Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sinus Solution

I've had chronic sinus problems all my life.  Now I've found a solution, at least partial.

Sometimes I've had particular problems breathing through my nose in bed at night.  I've noticed it's been more likely to be a problem in winter.  Summer has been much less of a problem, although the pattern has been quite obscured by other factors, such as colds - which for me come on more in autumn than winter - and allergies.

Recently this winter, I started wearing a woolly hat to bed at night.  And it's worked a treat.  I've been able to breathe through my nose most of the time at night, and my sleep has been less disrupted.  This effect is definitely unrelated to viral colds, where congestion changes over the course of days, not hours.

It's easy to say that's obvious: much of our body heat is lost through the head, and since my hair is quite short I'd clearly suffer more than average in that respect.

Yet the link between losing heat and sinus congestion is not clear.  I have discussed sinus trouble with a number of doctors, and one or two specialists - none of them has mentioned the idea that local temperature in the head can affect congestion.  I've not heard of the connection in literature either.  Doubtless it's been broached in the past, but anecdotally it doesn't seem to be ready knowledge in the medical fraternity.

The nose fulfils a number of biological functions - smell is only one of them.  In an evolutionary sense, there is variability simply because of its function as a temperature regulator: living further away from the equator favours longer noses, to help warm the incoming air; such function is not needed by humans closer to the equator, and noses tend to be broader and flatter.  That it acts as a general heat preserver does not necessarily say much about the heat exchange at a local level.  Maybe for me there's a more marked local heat exchange effect than for many other people.

This is conjecture.  All I can say with certainty - so far - is that I'm experiencing incontrovertable improvement in nighttime breathing through the nose by wearing a woolly hat to bed at night.  The effect is somewhat less pronounced during the day - perhaps because I travel in and out of airconditioned environments frequently enough to make the effects less obvious.

 So far, internet searches have turned up just a single reference to this issue - on a forum about hats.  There were several anecdotes about wearing a hat easing sinus congestion.  Just one of those comments mentioned medical advice to do so - by a surgeon, after a sinus operation.  So the truth is out there, but not well known.

I'm keen to hear of other experiences.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Word of the day: Microbiome

This is clearly a portmanteau word: microbe + genome. Microbe refers to microscopic organisms - in this case, bacteria; genome refers to the sum total of genetic material in an organism.

There's a community of bacteria living within humans that performs functions essential for human life. Scientific American (Mar-2012) says there's at least 10 times as many bacteria cells as human cells in the human body (but those bacteria are a whole lot smaller, with much, much simpler genome).

So microbiome is the genetic material of the [useful] bacteria in the human body. In such a situation, it differs from human to human, so things like this are usually measured on a sampling basis.

According to that Scientific American article (Backseat Drivers, p11), the sum total of all genetic material housed in a human body is then called the hologenome.

Small bone to pick here. The human genome is generally thought of as referring to the genetic material (23 chromosomes of DNA) housed in the nucleus of each cell. But there's extra DNA not in the nucleus: mitochondrial DNA, used to generate energy, passed on only maternally, and originally passed to humans by bacteria. This DNA is often left off discussion of genomes.  In this case, I'd say they'd be including mitochondria for the sake of completeness.

Another small bone to pick. Microbiome is listed in Wikipedia as the sum total of microscopic organisms in a particular environment, and hologenome is used as an idea of co-evolution with microbes, roughly speaking. So the Scientific American article is pushing the envelope a bit.

So even within a scientific community the meaning of words can change over time until/unless locked down.

Further reading (both from Scientific American, as it happens):

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Word of the day: ericacious

Urk! What does this mean? On Monday night I saw it on the back of some plant food meant for acid-loving plants such as azalias, orchids and gardenias (which I love), and ericacious plants.

So if you get it wrong, you're in trouble.

The first clue was that the list of plants included heather. The second: when I looked up the word, it referred me to ericaceous. Now that's a bit like erica and herbaceous.

So it refers to the genus ericaceae - which is, in fact, a family that includes heathers, and grows in harsh and acidic environments.

Although I would expect the two spellings to be used interchangeably, anecdotally it looks like the spelling ericaceous is used in a strict botanical sense, while ericacious seems to be used mostly in a gardening context.

Anyway, it looks like I'll restrict this plant food to the gardenia and the orchids...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Word of the day: defenestration

Of course, after a word arc culminating in Hussites, it's hard to resist adding defenestration.

If you've learnt just a little French, you'll recognise the root of this word is common to fenetre,  French for window.  Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out a window.

In 1419, seven town councillors were thrown out the window in Prague.  This was not trivial: they were thrown to their deaths.

This very event is the origin of the word defenestration, and it also precipitated the Hussite wars.

And in a spectacular effort to entrench the word in history, almost two hundred years later they held another defenestration event - this time, from Prague castle.

As you might expect, that precipitated another war - the Thirty Years War.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Word of the day: Hussite



finally to:                Hussite

 - which was the destination of this arc of words.

Jan Hus was an early protestant (ie non-orthodox Christian), in the days when that was a fatal move.  Bohemian in name, but not by nature.

To cut a long story short, the end (of the beginning, so to speak) came about in 1414 when he attended a Great Council of the Christian church in Constance.  This council was originally convened to resolve the existence of three (!) opposing popes.  The eastern orthodox church was invited too - it was hoped the council could solve the big Christian schism between the eastern and western churches. However, those issues proved rather difficult, so for diversion they decided to condemn a heretic.  Jan?  Oops... but you've given me safe conduct to this council!  Well, not any more...  so they burned him at the stake.

(... once that was out of the way, they eventually sorted out the popes - by booting out all the others and electing a new one.  The schism?  Well, that was just too hard.)

So, as you can imagine, being a Hussite was a rather dangerous calling at the time.

The Hussite wars followed over the next twenty years.  Although ultimately not too succcessful (for the Hussites), it's a significant chapter in Bohemian history.

Where did I encounter this word?  In a podcast called Europe From Its Origins.  Dense, academic, sometimes quite polemic.  It's put together by Joe Hogarty; his favourite word is Christendom.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Word of the day: Huzzah

I'm meandering towards a particular word that sounds somewhat similar to this one and yesterday's - and all have a martial aspect to them.

"Huzzah!" was once a battle cry.  It was also used something like 'hooray' - and modern usage is probably something in between, albeit more as a joke/archaicism than anything else.

As a battle cry, its origins are debatable, although - again! - it has been claimed to have come to Europe from as far back as the invading Mongols in the 13th century. (A little too tempting to link it up to yesterday's hussar, maybe.)

In any case, it was clearly used by the British military at some point, in a similar manner to 'banzai'.  Except, well, British, and not Japanese.

Where did I encounter this word?  Someone mentioned it after the last one.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Word of the day: Hussar

I just noticed these words are rather top-heavy in the area of sciences so far, so I'm veering in the direction of another of my other interests, history.

A hussar is a specific type of cavalryman - light cavalry, in fact, originating in the 1400s.  That means we have a military horseman, the light simply meaning not armoured.  Which makes sense, really.  The golden hordes (the Mongol invaders into Europe and Asia in the 1300s and 1400s) had effectively taught the Europeans the benefits of cavalry attack (speed) over defence.

Early 20th Century Prussian hussar
The hussar form apparently rose to prominence in Hungary in the late 1400s, where they proved quite sucessful, thence were hired elsewhere in Europe as mercenaries.  Various forms then spread throughout Europe over the next 400 years.  I've seen pictures of hussars of a number of different nationalities, mainly from France through to northern and eastern Europe.  Variants of the ceremonial dress - particularly the hat - seems to be the nearest I can get to a unifying feature throughout the period and continent.

Where did I encounter this word?  It was uncomfortably close to another upcoming word, and I wanted to clarify each of them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Word of the day: copepod

A copepod is a type of crustacean.  It might make you think of arthropod, the phylum (body type) that crustaceans belong to, but the prefix -pod means foot, of course.  The name copepod comes from Greek, meaning oar- or handle- and -foot.

The copepoda are actually a subclass, in the Linnean classification.  Which mainly means there are quite a few species of them.

If you look at the photo in the Wikipedia entry, it actually looks like plankton.  I didn't know crustaceans could be planktonic - or vice versa.  There you go.
However, plankton is just a general term for small marine life (either animal or plant) that lives near the surface of the ocean.  So things that feed on plankton are just feeding on... "stuff".

 And now to what brought me to this word (something Wikipedia doesn't mention): some species of copepod are bioluminescent, meaning they emit light.  The actual mechanism involvese a combination of two substances: luciferin, a pigment that reacts with oxygen; and luciferase, an enzyme (a protein catalyst).  Interestingly enough, this very mechanism has evolved separately in a several different organisms, including fireflies and anglerfish.  I guess it shows that this kind of mutation is:
a) useful
b) not too hard to arrive at (for example, just a couple of point mutations).

 Where did I encounter this word? A few days ago, on the bus.  In New Scientist (12 May 2012); another word I'd never seen before.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Word of the day: Peplum

A peplum is a garment like a blouse or top, with a small skirt-ish sort of thing at the bottom.

From an article in the Guardian:

"It won't make you look thin, men don't find it sexy and it gets crushed on public transport..."

Damn right on the first two at least.  Still, the article then asks: " do you carry it off?" - and you know it has to come from the fashion section.

Reminds me of those hideous bubble dresses.  Glad they're pretty much gone.

Okay, yes I admit: it's the actuality I dislike more than the word.  Yet I'm none too fond of the word either.  It comes from the Greek word for tunic.  There's also Peplos, a kind of women's garment in ancient Greece.

For further information see the Wikipedia article overskirt.  I got the image from there because I couldn't find a more exemplary demonstration of what I don't like about it.

Where did I encounter this word?  Saturday, in the fashion pages of the Herald's colour supplement.  Why was I even looking at this page?  I think I was just thumbing past it, when this word sprung in front of my eyes before I could turn past it.  Yet again I thought, hang on, this is not a word.  But the fickle finger of fashion doubtness churns through new words faster than... well, butter, I guess.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Word of the Day: Omnium

Omnium - Sounds rather singular and meaningful, doesn't it?

Well it's not. It's just a new-ish olympic category - a multiple event for track cycling.

Wikipedia says the word is Latin for "all around the thing" - although with what little I know of Latin, I'd guess it's more like "all thing".

Don't know why this word seems to have been snaffled for the Olympics - and track cycling, at that. It's a very generic construct. Maybe there was no Latin word for Cycling - yet Latin is constantly being updated for the modern world.

I am not too fond of this modern construct/usurpation.  Tomorrow's word is another recent coining that gets my goat.

Where did I encounter this word? Sunday, listening to radio, got pulled up by a word I'd never heard before.  The casual disbursement of the word itself was more noteworthy than the context.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Word of the day: Cardiomyocyte

A cardiomyocyte is a heart muscle cell.

Paraphrased from New Scientist, 5 May 2012: After a heart attack, fibroblast cells form scar tissue on the damaged areas, but they don't pump properly like cardiomyocytes. Dzau (Duke University) used a virus to deliver four microRNAs to switch the fibroblasts to cardiomyocytes. Viruses are, more or less, RNA (or DNA) factories. That is, they are much smaller than normal cells, and spend their lives using a host cell's own mechanisms to manufacture more genetic material.  Preferably its own, but with the benefits of modern genetic engineering, clearly they can be taken advantage of for the benefit of the host cell.

microRNA: short strips of RNA that bind to messenger RNA to stop genes being expressed.

It's not clear to me whether this happens at transcription inside the cell nucleus (like epigenetics, but acting on the RNA), or translation (that is, preventing the ribosome properly decoding some of the RNA into proteins outside the cell nucleus. Either way, it's pretty clever to be able to:
a) identify the switches that change a fibroblast to a cardiomyocyte. Possibly just a function of what proteins are expressed at the ribosome
b) engineer a virus so that it expresses the right set of RNA strands to do the trick
c) deliver the virus to just the right cells. 

(I note that there's been another effort to achieve the same outcome - fibroblast to cardiomyocyte - in a completely different way: using stem cells:

Where did I encounter this word? Yesterday, in that New Scientist (I'm behind in my reading!)


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Word of the day: Chevrotain

Another word with evolutionary significance.


A chevrotain is also known as a mouse deer (which can be somewhat deceptive).  The name comes from French, and roughly translates as 'little goat'.

It does look halfway between a mouse and a deer, but it's more meaningful to think of it as a very small deer: you couldn't get a real-life mix between a rodent and an ungulate (they're clearly genetically too distant).

They're actually a group of species (called a 'family' in the old, Linnean classification) found in Africa and Southeast Asia - with some variation in appearance between species.  This grouping includes the smallest ungulates in the world.
The rodent features are misleading, and would be an example of convergent evolution - that is, unrelated animals that evolves similar features for similar environmental niches.

Where did I encounter this word?  This is what makes this species significant: recently there was a Wikipedia feature article on giraffes.  They're (even-toed) ungulates - which evolved from creatures that looked rather like this 54 million years ago.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Word of the Day: Ungulate

First: Why?

Why something as staid as Word of the Day?

It arose from a comment someone made to me about a man of letters who made a habit of learning a new word every day.  I don't remember who that was; I'm sure there's a lot of people who have made such a resolution over the years.

But it struck me that I don't need to make the effort, because I encounter at least one new word every day.  If nothing else, in my readings on history, science, evolution and genetics.  It wouldn't be hard to document just one per day, and it would oblige me to properly find out what it meant.

However, the exercise is not without its pitfalls - not the least of which is the interruption in the flow of reading, the communication of information.  Not trivial when I'm deeply immersed in a train of thought.  Jump off that train, make a note, catch it again, recapture the meaning and the mood.  Later, I have to fit in the time to do the research and write it up.  Not always trivial.  In fact, since I started this, I realise I have a bad habit of glossing over new or half-understood words.  I find I'm not picking up half the candidate words - there's just too many.  In general, I'll try to make them totally new.

And so the second question: Why something as staid as ungulate?

Well, there will be days like that.  For some of these words, I didn't know the full meaning or nuance; for others, it makes sense to be clear on the understanding of a word that's needed for another word.  Like this one.


Do you know properly what this word means?

Of course, an ungulate is effectively a hoofed animal, but the word refers to a specific grouping of mammals. They move on the tips of their toes, which have hooves. (they'd be good at ballet, hey?)

There are odd- and even-toed ungulates, which actually delineates which toes the animals rest their weight on (some of the toes are quite vestigal, and so barely visible).

Despite what wikipedia says in its intro, this is not a proper cladistic group of animals. That is, the word does not describe a grouping of a single ancestral animal and all its descendants. Otherwise, you'd have to call dolphins and other cetaceans ungulates, because some ungulates are closer in ancestry to cetaceans than they are to other ungulates.

So this word is not very helpful scientifically - despite which, I'm sure some biologists use it informally to communicate meaning to a general audience.

  Where did I (last) encounter this word? I found it integral to the next word of the day - it helps to understand this one first.