R Larson, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains the human behaviour of queueing as some kind of regional adaptation. He finds it significant that in the London riots of 2011, looters adhered to the principle of ‘first come, first serve’. They queued to loot.

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Queues of humans can move or stay still. Queues of other animals, ants and penguins, for example, always move.zeile-der-ameisen-7134297 th-1

Uncle Oliver

The novelist and neurologist Oliver Sacks died this week (1933 – August 30 2015).

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Oliver Sacks worked on the medical effects of neurotransmitters such as  L- Dopa. This can be synthesised and added to biochemical pathways in human nerve cells. The pathway shown here is involved with Parkinson’s Disease.

Recently Sacks wrote: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”



The first of William Utermohlen’s self-portraits was made in 1967, the rest from 1996. That was the year following his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. They chart his decline up to 2000 in a very vivid way.


Now there is talk in the popular press that successful children are less likely to develop dementia in later life. Research by S Dekhtyar at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute go on to say that exercise of the brain in later life can also reduce the rate at which the condition develops.

(Images courtesy of the artist’s estate and GVArt Gallery, London)


The ancient Greek fire-breathing monster, Chimera, was made of different parts of more than one animal. It was abnormal,  powerful and threatening.

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In modern biology, animal chimeras are made up of cells with different genetic origins, formed by the merging of two or more separately fertilised eggs.

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From off-Broadway New York and now at The Gate Theatre in London, Deborah Stein’s one-woman monologue, Chimera, mixes this science with precious human attitudes.

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Jennifer is a geneticist and was born with a chimera, two sets of DNA – hers, and that of her unborn twin – absorbed in the womb. Her own eggs and other parts of her body have her sister’s DNA. So her son Brian is, from a strictly genetic perspective, also her nephew. This is a revelation that prompts her to walk out on him.

Chimera is a provocative production because it doesn’t explain itself and throws up even more questions. Knowing so much about our DNA makes us lose touch with what makes us human: is Jennifer right to not consider herself Brian’s mother? Or is her condition a eugenic breakthrough?

Sole performer Suli Holum plays Jennifer, Brian, and the narrator: “It’s easy to take a DNA sample from your loved ones. Everyone should do it.” She dances with a virtual image of herself, chats to the audience, and disappears into the kitchen.”

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A new book for children is called Eye Benders: The Science of Seeing and Believing by Clive Gifford

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It has won The Royal Society Young People’s book prize 2014.

Some images appear to move around, leaves glide down:

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Frontal lobes – orange on the diagram above – learn to recognise movement

The blue cerebellum organises images and locates them, so that things appear that are not there:

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Objects of the same size appear longer and shorter, bigger and smaller:

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And the same colours can appear to be very different:

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The purple occipital lobes recognise colour. (On the left, what appear more like brown and pink are the same red. On the right the central orange and brown are the same .)

The judges of the prize are all below 15 years of age.




The goddesses of inspiration for science and art  are usually seen with Apollo on Mount Helicon as painted by Claude Lorrain in 1680.

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Now there are several alternative styles to the same metaphor, presented by Chronicle Books

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Dostoevsky’s wife Anna both inspired his work and self-published his work (drawing above right by L Callagha).

Christopher Morcom was Alan Turing’s first love, offering competitive challenges to problems of mathematics and science (the illustrator below is K Negley)

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Sophie Dahl was Roald’s mother and told him many of the Norwegian myths he used in his own stories (drawing by J Eckwall, above right).

Others included are Thomas Watson, the assistant to Alexander Bell who had the idea of ringing a bell for an incoming call (drawing by Y Kim, below left).

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Gwen John was Auguste Roden’s muse (K Coetzer’s illustration is above right).

Though they are not mentioned in the new volume, some say that politicians have help from their muse.



Science Fiction

Exploring the world when you’re young encourages your fantasies, especially for those involved with science. Some of these people are as much puzzled by such mysteries as by a search for objective truths.

Jules Vernes went to sea when he was young. HG Wells studied zoology. For both writers, these early experiences inspired novels looking to the utopia of a new world based on scientific discovery.

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The Canadian film director David Cronenberg is well-known for his 1986 remake of The Fly, and he also studied zoology, with the author Margaret Attwood, in Toronto in the early 1960s.

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His films build a link between the genres of science fiction and horror, distorting events and imagery together. Cronenberg has said that studying biology made him excited about how life came to be and how it continues to exist. His latest film will soon be showing at a cinema near you.

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Attwood also writes science fiction:

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