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50 Shades of Grey Matter

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Before 1300 the sky was never painted as blue because the only blue pigment around was the very expensive lapis lazuli. Called 'ultramarine' because it came from 'beyond the seas'.

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Miracle Fruit changes the taste of sour into sweet. It's the berry of a West African shrub called Synsepalum dulcificum. Each of our taste buds has up to 100 taste receptor cells. Each of these will respond to only one of the five basic tastes - sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. The receptor cells have unique shapes, so that a cell of sugar will have correct shape to lock into a sugar receptor. Miraculin, the active chemical in Miracle Fruit, slots loosely into sweet receptors. But because it's not a perfect fit, the receptor doesn't send a sweet signal to the brain. Then, if you taste something acidic, it alters the shape of the miraculin molecule so that it now fits perfectly into the sweet receptor. It fits even far better than sugar or other sweet tastes, and sends an overwhelming message to the brain that there is something incredibly sweet in your mouth.

Doorways are for forgetting. When we walk through a door we are entering a new, and potentially dangerous space. We have evolved to make hazard-evaluation the top priority for our brain. So our brain dumps whatever else was in short-term memory to concentrate on checking out what's in this new space.

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2012 was the anniversary of the first silicone breast implants. It was performed in Houston Texas, and Timmie Jean Lindsey still has the implants.

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In 1965 a grossly obese Scotsman weighing 207 kg turned up at a Dundee hospital. He said he was going to fast and suggested they monitor him. He fasted for a year and 17 days, living entirely off his copious body fat, and losing 125 kg. Hospital gave him multivitamins every day. Fasting has some medical benefits - ancient Greeks knew that it helped epilepsy, and was rediscovered in C20.

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In 1877 a Minneapolis doctor named Henry Tanner decided to commit suicide by staving himself to death. But on the tenth day (which the then medical wisdom suggested was when he would die), he felt rejuvenated, leapt from bed and began first of daily 5 km walks. He turned it into a stage act - fasting on stage for 40 days at a time, and charging people 25 cents a time to watch.

Wise old saying in medicine - if there is one single cure for something, it probably works. If there are many cures they hardly ever work. Hiccups are a good example. One reported cure "digital rectal massage".

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Widespread belief that the Moon influences behaviour - ie that at full moon more car accidents, crime, mental breakdowns - although just about every time stats are analysed, there is no correlation at all. Some 'explain' it by claiming that the Moon causes tides in water, and humans are mostly water, so therefore .... But tides happen twice a day no matter what phase of the Moon.

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Anne Hathaway affects the stock market. Automated trading works (partly) by trying to predict market sentiment. One way it does this is by monitoring news reports and gauging whether they are positive or negative (if there are several positive stories about a company, program predicts that the shares will become more popular, so automatically buys some). But this comes unstuck when fails to distinguish between stories about actress Anne Hathaway, and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. So stories about Anne's latest successful movie cause the price of B-H shares to tick up for a while.

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