Revision of geological period / Christmas Lectures for children

Intl body may revise geological periods

The Yomiuri Shimbun The current geological period, known as the Quaternary period, may be redefined to have started 800,000 years earlier, it has been learned.
The Quaternary period is conventionally defined as having begun 1.8 million years ago and running up to the present time. But an international organization responsible for defining geological periods is planning to take the unusual step of revising its definition of when the Neogene period finished and when the Quaternary started.
In Japan, geological layers believed to have formed in the Quaternary period exist nationwide. But a possible revision of the geological periods would have an impact on the wording required in textbooks and reference books. It may also force researchers to review their judgments of when domestic active faults were created while requiring the government to redesign its geological survey maps.
This new definition will apparently be announced during the International Geological Congress, which started in Oslo on Wednesday.
The conventional definitions of geological periods, including the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, have been left largely untouched for more than 100 years.
In 2004, however, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is a subcommittee of the IGC, drawing on the latest knowledge about climate and environmental changes, proposed a revision that would create a new period starting at a point 2.3 million years ago and continuing to the present.
The proposed revision was criticized for being too radical, however, and the committee later submitted a revised proposal to establish a periodical division even further back, at 2.6 million years ago, but still keeping the conventional terminology of Quaternary.
In the revised proposal, climatic and ecological connections are mentioned as the reasons for including the period between 2.6 million years ago and 1.8 million years ago, conventionally considered as the final stage of Neogene period, in the Quaternary period.

(Aug. 8, 2008)

Scientist intrigues kids with mysteries of survival

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Hugh Montgomery, a genetics researcher and senior lecturer at University College London, employed various tactics Wednesday to fascinate a Christmas Lecture audiences mainly comprising children, with the mysteries of how the human body can survive in extreme conditions.
Shortly after the start of the lecture, titled “Back from the Brink–the Science of Survival,” a large bang reverberated around Bunkyo Civic Hall’s lecture room in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. Oxygen masks plunged down from the ceiling of a mock airplane cabin on the stage for four volunteers pretending to be passengers in an airplane emergency scenario.
“You are in that jet at 8,848 meters [as high as the summit of Mt. Everest]. One of the windows has blown out!” Montgomery shouted excitedly. “Quick! Put these oxygen masks on!”
At the lecture, organized by The Yomiuri Shimbun and the British Council, Montgomery said that in such a situation passengers on the plane would die within minutes without oxygen masks.
Montgomery explained that to aid survival drastic changes occur in the human body when it faces a low oxygen situation or other kinds of extreme conditions, such as being cast adrift at sea without drinking water.
Mountaineers, for example, can survive the conditions of high altitude with its low oxygen levels because the number of red cells in their blood, which deliver oxygen throughout the body, dramatically increase as they climb the mountain, Montgomery said.
“There are 100 trillion cells in our bodies–that’s 80 times the total number of fish in all the seas, all the rivers and lakes,” Montgomery said.
To stay alive, humans need to get oxygen to every single one of these cells, he said.
The audience was fascinated by this and subsequent sections of the lecture in which Montgomery gave easy explanations of complicated scientific matters, often inviting members of the audience to join his experiments on the stage.
The lectures continue until Thursday, with the doctor revealing the human body’s reaction to other kinds of extreme conditions, such as the blistering heat of deserts, the freezing temperatures encountered on snow-covered mountains and encounters with killer sharks in the sea.

(Aug. 7, 2008) Yomiuri Shimbun

Scientist turns adventurer to solve mystery of survival

Mami Tsukahara / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Hugh Montgomery, a genetics researcher and senior lecturer at University College London, climbed Mt. Everest in 2007 and conducted experiments on his own body to delve into the secrets of mountaineers surviving in an extreme conditions like low oxygen on high mountains.
“The reason for focusing on Everest is partly because it provides conditions to test the limits of human tolerance for low oxygen,” said Montgomery, who will reveal some of the mountaineers’ secrets at the Christmas Lecture, which started in London in 1825, featuring top scientists. In Japan this year, the lecture, titled Back from the Brink: The Science of Survival, is scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Osaka and Wednesday and Thursday in Tokyo.
“Actually, Everest itself didn’t have any particular appeal. It’s not the most interesting mountain to climb,” Montgomery, a mountaineer who has scaled a number of peaks in the name of scientific research, added in a recent interview with The Daily Yomiuri.
In the experiments, Montgomery and his team brought heavy exercise bicycles linked to computers onto Mt. Everest and analyzed the gases they breathed in and out while riding the bikes. They also took blood samples and cut their own legs to take muscle tissue samples to see the differences in the amount of oxygen on high mountains and at sea level.
At the summit of Mt. Everest, where the density of oxygen is just one-third that at sea level, it is normally impossible for humans to survive. At the upcoming Christmas Lecture, Montgomery will explain how the human body adapts to low oxygen by delivering the vital substance to its own tissues more efficiently.
According to his lecture last year in Britain, the body’s number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells increases in high mountains: While 42 percent of the blood is normally made up of red cells, which snatch up oxygen in capillaries, about 55 percent to 60 percent of a climber’s blood was found to be made up of red cells near the summit of Mt. Everest.
In the Japan lecture, Montgomery will also illuminate other mysteries that occur inside our bodies under extreme conditions, such as being left at sea in a life raft for days without drinking water, or on a snowy mountain at extremely low temperatures, or when encountering a shark underwater.
For example, in an extremely cold environment, our body will try to save itself by closing blood vessels close to the skin to preserve core body temperature, consequently giving up some body parts, such as fingers and toes, or even hands and feet. He will also explain the reason why we can show normally unthinkable physical strength in the face of danger: Adrenaline is released into the blood to help us fight or flee by providing muscles with more oxygen.
In his latest experiment on Mt. Everest, Montgomery made some other new findings concerning how body functions adapt to conditions in high mountains. Though the full results are embargoed until an official announcement several months from now, Montgomery shared some of his findings with The Daily Yomiuri.
According to Montgomery, a drastic decline in the blood’s oxygen level, normally about 12 kilopascals, seriously affects the human body: People become irritable and aggressive at 6 kPa, lose consciousness at 5 kPa, and are likely to die within a few minutes at 3 kPa. However, his fellow climbing researchers behaved normally on Mt. Everest with less than 2.5 kPa, he said.
In this respect, he said, the efficient delivery of oxygen inside the body was not sufficient to explain the body’s adaptation to thin air. He said consumption of stored fuels in the human body might solve the puzzle.
Through the experiment conducted with the bikes on Mt. Everest, Montgomery successfully measured what kind of fuels the human body burns and how efficiently it burns them for a certain amount of work in high mountains.
“The tissue samples [taken on Mt. Everest] allow us to look at the expressions of genes so we can see what’s happening inside the power station [in our body],” Montgomery said. “It’s changing very dramatically the way it’s burning fuel.”
Montgomery may give some hints of how efficiently mountaineers with such low oxygen levels consumed their fuels and stayed fit on Mt. Everest in his lecture starting today.

(Aug. 1, 2008) Yomiuri Shimbun
The Christmas Lectures have been organized for children as an annual event in Japan since 1990 by scientist Michael Faraday. Order the lecture on DVD at this website.

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