Healthy weight and mathematics

Maintaining a healthy body weight is a simple matter of mathematics. If your energy intake is higher than your energy output, you’ll gain weight, and if you use more energy than you eat, you’ll lose weight.

Energy in = Energy Out

As simple as that!

Pffft – yeah, right!

Our bodies are burning energy even when we are doing nothing, and because we have not mastered the art of photosynthesis, that energy must come from food. If you eat more food and hence consume more energy than you need, you will store the excess as fatty tissue. It’s not rocket science, even if it is maths!

This not-so-tricky maths gets in the way of things! As is the case with most people, I like eating!  I’d like to be able to eat more and maintain a healthy body weight. To do this, I need to use more energy.

Is there a way I can increase my energy expenditure without noticing it?

Our energy use is divided into three components:

  1. Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. This is the energy we use merely being alive. It is the amount of energy we use when we are at rest, after just waking up and with an empty belly. It accounts for around 60% of the energy sedentary people use each day. BMR is influenced by gender, age, and body mass. Essentially the bigger you are the more energy you need to keep your body idling. The older you get, the less energy you use. (So if your a little old(er) lady like me you’re not burning up much!)
  2. Thermic Effect of Food or TEF is the extra energy we need to digest and absorb our food.  It takes energy to break down the food in our digestive system and get it into our bloodstream. TEF is a bit like a service fee. The energy in our food needs to be converted into the type of energy our body can use, and this comes at a cost. It turns out that protein needs more energy to be converted into usable energy. TEF accounts for around 10 – 15% of our average daily energy expenditure.
  3. Activity Thermogenesis (AT) is the energy used up in moving around and is further broken into two categories.
      1. Exercise-related activity thermogenesis is the energy we use in deliberate exercise such as going to the gym, running, lifting weights, etc.
      2. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT is the incidental energy we use in walking around, picking up the kettle, sitting, standing, talking, shopping, cooking, doing the housework. The stuff we usually don’t change into active wear for!

Energy expenditure

We have the power to control activity thermogenesis. Since it makes up between 25 – 30% of the energy a sedentary person uses, it is the pathway to tipping the balance in favour of weight loss or gain.

Let’s pause for a little more maths.

  1. Every day has 24 hours.
  2. Let’s say you sleep for 8 of those hours where you are running on your BMR.
  3. That leaves 16 hours for you to burn up more energy.
  4. You spend one of your 16 waking hours at the gym (or running/swimming/whatever) and the other 15 hours doing the rest of life.
  5. That means only 6% of the time is used for exercise activity thermogenesis! For most people living ordinary urban lives, we sit on our butts for most of the other 15 hours! That means for 94% of our waking hours, we are using low levels of energy.

 

Thermogensis

Can you increase the amount of energy you burn in those other 15 hours?

The solution is self-evident! You have to increase the amount of energy you expend in all activities! Be more active and less sedentary! Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy!

In real life…not as easy as it sounds.

Life is busy. You can’t spend 5 hours at the gym every day. You have to go to work. You have to get to work, you have to look after your family. You have to DO life. You may not have time to increase your exercise-related activity, but you can increase the amount of energy you expend in non-exercise related activities?

How do you increase NEAT-ness in your life?

Here are a few suggestions. (some more sensible than others!)

  1. Fidget! Fidgeting wastes heaps of energy! Be careful you don’t annoy too many people though.
  2. Don’t sit when you can stand. If you work in an office, get a standing desk.
  3. Don’t stand still if you can fidget or move from side to side or jiggle around on the spot.
  4. Get your smart gadgets to buzz you if you are sitting still for too long.
  5. Walk to the next office to talk to someone rather than ring or email them.
  6. Ditch the remote control. Tape the remote to the TV, so you have to get up to change channels etc.
  7. Don’t sit in front of the telly and do nothing. If you’re going to watch telly – do something! Lie on the floor & do yoga stretches, get some hand weights or resistance bands and do a few (hundred) biceps curls while you’re bingeing on the newest must-watch show.  Alternate arms with legs and do some squats, lunges, hopping, hula hooping, etc.
  8. Don’t drive when you can walk or cycle. Pick a minimum distance and walk it. For instance, only drive if your destination is more than 3 km away.
  9. If you do have to drive, there are ways to do a sneaky car workout! It might not use much extra energy, but it’s better than nothing!
  10. Carry heavy things. Carry heavy things further.
  11. Park the car further away from the entrance when you go to the shops
  12. Get off the bus a stop earlier.
  13. Do 50 quick squats/lunges/calf raises while you’re brushing your teeth.
  14. Crank up the tunes while you’re doing the housework and dance like no-one is watching. If you’re doing the housework, probably nobody is watching! Check out these tips for exercises while cleaning. (some are a bit intense!)
  15. Play outdoors with your children/spouse/friends
  16. Take active holidays.
  17. Go for a hike rather than the movies.
  18. Choose more active leisure pursuits. Play tennis, not trivia. Go bowling.
  19. Choose a more active job! A labourer is going to use a lot more energy than an accountant!
  20. Wear fewer clothes and live in a colder climate! If you need to keep yourself warm, you’ll expend more energy.

The bottom line is, just move MORE and move more often.


Just for the record, sitting is NOT the new smoking. Research shows that the increase in mortality brought about by an excessively sedentary life is around 10%. The increase in mortality due to smoking is approximately 80%. So while both are bad for you, sitting is healthy compared to smoking!

Source:

Levin J.A. Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Nutrition Reviews Vol 26 No 1 pp S82-S97

 

 

 

Recycling Humans?

Chemistry as it applies to the human population.

Recent bush fires in Australia have had me thinking down some very black roads.  Some related to politics, capitalism and how the world could have been better if we had taken advantage of different “sliding door” moments.

I have reflected on climate change, sustainability, the death of native animals, destruction of houses and communities. I thought about the moments in history which have led us here to this time and place.

…And then I got to thinking about thermodynamics. About available energy and matter.  The fact that there is a finite number of atoms on this Earth.

The big question in my mind then became “How many people could live on this planet without ruining it?”

As a chemist, I have studied closed system reactions. Our earth is essentially a closed system.  A closed system only has a certain number of atoms available so once you use them up the reactions have to stop. Rearranging atoms usually uses up energy. Energy is also limited.

These limited atoms are used to make up all the things on Earth including humans. There are an estimated 7,656 million people on the planet. Let’s say the average mass of a human is around 80kg. That’s 612,480 million kilograms of humans. (1 kilo = 2.2 lbs)

If we wind back the clock just 300 years to the 1700s, the estimated upper limit[1] of the human population was 680 million. That means there is an extra 558,080 million (558,080,000,000) kg of human flesh on the planet now compared to then.

Most of those extra kilograms have come from other living things in our closed system because we eat them.  There has to be a time when we simply run out of atoms and energy to keep making more humans. The majority of the energy we are using now has come from the stored energy of ancient living things – a.k.a fossil fuel.

While some of the atoms in current humans may have come from recycled humans (i.e. the return of nutrients to the soil through decomposition) most of the time we don’t generally “recycle” humans. We put them in sealed boxes in burial grounds off-limits to agriculture where the nutrients can not be returned to the system. Cremation adds to the carbon in the air.

We waste and misuse so many resources. As consumers, we salve our conscious with the catch-cry,  reduce-reuse-recycle, but that is unlikely to be enough to stop or reverse climate change.

Is it time to stop being humans who recycle to humans who are recycled?

Is it time to start thinking about burial practices so the nutrients in humans are available for other uses? I’m of course not the only one thinking about this sort of thing; burial trees pods have been mooted for a while.

It’s all sounding like Soylent Green may not be such a bad idea after all! By the way, that movie, where people were recycled to make food for other humans was set in 2022.

I also believe that those of us in developed economies, who use a lot of resources, have a moral imperative to reduce the number of children we have. We need to seriously consider limiting our population through natural attrition so that some of the atoms can be returned to make other things.

Instead of “one [child] for mum, one for dad and one for the country” how about just one for the planet?

[1] https://www.ecology.com/population-estimates-year-2050/

School Excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.

As a high school teacher, my workday revolves around the trials and tribulations of teenagers and as I have said before it’s never dull!  Some days are better than others, and in early December, I went on a  Marine Studies excursion to Cairns – the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef –  with forty-two 15-16-year-olds and 3 other teachers besides myself.

Sounds like fun, heh? Well, it was!

The bulk of the trip was managed by Small World Journeys, an Australian based educational adventure provider. They looked after the itinerary, accommodation, most of the meals, and transfers while in Cairns. We organised our own transport to and from school to the airport and the meals not covered in the package. (One dinner, one lunch).  We were, of course, responsible for supervising the kids and making sure they were safely in the right place at the right time for the 4-day adventure. The study tour included serious educational content with presentations from marine biologists balanced by hands-on activities including snorkelling at Fitzroy Island and Moore Reef.

IMG_3774

On arrival, the weather came as a bit of a shock to the students! I am not sure what they had expected, but the 2000 km plane ride had taken us out of the subtropics to well north of the Tropic Of Capricorn.  When we left Sydney, it was only 16ºC with low humidity. When we walked out of  Cairns Airport, we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity. (34ºC and 69% RH) and some of them started to melt.

students sitting in a lecture hall
Learning about deadly critters from a PhD student

Our first visit was to the marine research labs at James Cook University. Here we learnt about the myriad of toxic, deadly and dangerous critters found in this part of the world, including brown snakes, cone snails, box jellyfish, Irukandji jellyfish, stonefish, the blue-ringed octopus and to top it off large salt-water crocodiles!

The second day had us at the Reef Fleet Terminal at 9:00 AM for a day trip out to Fitzroy Island to visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, snorkel and to do some mapping activities.

Turtle Rehab Centre

4 girls wearing full body stinger suits getting ready to enter the water
At this time of year, stinger suits are a MUST!

 

Day 3 was the highlight for both myself and the students with a trip to the Outer Reef.  We were booked on a Sunlover Reef Cruise, and after 2 hours cruising, we pulled up alongside their  Moore Reef Pontoon. On the way, we listened to Pablo, a marine biologist, explain what activities we would be doing and the tasks we needed to complete.

A life gaurd on the pontoon

The students participated in two citizen science projects involving surveying designated areas for species abundance and coral cover and condition.  Once back on the catamaran, their findings were uploaded to the Eye on the Reef database, giving a real sense that they had done something that actually counted.

Green Sea Turtle
This photo was taken by one of my students (Piper) using an iPhone in a waterproof case.

All in all, we had 4 hours on the pontoon and students were able to snorkel and explore for nearly all of that time, either as part of the arranged activity or on their own. A buffet lunch, snorkelling gear and stinger suits were all included.

 

Small Journeys always include a social justice/sustainability twist to their itineraries so our final day involved a talk from two remote area health workers. These nurses work with patients who travel to Cairns for treatment from very remote areas of far north Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands. These people, often indigenous, suffer from a range of complex health problems which are exacerbated by their remoteness and the long term effects of colonialism and discrimination. Alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse are all too often part of their daily lives. The students sat quietly reflecting on what they had heard while they made up personal care packs using toiletry and sanitary items donated by the students themselves and other community groups.

Fish swimming near a boat
Through the observation window

We stayed at the Cairns Central YHA, which was comfortable and very centrally located. I am sure the other guests let out a muffled gasp when they saw a swarm of over-excited teenagers descending on the pool area after a hot, sweaty afternoon at the University! The next night we gave the house guests a break by taking our kids to the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, a large public swimming pool which had plenty of space for everyone!

Cains Laggon at sunrise
Cairns Lagoon

 

I would highly recommend Small World Journeys to any school looking for an excursion of this sort. The guides were knowledgeable, friendly and well organised. The price was very reasonable for the inclusions and the provided risk assessment, excellent.

If you were looking to go to Cairns on a family holiday,  I would certainly recommend the Sunlover trip. There were plenty of other activities in Cairns, which I did not get an opportunity to visit. If you are not a fan of the heat, you might prefer to go in June or July. According to the Small World Journey’s leader, September is pure bliss. Warm, but not humid and no stingers! I will certainly be looking to go back for another visit without 42 kids in tow.  (AND with an underwater camera!)

A clown fish swimming near an anenome
Found him!

 

 

The Rock Route

Science Nerd Heaven?

Scotland is an excellent place to get your geology nerdiness happening! The Rock Route, which is part of the Northwest Highlands Geopark, is a great way to see some breathtaking scenery and get a bit of education at the same time.

Rock Route Explainer Board.
The explainer boards point out the major features that you can see in an easy to understand way. Here my photo is overlaid with sections of the board.

For me, a science nerd from way back, the “Rock Route” was a dream come true and discovered almost by accident. I was heading that way anyway and then I saw the purple road signs. It combined my existing road trip, incredible scenery and information all in bite-size chunks!

Rock RouteP1870177

 

With plenty of “explainer boards”, maps and signposts along the way you can trace the tumultuous geological history of the area.  The rocks along the rock route are old, really old and represent the oldest rocks found in Europe. They contain evidence of tectonic movement and the fossils captured in the sedimentary rocks are some of the earliest life forms ever discovered.

 

The Rock Route
It’s easy to see the two layers of different rock in this image. The darker rock, now on top, is older than the lighter one.

To top it off, the North West Highlands was one of the birthplaces of modern geology with Benjamin Peach and John Horne showing how stratigraphy needed to be carefully interpreted because the rock layers on top might not necessarily be the youngest. The accepted idea is that rocks are laid down in layers. The rocks on top are the youngest, the ones underneath are older. However, if the layers become deformed and folded, they can overlay each other, and older rocks might be higher than younger rocks. Geologists look for clues in the types of rocks and fossils to help put the rocks in the right order.

 

 

 

I started the Rock Route in Ullapool and while not stopping at all the highlights was able to get a good feel for the area. I dallied at the Rock Shop in Kylesku (just north of Unapool) and had one of the best toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches I have ever had! The day was a bit bleak outside and the warm cosy shop and museum, a welcome respite.

UNESCO Geoparks

The NorthWest Highlands Geopark is one of the many UNESCO Geoparks.

The UNESCO Geoparks are

“are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. Their bottom-up approach of combining conservation with sustainable development while involving local communities is becoming increasingly popular. At present, there are 147 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 41 countries.”

Getting to the Rock Route

I don’t think it would be efficient to do the Rock Route any way except by car. This allows you to take your own time, stop where you want and take as long as you like. I did the trip from Ullapool right through to Scrabster in one day covering a  distance of 197 miles  (317 km).  This was made possible through an early start and a late finish, thanks to the long daylight hours!! As stated, the weather was not great, and I did not take in all the highlights or linger long except at Knockan Crag, where I took a walk along the well-marked track and Unapool for lunch.

The best place to start the Rock Route is either Ullapool or Durness. Look out for the signs with a purple Celtic design on the A835 heading out of Ullapool.

Durness Beach - The Rock Route
The end of the Rock Route at Durness.

 

Daydreaming

The other day I was listening to a podcast and letting my mind wander. The podcast was Radio National’s All in the Mind and the topic up for discussion was daydreaming and dementia.

Do you daydream? I hope you do!

Daydreaming has a bad rap, but as it turns out, we should not be so hard on ourselves when we wander off. Daydreaming is a very healthy brain activity and while it may get you into trouble if you are zoned out when someone (like your boss) is trying to get your attention, the fact that you CAN daydream, especially if you are older, is an indication of a healthier brain.

Researchers at the University of Sydney have found that

“people living with frontotemporal dementia ­– a form of younger-onset dementia – lose the ability to daydream. ”

We let our minds wander a lot! Up to 50% of waking time. Daydreaming allows us to explore the unknown, practice conversations and confrontations, escape from reality, plan and problem solve. I know I write my best stories when I am out running! Pity I don’t remember them when I get back! 🙂

People with frontotemporal dementia lose this ability and remain rooted in the present and stimulus bound.

“They become increasingly focused on what is immediately in front of them, such as watching TV, listening to a piece of music, or eating food.”

They lose the ability to create their own internal world.

I have a particular interest in dementia and have done lots of reading on the topic and even an online course through the University of Tasmania.  I am concerned about developing dementia (and arthritis!). Being an old chook (a female over 55), I am getting dangerously close to dementia being a real thing in my life. While I can’t change the genetic road map I have been given or do much about getting older, I can do my best to look after the modifiable factors that influence dementia risk.

A woman sitting on a park bench. The photo is blacka nd white excpet for the woman's red jumper and dress. It is a dark and desolate scene with the sea in the backgrond.
Let your mind wander!

It turns out that the sorts of things we have been told to do to maintain heart health will also look after the brain and the joints because they reduce inflammation.   Inflammation is a big contributor to both these conditions. We need to ensure that we keep our blood pressure at a healthy level, stay active and keep moving, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet which is based mainly in plants, never smoke and drink alcohol cautiously.  Easy!

While there are some promising studies that may lead to a cure for dementia, it’s not likely to be in my lifetime. So just excuse me while I go and stare out the window and think up some new dreams!

 

Just by the by, if you are interested in things to do with the brain and psychology, the All in the Mind podcast is fabulous. I must say I have a bit of girl-crush on Lynne Malcolm, the show’s presenter!

(As this is published I’ll be in an aeroplane somewhere returning home after my epic Scottish adventure)

 

Coffee and your waistline.

In modern Australian culture and elsewhere, coffee has reached near god-like status. It’s big business and for some, a life force.

According to many t-shirts, it is imbued with amazing properties.

It keeps some people alive: “I can’t function without my morning coffee.”

It can restore lost speech: “No Coffee – No Talkie.”

It can even prevent murder: Coffee helps me maintain my “never killed anyone streak.”

Screenshot 2019-04-16 10.51.02
A few of the hundreds of coffee themed t-shirts available online

The science of coffee.

To be precise, it’s the caffeine (and other methylxanthines: see the diagram below) present in coffee that does the trick. Caffeine is classed as a heterocyclic nitrogen compound. Its structure is very similar to two of the important building blocks of DNA, adenine and guanine.

Structure of caffeinw
My brother hand drew those diagram!

It is water soluble, a critical property because if it weren’t soluble, you wouldn’t be able to drink it in the first place!  Caffeine has a melting point of 237°C, another important factor because it doesn’t evaporate away under normal processing conditions. It is an alkaline, white powder when in pure form. Chemically, it’s nothing like cocaine or other stimulants except that it also contains a bunch of carbon atoms joined in a complicated ring shape with a few nitrogens and oxygens and double bonds thrown in.

Caffeine and its biological precursors have been reported in over 160 species of plant. It is found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa, cola nuts, guarana, and plants of the Ilex species such as maté.

Because caffeine is water soluble, the way a coffee beverage is prepared has a significant effect on the amount of caffeine in a cup. It’s all about maximising the solubility. Increasing the temperature of the water, increasing the surface area and making the beans more porous will increase the caffeine content in your daily cup. Hence we roast the coffee beans to make them porous (and tasty) then we grind them to massively increase the surface area before we soak them in hot water. Voila!

The caffeine dose can vary from around 50mg up to 150 mg per 250 mL cup.

The pharmacological effects of caffeine

In plants, caffeine is thought to act as an insect deterrent due to its extreme bitterness. Humans found out about its about stimulating effects a long time ago and have harvested and then cultivated caffeine-rich plants for millennia.

Caffeine does indeed have many well researched pharmacological effects, but most cherished is its ability to perk you up. In 1983 I wrote:

“Caffeine is a stimulant and considered the most widely used of self-administered drugs in the form of coffee, tea and cola beverages. Most people have been exposed to the stimulating effect of these substances and the majority of the population consumes pharmacological doses [~100mg] of the drug at regular intervals throughout the day.”

The list of effects is long.

  • Dilation of the blood vessels
  • Increased respiration
  • Increased urine output
  • Increased gastric secretions
  • Relaxation of  smooth muscle tissue
  • Reduced the blood supply to the brain
  • Stimulation of  the central nervous system
  • Increased motor activity and response to sensory stimuli (aka makes you more alert!)
  • Elevation of plasma free fatty acids and glucose. Some research shows that it can assist in weight loss by increasing fat metabolism while exercising.

Caffeine is absorbed rapidly and appears in the blood within 5 minutes of consumption. In most people, it takes about 3.5 hours to clear the blood and be excreted in urine, but in some individuals (like me!) who lack sufficient metabolic enzymes, it can remain active for much longer. Because it is cleared so quickly from the blood, it does not accumulate in the body.

Too much caffeine can lead to headache, tremors, abnormal heart rhythms and irritation of the gut. In addition, we all know about the effect caffeine can have on sleep.  Chronic overconsumption of caffeine results in symptoms that are indistinguishable from anxiety neurosis. It would take about 10 g of pure caffeine to kill you.

Nutritional value of coffee

A cup of Screenshot 2019-04-16 15.08.11black coffee has no nutritional value. It has no fat, no carbohydrates, no protein, no vitamins and only minuscule traces of magnesium. We have to agree the only reason we drink it is because of the caffeine. BUT who drinks coffee black? Not many people! It’s all the stuff we add to coffee that boosts its nutritional status. The data in the table below is taken from Gloria Jean’s website and is fairly typical of the data available.

 

 

Screenshot 2019-04-16 16.06.01

 

The energy value of a whole milk cappuccino is going to cost you between 484 kJ (116 kcal) – 725 kJ (173 kcal) depending on size. For skim milk, you are looking at about half that. Soy milk is a little higher than skim milk for energy.  The milk is going to provide you with protein, fat, calcium and some lactose. If you add sugar, you can add another 64 kJ (16 kcal) per teaspoon.  A large cappuccino could, therefore, represent a fair proportion of your daily energy intake and must be considered if you are avoiding weight gain.  If you go for something fancy, like a full cream caramel latte, you’re talking around 1000 kJ (220 kcal) or the same amount of energy in 3 eggs!

IMG_6735.jpg

 

So, is coffee good for you?

My thesis is too old to give me good advice in regards to the overall health effects of caffeine and coffee.  So a search of the interwebs turns up some interesting information.

The website Coffee & Health states that:

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in a review on the Safety of Caffeine concluded that moderate caffeine consumption, of around 400mg caffeine per day (the equivalent of up to 5 cups of coffee), can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg per day.

It even goes so far as to say that caffeine consumption is associated with a reduced rate of mortality. Is this from the coffee itself or from the social aspect of coffee? That’s a whole other kettle of fish. Once again however we are talking about caffeine not the coffee beverage of choice. Sure, caffeine might have no ill effects, but if you pile in the sugar and cream, that’s a different story entirely!

In my own case, if I have more than one cappuccino a day, I end up with a belly full of gas. I know from anecdotal experience I am not the only one who suffers this consequence. As stated above, caffeine stimulates the production of gastric juices which speeds up digestion, milk contains lactose which challenges many adults at the best of times and with the relaxation of smooth muscle, which incidentally is the type of muscle in your intestines… well … well, you know how it’s going to end!

I guess you need to consider whether your personal circumstances can cope with the increased energy consumption of milk based coffee beverages. If it can’t, you might want to consider black coffee or even a splash of milk in a cup of International Roast!

Next week: Is coffee sending the world broke?

 

Huntsville Space and Rocket Center

Old Chook in Space!

I have never had dreams of being a astronaut but the prospect of a week at Space Camp in America was exciting. Educational, related to my work as a science teacher and 100% tax deductible! After a few emails back and forth with my science-nerd travel buddy Bec, we had applied, been accepted and booked. We built a science-based trip around the week in Huntsville, Alabama. It would start with a few days in San Francisco, a week in Montana doing a dinosaur dig, a road trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. We flew to Alabama from Los Vegas after a few days of non-science-y luxury in a casino resort.

US Space and Rocket Center

The US Space and Rocket Centre is not part of NASA but has close ties to them. They have lots of equipment related to the Apollo Missions and a decommissioned space shuttle. They run summer camps for children and occasionally camps for educators. These Educators’ Camps are for STEM teachers and concentrate on the disciplines of maths and physics as they relate to space travel.  We spent our days participating in hands-on activities that we could use in our own classrooms. The photos below show an experiment where we made our own heat shields. The idea was for the egg NOT to get cooked.

Science teachers work as teams

We worked in teams, my team, Destiny; had teachers from the US, Canada and Bec and I from Australia. Destiny trained for two simulations; landing the space shuttle and piloting the moon lander. I am afraid to say we crashed the Space Shuttle! Even though we all knew it was a simulation it was a very intense experience. Using the thick folders of procedures  the “real” astronauts use, we flicked switches, punched in numbers, and ran a communications log. The two hours went by in a flash and we all emerged in a cold sweat.

Space Camp Food?

We stayed in student accommodation at the near-by University of Alabama  in quad-share apartments. Comfortable but not glamorous. All our meals were at the camp centre. I have to say this was the worst part of the experience. The meals were not good, although the meals provided for the teachers were 100% better than those provided for the kids who were on camp at the same time!

 

Holiday friendships

I made some strong friendships at Space Camp and keep in contact with several team members. It’s probably a once in a lifetime adventure that I wouldn’t repeat but my life is richer for it. I still look back on my photos and giggle at the fun we had.  The white rabbit belonged to my niece and nephew and he was the trip mascot.

Costs:

The fee for the camp was all inclusive. It was around $US750. There was a scholarship which could cover the cost but we didn’t get that and had to pay ourselves. There were very few opportunities to spend money as our time was almost completely booked up with Space Camp activities. We went out to a nearby bar once. So apart from the initial cost we didn’t spend much.

This machine simulates the use of an external jet pack.

The video below is from the Space Camp’s website.

Digging for Dinosaurs.

It’s July, in Hell Creek, Montana. The daytime temperature hovers around 45ºC (113ºF). Your lips crack, and the water you guzzle seems to evaporate before you get a chance to swallow it.

The barren landscape is speckled with low buttes, rounded striated mounds that rise abruptly from the otherwise flat landscape. Tufts of serrated grass struggle to grow in the grey popcorn-like clay that breaks easily under the pick.

Weather-beaten bone fragments are abundant under your feet and ignored by the experts. The real treasure is still underground. The dark brown, almost purple bones that have been encased for millions of years are not hard to find. Isolated fragments of skeletons are common. It’s the whole skeleton, intact and in one place – now that’s the mother lode.

To find these, the researchers concentrate on landforms they call washes. The remnants of watercourses; these are places where bones congregate in a tangle to form bone beds. Here the dead beasts became stuck and then covered in mud and silt in a Triassic flood. They have lain here undisturbed, the bones becoming fossilised as the living tissue is replaced by minerals. Hard and locked in time.

Fifteen long hours of bright sunshine makes sleep a problem. The extended twilight, a photographer’s delight. The six hours of darkness that finally comes is not enough to recover from the day’s hard labour, yet you press on. The heavy pick is replaced by a small hand pick and then a soft brush and dental pick. Your tiny little pick hits something that “tinks” when the metal hits it. You’ve found it! You’ve found the rib of a triceratops. More digging, slowly, slowly with painstaking tedium you brush away more dirt. Wait! Stop! Is that the vertebrae? YES! The joy punctures the eerie mood. You are the only human who has ever seen this bone.

No-one.

Ever.

The feeling of time stretched out behind you becomes unnerving. What catastrophic event lead to these massive creatures being nothing but a pile of bones? Will it happen again?

a women in a straw hat is kissing a dinosaur bone
Bec kisses the recovered rib bone

Dinosaur dig vacations

A dinosaur dig is not your typical vacation destination. It’s not glamorous. You actually have to do some digging!  It’s hot and dusty. Most “holiday” digs are part of research programs, and you become the cheap labour and pay for the privilege.  My dig was with a group called Paleoworld Research Foundation who operated during the summers from a ranch about 50 km out of the town of Jordan. The two women (Hannah and Jess) who ran the operation where both Masters students who were collecting specimens for their studies. We slept in an old caravan and ate simple meals with the family who owned the ranch.

A grren grassy hill in the forwground and a red hill with teh moon rising in the the left hand side.
The full moon rises over the Lervick Ranch at the end of another hard day.

I travelled to America with Bec, a friend I had met at a Science Teachers’ workshop a few years before. Our trip was 100% science-based. After the dig, we drove down through the Yellowstone National Park (geology) and onto the Grand Canyon (more geology)  and Los Vegas. From Los Vegas, we flew to Alabama to join an Educators’ Space Camp at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. (Maths and physics!) (Ok…. so Los Vegas wasn’t very scientific!)

Paleoworld Research Foundation are no longer operating. Some internet research shows that Judy Lervick, the ranch owner, sadly died in July 2017. There are other groups who offer a similar experience, although I cannot in any way vouch for them.

 

Getting richer!

A blurry image of grass blowing in the ewind

You all know by now that I am no spring chicken and I  joyfully refer to myself as an Old Chook. I categorise Old Chooks as women over 55. That is, women like me. I want to be a fabulous Old Chook!  I want to stay healthy. I want to be productive and fulfilled and I want to make a difference. As I get older, I worry about the health issues that will raise their ugly heads – those diseases or problems where just being old is a risk factor.

Like arthritis and dementia.

A woman with a red bag and shoes walking toward a very grand chateau in Chambord, France
Dementia can be a lonely journey.

Dementia, in particular, has  been on my mind lately because I have been noticing a few changes in my cognitive patterns that are a bit scary. For instance when I am typing, and especially when I am trying to type quickly, I will get homonyms mixed up.  For instance, I will be thinking “sure thing” but look up at the screen and see that I have typed “shore thing”. Once, I was just a bad typist but now I have begun to select the entirely wrong word. It’s OK, because I realise immediately it’s incorrect when I read it back over. Still, I am interested in the process of why my fingers are not doing what my brain is telling it to.

a brown coloured leaf surrounded by black and white leaves.

I thought I would do a bit of study about dementia, its causes and its prevention. I recently completed a MOOC (a massive open online course) run by the University of Tasmania.  (You can see details for that course here Wicking Institute )

In VERY simple terms dementia is a progressive disorder that leads to cognitive decline. Loss of memory is only part of the problem. There is currently no cure for dementia. The biggest risk factor is age. If you live long enough you will end up with some form of dementia. There are, however, some modifiable risk factors. That is, if you modify the factor you can change the risk.  The trouble is, like with most health issues, you need to start doing the modification WAY before you are going to see the benefits.

You need to live well in your early life to ensure you have a good older life!

Risk factors for dementia

The modifiable risk factors for vascular dementia (a common form of dementia)  are:

  1. Midlife hypertension (high blood pressure)
  2. Midlife obesity
  3. Diabetes
  4. Physical activity (lack thereof)
  5. Smoking
  6. Diet
  7. Alcohol. Although with this one there is a caveat.  It seems that low to moderate consumption of alcohol may have a protective effect. Whereas high consumption will have a negative effect.

A glass of red wine with a veil of white light made with a torch and slow shutter speed

Looking at this list you might think it’s identical to a list you would see for heart disease – and it is.

Some non-modifiable factors include

  1. Age
  2. Brain injury
  3. Genetic predisposition
a group of intergenrational photos on a wall in a house. Light shines across the frames
Dementia has a genetic component

Some other factors which can affect your risk include things like

  1. Social isolation. Isolated people are more likely to develop dementia
  2. Vision and hearing loss will lead to greater risk – possibly because they can increase social isolation.
  3. Higher education will lead to reduced risk. This is thought to be because of the potential for cognitive reserves. People who have had more education have more in reserve. They have more ways to solve problems. Crudely, if they forget how to do it one way they will work out another.
  4. Depression – successive bouts of depression over your lifetime will increase your risk.
  5. Living a rich cognitive lifestyle will decrease your risk.

 

A woman in a black and white top sitting on the sand facing away fromt he camera. It is very early morning and the sun has not yet risen. The waves are in the background.
Morning musings. Low tide, late sunrise.

Don’t you like the sound of that?! A rich cognitive lifestyle!

A rich cognitive lifestyle is one where you are learning new things all the time. The learning should be sustained, complex and preferably include a physical and social aspect as well. Learning a new language, for instance, is a great activity.

I am thinking writing a weekly blog post and traipsing around the countryside taking photos is also contributing to my cognitive lifestyle! I sure hope it’s making my brain rich!

A woman sitting on a park bench. The photo is blacka nd white excpet for the woman's red jumper and dress. It is a dark and desolate scene with the sea in the backgrond.
Social isolation is a big risk factor.

This post, of course, does not constitute medical advice in any way shape or form and you should see your own doctor if you are worried. There are plenty of places to get good information on dementia  like here, Dementia Australia and I would recommend the course mentioned above

These images don’t have much to do with dementia per se but are simply here to break up the text!