Monthly Archives: May 2009

Swine Panic

bacon1If you have not been in a coma for the past week, then you cannot have failed to notice how our society has gone temporarily insane over the H1N1 influenza A virus or “swine flu.”  In fact, the World Health Organization stopped using the term swine flu last week because it was confusing the public about the safety of pork. However, this failed to stop the completely unnecessary slaughter of pigs by the Egyptian authorities despite the fact that a) there were no cases of the virus in Egypt and b) it is not contracted from pigs. Just as well that there was not a similar panic about “German measles.”

We might scoff at the Egyptians but already, we in the West are over-reacting to anyone sporting a sombrero, eating Mexican food or looking slightly too sun-tanned for this time of year. And already the conspiracy theorists are sharpening up their knives. Last week, as the swine fever story was breaking, I did a radio interview with Jon Grayson on the Overnight America show. As I waited to do my piece, I listened to the phone-in calls from insomniacs commenting on the Mexican outbreak. It was remarkable how the outbreak was interpreted as various conspiracies from a) illegal Mexican immigrants, b) drug companies who make the vaccine, c) companies who make face masks and of course that old favourite d) the US military.

Influenza kills people. Nothing has changed. All that has changed is the media hysteria and misguided attempts of the Government to issue appropriate information. Today, in the UK, we are going to receive guidelines about not sneezing directly into other peoples’ faces and washing our hands after touching elevator buttons (direct reference to the avian flu outbreak). I understand the makers of alcohol hand wipes should do nicely out of this and are rubbing their hands together (as they hope we will).

At the moment the H1N1 virus is no more dangerous than other influenza strains. But if we start dishing out anti-viral treatments like “Tamiflu” to otherwise completely healthy individuals because of the panic, then there is a real danger that our anti-viral treatments will lead to viral resistance in the same way that the over-prescription of anti-biotics have created multi-resistant strains of bacterial infection. Then we really will be screwed if a more virulent and lethal virus comes along.

 Sometimes it is best to keep the public in the dark because collectively we often do not know what’s good for us as a whole. But then that would be a conspiracy, wouldn’t it?


Filed under In the News

My Worst Nightmare

The human body is made up of about two-thirds liquid and when we decompose, this liquid has to go somewhere. In a scene designed to gross out the viewing audience in an episode of CSI, an investigator had a drop of body fluid drip onto their face from a corpse in the apartment above.

However, we heard this week about a real case where a lady sleeping on her couch was awoken by something dripping onto her face. At first Sylvia Pena thought the moisture was simply her drooling in her sleep but then the further droplets from the ceiling alerted her to something that is the stuff of nightmares.

In fact, the dripping liquid was the bodily fluids from the decomposing corpse of her neighbor in the apartment above who had died of an overdose. Like most of you reading this I was completely disgusted by this story but in my case, also because I was immediately transported back to one of my own worst maggot nightmares.

I have a thing about maggots. Those of you who have read SuperSense will know why this is the case. Despite my extreme aversion to these proto-flys, I had further maggot-related encounters that subsequently happened to me following that initial traumatizing event I had as a kid. Over the years, I have tried to forget them but Sylvia Pena’s nightmare reminded me of my own.

It happened when we used to live in a traditional New England wooden triplex house when I worked at Harvard. It was the basement apartment and not particularly airy but it had those lovely wooden floorboards and a musty smell of antiquity that made it irresistible to a foreigner like me.

Our neighbors above were an elderly couple who generally kept themselves to themselves, but the husband could be heard shuffling around his apartment as he walked with a stick and the repetitive thud alerted us to his movements. One week I noticed that this usually irritating racket was surprisingly absent so I assumed that the couple had simply gone away for a bit. It was on a balmy summer Saturday evening as I sat at the kitchen table listening to the BBC worldservice that my nightmare unfolded. 

spaghetti_fullI was working my way through a pesto pasta dish, sprinkled with fresh pine nuts, I had just made. As I was eating it, I noticed that some of the pine nuts and parmesan cheese looked unusually granular like rice. I proded the particles on my plate and thought something was not quite right. I even thought one moved.

However, my confusion was suddenly cast aside as something landed on my pate. A single maggot had dropped from above. I froze. The maggot wriggled and looked up at me as if it was slightly embarrassed to arrive so unannounced.

As I realized what it was, my stomach tightened as the involuntary wretch formed in my throat forcing me to gag and spit out the contents of my already aghast mouth.

But then I looked up at the kitchen ceiling. To this day, the sight above me has imprinted itself indelibly into my mind. The ceiling was alive with a swarm of writhing maggots that were dropping like a putrid brigade of marine commandos.

Reflexively, I leapt out of the way to the door to look for a way of escape, running my hands frantically through my hair and brushing my shoulders. The maggots were coming through the ceiling. In an instant I knew what must have happened. The old couple! Clearly they must have carried out a suicide pact or were murdered and they both lay there decomposing in the apartment above. The maggots invading from above must be coming from the bloated bodies.

As I was on my own, I made an international call to my wife who told me to relax. Was I sure? I had to go upstairs and knock on the door before I called the police.

It turned out that there was no suicide pact or double murder. The kindly old lady answered the door and yes, her husband was out of town and no, there were no dead pets in the apartment.

That instance of relief was immediately replaced by a new set of concerns. Why were there maggots on my kitchen ceiling? Where had they come from? I got the very long handled brush and swept the remaining maggot commandoes onto the floor of the kitchen and then into a dustpan to be emptied down the toilet. This in itself was a traumatizing experience.

But if the maggots did not come the apartment above then where? Like the inevitable twist in the slasher horror movie, when the audience thinks that killer is outside, it was then that I realized that the maggots were not coming from outside but rather from within the kitchen cupboards mounted on the wall.

 A flashlight into the cupboard revealed a stream of maggots working their way up the back wall of the cupboard to escape via the ceiling. And where were the maggots coming from? None other than the jumbo-sized packet of fresh pine nuts that I had just sprinkled all over the plate of pasta I had just eaten.

 It wasn’t bodily fluid from a decomposing corpse but still, just thinking about that plate of pasta makes me nauseous.


Filed under Weird Story of the Week

Parrots Can Dance (but not Professors)

In a new study just out in the journal Current Biology, researchers at Harvard University has analysed over 1,000 youtube videos of dancing animals and concluded that at least 14 types of parrot and possibly one elephant have got rhythm. Here is the classic footage of the most famous cockatoo dancer, Snowball.

Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, who led another study of Snowball’s performance, said that the bird had demonstrated an ability to adjust the tempo of his dancing to stay synchronized to the beat. 

In the scientific paper entitled, “Spontaneous motor entrainment to music in multiple vocal mimicking species,” Adena Schachner working with my old friend and colleague Marc Hauser, make the interesting conclusion that the capacity for vocal mimicry (as in the case of parrots) can provide the basis for synchronized movements, namely rhythmic dancing.

How ironic that academic professors who may have the capacity to research and write about synchronized movements are the least coordinated at the post-conference disco. You know who you are!


Filed under Research