Monthly Archives: August 2010

If only

I am trying to get started on some techie problem I want to solve and finding it difficult to start. The result is the blog notes. Recycled Island gave me such hope, yet somehow it does not seem feasible and maybe misdirected. The plan is to collect plastic waste in the Pacific Gyre to build an island of about 10000 square kilometres. The only attempt at explanation of how does not mention how the waste will be collected from up to 15,000,000 square kilometres of plastic polluted ocean. How long will it take? How much energy will be needed for the work? Would the island be tethered or would the gyre keep it in place? What about those super storms and waves that happen from time to time? Surely the effort should first be into stopping plastics getting into the ocean.

I don’t know the estimates of proportions but I think a lot of the plastic waste is already in microscopic particles throughout a considerable depth of water that will be impossible to collect. If one is going to collect stuff from over 15,000,000 km2 it does not seem much more effort to take it for land treatment; maybe we could use huge wind-powered robot-guided barges that have most of their bulk under water to minimize storm damage that could even filter the water of plastic particles that are bigger than plankton in size.

Trust evolution -part 2

Some months ago I was struck by the benefits of running barefoot, and here is further argument on the same issue but for children: Why barefoot is best for children. There is similarity here with the arguments in the Michael Pollan book on food I commented on a few weeks ago: first check with our evolution and past, then think if what we are doing is a good plan. Climate change raises a similar problem in that everything evolves and changes but the rate of change has to be limited if we are to survive.

I am not against intervention with scientific understanding. An example would be arguments for Vitamin D deficiency being treated with oral supplements. In the past when people spent a lot of time outdoors the amount of Vitamin D synthesized in the skin was large by the scale of recommended supplement tablets; something like 50 to 100 times the amount you would get in one tablet from the pharmacy. I am sure we were not creating that amount of Vitamin D just to throw away, so if we are not getting much sun we should not be surprised if we have health problems if we do not take vitamin D supplements. Even with this we should be thinking what else might have been happening with sun exposure that oral supplements do not provide.

Cancer and Vitamin D

I read this today, British breast cancer rates ‘four times higher than eastern Africa’, and was surprised that there was no mention of possible Vitamin D deficiency. That could be a major difference between women in the UK and women in East Africa. It is worth following up on the work of Dr Cedric Garland at the University of California San Diego. He has spent about 30 years working on the different rates of colon and breast cancer in the US where the incidence is low in the south and high in the north-east. He thinks that it is due to vitamin D deficiency, and adequate vitamin D could cut rates for these cancers by a half or more. Start with


Many years (decades) ago in the pre-internet age when I used to go into book shops, on one visit to Blackwell’s science department in Oxford I suddenly saw a book by ‘me’ on cell biology; that was quasi-namesake-me. Because of this blog another quasi-namesake has contacted me, who has some of my interests in programming and music, though with a generational shift I guess of about -1.5 to -1.9. He has a well written blog:

The Robert who wrote on cell biology is and has now delivered nearly 10,000 babies. Oddly there was a point when I thought I might switch to medicine and do obstetrics.

I wonder if names influence people. If we were to take cohorts of quasi-namesakes would we find unexpected correlations? I know that my given name is a real namesake and was chosen by my mother because in the 1930s she saw movies with the actor Robert Taylor and found him attractive.

Vitamin D and sunlight

The other ‘food’ topic I have been interested in for some time is vitamin D. There will be more comment to come on this, but recently because of the discussion about Muslim women in Europe wearing the burka I was wondering why vitamin D deficiency had not been mentioned as a problem. A major route to getting enough vitamin D is through synthesis in our skin from exposure to UVB.

Vitamin D plays such a central role in cell processes that deficiency causes many health problems. In the days when rickets was a problem for children, it was not rickets that killed them but infectious diseases for which they had little immune resistance. I can accept that in places in the middle east where the sunlight comes strong through a clear sky and women have a back yard where they may wear less body covering there may be less vitamin D deficiency, but in Europe where sunlight is weaker and skies are cloudier and in winter UVB is near zero anyway, vitamin D deficiency will be a real problem – especially for women coming from the hot countries whose skin has pigmentation for UV protection as well. A the very least these women should be taking oral vitamin D supplements regardless of the argument over the burka.

[Postscript: I should have used Google before these notes. I find there is some recent discussion in Letters in The Independent on 20/07/2010. It shows that one assumption of mine is wrong. One letter says, “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for June 2007 reported that, out of 178 burka-wearing women studied by the United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain, only two were not vitamin D-deficient.” I did not find the word “burka” in the paper and some did expose their face and hands, but given that the exposure to sunlight was 1 minute per day (+-3.8) {I did not find what -2.8 minutes exposure meant!} they are secluded from the outer world. Vitamin D oral supplement was recommended.]