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The Hair of the Dog:

And Other Scientific Surprises

Karl Sabbagh

An early French anthropologist (Houton La Billiardiere) was stranded in Tonga for a few months. He asked the natives about the words they used for large numbers, and carefully wrote down the answers. He was surprised to find that they had specific names for very large numbers - they said that 10,000,000 was laoalai, and a billion was tolo tafai and that an even bigger number was ky ma ow. When he got back to France he wrote up his findings in a literary journal, theorising that Tongans needed these big numbers to quantify the yam harvests. It was left to a later anthropologist to point out that the words actually meant 'foreskin', 'penis' and finally 'god this idiot will believe anything we tell him'.

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Study on ability to imitate facial expressions. It was not an easy job: started with 100 subjects but more than 2/3 dropped out bc of falling asleep, crying, choking, hiccuping or having a bowel movement. This was bc they were quite young. The youngest was 41 minutes old and the oldest was 72 hours, so perhaps the occasional bowel movement was to be expected. Testing whether innate (baby copies you poking tongue out) or whether conditioning (baby makes random expressions and repeats those which elicit positive response). Concluded that innate - babies born with ability to distinguish between 'self' and 'other'.

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Cave art dating back tens of thousands of years. A pre-verbal 3yo autistic girl produced stunningly impressionist pics of animals, but then gradually lost ability as she learned to speak. So in contrast to all the theories that prehistoric artists were making spiritual statements about their subjects, it may simply be that they didn't have enough language to convey meaning.

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We know half the idea: "Nothing can travel faster than light ..." but not the other half "... in a vacuum". But speed of light can be slower in other media, such as water. And then it is possible for neutrinos to exceed that slower speed. If they do so, they produce a burst of blue radiation. To detect neutrinos scientists use a large container of heavy water (or dry cleaning fluid).

The speed of sound in moon rocks is much slower than in Earth rocks, and, in fact, is suspiciously close to the speed of sound in cheese ....

Zircons: near the beginning, 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth was bombarded with meteorites, generating a lot of heat, and melting the surface rocks. When the molten rock cooled, some collections of atoms, including zircon, formed crystals which have survived almost unchanged until today. The 'almost' bit is that a zircon lattice occasionally accepted a uranium atom instead of another atom of zircon. But they don't accept lead atoms. So all the lead atoms found in a zircon are the result of radioactive decay from uranium to lead, and that decay rate is known and measurable.

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Study where iridologists (who believe that you can diagnose any ills by inspecting the iris of the eye) claimed that they had looked at photos of the irises of patients, some who had kidney disease and some who didn't, and correctly identified 88% of patients with kidney disease. The only problem was that they ahd also diagnoses 88% of the healthy patients as having kidney disease.

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For some as yet unexplained reason, the children of Japanese atomic bomb survivors are healthier than children born elsewhere in Japan. Fewer stillbirths and lower overall mortality.

Problem of premature babies going blind in US 1940's and 50's. Eventually realized that the problem lay in the extra oxygen supplied in incubators. But when they tried to experiment to confirm the suggestion, the nurses were so convinced that babies needed the extra oxygen that they secretly switched the volume back to high on the control group. When they altered the expt to prevent interference, incidence of blindness went down, BUT mortality increased - some babies did in fact need higher level.

Study found that a popular heart operation involving tubal ligation to divert more blood into coronary artery, was no better than a pretend operation. Benefits accrued solely from placebo effect. (So maybe should just pretend to do op - anaesthetise patient, make small incision, then tell him he's had keyhole surgery).

Stem Cells: everyone starts off as a single fertilized cell, which, through cell division, somehow turns out all the specialised cells of the body. They all start from stem cells. The nucleus of a stem cell is like a library with multiple rooms. Each room has shelves of books telling body how to make muscle cells, how to nourish and repair them. Other rooms contains manuals for other body parts. At first, the developing embryo just churns out undifferentiated stem cells. But eventually they specialise. It's as if someone comes along and locks all the doors except the one relevant to the muscles or the blood supply or the liver etc. The library keeps reproducing itself, with all the locked rooms, for the rest of the organism's life. But, at transition stages, such as infant to child, child to adolescent, adolescent to adult, cells sometimes need to unlock some doors to consult other manuals.

Obviously, scientists are keen to use this function to unlock doors themselves, so that the stem cells can be used to replace damaged cells in liver or kidneys, etc.

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