How much wood WOULD a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Groundhog,_eating

Wooducks are sometimes known as , “whistle pigs”. Why are they even occasionally known as woodchucks? WHISTLE PIGS! Picture by D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

She sells seashells by the seashore? Does she? You wouldn’t think there would be demand for that in a place which is essentially a continuous supply of abandoned bivalve property. Or is that the warning? I suppose you never hear, “She sold shed-loads so she scandalously stowed some offshore, scheming sneakily and salvaging a steady supply of surreptitious savings. The sod.” Although, you do hear about how she (Mary Anning) was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London despite her several important paleontological finds and expertise on account of being a woman. The sods. Seventy seven benevolent elephants. Sounds like quite a specific zoo. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Sounds like a question that can actually be answered. And as sure as someone who knows that the sign language equivalent of a tongue twister is called a finger-fumbler will try to shoehorn that fact into a barely-related conversation, a question that can actually be answered will eventually get answered.

A quick search finds that three potential answers to the woodchuck conundrum are already in existence. One traditional reply holds that, “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”. While clever, tjis doesn’t really answer the question that is being asked. It’s specific in what it’s saying, but vague in how it’s of any use in the real world; like a George Osborne budget. The second potential answer is that a woodchuck can’t chuck wood. This too is not good enough in that it essentially denies the existence of a problem that it should be trying to solve. Like a George Osborne budget. The third potential answer is much better. In 1988, Richard Thomas (a wildlife technician, which is probably a thing) calculated that if a typical woodchuck burrow is 7.6 to 9.1 metres long, and the volume of dirt the woodchuck had to move to dig that burrow was translated into an equivalent volume of wood, then the woodchuck could move approximately 323 kg of wood. Much better; or at least it would be if we were asking, how much wood could a woodchuck move if the ground was made of wood? As it is, we’re left with some unsubstantiated numbers which nobody can really explain the relevance of. Which reminds me of something.

So let’s start by defining our terms. To “chuck” can mean several things, although we can safely discount most of them. It’s unlikely that the rhyme is about a woodchuck ending a relationship with some wood. Even if it were, I couldn’t find anything about paraphilia in rodents or if they could choose to abandon the object of their paraphilia, so it’s unlikely I could get an answer to that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to have my computer destroyed. Similarly, we can assume that we’re not trying to work out how much tree a woodchuck can vomit, as like rats and indeed most rodents, woodchucks can’t vomit (although there is one report of them vomiting due to red squill poisoning). Top tip: sit behind the woodchuck if you go on a rollercoaster. Overall, it’s likely that we want to know how much wood a woodchuck could throw if it was able to.

Toss_of_caber_by_CH

Some tosser. Photo by Cory Hughes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was unable to find any reports of woodchucks throwing anything, never mind wood, so decided take the data from human wood chuckers and extrapolate. Arguably, the best example of humans throwing large amounts of wood in an environment where this bark flinging is measured can be seen with the Scottish athletic feat of tossing the caber. Here the tosser (the definite proper technical term, so shut up) attempts to throw a large wooden pole (typically made from larch wood) so that it turns end over end in a straight line. The straightest end over end toss scores the most points. It’s essentially extreme timber filing. A typical caber is 5.94 metres tall and weighs 79 kg. According to the Guinness Book of World records, the largest caber ever tossed was 7.62 metres long and weighed 127 kg. This is pretty impressive, but I would argue that for “how much wood” we need a large amount of wood to be chucked several times in a set period.

The most caber tosses in three minutes is 14 and was achieved by Kevin Fast (a strong reverend) in Canada in 2013. Kevin used two 5.02 metre long cabers, each weighing 41.73 kg. Unsurprisingly, Kevin is famous as a multiple Guinness World Records title holder. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are famous for other things. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are famous for other things.

Using a fairly basic equation for Power (Work/Time, where Work = Force x Distance), we can work out that in completing his one caber’s worth of his magnificent feat of tossing, Kevin transferred 55.29 Watts.

Height lifted (Kevin’s height) = 1.75 metres
Force (Mass [41.73 kg] x Gravity [9.80665 metres per second2) = 409.23 Newtons
Time (180 seconds/14 tosses) = 12.86 seconds

Power = (409.23 x 1.75)/12.86
Power = 55.69 Watts.

In woodchucks, the forelimb (their woodchuck arms for woodchucking) contain 44 muscles, with two groups, the lattissimus dorsi and pectoralis superficialis being the largest. Apparently, woodchucks have great pecs. In being specialised for digging, the highest individual power available from woodchuck forelimb muscles is 4.0 Watts. The height of a woodchuck is 0.8 metres and we’ll give our marmot friend the same amount of time to chuck his wood as we gave Kevin.

So, if Power = (Force x Distance)/Time

Then, 4.0 = (Force x 0.8)/12.86

And Force = (4.0 x 12.86)/0.8 = 64.3 Newtons = 6.56 kg.

Adjusting for scale, this means the best woodchuck woodchucker can throw a 6.56 kg of 1.99 metres length 14 times in three minutes. This is both an answer and an adorable image.

To check our calculations, we can work out maximum woodchuckage in another way. We know that Kevin Fast weighs 136.078 kg and can therefore estimate his lean body mass to be 74.57 kg. I used the Hume Formula for this. Other formulae are available, although all are just estimates and in fact, none of them are probably suitable for a man such as Kevin who is likely more muscular than the average pastor. Since skeletal muscle is, on average, 54% of lean body mass, we can estimate that Kevin has 40.72kg of muscle.

For woodchucks, their body mass is typically about 3.13 kg in the Spring and 4.20 kg in the Summer. a woodchuck definitely wouldn’t stand for a ludicrous “beach body” advertising campaign. Given that in Spring, adipose tissue is 40.31% of a woodchuck’s body mass (56.10% in Summer) and skeletal muscle is 52.41% of lean body mass (56.10% in Summer), then a woodchuck will typically have 0.98 kg of muscle (1.00 kg in Summer).

Woodchuck_up_a_tree

Trying to chuck a whole tree might be a bit hopeful. By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

So in the Spring, Kevin has 41.09 times the muscle mass of a woodchuck, and 40.27 times the muscle mass of a woodchuck in the Summer. This is assuming that as non-hibernating mammal, Kevin’s weight and adipose proportions don’t fluctuate as wildly as woodchuck’s do. Muscle strength is proportional to cross sectional area, so it is perhaps more relevant to state that woodchucks have 6.41 times and 6.35 times smaller cross sectional area of muscle than Kevin in Spring and Summer, respectively. Correspondingly, this means that a muscular woodchuck vicar could toss a 6.51 kg caber of 1.98 metres in length in the Spring and a 6.57kg caber of 1.99 metres length in the Summer. In the Winter, it would probably be asleep. You’ll note that this is satisfyingly similar to our original estimate.

So in conclusion, depending on the season, a very strong woodchuck member of the clergy could chuck a 6.6 kg stick of wood that was nearly 2 metres long 14 times in three minutes. In addition, if on that occasion it saw its shadow, it would mean six more weeks of maths.

How tall was Princess Jasmine’s mother?

Disney's Festival of Fantasy Parade at Magic Kingdom, Princess Garden Unit

For who could ever learn to love… metrology. Photo by Jennifer Lynn (www.flickr.com/people/129451096@No8)

 

We can learn a lot of important lessons about genetics from Disney. For example, from The Muppet Christmas Carol (released in 1992 by Walt Disney Pictures) we learn that the being a frog genes are on Kermit’s Y chromosome. Thus when Kermit and Piggy have children, the boys are all frogs and the girls are all pigs. We also learn that Muppet frogs and pigs are close enough as species to interbreed, although we can’t comment how close without observing the fertility of their offspring. These are slightly more confusing lessons. I also assume that the reason that Muppet Tiny Tim couldn’t walk well, was that he was actually still a tadpole and just had pushy parents. After all there’s only one more sleep until metamorphosis.

The biological processes behind Beauty and the Beast are slightly more difficult to work out. Mrs Potts is a teapot and her son, Chip, is a cup. We know that the curse that transformed the servants of the castle into theatrical IKEA stock had been in place for 10 years. Chip seems younger than this. It should be hoped that from the moment they were transformed, the staff didn’t age and that young Chip was one of those who the witch literally made a mug of when she cast her spell. Otherwise we have to consider the idea that a teapot got pregnant and gave birth to a cup. A tale as old as time.

The biological variation within that happy crockery family is far from unique within the world of Beauty and the Beast. A person conducting a preliminary comparison of Belle and her father, Maurice, would be hard-pressed to find much of a family resemblance. Belle is tall and slim, while Maurice more closely resembles an owl that rolled itself in pastry and finished the disguise with a moustache it fashioned from leftover rodent hair. I’m not judging. I have a similar body type. The same could be said of Aladdin’s the Sultan and his daughter, Princess Jasmine. Again Jasmine is tall, with barely enough abdomen to contain her colourful Disney internal organs, while the Sultan is practically spherical and would struggle to see over a crouching slug while he was wearing platform shoes. For this to work, Jasmine and Belle’s mothers must have been 10 feet tall and essentially boneless. Either that, or Disney fathers are constructed entirely from recessive genes.

We don’t have to guess at the heights of Jasmine and Belle’s mothers. These can be calculated from the heights of the princesses and their fathers. Within medicine, a person’s adult height can be estimated from their parents’ heights, using an estimation called the mid-parental height. The calculation is as follows:

Mid-parental height = Mother’s height plus Father’s height (plus 13 for boys, -13 for girls) and divide by two.

NB: Heights are in centimetres (cm).

Tea_set,_bone

Filth!

This method isn’t perfect. For example, it doesn’t allow for extremes of parental height. Very short or very tall parents tend to have offspring of a less extreme height through simple regression to the mean. This wouldn’t be predicted by the mid-parental height estimation. However, it is a useful tool to help assess an individual child’s growth and to calculate the height of fictional princesses’ mothers. By rearranging the equation, we find that

Disney Mother Height = (Disney Daughter Height x2) plus 13, minus Disney Father Height

This idea can be tested in cases where we see both of the parents and the daughter e.g. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel in Tangled.

Unfortunately, Disney doesn’t provide us with the vital statistics of the characters. Which is pretty thoughtless of them. As a result, we’re going to have to make some crude estimates. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s father can be seen holding a wine bottle. Given that he ended up sleeping for 100 years, it must have been some pretty strong stuff. Or a witch did it. A standard wine bottle is approximately 30.5 cm and from a couple of stills from the film, Aurora’s father looks to be about 5.8 wine bottles tall. As a side note, if you start to measure you’re height in wine bottles, it might be time to take out the recycling. This may not be the least of your problems. We can therefore estimate Aurora’s father to be 176.9 cm (5 ft 10 inches) tall. From more stills, Aurora’s mother looks to be the equivalent of Aurora’s father’s head shorter than Aurora’s father. A human is roughly 7.5 heads tall so Aurora’s father’s head must be 23.6 cm, which makes Aurora’s Mum 153.3 cm (5 ft 1 inches) tall.

From the film, Aurora comes up to her father’s shoulders and so appears to be about 153 cm (5ft) tall; similar to her mother. Using the mid-parental height equation, Aurora’s height is estimated at 158.6 cm (5ft 2 inches). So we’re about 5 cm off. However, in Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is 16 years old. A woman’s final adult height can be reached at around 18 years of age, so perhaps it’s not impossible for her to grow those last 5 cm, especially if she manages to eat well and get plenty of sleep. This probably isn’t a problem.

We can test our height prediction in a similar fashion with Rapunzel from the film Tangled. In one scene, Rapunzel’s mother is observed holding a book. If we assume the book to be one octavo (a unit of measurement which should be familiar to Terry Pratchett fans, and is approximately 15.3 cm) and we can see that Rapunzel’s mother is about 10.5 books tall. We can guess Rapunzel’s mother is 160.7 cm (5ft 3 inches) tall and that her librarian is messy. Rapunzel’s father is roughly another book taller than Rapunzel’s mother, making his height 176.0 cm (5ft 10 inches).

From pictures, Rapunzel is about one third of her mother’s head shorter than her mother. If we estimate her mother’s head to be 21.4 cm long, this gives Rapunzel’s height as 153.6 cm (5ft). The mid-parental height calculation predicts Rapunzel’s height as 161.9 cm, so we’re about 7 cm off. As with Aurora, Rapunzel may still grow a bit more (although she’s 18 years old in the film) and we might argue that she is shorter due to being mistreated and held captive in a tower. Perhaps the weight of all that hair is compressing her spinal column and making her shorter. Overall, our height estimates using mid-parental height are within 10% of what we see on screen, so should be adequate for estimating the heights of Jasmine and Belle’s mothers.

Sumatran_Tiger_2_(6964693266)

Quite a bitey tape measure. Photo by Tony Hisgett (www.commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27317596)

In Aladdin, at some stage, both Jasmine and the Sultan are shown next to their pet tiger. A male tiger can be 110 cm from the ground to the shoulder. Judging by where the tiger comes up to on Jasmine, we can estimate her to be 170 cm (5 ft 7 inches) tall. Similarly, we can estimate the Sultan to be 130 cm (4 ft 3 inches) tall. The tiger method for measuring height is an exciting one, but probably won’t catch on with parents. It’s difficult to see the pen where you’ve marked-off your child’s height on the side of a tiger. Also, it’s a tiger. Using the Disney Mother Height Calculator, Princess Jasmine’s Mum’s height is estimated to be 223 cm (7ft 4 inches).

 

To put this height into context, the World’s tallest living woman, Siddiqa Parveen is estimated to be 7ft 8 inches tall (2.1 tigers, 15.3 books or 7.7 bottles of wine). Although of course she isn’t animated. Or fictional. And we cannot work out Siddiqa Parveen’s mother’s height using the Disney Mother Height calculator. That would be a ridiculous waste of time. There are other reasons.

Now it’s Belle’s turn. Luckily, in Beauty and the Beast, both Belle and her father get attacked by wolves. Luckily for us anyway. Like most wolf attacks, it’s shown as a bad thing in the story. An adult wolf is approximately 83 cm from ground to shoulder. In terms of height, Belle looks to be a double wolfer, coming in at 166 cm (5 ft 5 inches) tall. Belle’s father, Maurice, is approximately 1.67 wolves tall and therefore has a height of about 138.6 cm (4 ft 7 inches). Using the Disney Mother Height Calculator, Belle’s Mum’s height is estimated to be 206.4 cm (6ft 9 inches).

Of course, all of this assumes that Maurice was Belle’s biological father and that the Sultan was Jasmine’s. It’s likely that they were. Belle had a whole library at her disposal, so you’d think she’d have the necessary information to hand to work out if her father wasn’t related to her. Although she may have been to busy buying new furniture. All of hers recently turned into people after all.

 

Lots of New Body Parts Discovered! (Renamed)

"That's interesting. I suggest we name it the love pump" "I think that might be misleading." "OK, we'll call it the heart then."

“That’s interesting. I suggest we name it the love pump”
“I think that might be misleading.”
“OK, we’ll call it the heart then.”

Scientists have not discovered a new body part. This isn’t the most exciting headline in a time of news that includes “Russell Brand is verbose at something. People liked it, then they thought about it, then they didn’t like it” and “Richard Dawkins gets mad that he can’t have a big jar of honey on a plane because when he flies he likes to pretend he’s Winnie the Pooh.” Which is probably why The Independent and the BBC went with “Scientists have discovered a new body part.” Presumably this is in an attempt to make the story seem more interesting in order to get those fingers clicking, those wallets walletting and those pages turning.

Before you get too excited wagging that new tail, flapping those new gills and pumping your new venom gland, the discovery was supposedly of a previously unknown ligament in the human knee. As reported by The Independent, the BBC and the like; following macroscopic dissection of 41 corpses’ knees, the orthopaedic surgeons had identified this “new” ligament in the anterior (front) of the knee. They named it the anterolateral ligament, stated that it might control internal tibial rotation (help spin a leg bone) and hypothesised it might be the reason that patients experience problems after anterior cruciate ligament surgery (a common surgery following a common injury in sportsball players and in humans).

This isn’t quite right though. If you look at the abstract in the Journal of Anatomy (a publication notable for the crime of not advertising itself with the tagline “An important body of work.”), it states how this potential ligament was described in 1879 by French surgeon Paul Segond and since then it has had lots of different names and hasn’t been adequately characterised or described. Basically it’s the ligament equivalent of Madonna. The abstract then goes on to describe how the authors gave it a new name, worked out exactly where it is and had a think about what it might do. They also mention the pleasingly-named Gerdy’s Tubercle. If this isn’t the name of a pub somewhere I will be very disappointed.

So we’ve gone from discovering a new body part to verifying the existence of, clearly describing and naming the previously confusingly named body part. The latter is still impressive enough by the way. It’s just not what was being reported and spread around. That being said, if we’re allowed to just rename body parts and call them discoveries now, then I have a couple of suggestions.

The Superior Oral Shush Groove

Previously known as the philtrum, the superior oral shush groove is a vertical groove in the middle area of the upper lip, common to many mammals, extending from the nose to the upper lip. Occasionally hypothesised to act in mammals keep the nose pad wet by transporting moisture to the nose pad from the mouth via capillary action. This supposedly improves the particular mammal’s sense of smell. The clear function in humans is so you have somewhere to rest your finger when you are telling someone in the library or cinema to be quiet.

The Mysterious Face Cavities of Woe

Here be dragons! Possibly.

Here be dragons! Possibly.

Some people call these the paranasal sinuses. They are a group of four paired air-filled spaces surrounding the nasal cavity, the eyes, and also sitting behind the ethmoid bone. The ethmoid bone sits in the roof of the noise between the eyes and separates the nasal cavity from the brain. For these purposes we can rename it “the potential alternative answer to that stupid joke about why are your eyes always apart?, who nose, ha ha ha bone”. Or the ethmoid for short. The mysterious face cavities of woe exist to make skulls lighter for the purposes of morbid bowling and to repeatedly get infected and make your face feel like it’s about to burst. The grim resignation with which such infection is greeted is why these irritating face holes were originally called sigh nooses.

Inter-finger Swimmer Slingers

The bits of webbing in the interspaces of your fingers and toes are longer in some people and shorter in others. I’m not referring to syndactyly here, which is something different involving the fusion of two or more digits which is obviously something less fortunate. There is no evidence that having longer webbing helps with speed of swimming in humans in any way in a phenomenon known as Aquaman’s Lament. (It’s not, but should be.) However there is a nifty bit of physics which may mean that faster human swimmers can simulate webbing with boundary layers of water when they spread there fingers a certain distance. There are some stories that if you cut the webbing between your fingers it might make you better at playing the guitar because you’ll be able to stretch further, but this is dangerous nonsense. Just practice more. There’s no saying “How do you get to Carnegie hall? Reckless hand mutilation.” In any case, renaming the interspace webbing to inter-finger swimmer slingers rhymes and people like that. Although inter-space webbing does sound like something from science-fiction so maybe we should keep it.

 Xenomorph’s Delight

The appendix (or vermiform appendix) is a blind-ended tube connected to the caecum near the junction between the small intestine and the large intestine. I often feel there should be a book about vestigial anatomy where the appendix is the most extensively written bit. While there is some evidence that the appendix has some immune function in humans, with increased digestive involvement in herbivores, the appendix, like the mysterious face cavities of woe, is probably most famous for occasionally causing illness and surgery. If this is the case it’s name might as well hint at the possibility it could burst forth from the body with its jaws snapping like in that film about the alien which I forget the name of. The appendix won’t do that, but maybe if people thought it did it would get some respect.

 Lacrimal Gargoyles

 The nasolacrimal duct (often called the tear duct) carries tears from the lacrimal sac (tear gland) into the nasal cavity. This is in clear need of renaming because people always refer to the tear ducts as the organ that produces tears and that’s just incorrect. Similarly people always call ugly statues “gargoyles” when in fact it has to have a spout to drain water and be an ugly statue to be a gargoyle. Without the spout it is known as a grotesque. By combining the tear ducts and gargoyles into one term maybe people will start to use them correctly. Then the pedants will be happy. Except pedants are never happy. Or maybe they’ll just be wrong in a different way because after all, renaming the tear ducts as the lacrimal gargoyles is just something I made up.

Bundle of Hers

 The bundle of His is a collection of heart muscle cells specialised for the electrical conduction of impulses for the coordination of cardiac contraction. I don’t know where the bundle of Hers would be, but having it as an additional piece of anatomy might satisfy the sort of people who complain that if you have hymns in church why don’t you have hers? Well you do. It’s the car that carries the corpse to the funeral. I may have lost sight of the point I’m making here.

 Nick Clegg

At one point everyone in the Liberal Democrat party had one of these largely vestigial pieces of anatomy. However it has largely atrophied to the point where it only exists as an extension of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. Nobody knows if it has a purpose, but it is known through extensive research that it has no anatomical relationship with the spinal column.

Women are Funny.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google "funny women" to find an image for your blog post.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google “funny women” to find an image for your blog post.

When you type the phrase, “women comedians” into Google the second suggestion that appears is “women comedians aren’t funny.”Now I’ve no idea how Google works, probably librarian-trained crows, but this does seem like a worryingly common-place opinion. I have had a discussion fairly recently which involved the other person saying, “But women just aren’t funny” which made me concerned that the person I was talking to had never met or spoken to a woman. And the person I was talking to was a woman! Probably still is.

It’s not up to me to decide what’s funny. What people find humorous, while sharing many commonalities, varies wildly and so does what people say and do in an effort to be funny. Farts! This variation is obviously true of women who much like snowflakes, fingerprints or human beings are all individual and unique. Some women will be funnier on average than other women and funnier on average than some men.  The funniest woman is likely as funny as the funniest man. I don’t even though how you’d reliably judge “funniest”. What unit would it be measured in? MilliMillicans?

It’s not up to me to defend women. They are perfectly capable of defending themselves. Declaring that women simply lack the ability to be funny is odd though. While there are many theories as to what is humorous, one prevalent idea is that laughter comes with incongruity. This theory states that humour is perceived at the moment of realisation of incongruity between a concept and the real thing in relation to that concept. If this were the case (and it certainly seems to be at least some of the time) if you claim that women can’t be funny then you are claiming that women can’t conceive of ideas and situations not matching. This is an ironically difficult notion to conceive of.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

I’m not especially interested in whether the ideas that women aren’t funny or that women aren’t as funny as men are true or not. They’re blatantly not.  The Funny Women Awards have just celebrated their 11th year with the 2013 winners being duo Twisted Loaf. The Funny Women Awards unlikely to have years where they can’t award anything due to women being unusually mirthless for a select 365 days. There are multiple examples of very funny women including Sarah Pascoe (@sarapascoe), Sarah Millican (@SarahMillican75), Rachel Parris (@iamrachelparris), and Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (@Scriblit). I have purposefully not made this list extensive as I am sure to miss out some excellent individuals and some idiot is bound to sweep a paw across the list and state that “None of dem are funny” as if it were an objective truism rather than a subjective comedic preference.

I’m more interested in considering the arguments people use to justify this opinion and whether they stand up to scrutiny (they won’t). I’m going to use a vague biopsychosocial approach to do this. Not because I think detractors of female comedy, or as it is sometimes known “comedy” do so but because it’s a reasonably simple way to manage the ideas.

Evolution/Biology

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (when he wasn’t busy tweeting about students being fat) proposed that human characteristics like humour evolved by sexual selection. Sexual selection: good name for a part of evolutionary theory, bad name for a box of confectionary. He argues that humour (which he states has little survival value) emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as intelligence. On this basis if you argue that women aren’t or can’t be funny you would be arguing that either women can’t use humour to show their intelligence (clearly wrong), that they can but they don’t (clearly wrong because of examples) or that if they did men might not appreciate it (ahem). Women are showing intelligence through humour and people are ignoring it or at worse threatened by it? They would have to be pretty small-minded, insecure people. At this stage you can assume I am giving meaningful looks.

Another evolutionary psychology theory takes a break from copying Rudyard Kipling and argues that, like male deer clashing antlers, humour is produced by males competitively to impress potential mates for breeding. Consistent with this theory is research that females indicate a preference for mates who makes them laugh, whereas males prefer a mate who laughs at their humour.

However the data are not entirely consistent with this view. Most studies find male humour appeals most to other men.  In purely evolutionary terms, if you are in search of a mate to breed with, attracting a bunch of guffaws and their supposed sexual advances from members of the same gender isn’t the best move. Secondarily this theory in no way explains why women can’t do the same thing. If you’re arguing for a theory, it’s not really enough to state that they just don’t. Any attempts by MRI to catch the ovaries strangling jokes before they leave the body have thus far failed. So we’re left with a theory that tries to make humour the exclusive domain of rutting men, but fails like a pleasant look on Piers Morgan’s face.

Psychology

Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs has said fewer women become comedians because they are not so inclined to show-off or be competitive in conversation. Lee Mack stated “I am only quoting other scientific reports on it.  When men sit around together and talk they are very competitive… When you get six women in a room together they share a lot more…and it’s a more interactive. “This idea may have links to the evolutionary theories seen previously.

The concept that men are more likely to do stand-up comedy or just be funny because they are more competitive than women is pervasive. Generally, research into how groups of single and mixed sexes converse agree with what Lee Mack is saying. A sentence I never thought I’d type. But these are just tendencies. Women may be more likely to support each other in conversation, but that doesn’t mean they all do it all the time. They can also be competitive and try to show off. Same goes for men for support and chances are it’s largely context dependent.

These studies investigated conversation and weren’t about being funny and/or a stand-up comedian. Just because a woman is on average more likely not to be competitive in conversation, doesn’t mean she won’t change her style of interaction when “performing” to her friends or performing onstage as a comedian.

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn't trying to be "sexy".

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn’t trying to be “sexy”.

Finally and more importantly, competition and showing off doesn’t necessarily equate to funnier. For some reason people who make this argument seem to be focussing on one style of comedy. One-upmanship is fine for some things (human pyramids and so on), but a lot of comedy relies on interaction, support and listening e.g. improvisation, sketch comedy. Stand-up itself doesn’t need to be competitive as such and many a skilled comedian can build a hilarious act through audience interaction and support. Just watch Dara Ó Briain open a show.

Social (and some psychology)

The entertainment industry seems to agree with the idea that women are not or can’t be funny, or at least can’t be as funny as men. One figure tossed around is that only 10% of stand-up comedians are women and it’s relatively rare to see more than one woman on one of the ubiquitous comedy panel shows.  I don’t have the data to argue that many more women want to be or are funny and hard-working enough to be successful stand-up comedians and lack or don’t see the opportunity, but given societal and prevalent psychological bias it seems a likely explanation.

It would seem that across an alarming swathe of society, humour and the production of humour is not valued or even recognised in women.  If you think women aren’t funny and as a result ignore it when they are then what’s the incentive for women to be funny? Lo and behold you fulfil your own bias. Or you try to. if you hold the ridiculous opinion that women aren’t funny and as proof try to point out a non-existent lack of funny women then by your own logic you only have yourself to blame. Luckily there are women who defy this societal bias to produce excellent comedy.

Research shows humorous items are often remembered more successfully, in a phenomenon known as the humour effect. For example in one study (linked to already in these ramblings) related to providing funny captions, the items judged as funnier were remembered better. The analyses also provided evidence for a humour-based retrieval bias.  Individuals of both genders tended to misattribute humorous captions to male writers. This was true both for misremembering captions whose author’s sex the participants knew and for when participants were only guessing the sex of a caption author. So again it’s not that women can’t or aren’t being funny, it’s that due to existing societal bias, when they are you don’t remember or worse, you remember the humour and think it was a man that did it. Again you only have yourself to blame for thinking there are no funny women. “I don’t remember ever doing this!” you might shout. Quite.

The Guff at the Long-Awaited End

Ultimately there appears to be no strong argument that women can’t be funny or aren’t funny or aren’t as funny as men.  If you think there are, then you are contributing to the biased social and psychological forces that contrive give that appearance.  This isn’t surprising and I’m sorry if any of this has come across as patronising.  I don’t think that people who hold that opinion have even though about it that much other than as a subtle impact of prejudice. Then why bother taking-apart the arguments behind women being “not funny” at all? To paraphrase Josh Whedon, “I’ve got a theory, it could be bunnies…”

 

A Bad Case of the Zombies: Could a virus really cause World War Z?

A zombie playing the sousaphone. I wanted one playing the trombone because of the tenuous trombone/bone/zombie connection. Ho hum.

A zombie playing the sousaphone. I wanted one playing the trombone because of the tenuous trombone/bone/zombie connection. Ho hum.

The other day I went to see the film, World War Z. It was fine and thus ends my review of my enjoyment of it. Anyway, the real World War Z will of course be between those who pronounce it “zed” and those who pronounce it “zee”. World War Z is based on the 2006 novel by Max Brooks (a follow-up to his 2003 book, The Zombie Survival Guide). Both books are excellent and if you’re not too bored of zombie-based fiction then you should read them. I say this because there seems to have been a recent upsurge on things about zombies of some kind. The zombies are everywhere, which I suppose is ironic. The film stars Bradley Pitt as a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie-like pandemic.

In the film being a zombie (Zombieism? Esprit de corpse? Zombosis?) appears to be caused by a viral infection, primarily caught by being bitten by a zombie. Those who are bitten appear to die within about 30 seconds and then reanimate with slightly cloudy eyes. They then become very aggressive and begin to chase down victims to bite them and spread the infection. They do not appear to eat their victims; rather keep on going just generally being runny and a bit bitey. I say runny as in they run a lot rather than hinting at any advanced state of decomposition. Although eventually the zombies do appear to go a bit rotten.

I accept that all this doesn’t have to be dead-on realistic (ahem) but there are a few problems with the concept. It’s assumed that the mass zombification is caused by a viral pandemic. Yet time from being bitten to turning into a zombie appears to be too rapid for this to be the case. It would take a bit longer for whatever virus it is to circulate, invade cells, hijack their genetic machinery and start producing copies of the virus and manifest symptoms. Especially given that the virus appears to completely take over the host’s central nervous system and musculature while leaving the rest of them deceased. Like a more infectious version of Britain’s Got Talent.

While viruses certainly can be deadly they generally need the thing they’re in to be alive to make more virus and spread them. This might be by sneezing in their co-worker’s face, not washing their hands, licking fruit bowls etc. The zombie virus doesn’t appear to need this. It kills the host and still somehow has them running around. Where is the host’s energy coming from? Could the humans all just hide and wait for the zombies to fall apart? Granted this would make the film quite dull. Nobody wants to watch a film where people eat sandwiches in a bunker waiting for their enemy to decompose. Although Panic Room is OK.

The idea however that an infection can control its host’s behaviour to help its spread is well established in nature. For example, malaria is an infectious disease spread by mosquitoes, caused by one of five species of the Apicomplexan parasite, Plasmodium. Most deaths from malaria are caused by Plasmodium falciparum. It really is an awful disease with the WHO estimating that in 2010 there were 219 million cases of malaria resulting in 660,000 deaths. As I’ve hinted, Plasmodium can change the behaviour of mosquitoes to spread itself faster and wider.

The common Plasmodium Puppet. Also known as the mosquito.

The common Plasmodium Puppet. Also known as the mosquito.

Once in a mosquito, Plasmodium needs time to move to the mosquito’s gut to mate and reproduce to form ookinetes. These are a sort of mobile egg. The story of Plasmodium really ruins Humpty Dumpty. Ookinetes develop into sporozoites (Literally: “animal seed”. Don’t go planting your hamsters though!) and travel to the mosquito’s salivary gland. Prior to this it doesn’t do the Plasmodium much good for the mosquito to bite someone with the risk the mosquito might get killed during the attempt. So Plasmodium tries to alter the mosquito’s behaviour to prevent this. For a mosquito to get your blood it has to drive its proboscis through your skin and find a blood vessel. The longer this takes the greater its chances of being noticed and squashed. Like if McDonalds killed you if you queued too long rather than years later of heart disease. If a mosquito finds it too difficult to draw blood they’ll quickly give up.  A mosquito with ookinetes in it will abandon biting quicker than an uninfected one.

However once the sporozoites reach the mosquito’s mouth, it benefits Plasmodium for the mosquito to bite as much as possible.  The Plasmodium at this stage appears to make the mosquito “hungrier”, causing it to drink more blood and visit more hosts to get it. In these ways and more Plasmodium is manipulating its hosts behaviour to reproduce itself and spread more easily.

Some species of tapeworm live in the three-spined stickleback but also spend part of their lifecycle in the birds that eat these fish. The tapeworms can alter the behaviour of the fish making it more likely they’re caught and eaten. As you’d expect, sticklebacks try to keep away from heron. They stay away from the surface and if a heron appears they dart away. Sticklebacks infected with tapeworm appear to become more fearless, staying near the surface to feed even if a heron is about. These are more likely to be eaten and the tapeworm gets where it wants to go; into the heron.

Similarly, Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan of “don’t go near the litter tray if you’re pregnant” fame, needs to move between rats and cats and back again to complete its lifecycle.  A healthy, uninfected rat will normally become anxious when it smells cat urine staying away from where they smelled it.  They will literally piss off. Rats infected with Toxoplasma however do not become anxious when they catch the scent of a cat, do not avoid it and increase their chances of becoming dinner.

Toxoplasma also appears to alter the psychology of humans it infects. Men infected with Toxoplasma become less willing to follow rules and less worried about being punished for breaking these rules. Women infected with Toxoplasma become more outgoing. Toxoplasma: the party protozoa! I probably shouldn’t get into marketing. It is not fully known how this occurs although there is some evidence that Toxoplasma increases production of the neurotransmitter dopamine and in males, increases testosterone levels.  It should be noted that this evidence is largely from rats. A lot of evidence is.

Afraid? Are you a man or a mouse? Or are you infected with Toxoplasma?

Afraid? Are you a man or a mouse? Or are you infected with Toxoplasma?

All of our examples have been parasites, but the infection is World War Z is cited as a virus, which I guess technically can be seen as a parasite. Can a virus alter its host’s behaviour to aid its spread? You bet your hot butter on toast it can! The baculovirus, infects the caterpillars of the European gypsy moth and causes them to climb to the tree-tops. Once there they die and liquefy, releasing thousands of viral particles to rain down and infect more unfortunate caterpillars. In this way Lymantria dispar forces the caterpillar to turn itself into a piñata and explode itself, raining down sweets i.e. a nasty virus, on other unsuspecting future piñata-pillars.

Rabies is another viral disease that manipulates its hosts’ behaviour. Rabies causes acute encephalitis in warm-blooded animals, including humans. More than 55,000 people, mostly in Africa and Asia, die from rabies every year. There are three stages of rabies progression. The first is characterised by behavioural changes and is known as the prodromal stage. The second is the excitative stage. This stage is also known as “furious rabies” as the infected animal is exceptionally aggressive, hyper-reactive and will bite with little provocation. The virus is present in the nerves and saliva and as such the route of infection is usually, but not always, by a bite. With the encephalitis induced aggression and biting, the virus’ manipulation to aid its spread becomes clear. The third stage is the paralytic stage (due to motor neuron damage) which is followed by death.

The excitative stage of rabies is the example we’ve seen that is most similar to our zombie virus and in fact in the film the zombie pandemic (a good name for a band) is initially mistaken for an outbreak of rabies. So could a virus cause the changes seen in World War Z and cause a zombie pandemic with Brad Pitt staring concerned across various international scenes? Probably not, but parasites and viruses can certainly manipulate their hosts behaviour in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Although ultimately it might be preferable to have your emotions and behaviour manipulated by watching a film. Panic Room is OK.

Wondering About Wonders of Life: Does it matter that Brian Cox is not a biologist?

If a brain in a jar thinks it watched "Take Me Out", will it still experience the irreversible damage?

If a brain in a jar thinks it watched “Take Me Out”, will it still experience the irreversible damage?

Professor Brian Cox has been on the telly recently and like everyone who goes on the telly he received a bit of criticism. Not from the various groups that harbour general furiousness at Professor Cox for showing that the Earth orbits the sun, or that very small particles can tell us something important about the entire universe or that unicorns don’t wear yellow wellingtons (or indeed any wellingtons), but by some scientists.

Over the past few weeks the image of Professor Cox has been flying into our homes, lounging at our delighted and curious faces over a partially lit mountain, a photosynthesising jellyfish in one hand, a mantis shrimp in the other and an infectious grin and a great big particle physicists brain in the centre. Following his successful series Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Cox is starring (or the biological equivalent not involving stars) in Wonders of Life. This show is about life in general and more specifically about how physics affects life and its definition, development and everyday functioning. For example the first two episodes were about what life “is” and how living things used physics to detect their surroundings. Sounds good doesn’t it? It is.

So why are some people annoyed? Well, it’s because Brian Cox is a physicist and this is about life, the turf of the biologists. And if anyone should know about turf it’s the biologists. This seems like an issue that has passed, and indeed a lot of the criticisms seemed only to be present just before and during the first episode. However I took the radical decision to watch the whole series and have a think before putting my precarious and confused thoughts on the matter in a blog post. I enjoyed the series and learned a lot. I certainly don’t agree with the mean spirited and badly thought out argument by Elaine Glaser that Brian Cox presents science in a manner that evokes wonder at science but little else.  Quite the contrary. I am much more in agreement with Stephen Curry’s Occam’s Corner article on the subject. The show invoked wonder, gave explanation and invited further investigation by the viewers themselves. The nobbers!  But does the fact that a show about life in its disgusting and multiple forms is presented by a physicist rather than a biologist matter?

Not really. The point of the show is to relay science, with some pretty pictures if possible, into the waiting and receptive eyes and brains of the viewers. As long as the facts and the scientific methods used to achieve these facts are as true as the scientific model will allow then does it matter who passes them along? As long as it’s done with a modicum of charm, is clear and conveys understanding, which Brian Cox of course manages to do, it should be fine right? He is a well known figure, known for his expertise and enthusiasm for science in general and this renown is useful in gaining audience trust and attracting an audience to a more credible show in the first instance.  Brian Cox is a particle physicist and nobody seemed to mind when he makes shows about space. It’s all just physics innit? It’s all the same innit? (No)

But it’s about biology, the biologists cry in a manner as loud and as plaintive as that of the kakapo, the loudest and one of the most amusingly named birds, whose mating call can be heard from 4-5 miles away! Isn’t it? Tangentially, yes. The show is about biophysics and as such and by the arguments of those who are complaining should need a biophysicist rather than a biologist. It’s not as if the show doesn’t have biologists behind it, advising on the presentation of their incredible and complex subject. To ignore their input and focus on Cox as the star (Starfish? Is this a biological equivalent?) is to miss their own point. Biologists and biophysicists do have a vital input to the show; they’re just not relaying the words.

As I have already mentioned Professor Cox has previous form in this area. He makes interesting and accessible shows that get people interested in science and if people need a recognisable face to draw them in then is that really a problem? Sir David Attenborough himself recently said he would gladly pass the torch of his legacy in science presenting to Professor Cox. This must have felt an astounding honour and I’m not sure many would argue that Attenborough has no experience of and no right to talk about nature. If they do it’s probably while whispering while hiding in a bush. Which is ironic.

Or is a trick being missed like a magician with bad aim? Could the show have been used to add another inspirational figure to the television roster? A biologist or biophysicist would have even more enthusiasm talking about a field they know in even greater detail and could act as another role model for people to admire and to seduce them further into scientific interest, exploration and understanding.

This is obviously a balancing act. Use a new expert for every programme and you lose the “celebrity” draw and trust in the show that initially attracts people and likely allows the show to be created in the first place. Only use one echinoderm (It doesn’t work, does it?) for every science programme and you lose credibility. After all if you’re only using the presenter as a celebrity to learn and repeat some facts and explanations without fully understanding them themselves then we might as well be watching Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Geology or The Davina McCall of Nature. And as interesting as it is we can’t make every science TV show or documentary somehow about physics. This way lies such shows as Dead or Alive?: The Quantum Physicist’s Guide to Feline First-Aid and Wonders of the Art of Salvador Dali.

But the real star (I think we’ll just stick with that) of the show is of course the science and if that’s getting across accurately and entertainingly then that’s fine with me. Would it be good to have a biologist or biophysicist presenting this show and shows in a similar vein? Yes of course, the more the merrier, up to the point of celebrity dilution and audience loss. This feels like it needs a graph.

Is it bad for Brian Cox to do it? No, not really. I’m not an expert in television or physics so by a lot of the arguments relevant to this discussion my opinion on it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t.  This seems like a good point to end the blog post. So does it matter that Brian Cox is not a biologist but is making TV programmes tangentially connected to biology? A bit but no really. Not an astounding or strong conclusion but like many issues in science communication the issue isn’t clear cut. Carry on Professor Cox! This is not a film suggestion.