Archive for June, 2009
In April 2004, German academic Michael Maar made waves in the literary world with his London Times article, “Curse of the First Lolita,” which presented startling parallels between Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), and a 1916, 18-page German short story of the same name, penned by journalist Heinz von Eschwege (under the pen name Heinz von Lichberg). The plot similarities uncovered by Maar are startling: both works are about a middle-aged man who rents a room as a lodger and becomes obsessed with the prepubescent girl (Lolita) who lives in the same house. Maar’s also points out that Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin as Eschwege until 1937, and that the German author’s work was widely available at the time. However, Maar stops short of accusing Nabokov of outright plagiarism; instead, he posits the theory that Nabokov may have experienced cryptomnesia (inadvertent plagiarism), while he was composing Lolita in the 1950s.
Cryptomnesia is a memory bias that occurs when a person mistakenly believes that they have come up with an original thought, idea, song or joke, when it was actually generated by someone else. Thus, the individual is not intentionally plagiarizing the original source; rather, they mistakenly believe their recollection is a new inspiration. The term was first used by psychology professor Theodore Flournoy in his 1901 book, From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages. Flournoy employs the word to explain the phenomenon of “past life regressions,” which he believed were instances of hypnosis-induced cryptomnesia. In 1905, psychologist Carl Jung expanded on this theory in his article, “Cryptomnesia,” where he lists specific examples of famous artists who have fallen prey to their “concealed recollections” while creating ostensibly original works of art. He cited the example of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891), which includes an incident almost directly lifted from a book published in 1835. When the original source was discovered, Nietzsche’s sister confirmed that Friedrich had indeed read the book in controversy…when he was 11 years old!
Nabokov never mentioned Eschwege’s story as a source of inspiration for Lolita during his lifetime. Some scholars, skeptical of Maar’s theory, have suggested that Nabokov may have deliberately failed to mention his debt to Eschwege’s short story. One interesting theory holds that Nabokov did not want his work to be associated with the German author, who became a prominent pro-Hitler propagandist in Germany during the Second World War. Nabokov, who was passionately anti-Nazi, may have very well hoped that the parallels between his novel and the since-obscure “Lolita” short story would go unnoticed, especially because the German author had passed away five years prior to the novel’s publication.
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In 1962, physician Dr. Abraham Gordon created a stir within the medical community when he published a paper that opined that Abraham Lincoln had suffered from Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that arises from a defect in the gene that causes the body to produce fibrillin-1, the protein that lends our connective tissue its flexibility and strength. Dr. Gordon based his diagnosis on observations of Lincoln’s unusual physiology; like others with the disorder, Lincoln was unusually tall and thin (with disproportionately long fingers and toes), and had an abnormally shaped chest and lax joints. According to the National Institute of Health, Marfan syndrome occurs in at least one out of every 5,000 people.
Scientists now believe that the complications arising from the disorder originate from a mutation that causes fibrillin-1 to disable a protein known as transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) (crucial to the termination of acute inflammation in the body). The resulting failure of the body to manage acute inflammation weakens tissues throughout the body and causes the physical features associated with Marfan syndrome. The disorder is usually inherited genetically; an estimated 3 out of every 4 sufferers acquire the mutation from a parent with the disorder, while the remaining 25% develop the disorder from a spontaneous mutation. Moreover, Marfan syndrome is an autosomal dominant condition, which means only one parent need carry the gene to pass the disease on. Therefore, each child of an affected parent has a 50% chance of inheriting the disorder.
Many doctors have disputed Dr. Gordon’s theory, arguing that Lincoln’s medical history does not indicate that he suffered from the internal complications associated with the disorder. Besides its physiological manifestations, Marfan syndrome causes internal complications that can affect the lungs, eyes, spine, skeleton, hard palate and most critically, the heart valve and/or aorta. As such, Dr. Gordon’s detractors point out that Lincoln never complained of any heart or vision problems, the two most common internal complications of the disorder. In the 1990s, scientists briefly considered testing Lincoln’s DNA testing for Marfan, but the idea was later abandoned amidst protests from privacy advocates.
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On May 31, 2009, 55 pilot whales washed up on Kommetjie beach in Cape Town, South Africa, shortly after daybreak. Relying on earth moving equipment, National Sea Rescue Institute volunteers managed to move 20 of these stranded whales back to the sea, but the remaining whales were too weak to make it back to the water. When it became clear that additional rescue efforts would be in vain, South African law enforcement officials were left with no choice but to euthanize the suffering whales with a gunshot to the head. This mysterious tragedy begs the question: why do an estimated 2000 whales end up beached every year?
For the majority of whales, getting stranded on a beach amounts to a death sentence. Most beached whales end up dying from dehydration, suffocation, infection and/or drowning (their blowholes may become immersed during high tides). At sea, a whale’s massive body is supported by water: on land a whale’s respiratory muscles are unable to fully operate under the weight of its body, which eventually leads to suffocation. Moreover, a beached whale’s blood circulation becomes blocked in the part of its body that is pressed against the ground, causing tissue death. Thus, even if a whale is eventually returned to the water alive, it may die soon thereafter from infection caused by the toxins secreted by the dead tissue.
With respect to lone strandings, scientists have theorized that a solitary whale might inadvertently beach itself if it is sick or hurt. Because whales rely on “sonar” to help them orient themselves, parasites or injury could confuse its normally remarkable sense of direction. Interestingly, only about 10 whale species are frequently involved in mass beachings. Scientists have noted that the common factor across these susceptible species is their tight-knit, group-oriented social organization.
Odontocete whales, such as the sperm whale (the “ferocious” Moby Dick was a member of this species), which live in large and chummy social groups, are the most susceptible to group strandings; solitary species, by their very nature, never beach themselves en masse. As such, it has been hypothesized that these kin-loving whales may accidentally become beached while following a confused leader, or end up stranded in an effort to come to the aid of a fellow whale sending out a distress call. In light of these explanations, one cannot help but think that Melville should have made the blood-thirsty Moby Dick a different type of whale. By the dictates of his species, it is unlikely that Moby would devote his energies towards pulverizing ships and chomping off the limbs of captains….
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Why does chronic stress cause some people to break out in hives? Most scientists agree that stress-induced hives, also known as chronic idiopathic urticaria, are caused by an allergic-type reaction that persistent stress can trigger in the human body. Chronic idiopathic urticaria is the most common type of hive, albeit the most perplexing for scientists to study, because individual reactions to stress are so variable. Stress tolerance varies immensely from person to person and is often context specific; therefore, it is difficult to examine scientifically in repeatable experiments. As such, it is unsurprising that the medical community has been reluctant to fully embrace this hazy explanation for the condition, despite the large body of evidence demonstrating the link between hives and chronic stress.
The skin is the largest organ in our body, and is extremely sensitive to stimulus. Some scientists studying the link between stress and hives have posited the theory that exposure to continual stress upends the balance of our internal chemistry, causing the body to produce large quantities of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland, and in normal quantities helps the body regulate proper glucose metabolism, blood pressure, insulin release, immune function and inflammatory response.
Despite the key role that this hormone plays in regulating homeostasis in the body, cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone,” because the adrenal gland secretes large quantities of cortisol into the blood stream in response to stress or anxiety as part of our “fight or flight” response. Thus, normal amounts of cortisol can be beneficial for our bodies: it provides a jolt of energy in crisis situations; temporarily improves memory function and immunity; lowers pain sensitivity and helps maintain equilibrium in the body. However, if the adrenal gland continually secretes cortisol into the blood stream in response to persistent stress, this hormone can cause of host of harmful effects, including elevated blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances and increased abdominal fat (thus inspiring the invention of the dubious diet supplement “Relacore”). Large quantities of cortisol also notably decrease immune and inflammatory responses in the body, which may help explain how chronic stress can trigger hives.
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At the tender age of 28, the great German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770- March 26, 1827) began to notice that he was suffering from hearing loss; by the time he was 50, he was almost completely deaf. Always moody and hot-tempered, Beethoven’s progressive hearing loss was a source of great suffering for the composer, and his despair even drove him to contemplate suicide. In an 1801 letter addressed to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, Beethoven confided to his friend that, “For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible to say to people, “I am deaf.” If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state…”
Beethoven eventually learned to cope with his condition, and continued to compose music by relying on vibrations to help him perceive sound. The crafty composer employed the use of a special “bite rod” (fastened to the soundboard of his piano), which helped him feel vibrations in his jaw when he played music. He also famously cut off the legs of his piano so that he could feel the vibrations in the floor while he played. Remarkably, Beethoven composed some of his best pieces after he had already lost his hearing, such as his legendary Ninth Symphony.
As his hearing progressively worsened, Beethoven began relying on “Conversation Notebooks” to communicate with his visitors; his friends would write their dialogue in the notebook, and Beethoven would either respond verbally or in writing (usually when he didn’t want the conversation overheard). Because the composer usually responded to his friends verbally, many of the notebook conversations are one-sided. However, the reader can still get the gist of what the great man said from the recorded responses of his guests.
It is estimated that 400 of Beethoven’s “Conversation Notebooks” were found after his death in 1827. Tragically, Beethoven’s meddling and misguided associate Anton Schindler destroyed 264 of these notebooks (and altered countless others). Schindler “pruned” out any of the notebooks/conversations that he deemed uninteresting, unimportant or unflattering to the composer’s image. So what do the remnants of this remarkable historical record tell us about the man behind the icon? Besides providing fascinating insights into Beethoven’s composition methods and musical theories, his notebooks reveal that he and One-hit wonder Sir Mix-a-Lot have one thing in common: they both proudly express their love for a well shaped derriere, or in Beethoven’s words, “a magnificent fanny.”
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Flora the Komodo Don't Need No Man....
The term parthenogenesis (derived from the Greek for “virgin creation”) describes a type of asexual reproduction in which females are able to produce eggs that develop without fertilization. Scientists once believed that parthenogenesis only occurred amongst invertebrates, plants and a few rare lizard species. However, in 2005 and 2006 respectively, two captive Komodo dragon females, Sungaï and Flora, astonished the scientific community by producing viable eggs without any assistance from a male. Before this incredible finding, scientists had assumed that Komodo Dragons only reproduced sexually.
Having observed the remarkable Sungaï and Flora in action, scientists have come to believe that parthenogenesis occurs in Komodo dragons only if a male is unavailable in the vicinity (thus explaining why this phenomenon has only been observed in captivity in this species). However, while parthenogenesis carries the benefit of allowing komodo dragons to reproduce without male involvement, it also comes with all of the familiar trappings of asexual reproduction, posing a threat to genetic diversity and increasing a particular species’ susceptibility to genetic mutations.
These findings may have important implication for the breeding of Komodo dragons in captivity. Komodo dragons are an endangered species, and it is estimated that there are only a scant 4,000 left on the planet. Historically, zoos only permanently housed female dragons and circulated males for mating purposes. However, many scientists now think that male and female Komodos should be permanently placed together, in order to encourage sexual reproduction, thereby maintaining the genetic diversity of this unique species.
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Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, present in cheese, chicken, eggs, fish, peanut butter, soy and of course, turkey meat. This widely misunderstood amino acid is necessary for normal infant growth development and promotes nitrogen balance in adults. Because tryptophan is an essential amino acid, the body cannot manufacture it on its own, so it must be derived from food sources or through the use of dietary supplements.
Many people mistakenly believe that the drowsiness they experience following a Thanksgiving feast is caused by the consumption of turkey, which contains a (relatively) large amount of tryptophan. While it is true that tryptophan possesses sedative properties, it does so indirectly by helping the body produce the B-vitamin niacin. Niacin in turn assists the body in the production of serotonin, a chemical that has a calming effect on the brain and helps regulate sleep and mood.
However, tryptophan works best on an empty stomach; therefore, it’s sleep-inducing properties are rendered moot by the sheer enormity of the typical Thanksgiving feast, where it must vie with other amino acids for use by the body. Therefore, only a trace amount of the amino acid actually reaches the brain after a standard holiday dinner. Thus, most nutritionists believe that post Thanksgiving feast drowsiness can most likely be attributed what is consumed with the turkey; namely, large quantities of carbohydrates and alcohol. Moreover, the stress and/or boredom engendered by a stint of daylong captivity with one’s nearest and dearest cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor to post-dinner fatigue…
Tryptophan is also widely available at health stores as a dietary supplement, despite its presence in a wide sundry of foodstuffs. Many people use tryptophan supplements as an alternative to prescription sleep aides; however, clinical studies with respect to its efficacy have been inconclusive. It is also a popular hangover aid amongst ecstasy users, who rely on tryptophan supplements to help relieve the symptoms of ‘come down,’ due to their lower serotonin levels after using the drug.
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