Avenue Q was right, we’re all a bit racist – US study finds

“EVERYONE’s a little bit racist, sometimes.”

Scientists say there’s a good reason audiences worlwide have chuckled knowingly to the famous song from the hit musical Avenue Q.

A team from researchers from a US college psychology unit have found that nearly all of us a predisposed to a little bit of racism, The Daily Mail reported.

But it’s not our fault, apparently, with scientists instead blaming the influences of pop culture on our prejudices.

“What you have is stuff you’ve picked up, from reading, watching stuff on the internet,” said Paul Verhaeghen.

“One of the things these findings suggest is that for those of us who, like me, very often feel guilty about these gut reactions you have and you’re not supposed to have is those gut reactions are normal and they have very little to do with you.

“They have more to do with the culture around you. What is more important is your behaviour, rather than your gut reaction.”

Mr Verhaeghen, the brains behind the study at Georgia Tech, revealed that volunteers were quick to form “gun” from the letters ‘g, u and n’ after seeing a black person’s face.

“It suggests that most people associate black people with violence and this seems to be universal,” he said.

The study’s shock findings on how we’re hardwired for racism have been picked up by the British Journal of Psychology.

Carl Wood father of IVF dies

TRIBUTES last night flowed for Carl Wood, the father of in vitro fertilisation whose ground-breaking research offered hope to infertile couples around the globe.

Professor Wood and his Monash University team achieved the first IVF pregnancy in 1973. Australia’s first test-tube baby, Candice Reed, was born in 1980. More than 45,000 babies have been born worldwide with the technology.

Professor Wood died in a nursing home on Friday after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease that left him unable to communicate. He was 82.

IVF Australia medical director Peter Illingworth described Professor Wood as a “visionary” whose team’s research had a monumental influence.

The gynaecologist’s impact on medicine extended far beyond the development of IVF. Monash IVF medical director Gab Kovacs, who began working with Professor Wood as a 22-year-old student, said: “He was at the forefront of everything, always 10 years ahead of his time. Carl pioneered the monitoring of babies during labour, which saved many, many lives. He was also one of the first to suggest there was more to women than just their organs and pushed for the introduction of sexual counselling and abortion reform. More recently, he advocated minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery.”

 Professor Kovacs said his mentor was “both brilliant and vague”, known for his “tiny quirks” such as taking up windsurfing in his 60s and studying bricklaying because it looked interesting.

Professor Wood played a pivotal role in developing the Monash University faculty of medicine, having been appointed a professor in his mid-30s — a feat almost unheard of at the time.

“He always took a youthful and progressive approach, the first to say ‘Let’s try something different’,” Professor Kovacs said.

“Carl was a little bit of a rebel. He found it very hard to discipline the students when they misbehaved because he remembered what he was like in their place. He was still mischievous even in his old age.”

Professor Wood is survived by his former wife and carer, Judy, his three adult children and one grandchild.

Hibernating hamsters crack ageing code

SMALL, furry mammals partial to a daily dose of hibernation in winter are probably extending their lifespan at the same time, according to a study published today.

Experiments with Djugarian hamsters native to Siberia showed that when the tiny rodents temporarily lower their metabolism and body temperatures, a state called torpor, it stops and even reverses a natural breakdown of chromosomes linked to ageing.

Previous studies had hinted at a causal link between hibernation and longevity, but this is the first one to show the biological mechanism that may account for it.

In the laboratory, researchers led by Christopher Turbill of the Institute for Wildlife Ecology in Vienna created an artificial environment for 25 adult virgin female hamsters, offering only eight hours of light per day.

The faux-winter conditions were designed to trigger a hibernation response, according to the study, published today by the British Royal Society in the journal Biology Letters.

For 180 days, half the rodents basked in a relatively balmy 20 degrees, while the others half lived in a chillier clime, about 9 degrees. Both groups enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet.

In measuring the results, the researchers distinguished between shallow torpor, when body temperature dipped below 29, and deep torpor, when temperature dropped under 25 degrees, nearly 10 degrees below normal.

They inserted micro-transponders under the animals’ skin to keep track of the changes.

Turbill and colleagues suspected that the energy-saving, coma-like state had an impact on telomeres, which sit like tiny caps on the ends of chromosomes, protecting the precious strands of genetic code.

Telomeres and telomerase, the enzyme that control them, are a key agent in ageing and longevity.

Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get worn down a little bit. The enzyme’s job is to partially rebuild them. Eventually, when the telomeres are worn beyond repair, cell death is triggered.

Australian-American cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work in the field, likened telomeres to the “tips of shoelaces” – lose the little plastic end, and the lace starts to fray.

For the hamsters, daily torpor, which typically lasted several hours, somehow acted to preserve these protective tips and even to restore them, the study found.

“This effect was stronger in hamsters using deep torpor, which was primarily in the cold,” Turbill said in an email exchange.

Interestingly, these same hamsters also expended more energy, reflected in their higher food intake.

The findings, he added, “are probably applicable to all animals that use some form or torpor or hibernation.”

That, alas, does not include humans.

“Torpor and sleep are completely different – and possibly incompatible – states,” Turbill said. Humans do not significantly lower their body temperature when sleeping, nor is there a comparable slowdown in metabolic rate.

“So far, science has not come close to finding a way for humans to enter some form of hibernation.”

Stem cells raise hopes for victims of stroke

A CURE for the brain damage caused by stroke could be five years from clinical application, with research using stem cells showing significant improvement in stroke-affected brains.

Ahead of National Stroke Week, Adelaide University neurologist Simon Koblar said trials of new stem-cell technology using rats had shown marked improvement in brain function, paving the way for human trials in as little as five years.

Now, negotiations are under way with a bio-technology company interested in supporting a clinical trial with the potential to revolutionise stroke treatment.

“We’ve just completed a three-year study where we used human dental pulp stem cells in rats and we’ve demonstrated significant improvement in function of the animals compared to those that we gave the same treatment without stem cells,” Dr Koblar said.

“Right now we have a 9 per cent mortality rate, which really isn’t acceptable for human application.”

Avoiding the controversy over the use of stem cells taken from human embryos, Dr Koblar harvests stem cells from the inside of molars removed from young adults and donated by local dentists.

The stem cells are then injected into the brain of a stroke-affected rat, which has resulted in signs of significantly improved brain function in three to four weeks.

The use of dental stem cells means patients could have their own dental stem cells injected, meaning they would require no immuno-suppressive treatment.

It is still uncertain how the stem cells work when injected into a brain, but researchers believe they somehow replace the cells killed in a stroke and stimulate the brain’s ability to self-repair.

Stroke is the leading cause of disability in Australia with more than 250,000 people estimated to be living with side effects of the attack on brain functionality.

In Australia there are 60,000 strokes a year, one every 10 minutes, with an estimated financial burden to the government of $2.4 billion each year.

Although the results have been promising, Dr Koblar said there were years of tests ahead before the new treatment could be made available to humans.

He said also that the biggest barrier to developing the treatment was funding.

A foundation created by renowned stroke awareness campaigner and sufferer of locked-in syndrome Peter Couche is fundraising to support the pioneering research throughout National Stroke Week.

Big Tobacco’s brazen denials and dirty tricks

Ever since the link between smoking and lung cancer was established more than 50 years ago, the tobacco industry has displayed extraordinary tenacity when it comes to denying the scientific evidence showing that smoking kills.

In 1952, British scientist Richard Doll, working with his mentor Professor Bradford Hill, compiled a seminal study published in the British Medical Journal that established a “real association between carcinoma of the lung and smoking”.

Over the next few years and decades, the evidence became stronger, but just as soon as this evidence began to emerge, Big Tobacco quickly launched a damage-limitation exercise. As early as 1953, the tobacco industry sought to spread disinformation to counter medical evidence. Tobacco companies hired New York public relations company Hill & Knowlton to “get the industry out of this hole”, as industry documents released four decades later as part of legal processes revealed.

“We have one essential job – which can be simply said: Stop public panic … There is only one problem – confidence, and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it,” one Hill & Knowlton paper said.

“And, most important, how to free millions of Americans from the guilty fear that is going to arise deep in their biological depths – regardless of any pooh-poohing logic – every time they light a cigarette.”

In Britain, British American Tobacco (BAT) even invented a secret code word for lung cancer that was to be used in its internal memos.

The “C” word was to be substituted by Zephyr. As one BAT memo written in 1957 stated: “As a result of several statistical surveys, the idea has arisen that there is a causal relationship between Zephyr and tobacco smoking, particularly cigarette smoking.”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, tobacco companies were brazen in their denials despite the mounting scientific evidence linking smoking with a range of cancers.

“None of the things which have been found in tobacco smoke are at concentrations which can be considered harmful,” said a 1976 Philip Morris document. “Anything can be considered harmful. Apple sauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”

During the 1980s, behind closed doors, there were doubts about whether the denialist charade could be maintained much longer. “The company’s position on causation is simply not believed by the overwhelming majority of independent observers, scientist and doctors,” said one internal BAT document.

And then in the 1990s came another bombshell. Second-hand smoke inhaled by “passive smoking” was linked with ill-health and there were calls to introduce smoking bans.

In 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency produced a report on “environmental tobacco smoke” and concluded that it is a cancer-causing substance. In Britain, a 1998 report of the Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health stated: “Passive smoking is a cause of lung cancer and childhood respiratory disease. There is also evidence that passive smoking is a cause of ischaemic heart disease and cot death, middle-ear disease and asthmatic attacks in children.”

Despite the evidence, tobacco companies refused to accept the conclusions. Philip Morris, the world’s biggest cigarette company, began a campaign to undermine the scientific case against second-hand smoke, highlighting what it labelled “junk science”.

Its strategy was best summed up in a letter written in 1993 by Ellen Merlo, senior vice-president of corporate affairs, to the chief executive. “It is our objective to prevent states and cities, as well as businesses, from passive-smoking bans,” she wrote.

Many tobacco companies have accepted that smoking causes lung cancer, but refuse to admit that passive smoking can cause disease in non-smokers. But having lost the debate over smoke-free offices and public spaces, the industry is turning its sights against the possible introduction of plain packaging.

Their fight against these proposals is based on undermining scientific evidence that plain packaging can reduce the number of children and young adults who take up smoking. They seek to discredit the research, a tactic they have used for more than 50 years of scientific denialism.

Risk of mental illness rises with age of father

THERE has long been evidence that children of older mothers are at risk of illnesses such as Down syndrome – now it seems having an elderly father can increase the odds of developing mental illness.

Australian researchers claim they have evidence backing suggestions that children of “older” fathers are more susceptible to schizophrenia and autism.

Epidemiologist John McGrath and his colleagues report today in the journal Translational Psychiatry that older fathers pass on a type of genetic mutation, which they develop as they age. And those mutations, copy number variants (CNVs), boost the risk of schizophrenia and autism.

“The evidence is mounting that the biological clock ticks with men as well as women,” said Professor McGrath from Queensland University’s Brain Institute.

According to Professor McGrath, it’s too early to make public health recommendations, but people should be aware that older fathers can put their youngsters at increased risk of the debilitating mental disorders.

“It’s also important because these mutations may be inherited by future generations,” he said.

The team backed its claim with experiments with a genetically identical strain of mice. They bred young dads, old dads and middle-aged “control” dads with mothers of the same age, then examined the offspring once they grew up.

“We found the offspring of older dads had significant numbers of CNVs, whereas the offspring of younger dads had none. It was a startling finding,” said Professor McGrath.

The CNVs they identified in the mice had been identified in people with schizophrenia. He said the team was “astounded” to find a CNV linked to autism.

Newcastle University molecular biologist Murray Cairns, with the Schizophrenia Research Institute in Sydney, said: “We’ve known that paternal age is a risk factor for schizophrenia and autisms and now this is a validation that it could have something to do with CNVs”.

European study sees no mobile phone-cancer link

A EUROPEAN study involving nearly 1000 participants has found no link between mobile phone use and brain tumours in children and adolescents, a group that may be particularly sensitive to phone emissions.
The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, was prompted by concerns that the brains of younger users may be more vulnerable to adverse health effects — such as cancer — from mobile phones.
In the past two decades, mobile phone use has soared among children in developed countries, with one study suggesting that most youths start to use mobile phones by age 9 or 10. Children have a developing nervous system, and cellphone emissions penetrate deeper into their brains. Studies have indicated that the outer brain tissue of children ages 5 to 8 may absorb twice the amount of cellphone energy absorbed by adult brains.
Public health data indicate no increase in brain tumours among children in the US and many parts of Europe, whether from cellphone usage or any other cause. The latest research “shows that a large and immediate risk of mobile phones causing brain tumours in children can be excluded,” said Martin Roosli, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel.
After two decades of research, there’s little evidence conclusively linking mobile phone use in adults to major health problems, such as the development of brain tumours.
A 13-country study of adults, released last year, suggested that there was no increased brain-cancer risk for mobile phone users compared with non-users. However, the heaviest users appeared to have a slightly increased risk of a certain type of brain cancer.
In May, based on a review of existing science, the World Health Organisation announced that mobile phones were “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. Yet even that technical classification didn’t specifically link mobile phone use to cancer. Instead, in the WHO’s own words, it meant that while a link had been observed, “chance, bias or confounding (factors) could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence.”
The children’s study, based to a significant extent on self-reported data, has limitations. The subjects had been using their phones only for an average of about four years, which may not be long enough to ascertain cancer risk. Plus, the time they spent on voice calls — where the phone is held to the ear — was relatively small. Many children use their phones primarily for text messages, rather than calls.
Because of these limitations, and because mobile phone usage continues to increase, “we should still keep an eye” on any possible health effects in children, said Dr Roosli.
Mobile phones emit non-ionising radiation, which has enough energy to cause atoms in a molecule to vibrate, but not enough to remove electrons. Sound waves and visible light waves are other examples of non-ionising radiation.
Animal studies have suggested that mobile phone emissions aren’t strong enough to directly damage DNA. But fears of such a risk remain, both for adults and for children.
Dr Roosli and his colleagues studied mobile phone usage in 352 people ages 7 to 19 who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour between 2004 and 2008. They also looked at mobile phone use by 646 control subjects drawn randomly from the general population but who matched the first group by age, sex and geographical region.
The subjects in both groups were quizzed about how often they used their phones for voice calls. The researchers also obtained usage data from wireless providers, when it was available. The study was conducted in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.
The scientists concluded that regular users of mobile phones weren’t more likely to have been diagnosed with brain tumours than non-users. Other observations showed no increased risk of tumours for brain areas that received the most exposure.
Kurt Straif, a cancer epidemiologist at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer who wasn’t involved in the latest research, said the study was “important” because it was the first to look at a possible mobile phone and brain cancer link in children.
But the study could be hobbled by a problem. “Participants with brain cancer may not have the best recall for how often they used their phones,” said Dr Straif. The researchers weren’t able to use billing records to precisely document the phone usage of study participants.

Heaven is a fairy story – Stephen Hawking

FAMED theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking finds no room for heaven in his vision of the cosmos.

In an interview published today in The Guardian newspaper, the 69-year-old says the human brain is a like a computer that will stop working when its components fail.

He says: “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

In Grand Design, a book published last year, Hawking had declared that it was “not necessary to invoke God… to get the universe going”.

Hawking is nearly totally paralyzed by motor neurone disease, diagnosed when he was 21.

Hawking says he is not afraid of death, but adds: “I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”


Chinese students steal secrets

THE inventor Sir James Dyson has warned that Chinese students are infiltrating British universities to steal technological and scientific secrets and even planting software bugs to relay the information to China.

Dyson, best known for inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner, said he had evidence that the bugs were left by postgraduates to ensure the thefts continued after they had returned home.

He said the extent to which foreign students dominated many science, technology and engineering research posts, often paid for by the British taxpayer, was “madness”.

“As an exporter and someone developing technology here, it’s very disheartening to see these universities being used by foreign countries and foreign companies,” said Dyson.

Universities acknowledge the threat from espionage, particularly by Chinese students, and are taking measures to counter it. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We are very aware this is going on and we are taking it very seriously.”

The concerns have emerged just days after Theresa May, the home secretary, watered down plans to slash the number of foreign students in Britain. Dyson said: “Britain is very proud about the number of foreign students we educate at our universities, but actually all we are doing is educating our competitors.

“Foreign governments and businesses are prepared to pay quite a lot of money for people to study at Cambridge, Imperial College and other Russell [Group] universities because they appreciate the value of these research posts.

“They go back home taking that science and technology knowledge with them and then they start competing with us. This is mad – it is madness.

“I’ve seen frightening examples. Bugs are even left in computers so that the information continues to be transmitted after the researchers have returned home.”

A number of such cases have been uncovered at British universities, with leading research institutions the most heavily targeted.

David Willetts, the universities minister, said: “This is not something foreign students should be doing in the UK. I will study very carefully the evidence that James Dyson has got.”

Academics who go to China and other “risky” countries are advised to leave their laptops and mobile phones at home or to take disposable ones. This is to avoid information being stolen from them or of software bugs being planted which send data to China once the academic has returned to Britain.

Nearly 57,000 Chinese now study in the UK, a rise of more than 21 per cent since 2009. Although business, finance and economics are the most popular subjects, there are more than 3,000 Chinese studying electronic engineering and another 1,510 on computer science courses.

Manchester, with 1,890 Chinese in the academic year 2009-10, is the most popular university overall, while Southampton has the highest number of postgraduates from China – 945.

Some individual courses are dominated by foreign students. At Warwick, 45 of the 70 computer science postgraduate students and 95 out of 183 of those studying engineering come from outside the European Union.

Dyson has broader concerns about the small numbers of British students who are prepared to take up postgraduate research posts because they are paid as little as pounds 20,000 a year. He fears that higher tuition fees will only encourage more science, engineering and technology graduates to take better-paid jobs in industry.

Scientists say big quakes not related

Scientists have rushed to dismiss panicked talk that the slew of recent earthquakes were connected, saying the disasters were simply nature taking its course.

Friday’s magnitude 8.9 tremor in Japan – the most powerful to hit the country in 120 years – came less than a month after the devastating Christchurch quake.

A 6.1 magnitude earthquake then struck 107km south east of Tonga at 2.19pm yesterday, sending further alarm through the Pacific Island nation on tenterhooks from the tsunami warnings.

Astrologers have linked the earthquakes to the so-called “supermoon” on March 19 saying it would bring it closer to Earth than at any time since 1992, and that its gravitational pull would bring chaos.

But Canterbury University geologist Mark Quigley said the three tremors were definitely not related.

“They involve the Pacific Plate and that’s about it,” he said.

Quigley added a magnitude nine earthquake would hit Japan once every 120 to 150 years. Sediments from several historical tsunamis near Japan had been found as far away as the US west coast.

“Japan gets earthquakes. This is not a surprise in any way, they get magnitude seven earthquakes all the time.”

All three quakes were based in the Pacific “ring of fire”, one of the most volatile regions in the world.

Quigley said Tonga experienced earthquakes around 5.9 “every couple of weeks” and the theory of seismic waves being able to travel through the earth to cause movement in other faults was “at best, controversial”.

Millions of Japanese were alerted to Friday’s tremor a minute before it struck, thanks to the world’s best early-warning system.

The sophisticated technology, connected to a network of about 1000 seismometers around the country, gave people vital seconds to take cover and was thought to have saved countless lives.

“The system functioned well because warnings were seen on television across the country,” said Hirohito Naito, a seismic specialist at the Japan Meteorological Agency.

Many lessons were learned from the Kobe earthquake of 1995 that killed 6400 people and led to a reassessment of the building regulations for both residential offices and transport infrastructure.