Science of the Magical by Matt Kaplan

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan (Scribner’s, 2015) 246 pages

SOTM Kaplan

This book starts out with a lot of promise. The whole point is that a lot of the things that we once thought of as magical (the result of magic) are now shown by science to be factual (the result of things being the way they are). But somewhere in the middle, this early promise sort of peters out and readers are left with the feeling that a lot of the material is just there to fill out a book. For me, this happened somewhere between the readings of animal livers in ancient Rome (which was very good) and the investigation of gateways to the underworld (which was sort of “okay, so?”).

The solid science of the first part of the book gives way to a lot of speculation in the second part. Now, none of this book’s content could be written without at least some speculation, of course, but when the word “science” appears in the title, it would be nice to have as much science throughout the whole book as possible. After all, there aren’t any Roman Empire priests still around to ask and have them say “Why, yes, that’s exactly what we were looking for when we pulling those hot, steaming livers from those freshly sacrificed sheep…”

Kaplan investigates nine major areas to explore the current science surrounding certain “superstitious” practices. These are Healing (does praying help?), Transformation (into berserk warriors or the opposite gender), Immortality and Longevity (Holy Grail helps?), Supernatural Skies (does weather bring disease?), Animal and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods (do wolves and ravens know something we don’t?), Prophecy (oracles and liver readers), Beyond the Grave (actually, near death more than ghosts), Enchantment (psychedelics and love potions), and Superhumans (fire walkers and towel driers).

Some of this stuff reminds me of things I’ve seen on Mythbusters (can you raise your internal temperature mentally?). But a lot of it was new to me, and rather fascinating. Kaplan has an east style, although he can sometimes stretch a paragraph of real material into a couple of pages. Feel free to flip to the good parts.

Which is what I’m going to do here.

Although it isn’t directly related to praying and healing, the first things I got form the book (page 16) was about the Ancient Egyptians and eye makeup. We all know the kohl-heavy, overly-done-up eyes of King Tut and others, men and women alike. But only priests of Horus and Ra and their good buddies got to wear it. Recently, modern science has shown that the mixture of calcium and lead, if just right, protects against various eye disease common in North Africa and the surrounding deserts (page 17). Who wouldn’t worship a god whose followers were all obviously healthier than the people who worshipped some other (false) deity?

On page 22, we learn that researchers like to keep lab mice in cooler temperatures (room temperature for us: 68 to 72 degrees F) than the mice would prefer (in the mid-80s). This slows the mice’s metabolism; they eat less, poop less, and they have to clean the cages less frequently. But the mice prefer it warmer, and when given a choice, all migrate to warmer cages instead of cooler ones. And, as it turns out, the warmer the mice are, the stronger their immunity systems are. So mice, sick or not, react differently when cool or warm. This fact, of course, has enormous implications for, say, cancer treatment research done on chilled mice (page 24). This result is so new that it hasn’t been widely circulated, but maybe Kaplan’s book will help.

In the next chapter, Kaplan discusses how the “bear-serker” warriors of the Vikings might have spiked their beer with mushrooms or other psychedelics to ward off pain and ignore wounds (page 37). There are lots of hints, like traces of plants in Viking graves (page 40), but no smoking gun has been found yet. I think they were just nuts.

The most interesting thing I found in Chapter 3 on immortality was the new research into ageing and calorie deprivation. It was long known that, within limits, a restricted input of calories—less than 1200 per day instead of 2000 or more—had measurable health benefits. Animal studies showed increased life spans as well. One thing I did not know was that a substance called Rapamycin (page 70) can fool the body into thinking calories are scarce, even when they aren’t. Sounds great: eat all you want and still starve yourself to health and longevity. Ah, but rapamycin suppresses the immune system, and that can offset the supposed benefits. But Kaplan suggests more research might find a way forward, and low protein intake might be the key (page 73).

(As an aside, I’ve always thought that ageing was related to nutrition and exercise. People don’t slow down and eat differently because they age, they age because they stop eating right and aren’t as active as they should be. I am in the midst of a life-long—well, for almost 40 years now—experiment to prove that. I’ll let you know how it turns out.) 🙂

The next chapter deals with things like full moon effects (“lunatics”) and the Viking sunstone that always found the sun, even through thick clouds. This chapter really didn’t drag me in, and most of it was inconclusive when it came to the “science” anyway.

Chapter 5 had a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ravens, wolves, and Odin (yes, I know a lot of this book involves Northern European lore and “magic”). Odin, the big Viking god, had two raven buddies named Hugin (“thoughtful”) and Munin (“mindful”). Odin was so closely associated with these ravens that people called him Rafnagud, the Raven God. He also had two wolves around named Gore (“greedy”) and Freke (“voracious”). It’s clear from the names that the scavenger ravens are the brains, and the vicious wolves the brawn, of the operation. But why the raven and wolf mix?

Page 102 reports studies done in Yellowstone Park, showing that ravens and wolves often cooperate to find game. The ravens would follow the wolf pack, hoping to have some yummy leftovers to feast on when the wolves were done with dinner. In fact, the ravens had a hard time finding kills places by the rangers without the wolves to guide them. Not only that, but the ravens would circle over weak and vulnerable prey, waiting for the wolves to follow them to a good place for dinner (page 103). Odin appears to come in when early humans learned the whole raven-wolf trick and began stealing kills from the wolf pack (of course, the wolves became dogs and had their revenge).

A last word on livers…what could a Roman priest learn about the future by carving up a sheep and examining the liver? Plenty, as it turns out. On page 133, Kaplan suggests that the appearance of the liver could tell an invading army a lot about the state of the food and water in the area. Kaplan goes to a butcher to find livers and see if it is possible to tell diseased from heathy livers, and it is. But again, we really have no idea if we’re on the right track or not. The Roman priests have guarded their secrets well…

Women After All by Melvin Konner

Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner (Norton, 2015), 404 pages.

WAA Konner

I think the subtitle really says it all. I don’t get the “women after all” point (all fetuses begin as female, but some become male through androgens?). But I certainly understand the issues about sex and evolution. Lots of articles and books have pointed out the “degenerated” aspect of the Y (male producing) chromosome. It’s tiny and has few genes, leaving humans born without a backup copy of a gene on the robust X chromosome (XX babies—female) particularly at risk for life-shortening genetic flaws (page 8). It would not take much for the Y chromosome to disappear altogether, especially once other methods of sexual reproduction besides man-on-woman penis-in-vagina sex become widespread.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The premise of the book is not how genes might end the need for a male role in reproduction (as the book points out, several species reproduce just fine without males, one right here where I live in Arizona: see page 47). The real point of the book is how male treatment of females has jeopardized any warm feelings women as a group might otherwise have for the male of our species. It’s one thing if men die out. It’s another if women push them into extinction.

Consider the whole definition of “supremacy” in the first place. Konner proposes that the male assertion of supremacy over females is based on a deep-seated and uncomfortable realization of male’s inherent inadequacy: males are not equipped, on their own, to carry on the human race (page 9). He also makes the claim that this male “supremacy” is temporary, an anomaly based on the over-valuing of brute force when farming and early towns replaced more relaxed hunter-gatherer lifestyles (page 6). Now that labor-saving devices dominate civilization, the tradeoff of the need for males to build walls and fight wars to knock them down is no longer needed. As Konner points out on page 12, the biggest thing we can do to improve life today is to empower and educate women. No wonder this simple idea is apposed so vehemently all over the world.

This is not to say that gender differences are not important. They are really defining: the first thing anyone noticed about all of us occurred at birth: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” (page 19). Babies who do not fit into one category of another (those with ambiguous or all-inclusive genitals) will struggle all their lives to find their place in the world. The most fascinating part of the book to me was Konner’s exploration of these outliers in the world of the male-female divide and his countdown of various genetic “mistakes” like XYY males and XY females (which do exist—see below).

I’ve never seen this detailed so completely, so it’s worth going over, I think.

Genes on the Y chromosome create male testes (which create androgens like testosterone in turn) and suppress the female organs (page 26). But sometimes the fetus has two or more Xs and a Y (XXY, XXXY, and so on), a condition called Klinefelter syndrome, but the child will be basically male. Often, a male seems to be XX (female!) but has a tiny Y chromosome attached to an X. Konner calls some XX babies “Ahs” and others “Andras” because they have masculinized genitals that make it hard to say whether the child is a girl or boy. They are basically girls, but in drawing tests they tend to sketch mobile or mechanical objects like boys instead of people or flowers. There are even XY “boys” that have deformed penises, which are often amputated so they can be raised as girls.

These are not quite the same as XY people who look and act female. How is this possible? They have a mutation that means they can’t make androgens and have no androgen receptors even if they could (page 37). These are infertile women, essentially, and show that blocking androgens means there is no maleness in a fetus or person—none.

One of Konners most intriguing passages involves a litany of birth defects: babies born with this chromosomal defect suffer from a shorter lifespan, higher mortality at all stages of life, an inability to reproduce, premature hair loss, and many brain defects, such as attention deficits, hyperactivity, an inability to control impulses, hypersexuality, and an “enormous” excess of inward and outward aggression. We call it maleness (page 8).

However, it would be a mistake to think the Konner’s whole book is about male-bashing. The author is, after all, an unabashed male. We can’t experiment with humans, naturally, but we can look at primitive societies: the author’s his first wife studied the !Kung people in Africa and published ground-breaking work on those hunter-gatherers. We can learn from various ape species such as chimps and bonobos, but these studies tend to be more valuable for understanding genetic influences on behavior than cultural (language is absent in all but human societies).

Males seem to have two pluses to offer in complex, but non-technological, societies. The first is a hair-trigger for aggressive acts, and the second better upper-body strength compared to females. Both these help with projectiles, and are helpful in for big-game hunting and in protecting the tribe. The harm comes when these two aspects of power are not directed outward toward prey or invaders, but inward toward vulnerable women. However, it is worth pointing out that males suffer from male aggression and violence much more than women, who are often protected by a formidable trio of father, husband, son, do: page 7. Male-on-male rape tends to be much more violent than when directed toward women, although that is small consolation to the victims.

For those who still think that male injustice when it comes to the treatment of women is a simply a matter of whiny special-pleading on the part of women, consider these gems that the author presents on page 296:

  • Instead of saying “I’m not interested in you” when approached by a male, women should say “I have a boyfriend/husband.” Men will respect the “property” of other men more than they will accept the simple statement of a woman.
  • What men fear most about going to prison is what women fear every time they walk down a lonely street.
  • The most important thing a woman can learn is to say “Take whatever you want, just don’t hurt me.”
  • A smile might get you followed, but no response can get you killed.

Are these situations exaggerated? Perhaps…but the stories I see in the news, even in the “enlightened” West, tell me that there is more truth is these statements than men might care to admit.

Let me leave with something I heard years ago, during the dawn of the “feminist movement.” I’ve never see it online, but the “Prayer of Aristotle” goes like this:

Aristotle prayed, “Oh, Great Gods of Olympus, thank for making me a human instead of an animal, and for making me a Greek instead of a barbarian. But most of all, thank you for making me a man instead of a woman, because without this last blessing, the first two would be worthless.”

Maybe an end to “male supremacy” will someday be a blessing too.

Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb

Life’s Greatest Secret:The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb (Basic Books, 2015), 434 pages.

LGS Cobb

The genetic code, for those who have long forgotten high school biology, is the cipher (it’s not really a “code,” as the book points out) whereby the double helix of DNA on the chromosomes in the nucleus determine the structural components (sort of like protein nouns) and enzymes (sort of like protein verbs) our cells are made of. The whole process has proven to be mind-boggling complex, but in short, the DNA unwinds and one of the helixes (yes, the body can tell them apart) translates what are called codons to messenger RNA (mRNA). This mRNA makes its way out of the nucleus and attaches to cell structures called ribosomes, where three units in a row line up with their complements from transfer RNA (tRNA). The tRNA binds to one of the twenty amino acids that make up life on earth, and these chains of amino acids are folded to make almost everything in you, me, and everything else that’s considered alive (although we’re not too sure if viruses are really alive, at least in their crystal form).

Boring, huh?

Well, it can be if you learn the subject backward, which is the way most scientific topics and mathematics are taught in today’s world. That is, you start with what we know today and explain it all in terms of current understanding. But everything, from history to math to science, is boring in retrospect: here’s what we know. All knowledge is founded on great mystery, and this book is about how the mystery of the “unit of inheritance” works was solved by an army of dedicated researchers, dogged experimenters, and a handful of people (sometimes the ones who ended up with the Nobel Prizes) who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The “people history” of DNA begins with a survey of the state of inheritance science before Mendel, whose work was ignored at the time, showed that some characteristics of pea plants, like a color, could disappear for generations and then reappear. Like early experiments with insects (which were plentiful and had short generations), the “unit of inheritance” encountered by animal breeders and others was always a discrete property. For example, a fly’s eyes could be blue or yellow, but never blend into green. These units came to be known as “genes” although no one had any idea what these things might be, other than the idea that they might be made of protein (pages 1-10).

When you think about it, the march of knowledge from this head-scratching confusion (needless to say, genes are made of DNA, not protein—protein is what genes make, among other things) to understanding the atomic structure of genetic material in about 100 years is nothing less than astonishing. The quest produced a parade of Nobel Prizes, and not always to the people who performed the most basic research. In fact, Francis Crick and James Watson, those venerated paragons of the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, spent very little time in the lab getting their hands dirty. They were great synthesizers of other people’s work, and put together their DNA model mainly from listening to other scientists talk about their work.

Cobb is a scientist and teacher himself (zoology, University of Manchester) and patiently explains the key role that conferences and professional publications played in this giant puzzle. By the end of World War II, X-ray studies of mutation causes had shown that genes must be incredibly small: perhaps 1000 atoms or so determined whether a fruit fly had wings or legs in certain position on its body. After the war, a horde of scientists now had time to tackle the key questions about living and life, not killing and death.

If nothing else, Cobb is not afraid of controversy (some history-of-science books, I find, shy away from that). The role or hundreds of male scientists and only “seven women” (page 310) is brought up to show how far women have come in the past 50 years. Cobb tackles head-on the controversy revolving around the treatment of Rosalind Franklin (she pronounced it “Ros-lind”: page 95), the woman who played a key role in the X-ray diffraction studies that showed conclusively that crystallized DNA had a helical structure. Hers seems to be the reverse case of the stereotype of the domineering male senior researcher and cowed female assistant carrying out his instructions. By all accounts, Franklin was a prickly individual, not averse to addressing her fellow by beginning with “How dare you…” (page 98) when Wilkins—who thought they were working together—showed her photos to Crick and Watson. In Cobb’s telling, Franklin is the gruff one and her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who eventually shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA with Crick and Watson, the silent sufferer who found her impossible to work with. Because Nobel Prizes can only be shared by three people, and never posthumously (unless they die after the announcement), Franklin’s death in 1958 from breast cancer saved the Nobel committee from accusations of sexism, not that there would have been many in 1962.

Cobb spends a lot of time considering the role of quantum scientists like Ernst Schrödinger, whose “What is Life?” talk at Trinity College in Dublin spurred a lot of lines of research going into WW II and Leo Szilard and George Gamow, who had some interesting ideas (all wrong) about how nucleic acids could translate themselves into proteins. Along the way, computer scientists like Norbert Weiner, founder of cybernetics, and mathematicians like Claude Shannon, founder of information theory, try to puzzle it all out intellectually. But without firm lab results, these exercises were doomed to failure.

The “genetics as information” section of the book forms a nice counterpoint to modern physicists like Max Tegmark and claims that the “universe is nothing but information.” As Cobb points out, this is a silly thing to take seriously, and you can’t apply Shannon’s bits to everything. Information, whether as genetic instructions or computerized data, cannot contain its own meaning (as one interpretation of Godel ‘s work shows). You can study all the genes in a human genome, but to see what they “mean,” you have to “run them” in a fertilized human egg cell with the proper supply of raw materials.

The last hundred pages form a nice “update” section to the main story in the book, which essentially ends in 1967 when the genetic code mapping of codon to amino acid is completely worked out. Here is a whirlwind tour of epigenetics, prions, the protein folding problem (how can they fold correctly so quickly?), and other surprises.

Let me leave you with a few examples. Yes, the mRNA only reads one strand the double helix, and does so consistently. There are many forms of RNA, most important to epigenetics (page 255), and RNA seems to be much “older” than DNA. But the “RNA world” took days to replicate “cells,” while bacteria can do it with DNA in 20 minutes (page 291). The furor over genetically modified crops like Monsanto soybeans is overblown (page 270), but the race to “recreate” plague viruses from the past is probably a bit nuts (page 281). The human genome of about 3 billion base pairs (most of which might or might not be “junk DNA) comes in about midway between the genome of the loblolly pine tree (22 billion base pairs) and a microbe with a genome of only 112,00 base pairs, probably close to the theoretical minimum or 70,000 base pairs (page 237).

Finally, and this came as a shock to me, there is more than one form of DNA in the human body and in the lab. The “normal” form is B-DNA and spirals counterclockwise (to the right) as seen from above, like a wood screw (page 273). A-DNA occurs in low humidity and is found in some organisms, but why, no one knows. In 1961, C-DNA was discovered forming with certain salts around. And then there is Z-DNA, the left-hand form of B-DNA, also found in our cells, function unknown, but it might be involved in gene regulation.