Why corona’s not catching on

Thanks to science, there will be no zombie apocalypse. As every zombie-phile knows, the condition arises from being infected by others. It seems we have become rather good at containing infectious diseases.

London is playing host to a newly identified virus – possibly even two – but no one is panicking. One arrived courtesy of a seriously ill Qatari man brought over for treatment. Scientists sent the other. We aren’t yet sure they are exactly the same type of “coronavirus”; that’s why we imported the second sample, taken from a Saudi man it killed.

There are six known types of human coronavirus. Four of them will do nothing worse than give you a common cold. Another is this new one. Clearly, it is highly dangerous but it has killed only one person that we know of.

The final type is known as Sars. This killed more than 900 people during an outbreak that started in
2002. That the new virus has been identified so fast shows we have learned our lesson. After Sars, the
European Commission set up a network that would allow doctors to flag up unusual respiratory disease symptoms with researchers equipped to perform rapid analysis on the pathogen responsible. Sars killed a large number of people before we identified the virus. Thanks to the EMPERIE network, we seem to have caught this coronavirus early and can take precautions to limit its spread.

The bad news is, it’s the non-communicable diseases that are more likely to kill you. Threats such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes account for 63 per cent of global deaths. In September last year, the World Health Organisation held a conference on the threat of non-communicable diseases and what could be done about it. In July, it announced its intention to reduce your chances of dying from one of them by 25 per cent. The only thing that’s missing is a strategy to make it happen.

Researchers were recently digesting a special issue of the journal Science, dedicated to the problem. It’s clear that many killer diseases can be controlled with a good diet, plenty of physical exercise and cutting alcohol and tobacco use. Other factors are not so easy to pin down, however.

The wonder drug aspirin, for instance, is still not the undisputed champion of world health. It is useful in preventing heart attacks and strokes but also causes life-threatening stomach bleeds in some people. Claims that it helps prevent cancer are rock solid but it doesn’t work miracles for everyone. And it doesn’t help that we are completely clueless as to how aspirin might work against cancer – there are several competing theories and nothing to choose between them.

Walking on sunshine

Vitamin D is another miracle medication that is giving us mixed messages. A growing number of scientists see this molecule as a potent force against infections such as influenza and the common cold, diabetes, cancer, asthma and heart disease. Before you rush out for supplements, though, it’s worth noting that not every scientist is a believer in mass medication.

We don’t know, for instance, whether Vitamin D deficiency in those suffering disease is the cause or merely a by-product of other deficiencies. Besides, 90 per cent of the Vitamin D in your body is made through exposing the skin to sunshine. So if you want to reap the benefits of Vitamin D, whatever they turn out to be, you should probably just get out more. When you do, bearing in mind that scientific results are rarely as bulletproof as we’d like, it’s still worth keeping an eye out for zombies.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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Personal experiences – not just biology – shape who you find attractive

Researchers find past experiences play a role in identifying why people are attracted to certain individuals.

A new study suggests personal experiences influence our attraction to our preferred partners. It was previously thought genes played a bigger role, as they do in forming other examples of behaviour and character traits. Just reflect on the number of times you've been singled out by a family member for acting like one of your parents, either offensively or in a praiseworthy way.

There are certain characteristics that lead people to judge particular faces as more attractive than others, such as the level of symmetry. However, people still dispute others' opinions when judging facial attractiveness – it's subjective. After all, what else is the purpose of the romantic lead's sassy best friend in any rom-com or book? Or just think how boring conversations with your friends would be without such intense and passionate disagreements.

The researchers used twins as participants in the study in order to monitor these differences and disagreements in opinion. This was necessary because twins are, by definition, genetically identical, allowing the scientists to rule out genetic differences as a reason in explaining their findings.

A total of 547 sets of identical twins and 214 sets of fraternal twins (siblings sharing half of their DNA) were asked to judge the facial attractiveness of 102 female faces and 98 male faces, and give each face a rating based on preference. The results showed, on average, the twins agreed with each other 48 per cent of the time, and disagreed on facial attractiveness 52 per cent. Had the numbers been closer for both the identical and fraternal groups, this would have shown genes were more influential in determining our levels of attraction to others.

The study concluded the reason behind this difference was primarily based on an individual's unique environmental factors (the scientific phrase for "past experiences"), at 78 per cent.

Previous studies have shown aesthetic preferences are based on a range of other factors too, including socioeconomic and cultural features, the rater's own facial features and also personality. (See, it's not always about looks.) The authors were also able to determine how our genes influence facial recognition during this same experiment, if not our preferences.

Discovering that a personality characteristic is influenced by our environment is another highlight in the field of behavioural genetics, as it was previously thought "nature beats nurture" in many aspects of an individual's behaviour. However, this study shows that a person's experiences are unique even between family members.