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We were christened by Terry Pratchett… (sort of)

terry Pratchett is dead rising ape

By Antony Poveda

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”– Terry Pratchett

It was a torrential summer’s day in Bristol last year. James and I were taking three hours, two coffees, three pubs and five pints to trawl our minds/phones for the name of the place where you’re reading this now.

It was tough. We felt we had a strong idea and a clear aim: to make supposedly lofty, out of reach thinking and research a topic for every day conversation. But we didn’t have a name. And the name was important; it had to sum up our goals for this venture, to be catchy, humble, aspirational. Many potentials were brought up from the depths of our misremembering minds and the literary internet: ‘Cortex Vortex’, ‘Mind Smash’, ‘TEDISDEAD’, but nothing was sticking, nothing fitted properly.

Then, around about the fourth pint, the marvellous Terry Pratchett spoke to us. Sadly, not in person, but rather in the form of a wikiquotes page, somewhere just beyond Nietszche, and we listened.

*reads above quote* ‘…so why not just ‘Rising Ape?’

‘Hmmm. That could work.’

‘Rising Ape’ wasn’t immediately hailed as our saviour, and a few more dodgy titles were to be offered up for debate before the final decison was made. Even the unlikely ‘Cortex Vortex’ had a late surge of support (James still calls us this in his head). But we kept coming back to it: ‘Rising Ape’. Terry had spoken, and we had listened.

What a Baller.

My personal connection to Terry goes back much further than the screen of my old smartphone. For me, and many others, he and his writing were there at the turning of my adolescence when I needed them most. The stories of Discworld, and other worlds, helped immeasurably with being a slightly bullied kid finding their way out of the comfort of my little primary and into the bizarre realities of high school. There too, there were collections of strange races, countless arcane rituals and baffling social bureaucracies to navigate.

Crucially, his stories were not solely escapes (from what was, objectively, not that rough of a time), but much more like incredibly inventive lessons in what was possible in this life. You could be kind, funny, and courageous through struggles and hardships, not because you were a special snowflake and everyone else was stupid and horrid, but because that was what being human should be about. Terry spoke to me, and I couldn’t stop listening.

Terry also said:

“Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.”

The last part there deftly illustrates how he could never avoid mixing his questioning-thinking with his story-thinking. Indeed, he actively pursued this aim. His writing dazzles you with curiosity, character, wit, tension, humanity, wisdom, beauty, tragedy, everything everythingeverything… and puns! In our small way, that generous spirit is something we have tried to take to heart at Rising Ape, and we believe that stories and imagination can be a powerful way to deal with communicating in  “a language originally designed to tell other monkeys where the ripe fruit is.” Yes, Tezza again. Cheers!

Please forgive the over-quoting. It seems that for every concept there is a Pratchettism. As for that first quote at the top, well there is, of course, nothing new under the big ball of plasma in the sky. Variations on the ‘rising ape/falling angel’ theme go back at least as far back as Robert Ardrey and it is certainly something that Terry must have picked up from elsewhere. I like Terry’s version best, though. As he has it, being a rising ape is knowing the importance of story, of reflection, and of hope. It’s the knowing of what we are and still wanting more.

I’ll leave you with the fuller extract around the quote that inspired us. It is, aptly, the middle of a conversation with Death. Please read it, it’s so good it gives me chills. And then go and read everything he ever wrote, even if you already have. The joy of writing, and of books, is that they remain. Once inked and read, their ideas cannot really be taken away. I am so grateful that others will always be able to learn from and enjoy what Terry Pratchett created in this world. Wherever he is now, I’m certain that Terry is still speaking, and we’ll always be listening.


“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

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Not Such a Slippery Slope

rising ape

“It is important that legislation keeps pace with scientific progress.” Robert Winston

A little breakthrough for medical research happened last week, not in the lab, but in the House of Commons. By a huge majority the commons voted to allow a new IVF technique called mitochondrial donation, which can be used to stop babies from inheriting mitochondrial DNA diseases. Most mitochondrial DNA diseases are passed from mother to child and can cause debilitating symptoms such as muscle weakness, diabetes, heart problems, movement problems, epilepsy or even death. With a 1 in 4,000 prevalence, apparently Charles Darwin even had a form of the disease, which caused continuous vomiting and terrible headaches.

Image Credit: Michiel1972
Image Credit: Michiel1972

Even though scientists, politicians and most of the public seem to be in a rare state of agreement over this topic, it has of course had its opponents. Before we take a look at the arguments of those who worry about its safety, let’s first take a tentative dip into fertilisation to find out how this new technique works.

The mitochondria are the power house of cells in the body and provide energy to carry out different cellular function. Each mitochondria actually has its own DNA, separate from the DNA that makes you who you are, which it uses for controlling its own function and energy production. When this mitochondrial DNA becomes faulty, usually a trait passed down from the mother, the mitochondria could malfunction, causing all sort of trouble.

This new technique takes the nuclear DNA, the DNA that really makes you you, from a patient’s egg and places it into an egg from a healthy donor which has already had its own nuclear DNA removed. The healthy egg is then inserted back into the mother to develop. As the donor egg contains healthy mitochondrial DNA, you’ve now got yourself a healthy little baby growing.

Image Credit: 44444 UAE
Image Credit: 44444 UAE

The main concerns that have been expressed are worries over safety, and the ever slippery slippery slope towards designer babies. Personally, this is something I have never understood. In today’s health and safety dominated, slightly science-sceptical, government a discovery that has gained so much media interest would never have­­ been allowed to be used by the public without endless supporting evidence and safeguards. As to those who see the children as three-parent babies, technically only 0.1% of the DNA is not from the parents so perhaps they should be called 2.0001 parent babies. I agree it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though.

It’s been unusual to see such major media coverage for a subject that could be viewed as too complicated for the public to get behind. Hopefully this is a welcome look into a future where new scientific breakthroughs are more broadly accepted.

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Welcome to the new age of antibiotics

By Alex Hale

“I have been trying to point out that in our lives chance may have an astonishing influence and, if I may offer advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this – never to neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening.” Alexander Fleming

Nearly 30 years after the discovery of the last antibiotic, a new bacterial culturing technique may end the drought of new medicines.

Scientists have discovered 25 new antibiotics using a new lab technique which will hopefully discover many more. One of these new antibiotics, called teixobactin, has shown promising results in treating gram-positive bacteria such as MRSA and bacterial tuberculosis. The researchers are also hoping that harmful bacteria won’t gain resistance to teixobactin for at least another 30 years, as it uses an unusual multi-pronged attack that will be much harder for any germs to combat. It hasn’t been trialled on humans yet, but the test mice have responded very well. If human trials also go well, it may finally be possible to treat some of the nasty multi-drug resistant superbugs that have been troubling doctors for many years.

Although it’s fantastic news that a new antibiotic has been discovered, the main

Traditional testing of antibiotics in vitro. Image credit: Graham Beards
Traditional testing of antibiotics in vitro. Image credit: Graham Beards

story here is the new technique.  Traditionally, bacteria are grown on agar plates in a lab, but this new technique uses soil as the culture medium where bacteria feel at home and are happy to grow. This may not sound as interesting as a new superbug-killing drug, but teixobactin comes from the 99% of bacteria that have never been cultured, and without this technique it would never have been! This 99% is an untapped treasure trove that researchers were unable to culture in a lab environment until now, and this unexplored group could hold the secret to treating any number of infectious diseases.

If these new antibiotics are everything that they appear to be then it’s an easy bet that the team from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, will be up for a Nobel Prize. Perhaps they will have a more positive message than Alexander Fleming, who in his Nobel Prize speech for the discovery of Penicillin, couldn’t resist presciently warning everyone of the dangers of over use.

It has all come just in the nick of time as well, as we were all starting to prepare for the worst. A horrid future of antibiotics slowly becoming useless as more and more bacteria became resistant to them. Hopefully, that is no longer the case.

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Homosexuality IS natural, (according to nature)

by James Riley

One reoccurring argument constantly levelled against homosexuality is: “it’s just not natural.” Well, if you take a close look at nature, you’ll see that isn’t quite right.

(Feature Image, Original Credit: Simon Speed)

Animals partake in various same-sex sexual behaviours, ranging from frivolous romps (by the common toad) to life-long homosexual partnerships (in Chinstrap penguins).

In male fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) a mutation in the gene genderblind, causes a reduction in glutamate transmission, and leads males to court other males. Various other gene mutations, and social experiences, cause male-male courtships and same-sex mounting.

Bonobos, one of the closest extant relatives to humans along with the common chimpanzee, utilise sex as a method of easing social tensions. Females spend a substantial amount of time in same-sex genital stimulation. Males also engage in kissing, and somewhat intimate massages (and not just with their hands).

Numerous invertebrates also partake in homosexual behaviour, but many studies conducted on insects found this was a case of mistaken identity (must have been a rough morning). But in the animal kingdom, things are a little more romantic (if you’ll pardon my anthropomorphisation). Some male garter snakes mimic the female’s size and pheromones, leading to male-male courtships (so even drag queens are natural!). These relationships aren’t believed to be the case of mistaken identity, the courtships enable the snakes to  thermoregulate better and also provides protection (there is something nice about homosexual snakes keeping each other safe and warm, even for hardline homophobes, am I right?).

In fact, homosexual behaviour is well-documented in over 450 species, but the true number is likely to be many times larger.

I can see the counter-arguments to this already forming: “Ok, so maybe nature is rife with gay animals, but nature isn’t always moral and it isn’t always right.”

True, nature doesn’t always exhibit the most moral of behaviours, and studying nature doesn’t always show us the right way to live our lives. But, (and this is big but… I cannot lie) the point is the argument that ‘homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural’ is absolutely false. Observing nature shows that homosexuality is natural; it is everywhere, and it is everywhere for various reasons. So if you want to maintain that homosexuality is immoral, then please level a new argument against it rather than its supposed unnaturalness. Or, just let people live their own lives.

For more scientific information on homosexuality in animals, see:

Bailey, NW. Zuk, M (2009) Same-sex sexual behavior and evolution. Trends in. Ecology and Evolution. 24:439-446.

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The sun has got its spot on, hip-hip-hip-oh-no!

by James Riley

Imagine having a giant spot moving across your face, making its way around the back of your head over a 27-day period. I’m sure most of us might start thinking about contacting the doctor (or even consider investing in some facial scrub).

As the spot comes closer to circumnavigating your face it explodes violently with a burst of radiation – now you’re worried. But this is far from over. On the morning of the 28th day you wake up and see the spot has made its way, from the rear, around to the front of your head again. You hold tight for another slow 27-day trip, hoping another explosion doesn’t come. Your hopes aren’t answered. Another massive magnetic explosion of radiation spews from the spot. After frantically grabbing inside your pocket for your mobile to call the doctor, you see that the screen is blank. The spot’s explosion has destroyed the electronics inside.

This isn’t a nice image, but it is close to what the sun has been experiencing early in 2014 with the emergence of a new sunspot AR11944. Sunspots are dark areas of the solar surface. They are cold, well, colder than the rest of the sun in any case. At around 4000c they are around 2000c less than the rest of the solar surface, giving them their dark characteristic. Sunspots have strong magnetic fields which cause massive solar flares and coronal mass ejection (CME) events, the most powerful explosions in the solar system.

Image

(A giant sunspot appeared on Feb. 25, 2014, for its third trip across the face of the sun. This blend of two images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sunspot in visible light and an X-class flare observable in ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center)

As we used to have no telescopes monitoring the far side of the sun, it was hard to fully establish that the old sunspots which disappeared over the sun’s horizon were the same as the new ones emerging on the opposite side. This meant astronomers renamed the sunspot on each full navigation, even if the new emerging spot was thought to be the same as the old one.

The new sunspot which appeared on the 25th Feb 2014 has been labelled AR11944, it’s previously trip was labelled AR11967, and it was originally christened AR11990. And this multi-named sun-trotter hasn’t made its journey quietly. During its voyage it has released two of the strongest classes of solar flare which can be produced – the (incredibly Star Trek sounding) X-Class.

The regularity of these events raises questions over our technological infrastructure. High intensity solar flares don’t only cause the beautiful auroras which people flock to see, they can disrupt electronic systems, and we rely on an abundance of electronic systems every day. We are so dependent on electronic communications – from phones to pylons, computers to cars, submarines to satellites, and not forgetting the internet – if a massive solar flare wiped out a large chunk of our electronic communications, the world may very well come to a standstill.

This apocalyptic sun-ray isn’t just the spouting of hard-line conspiracy theorists. Research published in Space suggests that we have a 1 in 8 chance of experiencing a catastrophic solar mega-storm within the next decade.

The last huge event which we had, dubbed the Carrington Event, caused widespread damage to the telegraph system. Being the most widely depended upon communications system at the time, this was quite worrying. It was also reported that people awoke in Australia thinking it was morning, and others could read their newspapers by its light in New York.

If this kind of event happened today, it is no doubt that our infrastructure would suffer serious damages. Almost every communications channel we depend upon is based on electrical systems, and without developing solar flare resistant electronics, we place ourselves at risk of a communications breakdown. Is it time to have a rethink?

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Option or obligation: an opt-out donation issue

By Alex Hale

“Every right implies a responsibility; Every opportunity, an obligation, Every possession, a duty”   John D. Rockefeller

Not everyone wants to donate their organs. Sadly, in our aging, obese, drug addicted nation, the demand for organs is on the rise. The keep our nation healthy. People seem happy enough with the default position: a full two thirds of people have decided not to opt-in to the register. What is less clear is whether this is laziness or an ethical position.

The organ donor register is a beautifully simple system. All you need to do is sign-up, select which organs you’re happy to donate when you die and then forget about it. But the signing up step seems to be a barrier as only a third of people in the UK have joined the list. Thousands of sick people are currently waiting desperately for the right organ which is so frustratingly hard to find. As I type, over 7,000 patients around the country are waiting for a donor organ and this number just isn’t going down.

20 million sounds like an ample amount of people to help save the lives of 7,000. That 20 million are the third of the UK that are on the organ donor register but it still isn’t enough, there are so many factors that get in the way of someone getting that life saving organ. The donor has to have healthy organs at the time of death, so this excludes the many that die from illness and whose organs aren’t healthy enough for transplant. There is also a chance that the recipient’s immune system could reject the new organ because it would recognize it as foreign, making them even sicker and ruining the new organ. The donor needs to have the same blood type as the recipient as well as similar cellular markers called major histocompatibility complexes, the more markers that are similar, the less likely rejection is. Sadly, finding an exact match is almost impossible so recipients usually need powerful drugs to suppress their immune systems after the operation.

Could fear, ignorance or misunderstanding be the reason that the medical community is in such dire need of new donors? One answer is the infamous opt-out system that’s been making the rounds in political, social and ethical discussion circles for years. Opt-out would mean you join the register automatically once you reach a certain age and then would have the option to unregister if you wanted to whenever you like. Wales has recently chosen the opt-out system and Austria has had the system for years. The result? Austria has eight times as many donors as neighboring Germany.

In general, one of the main contributors to organ donations comes from the unexpected death of healthy people, like in a car accident or extreme sports. Sadly, these sorts of deaths are associated with younger people but they often don’t end up being donors. They haven’t had thoughts of signing up yet and of course no one expects to die young. Under the opt-out system, the tragic death of one could help save the life of another.

What else could be done if the opt-out method is opposed? Economists have suggested that maybe a monetary incentive could be offered and the cost of this would be recovered by allowing so many more people to not depend on expense medical treatments. This however, could be seen as venturing into the unsavory world of organ sales and trafficking, a black market trade that has cost many people their lives around the world. A monetary incentive would also the raise the question of whether the kind people who have already joined the register would receive the compensation as well.

LifeSharers uses social incentives to encourage people to sign up to their private donor list; in return, donors are assured priority if they ever need an organ. This privatization is probably something the government would back as it would save them money but it suffers from several major drawbacks. If everyone signs up then they obviously can’t guarantee them first choice of organ when they need one, essentially invalidating the entire process. The small pool of donors that LifeSharers has also means that it would be much harder to find an organ that matches your immune system; if it’s hard to find a match with 20 million, imagine how hard it would be with much fewer.

Our aging, smoke and alcohol addicted, obese nation needs to make a decision soon on these issues. The health statistics that point to half the UK being obese by 2050 means a much higher number of people potentially needing heart and pancreas transplants. The ‘binge drinking society’ will be in need of liver transplants in a few years’ time and all those smokers are going to need new lungs. The list of people that need new organs will be never ending and ways to fix that are a different topic all together. The main concern is time, something everyone seems to be short of. How long can we let people wait for the organ that could change their life? Signing up today could mean the difference to someone’s life tomorrow.