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.

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.

Sleep

No not the quote from Hamlet “To sleep, perchance to dream” but how lack of sleep can impact on your health; sleep cycle explained and how sleep patterns have changed.

The Mayo clinic linked a lack of sleep to an increase in abdominal fat. An unhealthy find. During this study participants had free access to food, which coupled with the lack of sleep contributed to their increase in abdominal fat.

Findings from a randomized controlled crossover study led by Naima Covassin, Ph.D., a cardiovascular medicine researcher at Mayo Clinic, show that lack of sufficient sleep led to a 9% increase in total abdominal fat area and an 11% increase in abdominal visceral fat, compared to control sleep. Visceral fat is deposited deep inside the abdomen around internal organs and is strongly linked to cardiac and metabolic diseases.

Journal of the American College of Cardiology,

We all know how tired and grumpy we can become after a night or several nights poor sleep. Science has shown how poor sleep can effect your health from weight gain to a weakened immune system or with chronic deprivation it can cause high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke, obesity, depression, reduced immune system function and lower sex drive.

Your body needs sleep, just as it needs air and food to function at its best. During sleep, your body heals itself and restores its chemical balance. Your brain forges new thought connections and helps memory retention. Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it can’t perform its duties as well. During sleep your immune system produces infection fighting substances like antibodies and cytokines that combat bacteria and viruses.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol. In excess amounts, cortisol can break down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic. Hence the aged appearance from lack of sleep.

The types of sleep

In addition to the number of hours slept it is important to get the right kind of sleep. During the night the total sleep is made up of several rounds of the sleep cycle. Not all sleep cycles are the same length, but on average they last about 90 minutes each and vary from person to person.

There are four sleep stages, one for rapid eye movement (REM) and the others for non-REM sleep. Stage 1 is essentially a “dozing off” stage. The body hasn’t fully relaxed, and there are light changes in brain activities. It is easy to awake during this stage.

In Stage 2, the body temperature drops, the muscles relax and there is a slowed breathing and heart rate. Eye movement stops and the brain activity slows but shows short bursts of activity. This sleep can last for 10-25 minutes at first and increase during the night. Collectively this makes up more than half the sleep time.

Stage 3 is known as deep sleep. It is harder to wake a person. The muscle tone, pulse and breathing rate decrease as the body relaxes. However the brain activity shows an identifiable pattern known as delta waves, which helps the brain create and store new memories and improves its ability to collect and recall information. Deep sleep usually occurs during the first half of the night, initially lasting for 20-40 minutes. These stages become shorter the longer you sleep and more time is spent in REM sleep.

Sleep Trackers

Wearable devices or under the pillow devices rely on sensors to detect physical signs like heart rate and body movement as opposed to lab based sleep tests that use sensors to measure brain activity. The sleep trackers upload the data to a device that analyse and display the results. Although not as accurate as a lab based sleep test, these devices and apps can help to raise awareness of your sleep patterns.

How many hours sleep?

It is generally thought that an adult body needs 7-8 hours sleep a night but there is a lot of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a book “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” found more than 500 references to segmented sleeping patterns in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

He describes that a first sleep began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps. And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

A doctor’s manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day’s labour but “after the first sleep”, when “they have more enjoyment” and “do it better”. Anyone care to confirm this?

Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society. By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness. He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses. 

 So if you lie awake in the middle of the night, read on to discover the forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps’.

The medieval habit of two sleeps

The ice breaking find in 2022

Wow, the remains of Shackleton’s ship “Endurance” located in the Weddell Sea in March 2022, was a fantastic find after being ‘lost’ for more than a century.

This successful attempt in 2022 found the wreck, located 6km from the position recorded by Worsley, and at a depth of 3,008 metres. The three-masted sailing ship was lost in November 1915 when it was crushed by Antarctic ice and sank to the ocean floor during Shackleton’s failed attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. Submersible video, shot by Endurance22 using advanced underwater vehicles called Sabertooths showed the ship to be in remarkably good condition, with timbers very well preserved, due to the lack of wood consuming microbes. Even more remarkable is that the expedition was a few days away from having to be abandoned, as the ice was closing in and the blizzards and storms had started.

The video of this remarkable discovery can be viewed on Youtube, courtesy and copyright of the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust .

Shackleton and his crew remained with the ship for ten months until it was eventually crushed by the ice.  Shackleton and his 27 men undertook a perilous lifeboat journey to the uninhabited Elephant Island, with Shackleton and a smaller crew then making an open-boat journey of 800 miles to reach a whaling station in South Georgia, mounting a rescue mission back to Elephant Island from there. This harrowing account of the British explorer can be read in this book “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing. It is a remarkable story.

In 2019 Maritime archaeologist and shipwreck expert Mensun Bound,  after 2 years of planning and with a budget of $250m sailed south, onboard the Aqulhas II equipped with high tech exploration tools – Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. He was determined to find the ship’s resting place, but was defeated by the icy conditions. Just like Endurance before, Agulhas II became trapped in sea ice. Whereas Shackleton had his men race from one gunwale to the other to try and shake the ship loose, the captain of the Agulhas II achieved the same effect by swinging a 40-ton fuel pod on a crane from one side to the other, gradually shifting the ship out of the ice’s grasp. Technology!

The Hunt for Shackleton’s ice ship in 2019 is available on Youtube from Cambridge University and also describes why this search is important. The website Endurance22.org contains several articles of interest in this discovery.

The Weddell sea named after James Weddell, a Scottish explorer and seal hunter, was once difficult to access because of its abundant pack ice and harsh weather conditions. However modern icebreaker ships have begun to explore this area. The Weddell Sea is a site of special importance to the global climate and the circulation of the ocean waters. It is in the densest waters in the Atlantic. The Weddell Gyre, delimited by a clockwise-rotating ocean flow in the Southern Ocean, covers an area more than half the size of the USA. Its characteristics control the physical and chemical properties of large parts of the global deep ocean, and it has the capability of influencing global climate on multiple timescales. Studying this Gyre is challenging, as sea ice covers the ocean surface year around, restricting access by research ships and sensing of ocean surface from satellites. New technology is now available to avoid past limitations, autonomous underwater vehicles, instruments flown by planes, and floats instrumented with sea-ice detection. More information on its importance can be read in this article.

Interested in finding out more about the Arctic and Antartica? The ABC Australia have a television program on the two poles and can be seen on Iview.

Fancy visiting the Wendell sea? One cruise states “with 5 full days in Antarctica, experience the towering tabular icebergs and Adelie penguin rookeries of the remote Weddell Sea, alongside some of the Peninsula’s most popular landing sites further south. Departs once a year, at the height of the summer, aboard a 90-passenger expedition ship”. Another emphasises the Emperor penguins. Just do a search for ‘ cruise Antartica Wendell”

St Pancras Station features micro-opera

Women’s international Day will be celebrated at St Pancras Station, London with a series of brand-new, train-themed micro-operas created by teams of female composers and librettists.

Travelers at the Eurostar terminal will hear “Everything you carry” by Georgia Barnes and Olivia Bell and “It’s The Little Things” by Rose Hall and Katie Colombus. These operas explore the monotony of everyday commuting and in turn the point of view of someone waiting an arrival gate.

The series, called Lost and Found, also includes Victoria Bernath and Teresa Howard’s Mini Break, a comic opera about the panic of lost passports and the inevitable bickering that follows, as well as Anna Braithwaite and Priests’ The Hardest Journey, about hidden disabilities.

The event is part of the Europalia Arts Festival, which involves European railway stations including Antwerp, Brussels and Rotterdam central stations.

Sustainability and Lithium batteries

In the late 1970s, a team of global scientists began developing what would become the lithium-ion battery, a type of rechargeable battery that would eventually power everything from portable electronics to electric vehicles and mobile phones. a history of the lithium battery makes a short interesting read.

Today they power many different devices, from smart phones, laptops, electric-cars, solar panels to power grids.  Their life span is about 10 years. Surging demands for electric vehicles have pushed up the price and demand. It is estimated that in 2040 there will be 7 million tonnes per year of used Li batteries.

Unlike their predecessors – lead batteries, they cannot be easily recycled.  Li batteries are made up of lots of different parts that could explode if not disassembled carefully.  Mining the required minerals has a huge environmental cost.  

Iceland and Paraguay stand out from the rest of the world by being almost 100% reliant on renewable energy. The two major forms of renewable energy – solar and wind power – considered intermittent resources, as the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing.  

Lithium is currently produced from hard rock or brine mines. Australia is the world’s biggest supplier, with production from hard rock mines.  Argentina, Chile and China is mainly producing it from salt lakes. Mining the various metals required requires vast natural resources and has been linked to declining vegetation.

Most of the components of Li-ion batteries are valuable, and it’s quite feasible, technically and economically, to recycle them. Several auto OEMs, research institutes and other industry players around the world are developing systems to do just that.

Scientists are working on ways to reduce this impact and make their recycling safer and an easier process. Developing robotic disassembly;  making more sustainable batteries, or reducing the materials needed to build them and thereby reduce the energy expenditure.  Developments into zinc-manganese oxide batteries are being considered for large scale energy storage such as electricity grids.  Lithion recycling claim a 95% recycling of battery components to make new LI batteries.

Everything Else

Sometimes I am captivated by the title, or the cover or feel like a gentle dreamy read. Historical novels are of great interest, some are almost biographical, some are fictional with surprising elements of near truth. Take the “Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton, an historical novel set in the late 1600’s, mostly accurate description of life in this era with a few ‘artistic licences’ thrown in to add to the mysteries. “Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma” is a fascinating account of how this brilliant man was instrumental in unlocking the German cipher code and a sad one of how he was treated by the British government for his homosexuality.

The author Eileen Enwright-Hodgetts has for me a style that is so easy to read, entwining facts with a fictional story. There are several stories written in the world war two period such as ”Air Raid”, ”War Bride” and ”Imposter”. Her interests range outside of this period having travelled several countries. She manages to create a compelling read about jumping the Niagara Falls in ”The girl in the barrel”.

Eileen manages to weave a realistic story around facts, Her newest novel, soon to be released is “Girl in a Lifeboat” which is a fascinating story about the cover up over the tragic sinking of the Titanic. Mystery, intrigue, tragic horror, and a little romance are all present. Once started it is difficult to put down.

A series of books by Michael Beashel feature the early days of Sydney, under the title of the Sandstone Series. The immigrants arriving to make their fortunes, the Gold Rush, the wool trade and development of the city buildings. Jealousy, building, romance and historical facts are woven into the series.

Wow, the remains of Shackleton’s ship “Endurance” located in the Weddel Seas in March 2022, was a fantastic find after being ‘lost’ for more than a century. It was located 6km from the position recorded by Worsley, and at a depth of 3,008 metres. The three-masted sailing ship was lost in November 1915 when it was crushed by Antarctic ice and sank to the ocean floor during Shackleton’s failed attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. Submersible video shot by Endurance22 using advanced underwater vehicles called Sabertooths showed the ship to be in remarkably good condition. The timbers are remarkably well preserved, due to the lack of wood consuming microbes. Even more remarkable is that the expedition was a day away from having to abandon the search, as the ice was closing in and the blizzards and storms started. Read more