Powder of Sympathy

I’m going to try some experimental stuff on the photography front this weekend – weather permitting. And that will result in experimental photographs. However, I obviously haven’t taken them just yet, so here’s a photograph of an experiment – or at least a photograph of a description of an hypothesis. Tenuous.

These days, one can simply glance at one’s smartphone to obtain an accurate reading of one’s latitude and longitude. And thanks to the position of the sun and the stars, sailors have long been able to gauge their latitude fairly accurately. Longitude was an entirely different kettle of fish though – the biggest limiting factor being that in order to calculate one’s longitude, one needs to know the time accurately. When a hefty prize was announced for anyone who could solve this problem, it attracted a lot of interest – not all of it entirely helpful. The Powder of Sympathy was one of the less successful ideas. I love the final sentence: as if we really needed telling.

Interesting fact about Cape Agulhas – it lies right on the 20° Meridian. And I mean pretty much exactly, right down to 6 decimal points. Given that we generally divide the world up into segments of 15°, this isn’t hugely important, but I have noted that if you poke the beagle at noon while standing on right on that imaginary line (I use my phone’s GPS to get it just right), it will let out a small bark, before glaring at you.

Now superseded by modern technology, back in the days of Diaz and van Riebeeck, every ship passing the Southern Tip would have had a beagle on board to poke as they rounded Cape Agulhas. This act wouldn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know, but it’s always good to poke a beagle whenever possible. Keeps them on their toes, see?

A bit of science on Friday

Australia is moving

Sadly, it’s towards civilisation (North) rather than away from us all. 7cm a year, to be exact, because of tectonic plate movement. Australia is on the Indian-Australian Plate (can you guess which other country is also on there?) and that plate is moving North, where it collides with the Pacific Plate and the Sunda Plate.

Now, 7cm might not seem like a lot (because it’s not a lot), but there’s been no update of GPS systems and the like since 1994, and now Australia is 1.5m further north than it was back then.

Now, 1.5m might not seem like a lot (because it’s not a lot) (although it’s clearly more than 7cm), but if you are navigating by super-accurate GPS, and the data you’re getting is fundamentally incorrect, then that might have rather serious consequences, as Dan Jaksa from Geoscience Australia told ABC News.

In the not-too-distant future, we are going to have possibly driverless cars or at least autonomous vehicles where, 1.5 metres, well, you’re in the middle of the road or you’re in another lane.

Indeed, so what are they going to do about it?

On 1 January 2017, Australia’s local co-ordinates will be shifted further north – by 1.8m. The over-correction means Australia’s local co-ordinates and the Earth’s global co-ordinates will align in 2020.At that point a new system, which can take changes over time into account, will be implemented.

Can’t we just rather give it a big push back the other way?

Brain Disease

I learned about a disease called kuru when I was at university, but suddenly, it became much more relevant when people worked out that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, Mad Cow Disease – and its human equivalent CJD – Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) had the same causal “agent”.
I use those quotes, because these diseases aren’t caused by bacteria or viruses, but rather prions – tiny strands of protein that gradually destroy the brain. It’s a slow, drawn out, lingering death. And we have no way of stopping it. Any antibacterial or antiviral drug relies on attacking some part of the life cycle of the bug to kill it. Protein strands don’t have life cycles. They’re just protein strands. Prion diseases are (currently) incurable.

What’s interesting about kuru is that it existed solely in remote tribes in Papua New Guinea – specifically the Fore people – who engaged in cannibalism. In many villages:

…when a person died, they would be cooked and consumed. It was an act of love and grief.

“If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects.”

What’s even more interesting is that these prions attack the nervous system. And the vast majority of the victims were women and children, because traditionally, they were the ones who ate the brains. The elders and men in the tribe were spared the offal, and thus, mostly spared from kuru as well.

There’s more reading on that link above, but the last known kuru victim died in 2009. Sadly, because of the long incubation period of prion diseases (I’m still on 40-year high risk list because I processed patient specimens from suspected CJD cases when I worked in the labs in the UK) we can’t be certain that it’s completely gone, but there have been no cases in the intervening 7 years.

Which probably explains why Australia now thinks it’s safe to drift closer to Papua New Guinea.