Friday, 21 December 2007

British Medical Journal: Origins of Magic

BMJ 2007;335:1299-1301 (22 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.39414.582639.BE

Origins of magic: review of genetic and epigenetic effects.

Sreeram V Ramagopalan, DPhil candidate(1,2),
Marian Knight, senior clinical research fellow(3),
George C Ebers, professor of clinical neurology(1,2),
Julian C Knight, senior research fellow(1)

1 Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 7BN,
2 Department of Clinical Neurology, University of Oxford,
3 National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford

Correspondence to: J C Knight

Objective: To assess the evidence for a genetic basis to magic.

Design: Literature review.

Setting: Harry Potter novels of J K Rowling.

Participants: Muggles, witches, wizards, and squibs.

Interventions: Limited.

Main outcome measures: Family and twin studies, magical ability, and specific magical skills.

Results: Magic shows strong evidence of heritability, with familial aggregation and concordance in twins. Evidence suggests magical ability to be a quantitative trait. Specific magical skills, notably being able to speak to snakes, predict the future, and change hair colour, all seem heritable.

Conclusions: A multilocus model with a dominant gene for magic might exist, controlled epistatically by one or more loci, possibly recessive in nature. Magical enhancers regulating gene expressionmay be involved, combined with mutations at specific genes implicated in speech and hair colour such as FOXP2 and MCR1.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

In which Mme Nicholas offers Addt'l Random Facts.


I will admit that I have a hard time saying "no" to friends. Thus, when recently presented with the "tag" meme from Duchess Loch Avie, I stepped forward and laid forth eight tidbits from Real Life. And when even more recently Miss Hypatia tagged me yet again, I felt honour-bound to offer up an additional series of potentially-entertaining facts about my human.

I. I have never been able to answer the small-talk question, "what is your favourite movie?" Perhaps it is because any favourite is subject to change over time, and labelling a single film as the top of the list chances adding more gravity to that work than is intended, or deserving.

II. However, my current favourite book is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (or rather, the English translation by William Weaver). That has been at that position for, what, ten years or so.

III. Among other detritus, on my desk at work is a vintage glass pen (something like these) and inkwell; these sit next to my modern drafting pens, fountain pens, and an absolutely huge Staedtler plastic eraser that has been a companion since 1988. It gets the special erasing jobs.

IV. I have co-authored a chapter in a book.

V. I am not a coder or programmer by any stretch, but at one point I was made to write code in this language called "IDL", a bastard child of FORTRAN with COBOL-like verbosity. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, playing with SGI computers for one purpose (using Photoshop version 3!) and ended up doing mathematical visualisation.

VI. Were I the Imperatrix Mundi, I would make Edward Tufte's book "The
Visual Display of Quantitative Information
" required reading, under penalty of flogging. Unless, of course, the accused liked flogging, in which case the penalty would be suitably disagreeable.

VII. My Myers-Briggs type is INFJ.

VIII. On my nightstand currently, in no particular order:
Vania Zouravliov, Marie Findley: The Mediæval Bæbes: Songs of the Flesh ISBN 1898998248
John Plummer: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves ISBN 0807614920
John McWhorter: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language ISBN 006052085X
Denise Tyler: Practical Poser 7 ISBN 1584504781

With that, I will conclude my last 8-point exposition, and will look forward to a new passtime amongst the gentry, beyond the current tagging craze.

Ite, missa est. Go; this is the dismissal.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Anthropology Update: A Visage of Saint Nicholas

(with apologies to Clement Moore)

Today, 6 December, is Saint Nicholas' Day, and in honor of that occasion, I shall pass on a bit of research regarding Old Saint Nick himself.

As my readership may know, Nicholas was born about 270 AD in Myra, Anatolia (now Turkey), and died on 6 December in 343, in Myra. He was known to be a bishop of the province, and came to be known for charity, intervention for the falsely-accused, and staunch defender of the orthodox (little-o) faith. Born into a relatively well-to-do patrician household, he likely had access to the funds which fuel much of his charitable exploits.

Perhaps his most famous act was to secretly give gold coins to a man whose three daughters did not have a proper dowry. This, along with other stories of anonymous gift-giving to the poor of Myra, led to the associations between Nicholas and the giving of presents.

Also, he is said to have discovered a butcher that had abducted three children, killed them, and pickled them for later sale as ham. Foiling the plot, he exposed the crime, and also resurrected the children. A thousand years hence, this story having traveled to England may have been the basis for none other than Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In time, Nicholas' patronage was claimed by sailors, travelers, children, the poor, the falsely-accused, and any number of cities, from Myra to New Amsterdam, and countries, most familiarly, Russia. His gift-giving was probably responsible, at least in part, for the modern celebration of Christmas, though some cultures separate the two. (For completeness, I should also mention the parallel gift-giving theme from the Magi.)

Enough history; on with the science.

In May 1087 (21 years after the Norman Conquest of England, and 33 years after the schism between Constantinople and Rome), Italian mercenaries and sailors entered Myra on the South coast of Turkey to retrieve the relics of Saint Nicholas. The stolen remains were then taken to the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy, where they remain to this day. (N.b.: please see the references below for the resting places of other parts of Nicholas. Also please note that the Royal Society does not have any portion of Old St Nick in its attic.)

A certain Professor Francesco Introna (coincidentally from Bari, Italy) has studied the relics in the modern day, and comissioned Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Manchester University to reconstruct the face of the bishop, using tools now familiar through forensic police work, which have also shed light on the faces of Tutankhamun and Copernicus through similar reconstruction.

Essentially, the skull was subjected to a number of measurements based on both photographic and Roentgenographic images. With these data, Dr Wilkinson was able to infer the size, shape, and thickness of some 26 facial muscles. With the musculature laid over the skull, a layer of (digital) skin may be applied over the muscles, thus completing the facial features. Hair, skin, and eye colour would be chosen based on ethnologic traits of the population in IV century Myra, producing perhaps the closest facsimile possible of a person dead some 1600-odd years.

Interestingly, analysis of the skull pointed towards a broken nose, which would have likely caused a visible (though perhaps not distracting) deformity, one that the modern world may associate more with a rugby player, or boxer.

From the Guardian (UK):
Certain features of the skull can say a lot about a face. Long teeth suggest full lips, while small protrusions called mastoid processes on each side of the head point one way if the person has earlobes, and the other if not.

Taking tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity reveals how long the nose was. In Santa's case, this was particularly tough because his nose was badly broken. "It must have been a very hefty blow because it's the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken," says Wilkinson.

Quite how St Nicholas got his injury is a mystery, but Wilkinson says tales abound of Santa being something of a rebel. "I heard he once punched a bishop," she says.

The reconstructed St Nicholas is olive-skinned and white-haired, with a beard shaped in a style popular in the fourth century. "It's only really the broken nose people are surprised about, but the more I hear about his character, the more it all fits."
A possible source for the broken nose may have been the altercation between him and Arius at the First Council of Nicaea, over what later was deemed the heresy of Arianism.

Fair enough. Can I see St Nick now?

Here is the reconstructed face of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

And for comparison, I present an eerily-similar icon of St Nicholas from ca. 1000 AD, from the Byzantine empire, perhaps Constantinople.


Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Balise et contre-balise.

Tag and counter-tag.

In keeping with the jeu du jour, I shall respond to Duchess Loch Avie's notice that I have been selected to provide eight random facts about my typist. Here are those facts, in no particular order:

1. Like Loch Avie, I have a Bacon number, but I can claim one less degree of separation: I was filmed during the U2 tour during which Rattle and Hum was created (one of many in the crowd, to be blunt). Bono in turn was in some nearly-unknown project called 'Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten' with Matt Dillon. Matt Dillon was in Loverboy with Mr Bacon himself. Thus, my Bacon number is 3. If one were to count non-film connexions, then I have a Bob Hope number of 1, a Gillian Anderson number of 2 ... and an Eva Bellambi number of 5 (via Bono, Hector Elizondo, Julie Andrews, and then the opera star in Eva's post).

2. My avatar's name is based on those of Saint Nicholas, and my daughter. For a brief time early on, I tried to model Kate after my other favourite Kate, Ms Winslet, but the effect was not ideal.

3. My secret vice is vanilla ice cream. Don't tell a soul.

4. Quite unintentionally, I have seen a walrus with an erect member.

5. I am fascinated by language. I studied French in college (not as a major, just a sideline). French, however, is not terribly useful in day-to-day life in the Colonies, and my skills have waned. I have taught myself some roughly-useful Spanish, can make sense of some Italian, and forgot quite a bit of German. I have studied Latin (mainly mediæval/ecclesiastical, versus classical) and have read "The Cat in the Hat" in that august tongue. I belong to an on-line group of Anglo-Saxon scholars (professional and amateur). I can read Russian, Greek, and at one point, Hebrew ... though by read I mean make the noises, without knowing terribly much of what I'm saying. I have several historical linguistic texts on my bookshelf which have been read for fun and not necessity, or grades.

6. I was in high-school band, and went to band camp ... but did not have any un-natural congress with any instrument.

7. Confessio: While I understand that a particular web-based comic, Girl Genius, is nearly required reading for us steampunk Caledonian types, I have not been able to enjoy it. It had so much potential, I thought, but the anime-style visuals and faux German accents are distracting, there are more non-sequiturs per unit time than Douglas Adams (RIP) could have written, and then my top complaint: the protagonist, a Mad Scientist (again, with so much fantasy role-model potential) is drawn as quite the Amazon, with a preternaturally-small waist against an improbably-sized bosom, with androgenised musculature to boot.

8. While being given to methods of Logic, Science, and Reason, I have experienced one ... event ... which can not be properly explained by those disciplines, and must remain in the mystical or spiritual realm. I shan't go into further detail.

Now then: I have discovered that nearly anyone that I could name to bring into this game has already received a tag, I shall stop here, and hope that the reader has garnered some enjoyment from this exercise.

Be reassured that with the next issue of the Proceedings we will move out of this area of 'soft' social-science discussion, and back to Actual Scientific Content, not that there is anything wrong with the former.

I remain, &c,

Kate Nicholas, FRS