Monday, 23rd July 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. If you're a chocolate lover, you should thank (blame?)

a) your parents

b) your "sweet tooth"

c) the candy industry's advertisers

d) the microorganisms in your gut.

A. All of these to a degree, but the new biologically based choice is d), those amazing, "trainable" bacteria in your belly, says "Science" magazine. People keen for the candy, say researchers, harbor different types of bacteria from other folks. When biochemists analyzed metabolic byproducts in urine and blood samples of chocoholics, a fascinating anomaly emerged: The gut differences are not just a product of our genes, since volunteers who had moved to the United States from India showed the same changes in their gut bacteria over time. Also, their blood had lower levels of bad cholesterol and higher levels of albumin, a nutrient-carrying protein. Said one United Kingdom microbiologist, "Understanding how diet affects gut activity can lead to personalized nutrition plans for nudging bacteria in the direction of good health."

Q. It's called "the Fermi paradox" and the deeper humankind looks into it, the more profound its implications become. As Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, the question must have an answer, one way or other, and either way, it will be equally amazing. In fact, if we ever learn the answer, it will cause the most dramatic shift in the status of our human species that has ever occurred in history. What is this famous question?

A. Nobel-prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi posed this during a 1950 discussion with other scientists about extraterrestrial intelligence: If alien civilizations really are as common as it seems they ought to be, "WHERE IS EVERYBODY?" Partly the answer to this means thinking about what a grown-up civilization might do, says Jeffrey Bennett in "Beyond UFOS." Though we've never yet met one, Bennett explains, I have a pretty good idea what we humans must do to become one: We must grow and grow in wisdom because only if we learn to find solutions to worldly problems such as global warming, poverty, disease, terrorism and war - and only if we do all of this together - can we stay around long enough to gain the necessary knowledge and technology to reach outward to embrace "what lies beyond." If we can do this, "the possibilities that await us are infinite."

Q. There's obvious charm in your parrot imitating what you say, but what could be the point of such mimicry capability for species in the wild?

A. You and your parrot occupy a select niche in the animal kingdom: the ability to learn vocal signals is restricted to songbirds and hummingbirds and parrots among birds, humans and bats and whales among mammals, says biologist Timothy F. Wright.

Depending on the species, the regional "dialects" that arise from large numbers of wild birds imitating each other may help males and females from similar areas find one another, says avian biologist Michael Schindlinger in "Scientific American" magazine. Regional song learning may also allow territorial neighbors to become familiar and help identify drifters. Further, imitative vocal learning is ready-made display of healthy neural functioning that embraces hearing, memory, muscle control for sound production - all potentially important in mate selection.

Q. Do you know the cultural sources of superstition surround Friday the 13th?

A. The day is doubly worrisome in that both Fridays andthe number 13 have been believed unlucky. Fear of 13goes by the seemingly unpronounceable "triskaideka-phobia," from the Greek "tris" for three, "kai" for and,"deka" for 10, plus "phobia" for fear, says Julian Havil in"Nonplussed! Mathematical Proof of ImplausibleIdeas.

" Fretting over the number 13 has any number of justifi-cations: 13 were present at the Last Supper; in Norsemythology there were 13 at a banquet when the son ofOdin was slain, leading to the downfall of the gods; thenear-catastrophic explosion on the Moon rocket "Apol-lo 13" on 13 April 1970, two days after its launch at13:13:00 CST from pad 39 (13 x 3).

And as unluck would have it, every year has at least oneFriday the 13th and many have three, in February,March and November for a non-leap year; January, Apriland July for a leap year. As you can see, the only pos-sibility for consecutive months having Friday the 13th isFebruary and March of a non-leap year. For youtriskaidekaphobes, the next consecutives are in 2009,2015 and 2026.

Q. Do you know the cultural sources of superstition surround Friday the 13th?

A. People have been trying to crack this one for thou-sands of years, says Eleanor Case in "New Scientist"magazine. Today, a nasal spray containing the hormoneoxytocin is said to increase trust, an important part ofan relationship. Illegal drugs such as cocaine andamphetamines can stimulate the euphoria of falling inlove by raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopaminebut exercise can do this legally. Another neurotransmit-ter - the "love molecule" phenylethylamine (PEA) - caninduce feelings of excitement, though it can also triggerapprehension. PEA is found in chocolate, and it too islinked to the feel-good effects of exercise.

"Overall, aswift jog could be more conducive to love than any-thing you might find in a bottle."Then too, as shown in studies by Arthur Aron an Bar-bara Froley, laughter increased feelings betweenstrangers where they cooperated in playful activitiessuch as learning dance steps while one of the partnerswas blindfolded. Also, researchers at North AdamsState Colleg showed that soft-rock music can encour-age women to rate guys' looks higher. And as any flirtknows, making eye contact is an emotionally chargedact: Feelings of closeness and attraction skyrocketed when pairs of strangers were asked to look into eachother's eyes. Say neuroscientists, meeting another per-son's gaze lights up brain regions associated withrewards.


Letters to the Editor

  • Our View

    Time for a breakJust as the height of Summer begins it seems that it is also the time when our politicians begin their yearly departure from Dail Eireann. While not many professions get as much holiday time as politicians do you have to ask the question whether they merit such long breaks?There are many who would immediately answer that they don't really deserve such long holidays, that they barely seem to spend any time in the Dail at all and after all they are well remunerated for the long hours …

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