Commander Chris Hadfield performs a reworking of the David Bowie classic Space Oddity on his last day in charge of the International Space Station
Extracting a rare dinosaur from a cliff in a working mine is no easy task, but Dr Donald Henderson explains why the effort has been worth it
Time for another guest post on the Lost Worlds, this time from curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Donald Henderson. The fossil described below is a spectacular find and I have been able to persuade Don to write a little about its discover, excavation and preparation.
On Monday, March 21, 2011 the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta received word that the remains of either a plesiosaur or an ichthyosaur had been discovered in the Milllennium Mine operated by the petroleum company Suncor Inc. This mine is located about 30 km north of the town of Fort McMurray (population ~50,000) in northeastern Alberta (about 800km north of Drumheller), and is one of the places where bitumen rich sand is mined and refined into various petroleum products.
On Wednesday, March 23, 2011 myself and technician Darren Tanke flew up to Fort McMurray expecting to see a marine reptile of the sort found occasionally in the region over the past 20 years. After a few minutes of puzzling we realized it was something totally unexpected – a perfectly three-dimensionally preserved, uncrushed, armoured dinosaur complete with all the armour in place, original scales perfectly aligned with the armour, all the fingers and toes (very rare), and probable stomach contents. Unfortunately, half the fossil was smashed by the giant excavator bucket into many tens of large pieces, and the other half was embedded 8m up a 12m high cliff. A week later Darren Tanke and I returned to the mine to oversee the collection of the specimen.
The first three days were spent taking mine safety training. The Suncor people are fanatical about worker safety, and no one is allowed on site without having passed safety training. The mine is a dangerous place with some of the biggest lorries and excavating machines in the world roaming around. These metal monsters get priority in all situations. One of the big lorries could trundle over a small car and only notice a bit of a bump. There are also high-tension cables running across the mine carrying 1000s of volts to power the big shovels. The mine also runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The presence of a rare dinosaur in the mine was an interesting diversion, but in the way of production. However, as part of Suncor's mining permit issued by the province of Alberta, any palaeontological resources encountered have to be protected from any further harm, and the Tyrrell Museum notified. Suncor had received international bad press the previous year when a variety of waterfowl had perished after settling down on some of the Suncor settling ponds. The unexpected discovery of an dinosaur, and one better preserved than anything found previously in the province, was a god-send for the image of the company. Word came from high up in Suncor that no expense was to be spared in assisting the Tyrrell Museum in getting the specimen safely out of the ground. If Tyrrell Museum staff had found this specimen in a remote valley in the mountains they would have maybe collected some of the loose bits at the base of the cliff, but would have decided to leave it in the cliff.
Excavating into a cliff with many metres of rock above in the middle-of-nowhere is dangerous and expensive. There is also the worry that the specimen may not be complete and a lot of work may be for nought. In the mine, however, they think nothing of shifting many tonnes of rock in a few minutes. Additionally, all the mine staff from every level and department were tripping over themselves offering to help get the specimen out. The extraction process took 14 days and involved a variety of equipment ranging from large trackhoes, giant bull-dozers, hydrovac machines, and forklifts to electric jackhammers, pick-axes, shovels and brooms. Many tens of people were involved, and many university students on internships with Suncor were also "volunteered" to assist at various stages. Additionally, there was a constant stream of visitors from all over the mine every day. The work days were long as the mine operates on a 12 hour cycle. We would arrive at the mine at 7am and leave between 7 and 9pm every day with no days off at all as the pressure to get the specimen out of the way was intense.
The other main tar-sand mine, north of Fort McMurray, is operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. Over the past 20 years their equipment operators have uncovered the remains of several plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs – all of them new species such as Athabascasaurus bitumineus (an ichthyosaur) or Nichollsaura borealis (a plesiosaur). The rocks producing the fossils were originally deposited as sands and muds on the bottom of a shallow inland sea between 110 and 114 million years ago in a time period formally known as the Early Cretaceous. Based on the known geology and ancient geography of northwestern Canada, the nearest shoreline is estimated to have been about 200km to the west in what is now British Columbia. Until 2011, the Suncor Millennium mine had never produced any fossils of backboned animals of any sort. The discovery of a dinosaur in the mine was totally unexpected as all dinosaurs are strictly land-living animals. The type of dinosaur is one of the plant-eating, armoured dinosaurs known as ankylosaurs. The least likely type of dinosaur to venture into water would have been a squat, heavily built and armoured, slow-moving anklyosaur.
The current thinking is that the Suncor animal was washed out to sea in a flood as a floating carcass and drifted belly-up for several days before losing buoyancy and sinking. There are many dinosaur trackways exposed in the foothills of northeastern British Columbia, and many of them are interpreted to have been made by armoured dinosaurs. There is also ample evidence that large rivers were flowing out of the rising mountains carrying sands and muds eastwards into the inland sea. Viewing the specimen in the cliff face in the mine, it can be seen that the Suncor ankylosaur came to rest on the seabed on its back with its limbs sticking up. One of the reasons for the exceptional preservation is that the carcass came to rest in fine mud and silt that appears to have quickly covered the animal. The "impact crater" formed when carcass hit the seabed could been seen as deflected and warped layers in the sediments immediately below the specimen.
Since arriving at the Museum in April of 2011, the specimen has been worked on by one person – Mr. Mark Mitchell. He is probably our best preparator, and the most patient person in the world. He has spent many hundreds of hours over the past two years carefully removing the extremely hard rock that encases the fossil. His job is made doubly difficult because the fossil bone is extremely soft. Mark describes it as "compressed talcum powder". The reason that the specimen is so well preserved with traces of skin and other soft tissues is that minerals began to grow in the sediment surrounding the specimen soon after it hit the seabed. This rapid mineral growth shielded the specimen from further damage by scavengers and bacterial decay, and resisted compaction while being deeply buried for over 100 million years. The downside is that the rapid sealing of the carcass prevented minerals from permeating the bone and making them solid and easy to prepare. We now have a large portion of the left shoulder and back exposed, a very nice section of right hand side of the neck from shoulder area to the back of the skull, and we now have the top of the skull exposed. As preparation has progressed we now see that we have a particular kind of ankylosaur known as a nodosaur. This type of armoured dinosaur is characterized by large spines on the neck and shoulders, but no tail club. They also have a relatively smooth skull with a narrow muzzle. This is in contrast to the more commonly known ankylosaurs that have broad muzzles and spiky heads. The narrow muzzle of the nodosaur suggests a more careful selection of foodstuffs, instead of just inhaling any and all vegetation.
It is significant that no other vertebrate fossils have been found in the Suncor Milllennium mine, while three plesiosaurs have come from the Syncrude mine over the past two years. Everybody at Suncor now knows what to look for, yet nothing has been seen. The Milllennium mine is a large excavation that represents the removal of 1.2 billion cubic metres of rock. The ankylosaur fossil would occupy roughly 1 cubic metre when squished together. This specimen really does represent a one-in-a-billion occurrence.Dr Dave Hone
World Health Organisation expert plays down fears of pandemic, saying prolonged contact is needed to transmit disease
A World Health Organisation (WHO) official has said it seems likely that a new coronavirus that has killed at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe can be passed between humans, but only after prolonged contact.
A virus from the same family triggered the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that swept the world after emerging in Asia and killed 775 people in 2003.
French authorities announced on Sunday that a second man had been diagnosed with the disease after sharing a hospital room with France's only other sufferer.
The WHO's assistant director general, Keiji Fukuda, told reporters in Saudi Arabia, the site of the largest cluster of infections, that there was no evidence so far the virus was able to sustain "generalised transmission in communities" – a scenario that would raise the spectre of a pandemic.
But he said the main concern was that the clusters seen in several countries "increasingly support the hypothesis that when there is close contact, this novel coronavirus can transmit from person to person".
Countries need to increase levels of awareness, he said.
A public health expert who declined to be identified said close contact meant being in a small, enclosed space with an infected person for a prolonged period.
The virus emerged in the Gulf last year but cases have also been recorded in Britain and France among people who had recently been in the Middle East. A total of 34 cases worldwide have been confirmed by blood tests so far.
The history of the aquatic ape may tell us more about the fraught relationship between feminism and science than it does about the evolution of humanity. A guest post by Erika Lorraine Milam
I first learned of Elaine Morgan and the aquatic ape theory from a botanist. He had seen a television special on the theory and briefly followed up with a search of the scientific literature, but found very little. He asked me (as I was trained in zoology before becoming a historian of science) whether or not the idea of a watery human past had any merit. I was sceptical. That was the spring of 2007. For several years, I didn't think seriously about aquatic apes. Then, when researching theories of human evolution and male aggression in the 1960s, Morgan's name popped up, albeit in a rather different context.
Morgan's Descent of Woman, published in 1972, was one of the first publications calling attention to the rampant sexism of the so-called "savannah theory" common at the time, and thus continues to occupy a prominent place in the gender and science literature. You know the theory – where humans became human by learning to hunt. Our ancestors walked upright in order to carry weapons, spoke to facilitate cooperation over long distances, lost most of their body hair to help cool down during the hot days of the Pleistocene, and ultimately broke into family units where the women stayed at home gathering roots and protecting the young, while the strapping, competitive men brought back the protein necessary to sustain their new lifestyles. Good times.
Popular science writer Robert Ardrey memorably epitomised the genre with his bestselling volumes African Genesis and Territorial Imperative. Published around the same time, On Aggression, by future Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, and The Naked Ape, by fellow ethologist Desmond Morris, added fuel to the fire. All triangulated their theories of humanity from insights derived from animal behaviour and paleoanthropology. Morgan imagined a male reader of these volumes derived "no end of a kick out of thinking that all that power and passion and brutal virility is seething within him, just below the skin, only barely held in leash by the conscious control of his intellect".
Playfully appropriating her title from Charles Darwin's Descent of Man, she skewered these books as "Tarzanist" tales that failed to incorporate the perspective of women. Where, she wondered, were the stories that began, "When the first ancestor of the human race descended from the trees, she had not yet developed the mighty brain that was to distinguish her so sharply from all the other species … "? Against the background of these men, reviewers dubbed Descent of Woman "women's lib prehistory".
Ironically, it was while reading The Naked Ape that Morgan first came across the idea of an aquatic phase in human history. She contacted Morris and learned about the theory's architect – Sir Alister Hardy, then the Linacre Professor of Zoology at Oxford University. She wrote to Hardy for permission to develop a popular science book in which she expanded his ideas as an alternative to the savannah theory. Hardy had no objections. At the time, he still planned to publish his own book on the topic and after consulting with his editor believed that a more popular account of the aquatic ape could only help his later sales. (His book never materialised, if you were wondering.)
Morgan's chief point in Descent of Woman was that too often biologists confused the evolution of "man" (the species) with men (as individuals). Beyond that, she hoped to advance Hardy's suggestion that life at the water's edge may have facilitated the origins of humanity. She insisted that the savannah hypothesis failed because it couldn't account for the survival of females. Abandoned by the hunters out tracking game, fending for herself and her children, a female alone on the plains would inevitably become dinner herself. But by retreating to the relative safety of water, Morgan's Eve might instead discover shelter and sustenance. By cracking open shellfish with rocks, she would begin to use tools; by wading into the water for safety (and carrying her child in her arms), she would naturally walk upright; with her body and scent glands covered, she would speak to be understood.
Reviewers of Descent of Woman typically lauded her feminist critique of the Tarzanists but lamented Morgan's advocacy of what became known as the "aquatic ape" theory. Paleoanthropologist Adrienne Zihlman, for example, worried that after reading the book, other scientists might think this was the best feminist anthropology had to offer.
When presented with such mixed reviews, Morgan chose science over politics. In rewriting her material for The Aquatic Ape (1982), she stripped her prose of wit and added diagrams and new data, effectively refashioning the text into a more canonical form of scientific publication. In this new packaging, her marine musings began to receive more attention. Of course, not all attention is good attention. As last week's excitement on Twitter and in these pages demonstrated, the aquatic ape theory is far from acceptable mainstream science. Yet even these debates – framed in terms of the theory's plausibility – are a sign of Morgan's success in transforming the reception of her ideas. But at what cost?
Morgan believed that in order for her theories to receive a scientific hearing, they had to be separated from her lambasting of the savannah theory. Historians are often fascinated by how scientists strive to cleanly differentiate between legitimate scientific inquiry, on the one hand, and "pseudo", "pathological", or just plain "bad" science, on the other. That Morgan felt she had to choose between science and feminism highlights how, in addition to such questions of hard demarcation, her critics used the label "feminist" science as a means of what I have come to call "soft demarcation". By describing her original book as "women's lib prehistory", they evaded the force of her critique and simultaneously used the aquatic ape (by means of guilty association) to question whether feminism could play any valid role in science.
If the idea of a human watery past does have merit, then, it may be in the form of a cautionary tale. By uncoupling her feminism from her science, Morgan gained a wider audience but lost her theory's scholarly heft. Were Morgan first publishing today, I hope she wouldn't have to choose.
Erika Lorraine Milam is an associate professor at the history department of Princeton University. She is the author of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology and can be found on Twitter @elmilamErika Lorraine Milam
On this edition of the show Alok Jha meets Brian Clegg to discuss his latest book Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe. Brian is a celebrated science author and communicator and in his latest book he tackles the conflict between the very human desire to see pattern and design everywhere and the fundamental randomness of the universe.
Also on the podcast, news broke this week of a potentially life-changing breakthrough in the treatment of what is known as modic-related lower back pain and the role of a relatively common bacterial infection. The scientist who battled for more then 12 years to establish the evidence and test a cure, Hanne Albert, talks to Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample about her momentous medical discovery.
Hanne recommends a site where people can cross-check their symptoms to see if they suffer from modic-related back pain.
Ian and Alok also look at some of this week's space-related news including the nature of the water crystals found on the moon and recent Nasa announcements on its Mars exploration strategy.
We're always here when you need us. Listen back through our archive.Ian SampleAlok JhaJason Phipps
Filmed on the International Space Station with an acoustic guitar, Canadian astronaut marks end of stay in space with out of this world finale
He's been delighting space enthusiasts for months with his tweets from the International Space Station, but to make his farewell, Commander Chris Hadfield went a whole giant leap better.
On Sunday night, he posted a cover version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, recorded 230 miles above the earth. The video, complete with him strumming an acoustic guitar on the space station, was his parting act and came after a request on Reddit. He returns to earth on Monday.
In a tweet, Hadfield wrote:
With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here's Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World. youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9d…
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) May 12, 2013
The Canadian astronaut has become a global superstar using his time in space to raise awareness and reignite enthusiasm for space travel, posting many pictures and amassing more than 770,000 followers on Twitter.Jonathan Haynes
Nasa's Skylab fell to Earth after budget cuts left it stranded in space. More than three decades later we are still struggling with the threat from space debris
Today Nasa will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Skylab, America's first space station, launched on 14 May 1973. In a televised discussion, Skylab astronauts, a current astronaut and agency managers are expected to discuss its legacy and the future of manned space flight.
Skylab was a historic mission. It was part of an initiative to reuse the hardware Nasa developed to land on the moon. It was launched into space on the last of the giant Saturn V rockets to ever make it into orbit.
Skylab's greatest scientific contribution was its continuous monitoring of solar activity. The three-man astronaut crews would each control the special telescope in four-hour shifts, taking images and data that revealed the sun in a way we had never seen before.
About 160,000 images of the sun were collected during the nine months that Skylab was manned.
They discovered the coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These giant eruptions of solar gas behave like magnetic cannonballs. Usually triggered by solar flares, the CMEs charge through space carrying magnetic and electrical energy. If one hits Earth, its battle with our magnetic field can cause havoc to our communications and other electrical systems.
Skylab's first commander Charles "Pete" Conrad said that his command of Skylab meant more to him than his walk on the moon. He explained in a BBC documentary that part of his reason for this viewpoint was being able to run the solar telescope and bring back a tremendous amount of information that nobody had seen before.
Solar activity's effect on Earth's electrical systems is now a principal concern for many people. So is the danger of space debris. Here too, Skylab has a valuable lesson to teach.
In 1974, after three Skylab crews had inhabited the space station, Nasa ran out of rockets and money. All future investment was being channelled towards the space shuttle programme, which Nasa believed would launch its first mission in 1979.
So Skylab was abandoned. However, Nasa had intended that the second shuttle mission would carry a specially designed booster that would lift the space station to a higher orbit where it could await refurbishment.
The trouble was, the sun had other ideas. The very solar activity that Skylab had studied so fruitfully now turned against it.
An unexpected rise in the number of CMEs and other radiation slamming into Earth heated our atmosphere so much that it expanded. This increased the drag on Skylab and began to pull it out of orbit faster than Nasa had reckoned.
By late 1977, it was estimated that Skylab would re-enter in mid-1979. With the space shuttle rescue mission slated for July 1979, the race was on.
In December 1978, Nasa gave up. Delays meant that the shuttle programme would be years late. Nothing could prevent the 85-tonne space station from crashing to Earth.
Making matters worse was that early in 1978, a nuclear-powered Russian satellite had fallen into northern Canada, drawing media attention and generating public dismay. Although Skylab had no nuclear material on board, the world was starting to realise what goes up must come down.
Controllers aimed Skylab at the southern ocean, some 1,300 kilometres southeast of Cape Town, South Africa. But the station overshot and struck western Australia, where large chunks were collected.
Today, almost 35 years after Skylab's dramatic return to Earth, the aerospace community is still wrestling with the problem of space debris. Nasa is already discussing how to safely de-orbit the much larger International Space Station, and the Royal Aeronautical Society in the UK is holding a one-day conference in July on Space Traffic Control.
Nasa's Skylab 40th anniversary broadcast is scheduled for 13 May at 7.30pm BST (2.30pm Eastern Time). Watch in the viewer below. If you are using a mobile phone, click here.Stuart Clark
A close-up of the hurricane raging at Saturn's north pole appeared in the Guardian on 1 May. This image, also by Nasa's Cassini probe, shows a wider view and is another false colour one in which the eye of the hurricane appears reddish because it is lower in the atmosphere and warmer, while tints through green to blue show increasingly cooler regions. The vivid blue striations towards the top-right depict segments of the icy ringlets that together form Saturn's beautiful ring system.
The vortex is locked at Saturn's north pole and has an eye some 2,000 km wide, with winds that rip in excess of 500 km per hour. Around it is a higher and cooler weather pattern with a curious hexagonal structure. Saturn itself measures 120,536 km across its equator and is a gas giant planet composed largely of hydrogen topped by clouds of ammonia crystals.
As Saturn follows its 29-years orbit, sunlight began to fall on its north pole in 2009 to bring our first clear views of the hurricane. Since then, the north face of the rings has been tilting increasingly towards us so that tonight the rings are tipped at 18° and appear 42 arcsec wide through a telescope. The disc is 19 arcsec wide but only 17 arcsec from pole-to-pole, a flattening that results from Saturn's rapid axial rotation in under 11 hours.
One of the puzzles concerning Saturn's rings is whether they are permanent or temporary, perhaps only a few million years old and possibly the debris from the disintegration of one of its many moons. The issue is complicated by the recent discoveries of a constant rain of charged water particles from the rings over large areas of the planet, and that the rings are being peppered and augmented by additional material, quite likely icy meteoroids and asteroids.
To earthly eyes, Saturn is now at its glorious best. Since opposition on 28 April it has backtracked from the constellation Libra into Virgo where we find it some 25° high in Britain's southern sky at midnight BST. It lies 30° below the prominent star Arcturus in Bootes and 13° to the left of Spica in Virgo – the three objects forming a tall "L". The Moon lies to the W (right) of Spica on the night of the 21st and below the Saturn-Spica line on the 22nd.
Meanwhile, this month sees the three brightest planets converge to lie within the same binocular-field-of-view very low down in our bright NW evening twilight. The brightest, Venus, currently lies several degrees below-right of Jupiter but the latter sinks to pass 1.0° S (below-left) of Venus on the 28th. Mercury, fainter still, approaches Venus from the opposite side to stand 2.0° to the right of Venus on the 22nd and 1.9° above Venus on the 26th.Alan Pickup
Recent studies have found links between bacteria and some cases of chronic back pain, but research is still in its early stages
Are you stricken by back pain? If so you are not alone: one in five people are. But help is at hand. In addition to the usual recommendations to take painkillers and keep active is a brand new one: a course of antibiotics.
Two research papers from the University of Southern Denmark, published in the European Spine Journal this week, suggest that chronic lower-back pain (defined as lasting more than three months) may be caused by bacterial infection.
The university's first paper found bacteria (Propionibacterium acnes, which does not usually cause disease) in 46% of tissue samples taken from the slipped discs of 61 patients undergoing surgery. Its second study of 162 patients with slipped discs, found that those given a 100-day course of antibiotics experienced less pain, slept better and could move more freely on their final follow-up (one year later) compared to subjects who had been given placebos. However, those on antibiotics were twice as likely to have loose bowel movements while taking them.
According to reports, 40% of back pain could be cured by antibiotics. So should you ask your GP for a course?The solution
The researchers' hypothesis is that chronic back pain from herniated discs, in which the soft inner cartilage between the vertebral bones in the spine bulges out through the tougher outer coat, is prolonged by bacterial infection. MRI scans show swelling of the vertebrae and disruptions to the architecture of the bone that could cause chronic pain. But, before you demand antibiotics you should remember that back pain is not a disease but a symptom, and that up to 90% of people recover from it within two to three months.
The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) guidelines do not encourage investigating most cases of back pain. Nice only recommends MRI scans for people whose back pain includes red-flag symptoms, such as pain without moving or a high fever. Accordingly, most slipped discs go undetected. Nice is also unlikely to suggest antibiotics as routine treatment.
These studies are quite small and show an association rather than proving that bacteria cause back pain. However, those who took the antibiotics did experience improvements in their condition, and there is little evidence of other treatments working for back pain, beyond keeping moving, painkillers (including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and some cognitive behavioural therapy.
Chronic back pain is a complicated symptom, so if antibiotics can cure it, the researchers could find themselves up for a Nobel prize one day.Find out more
University of Southern Denmark: Antibiotic treatment in patients with chronic low back pain
The Guardian: Back pain discovery webchatLuisa Dillner
Cats sleep, humans don costumes and goldfish remember at event celebrating evolving relationship between man and beast
Tova trotted towards the hurdle with the single-minded determination of a champion, propelled herself skyward and cleared the dauntingly high fence to applause from the spectators crowding around the straw bale arena.
This was no ordinary dressage, however: Tova was a small lop-eared brown and white bunny from Stockholm and the breakout star of this weekend's London Pet Show.
For the 400 beasts at the Earls Court show, it is no longer enough to bark like a dog or purr like a cat: if they couldn't be miraculously tiny – micropigs, 28-in horses, pygmy hedgehogs – they had to jump, dance, herd ducks or ride skateboards.
A dancing dog may have triumphed in last year's Britain's Got Talent but the bar to being a member of the animal celebrity world is even higher these days, and the rabbits of Sweden – watched by Bruce Forsyth, who knows a thing or two about star quality – cleared it effortlessly.
"In Sweden it's so normal, everyone has done it," said Karin Molin, 25, who has trained showjumping rabbits since she was five. Since this equestrian-style sport took off in country backyards in the early 1980s, kaninhop has spread across Scandinavia to Germany and Switzerland.
While Molin's rabbit, Micro, was panting after clearing hurdles at least five times its height, she said her 18 jumping bunnies lived longer than ordinary pets – up to 12 years old – because they were so fit. Fed ordinary hay, pellets and vegetables, the quality she most prized is speed – after that, the jumping comes naturally. "You can't force them," she said.
We may once have subjected our pets to Victorian-style discipline but the London Pet Show promoted if not spectacular indulgence, then at least a very modern, reward-based approach to pet ownership.
The chickens riding skateboards were the work of animal behaviourist Chirag Patel. In less than an hour on the first morning of the show, Patel taught Mercedes – a diminutive bantam – to recognise the colour red, and repeatedly peck at a red plastic square instead of a green or yellow one.
"In the old days it was thought you had to dominate an animal," said Patel. "Actually, the science says you can motivate the animal. We focus on positive reinforcement and giving the animal a reason to play our silly games."
For Mercedes, that reason was mealworms, her reward when she obeyed Patel's clicker, which is used by dog trainers. In this way, he has trained everything from cheetahs (where training animals to submit to teeth-brushing or blood tests without sedation reduces stress for both animal and zookeeper) to goldfish, which can be taught with a torch. "The five-second memory thing with a goldfish is a myth," said Patel. "Any animal with a nervous system has the ability to learn. If they didn't, they wouldn't survive."
Bling dog collars were out as usual; this year it was all about hypoallegenic nutrition for dogs, "enrichment" – properly stimulating pets – and the scary-sounding Raw, which is actually Rabbit Awareness Week.
If animals were taking human form, then humans were taking animal form, and amid the profusion of people hissing at snakes and squawking at parrots stood overheated humans in animal costumes.
Sacha Langfield, an account manager, had been talked into wearing an unwieldy cat costume to promote Natural & Clean biodegradable cat litter, made from vegetable waste. "I was a little concerned when I went into the dog area earlier," she said, relieved that at least she did not have to squat in an enormous tray of litter.
The London Pet Show has expanded in each of its three years and exhibitors claim the pet industry is proving remarkably recession-proof.
According to Nick Spellman, a children's entertainer who works with exotic animals, pet businesses have ridden out the downturn because children's passions are the last to be cut from the household budget. "Children are left untouched by recession – it's the grownup perks that tend to go first," he said.
James Derbyshire of Boggio Studios, which specialises in family portraits with pets, also reported downturn-busting business. "People will spend more money on their portraits if their pets are in it than if their children are in it," he said. "A woman rang up last week and spent 10 minutes arranging a portrait with her Staffy. At the end of the conversation she said, 'Oh, can I bring my children too?'.
"That sums it up really. The relationship with your pets is more intense sometimes because they are not with us for so long."
Amid the profusion of chatty owls, well-mannered miniature horses with manes crimped more perfectly than My Little Ponies and bearded dragons positively purring at all the attention, one group stuck stubbornly to their animal nature: every single cat was asleep. And no amount of cajoling could conjure a song or a dance out of them.Patrick Barkham
The British Psychological Society is calling for a 'paradigm shift' in the way issues of mental health are understood. Is the biomedical model of mental illness unhelpful?
Compiled by an ardent bibliophile, this week's report includes Penguins: Natural History and Conservation; A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts; The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time; and Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres; all of which were recently published in North America and the UK
Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
~ Arnold Lobel [1933-1987] author of many popular children's books.
Compiled by Ian "Birdbooker" Paulsen, the Birdbooker Report is a weekly report that has been published online for years, listing the wide variety of nature, natural history, ecology, animal behaviour, science and history books that have been newly released or republished in North America and in the UK. The books listed here were received by Ian during the previous week, courtesy of various publishing houses.
New and Recent Titles:
Here is a video discussing this book (cute overload alert: there're penguin chicks in this video!):
This piece was assembled by Ian "Birdbooker" Paulsen and formatted by GrrlScientist.
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Ian "Birdbooker" Paulsen is an avid book collector who is especially well-known to the publishing world. Mr Paulsen collects newly-published books about nature, animals and birds, science, and history, and he also collects children's books on these topics. Mr Paulsen writes brief synopses about these books on his website, The Birdbooker Report.
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In America, we're just not sure whether to treat kids with protective gloves or 'they should know better' adults
An 18-year-old can vote for the president of the United States, but he can't order a beer. An eight year-old can't buy firecrackers, but she can pack her own .22. A 13 year-old can't get into an R-rated movie, but can be tried as an adult in criminal court.
In America, we're clearly confused about childhood.
On 1 May, President Barack Obama's Justice Department announced it would challenge a federal judge's ruling that Plan B, the "morning after" pill, should be available to girls of any age, without a prescription, without having to ask the pharmacist to fetch it from behind the counter. When she overruled the Food and Drug Administration's clinical experts in 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius insisted on 17 as the age a girl should be to get emergency contraception without a prescription. Now she and the president say they'll compromise on 15.
The right howled in predictable fashion, the Catholic Church denouncing Plan B as an abortifacient, the Family Research Council arguing for the recriminalization of contraception, and columnist Kathleen Parker gasping:
"What about the right of parents to protect their children? A 15-year-old can't get Tylenol at school without parental permission, but we have no hesitation about children taking a far more serious drug without oversight?"
Actually, Tylenol is a much more "serious" drug than Plan B, as the New England Journal of Medicine points out:
"A 12-year-old can purchase a lethal dose of acetaminophen in any pharmacy for about $11, no questions asked. The only documented adverse effects of a $50 dose of levonorgestrel are nausea and delay of menses by several days. Any objective review makes it clear that Plan B is more dangerous to politicians than to adolescent girls."
But progressives weren't happy, either. Obama was supposed to be the guy who based decisions on science, not emotion, the guy who gave a tub-thumping speech at Planned Parenthood's recent conference, vowing to support their work – more than a third of which is providing contraceptives. Yet when it came to Plan B, he invoked his own daughters, saying he wasn't comfortable with young girls buying it in a drugstore "alongside bubble gum or batteries". Never mind that teenaged girls are precisely the population most in need of an accessible form of birth control. They're just children, for God's sake.
Unless they're not. Sixteen year-old Florida student Kiera Wilmot has been charged with two felonies: "possession/discharge of a weapon" and "discharging a destructive device". The state wants to try her as an adult. If convicted, she could be sent to prison.
The "weapon"-cum-"destructive device" was actually a science experiment. Kiera, reportedly an inquisitive sort with good grades and no disciplinary issues, heard that hydrochloric acid plus aluminum produces a reaction. On 22 April, she went into a field behind Bartow High School and mixed toilet bowl cleaner with balls of foil in an eight-ounce plastic water bottle. The lid popped off and smoke came out. No one was hurt, no property damaged, and she immediately owned up to her infraction. Still, the cops hauled her off and the school expelled her.
This school is one of many in America with a policy of "zero tolerance" towards, well, anything kid-like a kid might do. An eight year-old in Alton, Illinois was handcuffed and shackled and taken off to juvenile detention for throwing a tantrum at school earlier this year. School officials across the country have called the police on kids for such heinous crimes as farting, belching, possession of an aspirin tablet, and doodling on a desk.
If, instead of performing freelance chemistry, Kiera Wilmot had tried to buy Plan B, she'd have merely been denied, not busted. The law says she's a child who must be steered away from illicit use of her own body. In committing what the Polk County School Board called a "serious breach of conduct", she became a willful malefactor deserving not protection, but punishment. As the school board spokeslady said primly, "there are consequences to actions".
Twenty-first century America is stuck between two visions of childhood: the sentimental one where kids come wrapped in Wordsworthian intimations of immortality, innocents who must be guarded from the wicked ways of the world, and the Puritan one which assures us that kids are just as nasty as anyone else. Perhaps nastier. The Rev Benjamin Wadsworth, president of Harvard, author of The Well-Ordered Family (published in 1712), said children's "hearts are naturally a nest, root, fountain of sin and wickedness".
Most parents do not think their rugrats are evil – not most of the time, anyway. But our repressed Calvinist unconscious keeps coming back, telling us that even babies are sunk in Original Sin. We punish because we love – or something like that. As Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan Divine, put it, "better whipped than damned". Or, to put it in contemporary terms, "zero tolerance".
Yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. An excuse for an unusual party
This evening BBC2 will show a documentary by Chris Riley about a remarkable man; Richard Feynman. Yesterday, on the 95th anniversary of Feynman's birth, Riley showed some clips and discussed the programme, and the man, with Robin Ince, Christopher Sykes and an audience at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Sykes met Feynman several times, and made three films with him starting with "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out". Riley expressed envy of Sykes, for having met Feynman. I felt the same.
There were two events at the Bloomsbury organised by Ince. In the afternoon, the discussion with Riley and Sykes plus a talk by me, and in the evening a science, music and comedy extravaganza. Robin excels at putting these together, whether in the cause of Libel Reform, Mayan prophecies or just Christmas.
I'm not going to review last night's show (since I was on myself towards end, I missed a lot of it biting my nails in the green room and trying to get over the FA Cup). But in the bit I did see properly, Tamsin Edwards discussed the scientific proof that she is in fact Feynman, and thus why all models are wrong (though not all equally wrong...). Grace Petrie sang a new song based on a letter Feynman wrote to his first wife Arline, after her death. I found this very moving, so didn't rate the chances of Tom Whyntie and Andrew Pontzen making me laugh much after that. But they did, a lot. And the Aurora Borealis to harp accompaniment from Greta Santagata, with added depth from Lucie Green, was the perfect finish the the first half. Feynman's sister Joan is a successful astrophysicist who made advances in understanding the aurora (and, by mutual agreement, banned her brother from studying the phenomenon).
I gave a short talk in the second half. I was trying to explain the connection between the bumps in the data which show we have discovered a Higgs boson and the Feynman diagrams we use to predict those data. A bit of a challenge both for me and a Saturday night (or even afternoon) audience, you might think. And you'd be right. I'm not sure it worked, even though Pontzen and Whyntie had already expertly demonstrated the principle of least action, but people seemed to enjoy it and I'll probably have a go at writing it up here sometime.
Whyntie, Pontzen and I all took our copies of the Feynman Lectures on stage with us. These were essential reading for me as an undergraduate, and still should be for anyone studying physics now. However, they were written in the early sixties (around the time Peter Higgs wrote his famous paper, in fact) so while they contain many beautiful insights which easily stand the test of time, they most certainly do not contain all of physics. The Higgs boson discovery is just one example of the vast amounts of new knowledge acquired since they were written.
This would not dismay Feynman in the slightest, of course. He was more aware than most that science has no holy books; that it is a work in progress - the joy of finding things out.
Anyway, I recommend BBC2 this evening.
(PS Just added a link to a video of grace Petrie's song.)Jon Butterworth
British Psychological Society to launch attack on rival profession, casting doubt on biomedical model of mental illness
There is no scientific evidence that psychiatric diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are valid or useful, according to the leading body representing Britain's clinical psychologists.
In a groundbreaking move that has already prompted a fierce backlash from psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society's division of clinical psychology (DCP) will on Monday issue a statement declaring that, given the lack of evidence, it is time for a "paradigm shift" in how the issues of mental health are understood. The statement effectively casts doubt on psychiatry's predominantly biomedical model of mental distress – the idea that people are suffering from illnesses that are treatable by doctors using drugs. The DCP said its decision to speak out "reflects fundamental concerns about the development, personal impact and core assumptions of the (diagnosis) systems", used by psychiatry.
Dr Lucy Johnstone, a consultant clinical psychologist who helped draw up the DCP's statement, said it was unhelpful to see mental health issues as illnesses with biological causes.
"On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that people break down as a result of a complex mix of social and psychological circumstances – bereavement and loss, poverty and discrimination, trauma and abuse," Johnstone said. The provocative statement by the DCP has been timed to come out shortly before the release of DSM-5, the fifth edition of the American Psychiatry Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The manual has been attacked for expanding the range of mental health issues that are classified as disorders. For example, the fifth edition of the book, the first for two decades, will classify manifestations of grief, temper tantrums and worrying about physical ill-health as the mental illnesses of major depressive disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and somatic symptom disorder, respectively.
Some of the manual's omissions are just as controversial as the manual's inclusions. The term "Asperger's disorder" will not appear in the new manual, and instead its symptoms will come under the newly added "autism spectrum disorder".
The DSM is used in a number of countries to varying degrees. Britain uses an alternative manual, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) published by the World Health Organisation, but the DSM is still hugely influential – and controversial.
The writer Oliver James, who trained as a clinical psychologist, welcomed the DCP's decision to speak out against psychiatric diagnosis and stressed the need to move away from a biomedical model of mental distress to one that examined societal and personal factors.
Writing in today's Observer, James declares: "We need fundamental changes in how our society is organised to give parents the best chance of meeting the needs of children and to prevent the amount of adult adversity."
But Professor Sir Simon Wessely, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and chair of psychological medicine at King's College London, said it was wrong to suggest psychiatry was focused only on the biological causes of mental distress. And in an accompanying Observer article he defends the need to create classification systems for mental disorder.
"A classification system is like a map," Wessely explains. "And just as any map is only provisional, ready to be changed as the landscape changes, so does classification."Jamie Doward
Experts on both sides of the debate over the classification of mental disorders make their caseNO Simon Wessely, member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists
Next week the American Psychiatric Association is publishing its fifth take on the classification of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-5. Judging by the sound and fury, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is something radical – a great breakthrough in our struggle to better understand mental disorders, or alternatively a dastardly plot to extend the boundaries of psychiatry into everyday life and emotions at the behest of greedy drug companies. Or, if the position statement from the Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) is to be believed, an attempt to emphasise the biological causes of mental disorders over the social and psychological.
In fact, it is none of the above. A classification system is like a map. And just as any map is provisional, ready to be changed as the landscape changes, so is classification. Our knowledge of the changing landscape can come from many sources. This week's Lancet, for example, highlights new research showing the genetic overlaps between several serious psychiatric disorders, which call into question the current boundaries between schizophrenia and bipolar disorders (genes matter, even if we don't yet fully understand how). I expect that the map of severe mental illness in DSM-6, when it appears, will have been redrawn and that it will be on the basis of a better biological understanding of those disorders.
But does that mean that, as the DCP is saying, psychiatry is gradually being taken over by the biologists, attempting to reduce human experience to the level of molecules and cells? The answer is an unequivocal no. Psychiatry is the study of the brain and the mind. Psychiatrists look at the whole person, and indeed beyond the person to their family, and to society. That is why even as a medical student I knew that psychiatry was for me – it was about biology, but it was also about psychology, and sociology, ethics, politics and much else. Psychiatrists react to the tired arguments about biology versus psychology in the same way as geneticists react to sterile debates about nature versus nurture – it's both. Mindless psychiatry is as unhelpful as brainless psychiatry, and the psychiatrist who ignores the social environment is, well, not a psychiatrist. Political decisions about the economy in, for example, Greece or Russia have had serious consequences on some, but not all, mental disorders.
So why the fuss about DSM-5? After all, it's hardly a good read – not the kind of book anyone will take on holiday – and it isn't the system of classification that we use over here in any case. In practice, most UK mental health professionals will barely notice much difference. Some diagnostic criteria will have improved, others less so, and no doubt there will be some "only in America" stories about the inevitable daft new category. But most of those in the business of helping those with mental disorders will be less concerned with what is in and what is out than with the reality of underfunded and overstretched services. The idea that we are part of a conspiracy to medicalise normality will seem frankly laughable as we struggle to protect services for those whose disorders are all too evident under any classification system.
Simon Wessely is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and chair of psychological medicine at King's College LondonYES Oliver James, author and clinical psychologist
A student friend of mine once started claiming that she was being controlled by electrical impulses beamed across the city by "authoritarian capitalists". She spent hours in the bath, cleaning herself.
Following her removal to an asylum, her parents arrived to collect her possessions. Nearly all of her (mostly clean) clothes were deemed so "soiled" they would need to be burnt. The room was obsessively cleaned. Her father was a health inspector.
Within the medical model of mental illness, she had inherited genes predisposing her to obsessive rituals and to psychosis. The model does not entertain the possibility that the health inspector's intrusiveness distressed her or, as it turned out, that he had sexually abused her.
Yet 13 studies find that more than half of schizophrenics suffered childhood abuse. Another review of 23 studies shows that schizophrenics are at least three times more likely to have been abused than non-schizophrenics. It is becoming apparent that abuse is the major cause of psychoses. It is also all too clear that the medical model is bust.
In the press release accompanying publication of DSM-5, David Kupfer, who oversaw its creation, states: "We've been telling patients for several decades that we are waiting for biomarkers. We're still waiting." This is an astonishing admission that there are no reliable genetic or neurological measurements that distinguish a person with mental illness.
While there is some evidence that the electro-chemistry of distressed people can be different from the undistressed, the Human Genome Project seems to be proving that genes play almost no part in causing this. Eleven years of careful study of our DNA shows that differences in it do not explain mental illness, hardly at all. If one sibling is anxious or depressed and another is not, at most, differences in DNA can only explain 1-5% of why it is one and not the other.
Of course, some researchers maintain that, given more time (and money), they will still come up with significant results. But off the record, nearly all molecular geneticists admit that it now really does look as if differences in DNA will explain very little.
By contrast, there is a huge body of evidence that our early childhood experiences combined with subsequent exposure to adversity explain a very great deal. This is dose dependent: the more maltreatment, the earlier you suffer it and the worse it is, the greater your risk of adult emotional distress. These experiences set our electro-chemical thermostats.
So does subsequent adult adversity. For instance, a person with six or more personal debts is six times more likely to be mentally ill than someone with none, regardless of their social class: the more debts, the greater the risk.
We need fundamental changes in how our society is organised to give parents the best chance of meeting the needs of children and to prevent the amount of adult adversity.
Britons and Americans have exactly twice the amount of mental illness of mainland western Europeans (23% versus 11.5%). Thirty years of Thatcher and "Blatcher" turned us into a nation of "affluenza"-stricken, shop-till-you-drop, "it could be you", credit-fuelled consumer junkies. Personal debt – a major stressor for adults – rose from £200bn in 1980 to £1,400bn in 2006. After 1979, the amount of mental illness mushroomed.
Forget about genes. We would halve the amount of emotional distress in this country if we had the more equal, relatively cohesive, less debt-ridden political economics of our European neighbours.
Oliver James trained and practised as a clinical psychologist. He is the author of Love Bombing – Reset your Child's Emotional Thermostat
The gun created on a 3D printer by Defense Distributed looks amateurish, but humble new technology can make a big bang
The news that a few jokers in Texas sailing under the flag of "Defense Distributed" have succeeded in creating a working handgun using 3D printing technology has thrown the cat into the pigeon coop. There's been the traditional reaction from hyperactive US legislators. Democratic Congressman Steve Israel from New York was first out of the starting stalls: he had already sponsored a bill that would outlaw "non-detectable weapons"; now, he announced, he would add regulations concerning 3D-printed guns. "Security checkpoints, background checks and gun regulations will do little good," he told the New York Daily News, "if criminals can print their own plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser."
For their part, the gun printers lost no opportunity to hype up their achievement. "I'm seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want," declared Cody Wilson, the head of Defense Distributed. "It's not up to the political players any more." This is the kind of fancy talk that leads editorial writers to cower in their bunkers, wondering about runaway technology and where it's taking us, while in another part of the forest technology evangelists were fretting that the boffins of Defense Distributed were giving 3D printing a very bad name.
Which indeed they are. But in fact everybody's been giving 3D printing some kind of name. It's variously seen as: a revolutionary technology that will transform manufacturing and bring jobs back to America; a grievous threat to intellectual property; a democratising technology that will empower individuals and small enterprises; a powerful force for good in medicine; a new way of doing haute couture; and as an overblown, over-hyped fad.
What's happening is that people are projecting their hopes, fears and fantasies on to what is basically the logical extension of an old technology – the ink-jet printer. Instead of squirting ink through tiny nozzles under computer control, however, a 3D printer squirts globules of plastic or other materials and creates three-dimensional objects by "printing" out successive layers in accordance with the data contained in a computerised model of the object.
Although there are already some very sophisticated applications of 3D printing in industry (in aircraft manufacture, for example), most of the stuff produced by 3D printing in the public domain looks pretty naff to the layperson's eye. The Texas gun, for example, looks naive and unsophisticated when compared to, say, a Walther PPK. One can just imagine James Bond's incredulous sneer if Q were to offer it to him.
But for those who have followed the work of Harvard scholar Clayton Christensen over the years, the sheer crudity of the printed object is what rings bells because it evokes the possibility of disruptive change. Christensen is famous for his pioneering studies of industrial innovation. What he wanted to understand is why big and successful companies are so often destroyed or humbled by new technologies whose significance they fail to appreciate.
The reason successful corporations are blindsided, Christensen found, is that the initial manifestations of the upstart technologies are so crude that they do not seem to pose a threat to the incumbents. Their products, though expensive, are so polished and sophisticated that it seems incredible that their customers would be tempted by such crummy artefacts.
But it turns out that some customers are prepared to buy the crummy product because they can't afford the expensive stuff; and the manufacturers of the disruptive product rapidly improve it, so that it becomes less crummy. And then they cream off the lower segment of the incumbent's market. And so it goes on until the established company (or companies, for this can happen to whole industries) goes under.
The poster child for Christensen's account of disruptive innovation is, of course, Kodak – a huge, profitable company that completely dominated the market in analogue, ie film-based, photography, and which was eventually destroyed by digital technology. And the same logic applied, because when digital sensors first appeared the photographs they produced were truly awful. But Christensen's logic eventually prevailed and Kodak is no more. The only irony is that it was in Kodak's own R&D labs that the digital sensor was invented.
Nobody knows what the long-term impact of 3D printing will be. It's possible that it will ultimately affect only a limited number of industrial sectors. Or just particular parts of a sector – for example the organisations that have to maintain huge warehouses of spares for an infinite variety of industrial and domestic appliances: why keep physical stock when all you need are the CAD drawings and a printer?
The one reason for not discounting 3D printing is the one most sceptics use at the moment: that the things it produces look naff.John Naughton
Aid agencies that promote one-off counselling sessions after major traumas only prolong victims' suffering
One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit on Boxing Day 2004. The resulting tsunami devastated huge swaths of the Indian Ocean coastline and left an estimated quarter of a million people dead across Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Aid agencies quickly arrived to help battered and traumatised survivors.
Mental health was a massive part of the emergency response but the World Health Organisation promptly did something it has never done before or since. It specifically denounced a type of psychological therapy and recommended that it shouldn't be used. The therapy was a single session treatment called "psychological debriefing", which involved working with disaster victims to encourage people to supposedly "process" the intense emotions by talking through them in stages. It was intended to prevent later mental health problems by helping people resolve difficult emotions early on. The only trouble was that it made things worse. Studies had shown that people given post-disaster psychological debriefing were subsequently more likely to suffer mental health problems than people who had had no treatment at all.
Guidance from the world's most influential health authority had little effect, and the therapy was extensively used. The reluctance to do things differently was tied up with some of the least-appreciated facts about our reactions to disaster. In our trauma-focused society, it is often forgotten that the majority of people who experience the ravages of natural disaster, become the victims of violence or lose loved ones in tragedy will need no assistance from mental health professionals.
Most people will be shaken up, distressed and bereaved, but these are natural reactions, not in themselves disorders. Only a minority of people – rarely more than 30% in well-conducted studies and often considerably less – will develop psychological difficulties as a result of their experiences, and the single most common outcome is recovery without the need of professional help. But regardless of the eventual outcome, you are likely to be at your most stressed during the disaster and your stress levels will reduce afterwards even if they don't return to normal. Your body simply cannot maintain peak levels of anxiety.
These are important facts to bear in mind because, from the point of view of the disaster therapist, psychological debriefing seems to work – stress levels genuinely drop. But what the individual therapist can't see is that this would happen more effectively, leaving less people traumatised, if they did nothing. To put icing on the rather grim cake, researchers also asked patients whether they found the technique helpful as they walked out of the door. The patients reported that it seemed useful even though follow-up assessments showed that it impaired their recovery. Even faulty life-jackets give you hope, of course. The one-off nature of the treatment just compounded the problem as it was easy for the therapists to assume that instant feedback was a guide to effectiveness.
In the light of these dangers, health agencies developed a technique called "psychological first aid" that is perhaps most remarkable for the fact that it contains so little psychology. It is really just a communication guide for dealing with traumatised people and explicitly advises against encouraging people to "process" what happened – which in itself has probably prevented a great deal of harm.
But the practice of instant psychological interventions for just-traumatised people is hard to resist. On the emotional level, professionals are drawn to "do something" to help people who are suffering. This is an admirable human motivation, though being aware of what works is a professional responsibility. We would find it less commendable if a trauma surgeon tried leeches and brandy, regardless of their good intentions. There is a slightly darker undercurrent to this, of course. The idea that rescuers can arrive in disaster areas and prevent mental illness in a single meeting is an attractive fantasy but often serves the needs of relief workers and their image more than disaster-affected communities.
It would be great if single-session treatments worked, but considering the dangers of past attempts, we would want to be sure that they were safe and helpful before we used them.
In the meantime, psychological debriefing is still widely used and new, untested single-session disaster treatments seem to be making a comeback. An article just published in the war-zone mental health journal Intervention admitted there was little evidence for the efficacy of single-session post-disaster treatments but still gave guidelines on how to do them.
With the recent tragedies of Boston, Dhaka, Syria and Mali, these issues have become newly relevant. After the chaotic response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, where truck loads of poorly informed and disorganised counsellors arrived to "treat" locals, international protocols have now been drawn up. But it's not clear how well they are being used and little is said about poor practice.
While the romantic notion of disaster rescue is attractive, the goal is to promote high-quality mental health services, based on solid research, in partnership with the community. Simply "being there" is not enough. Ironically, lots of counsellors are still not listening.
In his challenging book on the biological causes of crime, the neuroscientist recounts how he chose between two suspects after suffering a violent burglary on holiday in Turkey
It was the summer of 1989 in Bodrum, a beautiful seaside resort on the south-western coast of Turkey, soaked in sun, history and nightlife. I was on vacation and it had been a long day. I had taken the bus from Iráklion, where I had caught the second-worst case of food poisoning I had ever had in my life, including two days in bed throwing up with backbreaking pain.
It was very hot that July night and I could not sleep. I had kept the windows open to try to stay cool. I tossed and turned, still somewhat sick and sleepless – in and out of consciousness, as my girlfriend slept in the room's other single bed. It was just after 3am when I became aware of a stranger standing above me. At that time, I was teaching a class on criminal behaviour and I would tell my students that when they became aware of an intruder in their apartment, they should feign being asleep. Ninety per cent of the time, thieves just wanted to grab the goods and then get out. Let them go – then call 911. You run no risk and have a fighting chance of getting your possessions back without a violent confrontation.
So what did I do when I saw the intruder at my bedside? I fought. In the milliseconds that it took my visual cortex to interpret the shadowy figure and signal this to the amygdala, which jump-starts the fight-flight response, I leaped out of my bed. In little more than a second, I had instinctively grabbed the intruder. I was on automatic pilot.
Information from the senses reaches the amygdala twice as fast as it gets to the frontal lobe. So before my frontal cortex could rein back the amygdala's aggressive response, I'd already made a threatening move toward the burglar. This in turn activated the intruder's fight-flight system. Unfortunately for me, his instinct to fight also kicked in.
The next thing I knew I was being hit so quickly that it felt like the man had four fists. He hit me so hard on the head that I saw a streak of white light flash before my eyes. He also hit me in the throat. He seemed to hit me all over. I was violently thrown against the door. I felt the doorknob and I must confess the thought of escape sprang into my mind. But at that instant I heard piercing screams from my girlfriend, struggling with the man. She eventually ended up with bruises on her arms, but I think these were defence wounds and that the intruder only wanted to keep her quiet. Seeing them struggle, the instinctive reaction that had originally come upon me when I was in bed returned. I leaped at him again and somehow managed to push him out of the open window.
In that instant, I felt an immediate sense of safety and relief. But the euphoria evaporated after I turned on the light switch and saw the blood running down my chest. I tried to shout out, but what came out of my mouth was a hoarse whimper.
Completely unknown to me in the midst of that mismatched contest was that the assailant had been holding a knife. Quite a long one, with a red handle and a 6in blade, it turned out. But I was lucky. As I warded off his blows with my arms, the blade of the cheap knife had snapped off, leaving only a few millimetres of metal left on the handle. So when he attempted to cut my throat, the damage was far less than it might have been.
The police arrived surprisingly quickly. The hotel was right beside a barracks. There had been a sentry on duty who had heard the shouts and screams and he raised the alarm. The hotel had been quickly surrounded, so that when the police arrived they believed that the perpetrator was still inside the hotel.
I was taken to the hospital. It was rudimentary and bare. I was laid on my back on what felt like a hard concrete slab, while the doctor put a few stitches in my throat. The window of the hospital room was open and I could hear in the distance that a party was still going on. The strains of the music wafted through the window, the Beatles' Hard Day's Night, of all songs.
Afterward, the police wanted me back at the hotel to go over what had happened. All the residents were now standing in the lobby, even though it must have been about 5am by then.
The police had thoroughly gone through the rooms of all the residents in search of my assailant. I learned later that one man had looked a bit flushed when the police pulled him from his bed and he had a red mark on his torso that looked fresh. He was in the upstairs room right next to me. So he was one of the two suspects waiting for me when I entered the lobby.
Both were young Turkish men. Both were naked from the waist up – just as the attacker had been. One was quite a good-looking man, but otherwise there was nothing out of the ordinary about him. The second suspect had a rougher look. He was also stocky and muscular, and what flashed through my mind at that moment was that he had the classic mesomorphic physique that early criminologists believed typified criminals. He also had a striking scar on his upper arm. His nose looked as if it had been broken. His looks persuaded me. He had to be the man who'd tried to cut my throat.
The police pulled him aside and had a quiet word with him. But not so quiet that the manager of the hotel couldn't overhear and translate the conversation back to me. The police told him they simply wanted to clear up the case and if he'd admit that he was the perpetrator, they would let him go. So the gullible guy made his admission and was promptly arrested.
At that point, I'd had enough of Bodrum and Turkey and I told the police I was off to the neighbouring island of Kos in Greece in the next two days. Remarkably, they decided to expedite the trial. It was something of a ceremony at the outset. It started off at the police station. I was placed next to my assailant and we were marched through the centre of the town, side by side, to the courthouse. Quite a number of people came out to watch, as I had been featured in Bodrum's local newspaper the previous day, pictured with a prominent white bandage on my throat. Many of them pointed at us and yelled at the defendant. Although whatever they said was incomprehensible to me, it was clear that the defendant was not a popular man.
The trial was novel, to say the least. There was no jury at all. Instead, there were three judges in scarlet robes seated loftily above us. The defendant did not have an attorney. Neither did I, for that matter. Adding to the strangeness, none of the judges could speak or understand any English, and I could not speak Turkish. So they procured a cook who could speak some English and serve as my interpreter. It was all very surreal. I gave my testimony. The judges asked me how I could identify the assailant, given that the incident had occurred just after 3am and it had been dark. I described to them how the moonlight was streaming through the window by my bed, illuminating one side of the assailant's face as we struggled. That I had frantically wrestled with him and that that gave me a sense of his stature and build. I said that I could not be completely sure, but frankly, whether that part ever got translated, I'll never know.
After I gave my testimony through the cook, the defendant gave his testimony. Whatever he said in Turkish, the judges were not persuaded. They found him guilty as charged. It was as simple as that.
After the verdict, one of the judges ushered me and my translator over to the bench. He told us that the defendant would be brought back later for sentencing and that it would be a prison sentence of several years' duration. Justice is swift and efficient in Turkey, I thought. I had seen on that trip more than one elderly man with a hand missing, a vestige of the days when theft was punished by detaching the offending part of the perpetrator's anatomy. That had seemed harsh when I had seen it earlier on my trip. But at that moment in the courtroom, in spite of the seeming lack of due process, hearing that my attacker would see significant prison time was music to my ears. Justice, as they say, is sweet.