People whose enzymes work slowly can’t handle the stress

August 10th, 2021

A single letter in your genetic code determines whether your COMT enzyme is hardworking or lazy, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains, and thus whether you are a Warrior or a Worrier:

The hardworking ones are precisely four times faster than the lazy ones. The hardworking enzymes are built with valine, the lazy enzymes with methionine.

[...]

In people of European descent, 50% have a combination of both slow and fast enzymes; 25% have only fast enzymes; and 25% have only slow enzymes.

[...]

For people whose enzymes work fast, their brains can handle the stress, because the enzymes can get rid of the extra dopamine.

[...]

People whose enzymes work slowly can’t handle the stress, because their enzymes can’t clear the dopamine. Their brains become overexcited, and they become overwhelmed.

[...]

The fast enzymes work so rapidly that when someone is not being stressed — when conditions are normal, and there’s just a normal dopamine turnover — the enzymes clear out too much dopamine.

[...]

They actually need the stress (and the dopamine) to get up to the optimal level of mental functioning.

[...]

On most days, having slow COMT enzymes is actually a good thing. But under stress and pressure, with that extra flood of dopamine, they crack.

[...]

The COMT gene for the fast-acting enzymes is one we share with chimps and apes — it’s been in human DNA forever. But the COMT gene for the slow-acting enzymes is ours alone; it’s a more recent entrant in the survival-of-the-fittest contest.

[...]

While you might think the Warriors are the aggressive ones, that’s not accurate. With higher levels of dopamine, the Worriers are always near the threshold for an aggressive response. It’s easy to set them off; they’re very temperamental. They get angry more easily and act out. But their aggression isn’t necessarily successful. The meaning of “successful aggression” is correctly reading and interpreting other people’s aggressive intentions, and matching them. Worriers tend to see aggression when it’s not there, and they miss it when it is. The Warriors are ready for the real thing.

[...]

For those with the “Warrior” gene, a majority had recovered from their PTSD. And after the researchers had reconstructed their history of trauma, the scholars learned that the Warriors had only developed PTSD after experiencing a number of traumatic incidents. For those with the “Worrier” gene, it was a different story. It had taken only a single traumatic event to cause severe PTSD symptoms. And the majority of the Worriers still had PTSD related to the trauma of the genocide. More than a decade later, they had not yet recovered.

Both warriors and worriers are needed in every society

August 9th, 2021

The gene that has been most studied for its involvement in pain modulation, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), is the COMT gene, which is involved in the metabolism of neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine:

Two common versions of COMT are known as “Val” and “Met,” based on whether a specific part of the gene’s DNA sequence codes for the amino acid valine or methionine.

[...]

In both mice and humans, the Met version is less effective at clearing dopamine, which leaves higher levels in the frontal cortex. Cognitive testing and brain imaging studies have found that subjects with two Met versions — both animals and humans — tend to do better on and require less metabolic effort for cognitive and memory tasks, but that they are also more prone to anxiety and more sensitive to pain.

(Anxiety, or “catastrophizing,” is a strong predictor of an individual’s pain sensitivity.)

Conversely, Val/Val carriers seem to do slightly worse on cognitive tests that require rapid mental flexibility, but may be more resilient to stress and pain.

(They also get a better boost from Ritalin, which increases dopamine in the frontal cortex.)

[...]

David Goldman, chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, coined the phrase “warrior/worrier gene” to describe the apparent tradeoffs of the two COMT variants.

[...]

In the United States, Goldman says, 16 percent of people are Met/Met; 48 percent are Met/Val; and 36 percent are Val/Val, leading him to suggest that both warriors and worriers are needed in every society, so there is widespread preservation of both forms of the gene.

I didn’t remember this passage from my original reading of the hardback edition back in 2013 — because it wasn’t in there:

So, I’ve included a relevant passage that didn’t make it past the first draft of this book.

It is about the BDNF gene, which codes for its namesake protein: brain-derived neurotrophic factor. The gene comes in two common varieties, known as “val” and “met,” and a National Institute of Mental Health study found that individuals with the met version performed more poorly on tests that asked them to recall scenes they had been shown. Follow up studies suggest that BDNF may also impact the kind of “muscle memory” involved in sport skill acquisition:

Bond’s beloved Bentley was his only personal hobby

August 8th, 2021

Before James Bond was the dashing and debonair secret agent on the silver screen, Jordan Golson notes, he was the tormented and brooding assassin of Ian Fleming’s novels, and in those books, he drove a Bentley:

In Fleming’s first 007 novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, Bond tooled around in a 1931 4.5 Litre Blower Bentley. It wasn’t so sleek or sexy as the Astons that Bond would come to be known for, but it was among the finest cars of its day and just the thing for getting around in all due haste with style.

Bond was, in Casino Royale, something of a car nut and his beloved Bentley was “his only personal hobby.” He bought it in 1933 and kept it in storage while serving in World War II. “Bond drove it hard and well and with an almost sensual pleasure.”

Blower Bently 4.5-Litre Inline

Built by Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, one of the famous “Bentley Boys” who raced the cars at Le Mans, the supercharged, two-ton Blower was based on the brand’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race car. It produced 240 horsepower from a 4.4-liter inline-four motor with a four-speed unsynchronized manual transmission. The supercharger, which forced more air into the engine to generate more power (thus “Blower”) was gigantic and easily spotted at the front of the car, between the headlights. Top speed was in the 120 mph range, impressive for the era. Just 55 supercharged units of the car were produced between 1929 and 1931.

They waste that money on bad haircuts and pop stars, making them ripe for Communist picking

August 7th, 2021

Scott Bradfield of The New Republic reviews Oliver Buckton’s new Fleming biography, The World Is Not Enough:

After he lost his father, his overbearing mother dominated his life and prevented him from marrying the first woman with whom he formed an engagement. And his brothers (especially the elder, Peter) achieved greater successes in their studies and occupations than Ian ever did. Like many middle children who feel lost, Ian retreated into a love of writers who transported him into extreme landscapes of love and adventure — such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, and those early spy novelists who depicted tough-talking, well-bred men willing to fight for God and country, John Buchan and Sapper (the pseudonym of H.C. McNeile).

It’s surprising how little Fleming’s view of international politics differs from that of Sapper, even though they lived and wrote nearly half a century apart. Like Bulldog Drummond, who frets about those international forces who want to “Bolshevize” England by empowering “members of the Do-no-work-and-have-all-the-money Brigade,” the characters in Bond are filled with suspicion of working-class agitators and foreigners. As General G. brags in From Russia With Love, the Russian state is “quietly advancing” on the West through “strikes in England” and the “great political gains” of liberal governments in Europe. And as Bond reflects early in Thunderball, this postwar liberalizing of Britain is leading to a generation of soft-shelled young people who don’t understand how hard their parents worked before the war. (From Fleming’s spotty employment record, he probably wouldn’t have understood this, either.) On a taxi ride, Bond notices his taxi driver playing with a comb and takes it as a mark of disrespect. “It was typical of the cheap self-assertiveness of young labor since the war,” he thinks to himself. For the young man “born into the buyer’s market of the Welfare State,” he fulminates, “life is easy and meaningless.”

In Bond’s view, the problem with postwar British youth is that they expect good pay for their not-hard work; and they waste that money on bad haircuts and pop stars, making them ripe for Communist picking. At the same time, there are isolated, patriotic types like Bond himself, capable of rising above the world’s naturalistic soup by knowing what to wear, what to eat, and how to best serve the desires of a woman. Beneath the high-gloss glamor of his novels, Fleming’s disdain for the working class veiled his frequent bouts of incompetence, just as it masked his concerns about the country that was changing around him, turning into a place that was no longer entirely his.

[…]

What most distinguishes Fleming is how adroitly he adapted these adolescent power fantasies to his job in British Naval intelligence, where he was recruited after failing a Foreign Office civil service exam and after lackluster stints at Reuters and in the City. (His business partner famously called him “the world’s worst stockbroker.”) In the Navy, Fleming was best known for creating Assault Unit 30, also dubbed “Ian Fleming’s Commandos” or “Fleming’s Red Indians.” And while Fleming’s unit (which he directed from afar, since his superiors considered Fleming too knowledgeable to be captured) achieved several successes, many of Fleming’s wild imaginings never survived their earliest brushes with reality.

For example, there was Operation Ruthless, a plan to repair a captured German plane, fill it with British soldiers dressed in German uniforms, crash land in the Channel, capture a German U-boat, and bring home the Enigma machine. Or another one code-named Operation Goldeneye, which involved digging an underground bunker in Gibraltar, filling it with British intelligence agents and their equipment, and fighting off a predicted occupation by Germans (which never materialized). After the war, Goldeneye provided the name of Fleming’s beloved home in Jamaica, where he often went to write the first drafts of his novels (and to escape his quickly failing marriage); and the idea of an underground spy network was used in his short story, “From a View to a Kill.”

Fleming preferred fiction to reality; and whenever he could put fiction to use in real life operations, he did. Inspired by a detective novel, Basil Thomson’s The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, Fleming is credited with proposing Operation Mincemeat, in which Naval Intelligence attached an identikit of fake documents to a dead body and released it from a submarine into Spanish waters; the Spanish, as expected, passed on the false information to the Germans, causing them to leave Sicily unprotected against Allied invasion.

Sometimes it really helps to have a loved one there to support you, and sometimes it doesn’t

August 6th, 2021

Researchers at the University of Trier, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains, had young adults give a speech about why they were the best candidate for a job — either with or without their boyfriend or girlfriend there:

The scholars had entirely expected that having a supportive partner there would diminish the stress of giving a speech. And that did happen for the men; having their girlfriend or wife there calmed them considerably.

But to the researchers’ surprise, it was the exact opposite for the women.

[...]

[S]ometimes when you’re performing or competing, it really helps to have a loved one there to support you. And sometimes it doesn’t.

[...]

The workplace has its version of this same conundrum: sometimes, employees’ effort level goes up if a boss frequently monitors them. But it’s also true that being monitored can stress out employees and become a distraction, causing them to lose concentration and be less productive.

[...]

In 1965, Robert Zajonc, then at the University of Michigan, resuscitated the question. He noticed a dividing line in all the research, a consistency that explained when being watched helped or hurt performance. He theorized that the key variable was whether people were in a learning phase or had already mastered the skill. If they were learning the skill, the presence of spectators hampered performance. If they had mastered it, the presence of spectators improved performance.

[...]

The idea that novices and experts respond to an audience divergently is consistent with other work that shows that novices get the most out of positive feedback, but experts benefit from criticism — they need that discerning scrutiny in order to improve.

[...]

Jack Aiello of Rutgers University has shown that simple tasks improve under supervision. But the more complicated the job, the worse people perform when being monitored.

[...]

The short answer is that Aiello and his team have found that intermittent supervision works even better than continuous supervision.

They could twist their bodies into positions that you and I can’t

August 5th, 2021

Collagen is sometimes referred to as the body’s glue, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), holding connective tissues in proper form:

Biologists at South Africa’s University of Cape Town have been leading the way in identifying genes that predispose exercisers to injuring tendons and ligaments. The researchers focused on genes like COL1A1 and COL5A1 that code for the proteins that make up collagen fibrils, the basic building blocks of tendons, ligaments, and skin.

[...]

People with a certain mutation in the COL1A1 gene have brittle bone disease and suffer fractures easily. A particular mutation in the COL5A1 gene causes Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which confers hyperflexibility. “Those people in the old days of the circus who used to fold themselves into a box, I bet you in most cases they had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome,” says Malcolm Collins, one of the Cape Town biologists and a leader in the study of collagen genes. “They could twist their bodies into positions that you and I can’t because they’ve got very abnormal collagen fibrils.”

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is rare, but Collins and colleagues have demonstrated that much more common variations in collagen genes influence both flexibility and an individual’s risk of injuries to the connective tissues, like Achilles tendon rupture. Using that research, the company Gknowmix offers collagen gene tests that doctors can order for patients.

David Brooks reconsiders Bobos in Paradise

August 3rd, 2021

David Brooks looks at the recent social phenomenon of the populist regatta and reconsiders Bobos in Paradise:

They are doing pretty well but see themselves as the common people, the regular Joes, the overlooked. They didn’t go to fancy colleges, and they detest the mainstream media.

[…]

You can see this phenomenon outside the United States too. In France, the anthropologist Nicolas Chemla calls this social type the “boubours,” the boorish bourgeoisie. If the elite bourgeois bohemians — the bobos — tend to have progressive values and metropolitan tastes, the boubours go out of their way to shock them with nativism, nationalism, and a willful lack of tact. Boubour leaders span the Western world: Trump in the U.S., Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy. How could people with high-end powerboats possibly think of themselves as the downtrodden? The truth is, they are not totally crazy. The class structure of Western society has gotten scrambled over the past few decades. It used to be straightforward: You had the rich, who joined country clubs and voted Republican; the working class, who toiled in the factories and voted Democratic; and, in between, the mass suburban middle class. We had a clear idea of what class conflict, when it came, would look like — members of the working classes would align with progressive intellectuals to take on the capitalist elite.

But somehow when the class conflict came, in 2015 and 2016, it didn’t look anything like that. Suddenly, conservative parties across the West — the former champions of the landed aristocracy — portrayed themselves as the warriors for the working class. And left-wing parties — once vehicles for proletarian revolt — were attacked as captives of the super-educated urban elite. These days, your education level and political values are as important in defining your class status as your income is. Because of this, the U.S. has polarized into two separate class hierarchies — one red and one blue. Classes struggle not only up and down, against the richer and poorer groups on their own ladder, but against their partisan opposite across the ideological divide.

The home advantage is an evolutionary one

August 2nd, 2021

The home advantage is an evolutionary one, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains, rooted in territorialism:

University of British Columbia professor Graham Brown once asked pairs of college students to take part in a mock contract negotiation. But he staggered the arrival of the students, taking early-arriving students to an unused office. There, Brown handed the early bird a key to the office, told her she was free to use the computer, even encouraged her to hang up a poster or two as decoration. Then he gave the early bird 20 minutes to get comfortable in the space. Once the other student arrived, they proceeded with the negotiation. It wasn’t even close. The students who made themselves at home in the office got everything they wanted, and more.

Brown concluded that those who are on their home turf receive a huge windfall. Their takeaway may be worth up to 160% more than what the away-team opponents will bring home.

[...]

When two teams at a firm work together on a project, the team hosting the coffee and bagels in their conference room is more likely to take charge of the entire endeavor.

[...]

[T]he home team in a NBA game wins about 63% of the time.

[...]

In studies of collegiate and professional basketball teams, the home teams are led by centers and forwards. The home teams are better at blocks, steals, turnovers, and have more successful field-goal attempts. The away team is led by guards’ defensive tactics: they are better at assists, three-point shots, rebounds, and intentional fouls.

[...]

Statistician Richard Pollard looked at the win-loss records of 37 professional teams that moved to shiny new stadiums across town. You’d think that the new and improved facilities help the teams, but Pollard’s results show that, at least at first, teams are actually less likely to win in the new stadium than they were at the old park.

[...]

A few years ago, violence in the stands of Italian soccer games became so pronounced that some teams chose to play in empty stadiums: not a single fan was allowed in to watch the game. But the home teams still kept winning.

[...]

Given findings such as these, researchers have increasingly come to the conclusion that the home advantage is an evolutionary one, rooted in territorialism — a deeply rooted, innate need to control one’s own space. And once this sense of territorialism is activated, you become more competitive; you’re more willing to challenge potential intruders. You’re more confident, more motivated, and more aggressive when you perceive a potential threat. You have a higher sense of self-efficacy, controlling the environment in a way that best suits your needs.

Far Side Territory

In video game experiments, if a player arrived at the game’s target destination just ten seconds before his opponent, he was more likely to win the game.

[...]

People accept others’ sense of ownership just as quickly: late arrivals accept that they are the visitors and usually defer to this prior residency. Latecomers are the ones more likely to flee than stand their ground. Territorialism explains why pedestrians naturally say, “Excuse me,” when walking past a perfect stranger. On a subconscious level, it feels as if the other person already “owns” the sidewalk in front of him, and someone needs permission to take the sidewalk away.

[...]

If another car was waiting for the space, people took twice as long to exit.

Boxers with an ApoE4 copy scored worse on tests of brain impairment

August 1st, 2021

The apolipoprotein E gene comes in a number of common variants, and a single copy of the Apo4 variant is associated with a threefold increased risk of Alzheimer’s, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), but it also extends beyond Alzheimer’s to how well the brain recovers from any injury:

A 1997 study determined that boxers with an ApoE4 copy scored worse on tests of brain impairment than boxers with similar length careers who did not have an ApoE4 copy. Three boxers in the study had severe brain function impairment, and all three had an ApoE4 gene variant. In 2000, a study of fifty-three active pro football players concluded that three factors caused certain players to score lower than their peers on tests of brain function: 1) age, 2) having been hit in the head often, and 3) having an ApoE4 variant.

[...]

What went entirely unmentioned in media coverage, though, was that five of nine brain-damaged boxers and football players who had genetic data included in the report had an ApoE4 variant. That’s 56 percent, between double and triple the proportion in the general population.

Hitler’s strategy through mid-1940 was almost flawless

July 30th, 2021

Hitler’s war against Soviet Russia and perpetration of the Final Solution led straight to his destruction, Bevin Alexander argues, in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II:

Hitler’s strategy through mid-1940 was almost flawless. He isolated and absorbed state after state in Europe, gained the Soviet Union as a willing ally, destroyed France’s military power, threw the British off the Continent, and was left with only weak and vulnerable obstacles to an empire covering most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. This empire not only would have been unassailable from the outside, but would have put him into the position, in time, to conquer the world.

This did not happen. Hitler’s paranoias overwhelmed his political sense. He abandoned the successful indirect strategy of attacking weakness, which he had followed up to the summer of 1940, and tried to grab Lebensraum directly and by main strength. He was unable to see that he could achieve these goals far more easily and with absolute certainty by indirection — by striking not what was strong but what was weak.

Even after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, he might have gained a partial victory if he had not possessed two more lethal defects — insistence on offensive solutions to military problems when his strength was inadequate, and attempting to keep all the territory he had seized when retreat would have preserved his forces. These failings led to disastrous offensives — Stalingrad, Tunisia, Kursk, the Bulge — and “no retreat” orders that destroyed huge portions of his army.

The way to victory was not through a frontal attack on the Soviet Union but an indirect approach through North Africa. This route was so obvious that all the British leaders saw it, as did a number of the German leaders, including Alfred Jodl, chief of operations of the armed forces; Erich Raeder, commander of the German Navy, and Erwin Rommel, destined to gain fame in North Africa as the Desert Fox.

After the destruction of France’s military power in 1940, Britain was left with only a single armored division to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. Germany had twenty armored divisions, none being used. If the Axis — Germany and its ally Italy — had used only four of these divisions to seize the Suez Canal, the British Royal Navy would have been compelled to abandon the Mediterranean Sea, turning it into an Axis lake. French North Africa — Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia — could have been occupied, and German forces could have seized Dakar in Senegal on the west coast of Africa, from which submarines and aircraft could have dominated the main South Atlantic sea routes.

With no hope of aid, Yugoslavia and Greece would have been forced to come to terms. Since Hitler gained the support of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, Germany would have achieved control of all southeastern Europe without committing a single German soldier.

Once the Suez Canal was taken, the way would have been open to German armored columns to overrun Palestine, Transjordan, the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This would have given Germany unlimited supplies of the single commodity it needed most: oil.

As important as oil was for the conduct of modern war, the greatest advantages of German occupation of the Arab lands and Iran would have been to isolate Turkey, threaten British control of India, and place German tanks and guns within striking distance of Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus and along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Turkey would have been forced to become an ally or grant transit rights to German forces, Britain would have had to exert all its strength to protect India, and the Soviet Union would have gone to any lengths to preserve peace with Germany because of its perilous position.

Germany need not have launched a U-boat or air war against British shipping and cities, because British participation in the war would have become increasingly irrelevant. Britain could never have built enough military power to invade the Continent alone.

Unless the strength of the Soviet Union were added, the United States could not have projected sufficient military force across the Atlantic Ocean, even over a period of years, to reconquer Europe by amphibious invasion in the face of an untouched German war machine. Since the United States was increasingly preoccupied with the threat of Japan, it almost certainly would not have challenged Germany.

Thus, Germany would have been left with a virtually invincible empire and the leisure to develop defenses and resources that, in time, would permit it to match the strength of the United States. Though Britain might have refused to make peace, a de facto cease-fire would have ensued. The United States would have concentrated on defense of the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific. Even if the United States had proceeded with development of the atomic bomb, it would have hesitated to unleash it against Germany.

Cadets with lower grades improved academically if they socialized with cadets with high GPAs

July 29th, 2021

Economists Scott Carrell and James West had noticed a pattern, a particular peer effect, at the Air Force Academy, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains:

Cadets with lower grades improved academically if they socialized with, and spent more time around, cadet friends with high GPAs. The high-performers rubbed off on the low-performers, dragging them upward. Having friends whose SAT scores were 100 points higher than yours led to a half-grade improvement in GPA.

[...]

Carrell and West started by identifying which of the 1,314 incoming cadets had lower SAT scores and GPAs. These were the students most at risk of dropping out. They were assigned to special squadrons with a makeup of extra numbers of high-achievers. Compared with normal squadrons, these socially engineered squadrons had a few more low-performers, many more high-performers, and — to make room — fewer middle-performers.

[...]

More of the at-risk cadets were crumbling, not fewer.

[...]

Within a test squadron, the low-performers were self-segregating into cliques, to insulate themselves from the endless ranking and comparison.

[...]

Remember those squadrons comprised of leftover middle-performers? It turned out that their academic performance dramatically surpassed expectations.

[...]

When the field is too large, and the chance to be near the top is slim, people don’t try as hard.

Hyperactivity and impulsivity may have had advantages in the ancestral state of man in nature

July 28th, 2021

In The Sports Gene David Epstein reports on a “controversial” hypothesis about ADHD — or “hyperactivity”:

A set of scientists have proposed the controversial idea that hyperactivity and impulsivity may have had advantages in the ancestral state of man in nature, leading to the preservation of genes that increase ADHD risk. Interestingly, the 7R variant of the DRD4 gene is more common in populations that have migrated long distances, as well as those that are nomadic, compared with settled populations.

In 2008, a team of anthropologists genetically tested Ariaal tribesmen in northern Kenya, some of whom are nomadic and some recently settled. In the nomadic group — and only in the nomadic group — those with the 7R version of the DRD4 gene were less likely to be undernourished.

Centenarians had an “iAge” 40 years lower than their actual age

July 27th, 2021

The inflammatory ageing clock (iAge) is based on the idea that as a person ages, their body experiences chronic, systemic inflammation because their cells become damaged and emit inflammation-causing molecules;

To develop iAge, a team including systems biologist David Furman and vascular specialist Nazish Sayed at Stanford University in California analysed blood samples from 1,001 people aged 8–96 who are part of the 1000 Immunomes Project, which aims to investigate how signatures of chronic, systemic inflammation change as people age. The researchers used the participants’ chronological ages and health information, combined with a machine-learning algorithm, to identify the protein markers in blood that most clearly signal systemic inflammation. In particular, they pinpointed the immune-signalling protein, or cytokine, CXCL9 as a top contributor; it is mainly produced by the inner lining of blood vessels and has been associated with the development of heart disease.

[…]

After developing it, the researchers tested iAge by collecting the blood of 19 people who had lived to at least 99 years old, and using the tool to calculate their biological age. On average, the centenarians had an iAge 40 years lower than their actual age, according to a press release — aligning with the idea that people with healthier immune systems tend to live longer.

[…]

When examining CXCL9 as a biomarker of systemic inflammation, Furman and his colleagues grew human endothelial cells, which make up the walls of blood vessels, in a dish and artificially aged them by letting them divide repeatedly. The researchers saw that high levels of the protein drove the cells into a dysfunctional state. When the team silenced expression of the gene that encodes CXCL9, the cells regained some function, suggesting that the protein’s harmful effects might be reversible.

The travelling whale that reached the Pacific

July 26th, 2021

An ancient four-legged whale with hooves has been discovered:

The giant 42.6m-year-old fossil, discovered in marine sediments along the coast of Peru, appears to have been adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Its hoofed feet and the shape of its legs suggest it would have been capable of bearing the weight of its bulky four metre long body and walking on land. Other anatomical features, including a powerful tail and webbed feet similar to an otter suggest it was also a strong swimmer.

[…]

Previously, far older whale ancestors dating to about 53m years ago have been discovered in India and Pakistan. Until now scientists have disputed when and how whales first dispersed to the Americas and beyond.

The Peruvian fossil suggests the first whales would have crossed the South Atlantic, helped by westward surface currents and the fact that, at the time, the distance between the two continents was half what it is today.

The last few tail vertebrae are missing and so it is not clear if the creature’s tail would have featured the large paddle, known as a fluke, that allows some modern whales to power themselves along at speeds of more than 30mph (48 km/h). But it must have been an accomplished swimmer to have survived for days or even weeks at sea.

The fossil was excavated in 2011 by an international team, including members from Peru, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. It has since been named Peregocetus pacificus, meaning “the travelling whale that reached the Pacific”.

Competition facilitates improvement

July 25th, 2021

A recurring note in Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing is that there are two kinds of people: those who need to avoid stress to do well, and those who actually need stress to perform their best:

If you go back to the first published research ever done in the field of social psychology, the year was 1898, and the author was a 37-year-old high school teacher named Norman Triplett, who had returned to Indiana University to pursue his master’s degree.

[...]

He concluded that competition against other cyclists took off five seconds per mile compared to racing alone against the clock.

[...]

He found a 50%/25%/25% split [when he tested children on his "competition machine"] — half the kids benefitted a lot from being made to compete. Another quarter of the kids were largely unaffected, barely lowering their times over the three competitive trials. The last quarter of the kids did not handle the competition trials well at all.

[...]

Competition facilitates improvement. But the tradeoff is that competition doesn’t benefit everyone.