is 11 feet (3.4 m) long. It stands 177 feet (54 m) above street level on a clock tower. The clock by Edward John Dent has a bell chime which is also a carillon that can play the national anthem and others.

The current building opened in 1844, and adheres to the original layout – consisting of a four-sided structure surrounding a central courtyard where merchants and tradesmen could do business.

Why a grasshopper?  Legend has it that Thomas’s ancestor Roger de Gresham was abandoned as an infant in the marshlands of Norfolk. The rejected orphan was finally discovered after a woman was attracted by the sound of a chirruping grasshopper. 

This grasshopper also appears in Change Alley marking the spot of Garraway’s Coffee House. It also marks a former goldsmith’s place later taken on by Martins Bank.

Thomas Gresham was a very influential figure in 16th century London, founding the first Royal Exchange and then a bequest in his will to setup Gresham College in 1597 to  to bring ‘new learning’ to Londoners in English and not Latin which was the current language for most of the European universities.

The college was set in Gresham’s mansion on Bishopsgate until being redeveloped on the corner of Gresham and Basinghall Streets and then finally to Barnards’s Inn Hall  in 1991.  Today it still holds free public lectures.