Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 14 - 22 June 2009

Swine flu fever has taken over our usually sensible media headlines (which was until the Iranian elections, which was until the King of Pop moonwalked his way out of this universe). We wanted to know more about swine flu (and other recent scares like SARS, bird flu, ebola and mad cow disease) so we got in touch with an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Mark Crislip. As it turns out, our bodies are merely convenient transport and food delivery mechanisms for a host of bacteria, viruses, fungi, prions and parasites that make their home in the warm confines of ourselves. Here's a rundown of some of them:

  • Swine flu: Aka H1N1. The H stands for hemagglutinin, which is a type of protein that causes red blood cells to clump together. The N stands for neuraminidase, an enzyme which allows the virus to propogate. The numbers stand for subtypes of each of these. Use this map to keep up-to-date on how far you are from the virus.

    Source: Free Market Fairy Tales

  • Bird flu: Aka H5N1. Similar to swine flu, but now with 5 times the H! Not really, it's just different. Bird flu is epizootic and panzootic, which are both real words. Here's a link to the ever popular Bird Flu Board Game, which ties in nicely with the Beta segment. Check this out for more information, and a good diagram.

  • SARS: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - so no prizes for guessing that your breathing is gonna be pretty messed up by this sucker. SARS comes under the heading of a corona virus, so called because it has a crown-like arrangement of structures.

    Source: Made by the Project

  • Ebola: the flesh-eater. It got a bad rap a couple of months after the 1995 film Outbreak, when an actual outbreak occured in Zaire. This rap is well-deserved. It's named after the Ebola river in DR Congo, which is unfortunate for the river.

    Ebola, up close and personal. Source: CDC Public Health Image Library

  • Mad cow disease: Aka Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). This is different to the others listed here, it's not a virus, it's a prion. A prion is essentially a protein turned bad - other proteins that hang around it get turned bad too. It's called spongiform since it puts lots of holes in the cow's brain, so it looks like a sponge. If humans eat BSE infected cow, then they can contract the human form of the disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. This is probably the worst on the list - no known treatment.

    Source: Chandra Kantha

But not everything wriggling around in your body is bad for you - turns out over 90% of the cells in your body belong to helpful (or at least benign) bacteria which live their whole lives in the ecosystem of you. Some digest food, others help keep bad bugs at bay. But still gross.


Surely, everybody has played board games at some point. From snakes and ladders and ludo, to chess and backgammon, to Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, these are the things we get for christmas and play with the family - until the game degenerated into arguments over the meaning of Free Parking, or the Moops.

There's physical based games like Operation, Ker-plunk, Jenga, Domino Express, Mousetrap and Test Match (the good one, not the lame-o one). In these types of games, success in the game involved some physical skill. If you could tame physics quickly and effectively, then victory was yours. Otherwise, you failed - and it was probably your job to dis-assemble/re-assemble the thing ready for another round.

The Operation gameboard. Source: Technovelgy

Here's a little more info on one of the Operation pieces, the wishbone (aka furcula) of our feathered fiends: The furcula (or wishbone) is the fusion of the two clavicles (collarbones), which is necessary for flapping. The group of dinosaurs that led to birds - Theropods - include the allosaurs, tyrannosaurs, troodonts, oviraptors and of course, deinonychosaurs. Possibly the loveliest of all fossils (Archeopteryx) belongs somewhere between theropods and birdies. These theropods all had furculae, and the presence of these bones suggested a close relationship - the feathers just sealed the deal! The real question is - why? Why did these theropods have wishbones? Birdies use them for flight. But evolution doesn't work with an end-product in mind (despite what the wacky Intelligent Design folks may say), so at each step, this wishbone had to have been useful. Why did the dinos have them?

Then there were the more cerebral games like Trivial Pursuit, Mastermind, chess, where your physical attributes were as important to game play as the colour of your game piece (except for red, since red goes faster). The game of chess attracts a surprising amount of interest from mathematicians (and evokes distaste from others, in a similar way to the Rubik's Cube). The way that pieces can move around a standard chessboard, or a board of any shape, or indeed any dimension, is the stuff of combinatorists dreams. Some of the great tests of computer programs are how they play chess (WOPR and HAL were both very fond of the game).

Source: Daniel Berman

However, a lot of games that come under the heading of 'mathematics games' are frequently just accounting games - as closely related to mathematics as reality TV is to art. It is unfortunate that many people think the true use of mathematics is calculating change and doing one's tax return, when it is much more important in the construction of airliners, making advances in modern physics and predicting climate change. And of course, working out the next move in chess.

A whole class of game that we didn't have time to discuss on the show is that of role playing games (RPGs). Before computers gave us 'Baldur's Gate' and 'Neverwinter Nights', people were happily fighting umber hulks and beholders in dungeons, armed only with pencil and paper, and heaps of dice. They're not really board games, but Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk gave (us) nerds an awesome way to spend time - and it taught us that slaughtering a whole village of kobolds can somehow improve our lockpick skill.

But all told, board games are a great way for people to learn new things and develop skills they would otherwise never know they could have.


  • Mark Crislip's website, podcast and blog
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/index.htm
  • More on the dino furcula: Long C. A., Zhang G. P., Georgec T. F. & Long C. F. (2003), "Physical theory, origin of flight, and a synthesis proposed for birds", Journal of Theoretical Biology, 224, 9-26.
  • Scrabble is more than a friendly game: Halpern D . F . & Wai J . (2007), "The world of competitive Scrabble: novice and expert differences in visuospatial and verbal abilities", Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 13 , 79-94.
  • Here's a list of what are considered maths board games. There's some good puzzly type games, but it's largely a collection of games that try to make accountancy fun: http://www.educationallearninggames.com/math-games.asp
  • Here's Kirk Cameron's creationist board game
  • Ben Radford's game Playing gods can be found here.


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