Getting metaphysical

Maybe going as far as paraphysical here. This is not theory, not even hypothesis. It’s just speculation. I know diddly squat about astrophysics, so don’t bamboozle me with your high-faluting equations and stuff like that. Keep it to street level if you want to explain why this is nonsense.

We’ll start with the caveat that it probably is nonsense.

It all began with a (public) Twitter exchange about time.

Which set me thinking in rather more than 140 characters. I did consider calling this post ‘Stop – Twittertime!’ However I need that construction for something else later 😉

Okay. Let’s start from the premise that the universe appeared in the big bang, We can argue about who lit the fuse another time, And yes, the big bang is theory, but that word has a different meaning in science. It means it is not proved but there is evidence to suggest it might be true. I accept that we could be the product of random cosmic forces, I also accept we could be but a spark from one of God’s fireworks. It’s all open to debate. That’s how science works.

This is not about religion vs. science. This is about the nature of time.

Incidentally, if I recall correctly, the Chinese ‘see’ time as coming out of the ground and going up, whereas we in the West ‘see’ it as going forward.

But then time isn’t moving. We are. We move through time so, as I said in that short discussion, what if time is what holds the universe together? What if that is the foundation stone?

Whether Creation or Big Bang, either way, time did not exist before the start because time is an integral part of the universe. We see three dimensions of space and we ‘see’ (rather, we experience) one of time. There could well be more dimensions, hiding all that ‘dark matter’ we know is out there.

If any God exists then he/she/it (obviously not human) must exist in more than our three physical dimensions. That would allow God to be everywhere, or at least see everything, at once. A four dimensional being would look at our three dimensional world in the same way we look at a two dimensional drawing. Five dimensions and our universe is a dot. A microfiche.

I believe science currently allows eleven physical dimensions. We barely exist at all at the top of that scenario. ‘Made from dust’ could well be a literal interpretation in that case.

But I digress. As usual.

If the universe uses time as its foundation then time travel is impossible. The universe is on the skin of a balloon expanding from its point of origin. There’s nothing outside and nothing left behind. It’s easier to picture if you think in four dimensions – we’re on the three dimensional skin of a four dimensional balloon. We don’t see inside or outside the balloon, we only see along the skin. Light seems to go in a straight line in our world but look at it in four dimensions and it’s zooming around through the skin of the balloon.

A balloon inflated by time.

Time is the dimension we cannot see. We can move in the three dimensions we are confined to but we cannot move in time, we are carried along by it. We experience it but cannot see it and cannot change direction.

There is no ‘past’ because the skin of the balloon has left that behind as it inflates. There is no fixed future because the skin of the balloon has not reached that point yet. Time recognises only ‘now’. Every point in time exists only now.

Sure, you can find relics of the past embedded in, and carried along with, the passage of time through space but you can’t go back there. It’s not there any more. Similarly, you cannot visit the future because it hasn’t happened yet.

You can still make a time machine of sorts. It can put you in stasis so you wake up in the future but going back to change the past? Forget it. The past is the void inside the balloon. If you go into the future and don’t like it, tough. There’s no way back.

I mean come on. If you had the chance, wouldn’t you want to go back and kill Hitler when he was still just a crappy painter? Or wipe out the Marquis de Sade or Torquemada or Stalin or Pol Pot any other mass murdering bastards of history? It’s never happened has it? They are all still there in history. Nothing gets fixed because nothing can be fixed. Once you’ve done it, it’s done.

As for the future, my own experience suggests that some people make accurate predictions but never very far ahead (one human lifetime is not even a tick of the clock at this scale of things) but that suggests no more than a tiny bit of variation in the process of time. Barely, probably not even, detectable on a cosmic scale. A minimal hysteresis in the mechanism that any engineer would be delighted to achieve.

Nostradamus? I read his ‘predictions’ So vague they could be interpreted any old way and even he has been ignored now.

There is nothing to suggest anyone from the future has visited the past and nothing to suggest the future can be predicted more than a trivial amount ahead. Travel in time is not possible for us.

However, a creature outside the limitations of our three physical dimensions might not be so constrained.

Maybe, this Halloween, we’ll meet one.

 

 

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The Revenge of the Poultry from Beyond the Gravy…

Salmonella and Campylobacter. Sigh. I have grown enough of these in a single experiment to bring down a medium sized city.

Oh it’s easy, when you use growth media designed to make them grow fast. It’s how we find them quickly when there’s an outbreak. It’s also how we test food before it goes on sale. Sometimes it’s in the supermarkets before the test is complete but we can recall it pretty fast.Heavy contamination will show up in 24 hours but it takes about 4 days to be certain it’s a negative.

We test for other things too but the big names in chicken and turkey and general poultry are Salmonella and Campylobacter.

At the end of the experiment, everything goes into a big pressure cooker called an autoclave. Fifteen minutes in there and there is no life anywhere inside it. It’s not magic, it’s exactly the same principle as a home pressure cooker, just scaled up so you can fit a disobedient technician into it. In the past, we actually used home pressure cookers in the lab as benchtop sterilisers for small amounts. of stuff. Now there are custom built benchtop ones. They do the same thing but they look more sciency and they have timers so they don’t go bang if you forget.

For these two nasties, all you need is to have the centre of the meat exceed 80 decrees C and they’re dead. Cook that chicken properly, don’t handle salad with chicken grease on your fingers and you’re fine. It’s only dangerous when it’s raw, or when you let it contaminate stuff you aren’t going to cook.

I’ve never had either infection despite my cavalier cooking methods and despite working with them (and other nasties I haven’t personally caught) for almost 40 years. They aren’t hard to kill.

They are, however, very hard to get rid of at source. For Salmonella, many UK poultry farms use a vaccine introduced via drinking water. It won’t wipe them out but it will reduce their numbers. On a bird carcass, Salmonella is mostly surface contamination. Inside surfaces too – it lives in the guts and can get into some internal organs. Still, that’s easy. As long as the surface is cooked, it’s dead.

Campylobacter is a little different. This one lives in the gut too but it can get into muscle tissue. It can be inside the meat. That’s the one you need to kill by cooking the chicken all the way through. Getting the centre of the meat past 80C is enough – you don’t need 200C in the centre. If you achieve that, you have a roast chicken that will shatter like glass when you try to carve it and will probably be about the size of a quail.

Minced/ground meat is a special problem. For any meat. If you have a beef steak you can flash-fry the outside and the inside can be pretty much raw. The only contamination is on the outside. Ostrich steaks are also best quick-cooked. Even though they are birds they don’t seem to suffer Campylobacter infections.

If you make steak mince, you have mixed the outside contamination all through the final product. It’s now internally contaminated and – as with sausages and burgers – you need it cooked right through.

So with poultry mince you will now have both Salmonella and Campylobacter all through the finished product. Nasty.

Not if you cook it thoroughly. It’s mince. If there are no pink bits left then all the bits are cooked and the nasties are dead. I admit, when making any dish with mince, I cook the mince completely before starting with any added sauces. I take no chances with high risk foods.

Should the mince be a no-risk food? That’s impossible. You can never be sure the processing plant is perfectly sterile even if the starting product is clear of pathogens. The processing plant is staffed by people and if you sterilise your staff in an autoclave their productivity will suffer and you might get nasty letters from their relatives. People carry diseases. It happens. Deal with it.

How do you deal with it? Cook it thoroughly and wash your hands after handling raw meats. Disinfect kitchen surfaces (the spray stuff is good enough, you don’t need a flamethrower) and wipe down with disposable paper towels, not a cloth. A contaminated cloth is a stupid thing to have in a kitchen.

That’s it. That’s really it. Poultry, mince, any raw meat is a risk but it’s an easily managed risk. Just do what your grandparents did. It worked for them and it’ll work for you.

Each year, the article says, 830,000 Americans get sick from eating contaminated poultry. There is no excuse for this. All it takes is a few simple things – proper cooking and kitchen hygiene.

You are not going to eradicate these bacteria at source. You’re dealing with living organisms and chickens are, it must be said, among the most disgusting of living things.

But they taste so good. Just cook them properly.

 

Mouldy old dough

I loved that song as a kid.

Anyway, this isn’t about singing. It’s about fungi. A group that includes both yeast and moulds.

Basically, yeast grow as single cells and you make bread and booze with them. Moulds grow in thread-like bundles called ‘mycelia’ and you make blue cheese with them. The distinction isn’t absolute, sometimes yeast can grow like mould and mould can grow like yeast.

There are very few infective yeasts. Candida albicans is one. If you’re one of those trendies who have named your daughter ‘Candida’ she’s not going to see a lot of action from anyone educated.

Ringworm, athletes’s foot and a few other fungi will infect you too but mostly fungi like to grow around 20degC. Inside the body is too warm for them. There are exceptions, the anaerobic fungi that grow in ruminant animals… but I’m drifting into lecturer mode and they don’t matter here.

No, if a mould is going to get you it’ll mostly be Farmer’s Lung or poisoning. Farmer’s Lung is a massive inhalation of fungal spores. Aspergillus gets the blame usually because it grows on hay. Really though, it doesn’t matter which one too much, it’s the mass that matters. Turn the hay, shift bales around, farmers do this in immense quantities and if it’s mouldy at all then disturbing it will throw a huge amount of spores into the air. Breathe them in and the irritation causes fluid buildup and before you know it, your doctor insists you must be a smoker even if you’ve never heard of tobacco.

Poisoning, well, picking your own mushrooms can do that. Destroying Angel is an innocent looking mushroom but very very deadly. Unless you know exactly what you are doing, get your mushrooms at the supermarket. Those are grown by mushroom growers who know what they are doing. Amateur mycologists are rare because most of them are dead now.

Shaggy Inkcap is a nice one. Get it before it turns to ink and fry it lightly. I know where a patch grows. But don’t have alcohol with it – it reacts very badly with alcohol. You won’t die but you might wish you had  😉

So, who just did a double take? Who thought I changed subjects between mould and mushrooms? I didn’t. Mushrooms, toadstools, they are all moulds.

More accurately they are the fruiting bodies of moulds. The spore producing parts. The seed pods, if you like. The frilly bit under the mushroom is where the spores are formed and released. Millions of them. Button mushrooms are the artichokes of the microbial world. The unopened flower.

Quorn is made of mould. Stilton is nothing without its surface mould and neither is Brie nor Camembert. The blue lines in many cheeses are a live mould. I like to keep Danish Blue until it’s turned very blue indeed. In fact, when the other cheeses start to turn blue, that one is ready.

I know, there is a terror of mould these days. The black stuff growing on your damp walls is nasty. Kill it immediately. And yet other moulds are good to eat. The cheese moulds are no different to eating mushrooms. It’s all mould.

It’s all killed in your stomach, you know. It’s hot and acidic in there.

If your fridge has no detectable levels of mushroom spores I can conclude that you never eat mushrooms. The same goes for spores of the white moulds around Brie or Camembert or the blue moulds through other tasty cheeses. They are all producing spores all the time.

You know what? It doesn’t matter. In a reasonably clean fridge the mould are the Biblical seeds that fell on stony ground. They can’t grow in there. It’s too cold and there’s no food.

And you are supposed to clean the fridge once in a while…

I’m not going into the whole range of different spore formations, it’s tempting but I’m not a lecturer any more. The basis is, mould spores are everywhere all the time. Always have been. Don’t worry about it.

Food that goes mouldy had those spores on it from the start. When you bought it or grew it, the spores were on it. If it’s mouldy it means only one thing. You kept it too long. Bin it.

As long as you’re not a total idiot, moulds are not scary. The red one with white spots, Amanita, is one to avoid. Yes you can get high on a small dose, but get the dose wrong and you get so high that Saint Peter says the last hello. As I said, if you don’t know what you’re doing leave them alone and stick to shop ones.

I seem to be alternating between terrifying and harmless. Well, it’s just common sense. Would you eat of the fruit of a tree you don’t know? Especially one you’ve been told is a bad idea to eat from?

Actually the Bible starts with the first humans doing just that. Might not be just a story. Could be a description of human nature.

‘Don’t do that, it’ll kill you’

‘Oh you think so? Watch this’.

Yeah… Not much has changed.

CStM told me about the last general strike in Denmark. People were stocking up on things in case they ran out and one of the things was yeast. Bread making yeast. In Denmark it’s sold as live active yeast, not the dry spores we get in the UK, so it has a very limited shelf life. Buying loads of it is silly. As she said, everyone could have gone for a sourdough approach starting with one pack. Nobody thinks of that unless they’ve studied at least a bit of microbiology and/or breadmaking.

Fungi make your bread and your beer and wine and whisky. They give you all those fancy and plain mushrooms and exotic cheeses. And yet you are terrified of them. I suppose it’s not a surprise. You’re all scared of bacteria and yet enjoy yogurt and salami and sauerkraut…

The modern obsession with ‘clean’ is killing you. You think you’re being healthy. No. You’re becoming weak.

The Daily Scare tells us that there are mould spores all over the place and we should be terrified. Sigh. If there weren’t spores all over the place we’d be on a different planet. A dead one.

I mean, look at it. They want us scared that a mould might grow in our carpet – a mould that is either only dangerous to grass or that is actually edible. Your carpet has to be continuously damp to get any growth at all and only then, if it’s a mould that can grow on carpet

So, a wool or cotton degrading mould then. It has to be able to eat the food it’s growing on. Moulds do tend to grow on dead organic matter so wool or cotton would do. Polyester carpet? Don’t spill any food on it…

The Mail have taken a basic-interest science study and turned it into a scare story.

I think tomorrow I’ll maybe get shares in the company that sells spray bleach.

Antibiotic shares? Nah, the idiots will eventually find out where they came from…

 

 

 

Oh I almost forgot…

 

Science and books

I am in some science books. They’ll never make the bestseller lists because they are horribly expensive books, but as a contributor I sometimes got a free one.

My favourite is a non-serious article called ‘Science and the Simulated Organism’ but that’s a story for another day.

It has long been an ambition of mine to produce science books in non-jargon language at an affordable price. Maybe Leg Iron Books will one day achieve that. Books students can read and not say ‘What the blistering fuck does that mean?’ on every second page. That could be fun and useful too.

It used to happen. I still have a copy of A.E. Lehninger’s ‘Biochemistry’ which is probably woefully out of date now but which was invaluable in getting me through the first year of university.

Ah, university, three years I’ll never recall in detail and some of the flashbacks still make me wince. And yet… I learned enough to pass with a good degree and impressed a few professors enough to get me invited on to a PhD course. Oh I didn’t apply for that. It only recently occurred to me that I have very limited experience in applying for any job. The ones I applied for, I mostly didn’t get. Most of them just happened. A phone call, ‘are you interested in this?’ sort of thing. I did begin to wonder if someone was trying to keep me out of the way.

I applied for the janitor job. Well, I called in about the job at 4 pm and was employed at 7 pm. Boss later told me she wasn’t sure I’d be up to it and gave me a chance. Today she sent more texts asking me to come back. I am tempted to put on the uniform for one day and go in, just to see the looks on the staff faces.

Universities are not what they were, some say. Yes, they are, although they are worse now. We had the dopey dicks in charge of the student’s union when I was there (1978-1981) and they insisted we buy life membership to the student union. I didn’t. The bars in there were cheap but so damn humourless we rarely used them. The Cardiff dockside bars were much more fun – back then, before they yuppiefied the whole derelict area.

Universities were always loaded with Leftie idealists and they’d get involved in committees and running the student’s union rather than doing proper student things like drinking and smoking and learning stuff with the remaining brain cells. They never grasped the simple equation that we ‘normal’ students managed to get real degrees in real subjects even though we had destroyed at least 50% of our thinking capacity with strong drink. They, on the other hand, managed to scrape a third in elementary witchcraft and daytime TV while abstaining from anything that could harm what little brain they possessed. Which, on the face of it, was probably a wise decision.

Basically, only idiots join committees and committees should be nothing more than a gateway drug into the secure psych ward or at least the remedial class or perhaps a bag and reservoir thing….

What Frank describes was starting to happen when I was in university. The useless and the downright dangerous-in-a-lab morons were pushed out of the way. Not fired, the union wouldn’t allow it, but shunted upward into admin and manager roles. The dopes were put in charge.

In those days it didn’t matter too much. Nobody took any notice of them anyway. Later though, they took control of the money and then things got very screwed up indeed. Research priorities changed. You couldn’t research for the sake of it any more, there had to be a profit motive.

Then the profit motive took over and it didn’t matter what the results really were, the conclusions had to fit the funder’s declared interests. That’s where we are now. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Get the right result or next year, you’re teaching HND tractor control.

The Leftie Loonies leave university with a determination to make the world a dark, sad and miserable place. I left university with a 2:1 Hons in microbiology and John Otway’s autograph on a copy of DK50/80. And a hangover. And a job as a research assistant working on oil spill degrading bacteria, that later morphed into a PhD on something entirely different.

You know what? In nearly 57 years, I have never been on any kind of march or picket line for anything.

I don’t believe the world owes me anything.

Neither does the world.

Never the easy way

Okay, that’s the referendum out of the way, aside from the bleating of those who cannot accept they were outvoted this time. When people develop a mindset that tells them they are always right, when they believe themselves intelligent even though they struggle to spell IQ, that is always going to happen. Get the popcorn, open the news feed, and watch them scramble.

As for me, well, things just got interesting. Sigh. Yes, again.

I was on the verge of shutting down my little lab completely. I hadn’t had cause to use it for a long time and really, it was just a white elephant.

The janitor job had more hours cut again and I really think we’re being phased out. With no other suitable jobs around I decided to invent my own and started setting up as a publisher. That’s going well, but not as fast as I had hoped.

For the next two weeks I am working as holiday cover for the Other Me in the shop so I’ll be there every day. Then Boss goes on holiday for a week – and then I have to take time off or I’ll go insane in there!

So, with all this going on, what does Life do? It throws me a curve ball.

After a few phone calls, I have a meeting next week to discuss doing some research work for a Very Big Company, using my little lab. Why me? Well, I have the intestine simulator in my lab, and you can’t buy this thing. I made it from the ground up and this latest version isn’t in any publically available research paper. It’s only been used in commercial research. The lab has a last minute reprieve. Well, I’ll keep it for another three months and see if this project gets anywhere. Very Big Companies sometimes float ideas and then just say ‘nah’.

As if it wasn’t going to be busy enough with holiday cover and starting up a publishing business, I now have to prepare to sell my brain to a Big Company that has so much money they can pay me enough out of the petty cash box to at least double my annual income.

So, which of the jobs will take a back seat? None of them of course. Everything will take a little longer than I had anticipated but nothing is getting shelved. It’ll be a hellishly busy few weeks but it’s all going to happen. All of it. Impossible? Probably. I’ll do it anyway.

Am I making this difficult enough? Maybe I should start learning Danish at the same time, just to make it more interesting…

It won’t be allowed to happen

The discovery of antibiotics was a massive blow to the Righteous. Before that, they could scare us all into celibacy with tales of syphilis and gonorrhea, and of the terrible toll the ‘cures’ for those diseases took.

Syphilis was cured by giving the patient mercury in wine. Yes, the liquid (and highly toxic) metal. You took the chance that the disease would die before you did. Well, if you didn’t try it you had the loss of your mind to look forward to and a final end covered in suppurating pustules while gibbering in an asylum. At least you get some wine and possibly a slightly cleaner death.

Penicillin and the later antibiotics changed all that. The Righteous would exhort us all to stay away from loose women and sex-crazed tarts in case you suffered Shrivelling in the Underpant Regions or Green Fur Balls or a nasty seepage of something noxious from the little chap’s eye or (for the ladies) the vertical smile.  Terrible tales to keep us all on the straight and incredibly narrow Puritan path.

Once antibiotics were available we could go out bonking away willy-nilly and if we caught something, a quick visit to the clap clinic would soon fix it. The terror of the old venereal diseases was dissipated. Now we have new ones – HIV is the scariest of them. You don’t even know you have it until everything just stops working.

The latest scary story to keep us all in line is cancer. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat sugar or salt, live your life as directed or you’ll get The Lumps. You will turn into something that looks like a well chewed and discarded bubble gum and then you will die and be buried in an odd shaped coffin.

So, this is not going to be allowed to work.

Cancer Research UK have control of the research. It looks like a particularly brilliant idea but if it does work, CRUK will stamp on it. A quick and easy cure for cancer? What about all the funding they get to find such a cure? If they actually find it, the money stops.

They need to get close enough to keep the money coming but never actually reach their goal or the money stops. Like ASH, who continually report they have reduced the number of smokers but the number can never be zero.

Imagine the effect of a quick and easy cancer cure. Antismoking, antidrinking, antisalt, antisugar, antifat, anti pretty much everything depends on cancer as the scary consequence of not living as directed by the Righteous. It would all collapse!

We could all smoke and drink as much as we want and if we get The Lumps there would be an easy and quick cure. The scary cancer would be no more and so many Righteous groups would be shut down that the unemployment queues would be visible from space.

The theory is sound. As long as the growth media for the leucocytes maintains their activity, it will work. The idea for a vaccine against a specific cell surface antigen is even better. In fact, it’s a particularly impressive bit of brilliant real science. What a pity it’s so tied to the Righteous.

It should have been independent and kept quiet until it was ready to go, like the antibiotics.

As it is, the Righteous own the research and if it does work it’s going to be silenced.

Too much money depends on its failure.

Light food

Sometimes scientists get so wrapped up in a stroke of genius that they lose sight of reality. Take the idea of making LED lighting from food waste. That is a truly wonderful bit of lateral thinking, and they have succeeded in doing it.

And yet it’s entirely pointless. Of course, that is no reason to not do it. I firmly believe in experimenting for the sake of it and doing weird stuff just to see if it can be done. I mean, I have painted a London bus with tiny paintbrushes and am currently using nail polish to make a sparkly truck. So if someone says ‘I wonder if we can make a working LED out of a stale taco?’ then I’m in.

It’s what science was like when I started. When I was involved in measuring tiny levels of oxygen using luminous marine bacteria (Vibrio fischeri is a lovely sight in a dark incubator room) and wrote papers on poking a mass spectrometer into cows and sheep. I wrote a thesis on the protozoa of the rumen and in my spare time I found methane oxidising bacteria in the pig gut just for fun.

At some point it stopped being fun. The bean counters who can’t spell IQ started asking ‘Yes, very clever, but how do we sell it?’

Sell it? We don’t sell science, we just publish it and move on. It was never designed to be a business. Sure, the discoveries do lead to new stuff like video tapes and CDs and DVDs but you have to have the background randomness and the drinking sessions disguised as serious scientific meetings for that to happen.

You need to be seriously pissed to think that writing on an aluminium disk with a laser is a good idea.

How drunk you have to get to think about making LEDs from food waste, I can’t even imagine, and the big shock is that this comes from the university of Utah.

They don’t drink there. It’s Mormon country.

Therefore it’s inherent in the scientist, not in the drink. Crazy lateral thinking is what we do anyway. We probably do it better and faster after a few beers but it is what we do.

What we don’t do, or care about, is making a sellable product. It does happen but it’s an accident. We were just trying things out

It’s different when you work as a company scientist. You have targets. A university scientist should care nothing about profit and just work on curiosity. Ninety percent will be idle knowledge gathering but the other ten percent will change the world.

You see the effect of the bean counters in the link, and the desperate attempts of the scientists to  justify their existence. Some flaws…

In addition to utilising food and beverage waste that would otherwise decompose and be of no use,

Oh come on. The council charge to get your food waste taken away and they sell it to be made into compost and next year you buy it back at the garden centre.

For example, sucrose and D-fructose dissolved in soft drinks were found to be the most effective sources for production of CDs, said the team.

Sigh. Soft drinks do not get into the recycling stream.  The plastic bottles do, but never the contents. Anything left gets poured away. The council insists.

The best thing to make these environmentally friendly LEDs are readily available cheap sugars, and yet the scientists insist on an extraction process using solvents from food waste?

Just let some company make the lights if they want to.

Get back to wild science, folks 🙂