* take nothing for granted    
Unless otherwise indicated all photos © Richard McKie 2005 - 2021

Who is Online

We have 69 guests and no members online

 

 

 

Our memories are fundamental to who we are. All our knowledge and all our skills and other abilities reside in memory. As a consequence so do all our: beliefs; tastes; loves; hates; hopes; and fears.

Yet our memories are neither permanent nor unchangeable and this has many consequences.  Not the least of these is the bearing memory has on our truthfulness.

According to the Macquarie Dictionary a lie is: "a false statement made with intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood - something intended or serving to convey a false impression".  So when we remember something that didn't happen, perhaps from a dream or a suggestion made by someone else, or we forget something that did happen, we are not lying when we falsely assert that it happened or truthfully deny it.

The alarming thing is that this may happen quite frequently without our noticing. Mostly this is trivial but when it contradicts someone else's recollections, in a way that has serious legal or social implications, it can change lives or become front page news.

Some time ago I was motivated, by the controversy surrounding the United States Senate hearing into the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, to write a cautionary note along these lines. During the hearings it was alleged, by a very credible witness, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both in their teens.

I did not particularly want to see Kavanaugh appointed but felt that this allegation, of itself, was not sufficient grounds to deny his suitability. I argued that after such a long time we should be respecting his right to be presumed innocent, unless there was contemporary immutable evidence (diaries or photographs perhaps) or testimony from other, non-colluding, girls who had suffered a similar assault. 

Then in 2018 in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, was convicted of an historical sexual assault. Again there was just one, apparently very credible, accuser.  The alleged victim persuaded over twenty jurors, in two separate trials, that his account was true, while Pell of course, denied it.

Although, like Kavanaugh, Cardinal Pell was not one of my favourite people, I questioned the soundness of the conviction, writing: "I'm just a little concerned about the historical nature of the charges".  Almost everyone I know disagreed with me.

At the time, a number of historical accusations of a similar kind had surfaced against Pell and there was the worldwide revulsion (see my Ireland Travel Notes) against the many sexual crimes committed within the Roman Catholic Church, such that a Cardinal was likely to be disbelieved, just as at one time a choir boy's accusations against a priest would have been, and were, dismissed.

Eventually Cardinal Pell's appeal reached the High Court of Australia, where the conviction was quickly overturned on the grounds that 'reasonable doubt' had not been respected. But in the meantime he'd spent 13 months in jail and lost his job at the Vatican.

Now the Democratic Candidate for the 2020 US Presidential election, Joe Biden, has been accused of an historical sexual assault by a onetime staffer, Tara Reade. 

In 2019 Tara Reade told the media that when she worked in his Senate office back in 1993, Biden made her uncomfortable by touching her neck, shoulders and hair. When it was conceded that thirty years ago Biden did rub people's shoulders, irrespective of gender, until someone suggested that it was not appropriate, Reade responded that in her case the touching was not simply platonic because in addition Biden had once backed her against a wall and put his fingers into her.

Biden absolutely denies this. And while one accusation of this sort usually results in a string of similar accusations, no other woman has come forward with similar claims against Biden.

Yet neither Tara Reade nor Joe Biden may be lying if each is genuinely reporting their true recollection of that time nearly thirty years ago. So if there was no witness nor material evidence, as Bishop Berkley might have asserted: the event no longer exists, even if it once did.

How reliable is anyone's memory? 

In a famous experiment, conducted by Elizabeth Loftus FRSE and recently recalled by Dr Karl on the ABC, volunteer subjects who had all been to Disneyland as children, were falsely encouraged to imagine seeing someone there in an encounter with one of those oversized yet loveable characters: Daffy Duck. A year later a significant proportion of the subjects had a certain recollection of themselves encountering Daffy there. Yet Daffy belongs to Warner Brothers and has never been at Disneyland where Donald Duck reigns supreme.  In the following TED talk Elizabeth Loftus provides many more examples of false memories.

 

No responsibility is accepted for linked third party video or media content - see Terms of Use and Copyright
You follow any YouTube links or advertisements displayed at your own risk.

 

I too once believed that I have an excellent memory. For example, I can tell you a great deal about the photo below of me learning dressage, I can even 'feel' what it was like, with my right foot too far into the stirrup, or about those even earlier photos below:

 

Young Richard Riding 3
317 Pennant Hills Road 1948 2 317 Pennant Hills Road 1948

 

When I found them in an old album as an adult they held few surprises for me, except that I thought Peter's pram was black, otherwise I could confidently walk around the house in my memory describing everything as I went.

They were taken at 317 Pennant Hills Road Thornleigh NSW Australia in 1948-49,  when I was three or four years old and I can clearly recall some things that are specific to the time and place the photos were taken, like: what was growing in the vegetable garden down the sandstone terraces, behind my father; and where that hat was kept. Or at least my memory persuades me I can. It seems as clear to me as yesterday.

Yet would my parents agree with me if they were alive?  My own children have a different version of their young lives to the one I remember. Perhaps we focused on different things?

The problem is that children can't actually remember much from when they were three or four.  It's called infantile amnesia. I can remember a lot about the photos because we went on to live in that house for another 14 years and I'm filling out and editing my memories with more recent ones.  So now I have a probably fictitious but totally believable 'story' of what was taking place. I can even add the sounds of an old push grass mower; cicadas singing; the smell of cut grass; and of my mother baking scones. Or maybe I've just remembered something terrible that explains my life later on?

Elsewhere on this website I've engaged in nostalgia about times like Empire Day (bonfire night).  Could I have re-remembered some of this too?  Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. 

My doubts about my own 'certain' memories began a couple of decades ago.

In the early 1970’s I spent some years in London and lived and worked within cycling distance of the Tate Art Gallery (now Tate Britain), a favourite place for contemplation that I visited quite frequently.

 

The Lady of Shalott 1888 John William Waterhouse Tate Britain Jacob and the Angel Jacob Epstein 19401 Tate Britain

 

The Tate houses many familiar objects like:

  • A painting: The Lady of Shalott by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse, illustrating the Romantic Poet: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, that brings back a flood of related memories:
    Lying, robed in snowy white
    That loosely flew to left and right—
    The leaves upon her falling light—
    Thro' the noises of the night
    She floated down to Camelot:
    And as the boat-head wound along
    The willowy hills and fields among,
    They heard her singing her last song,
    The Lady of Shalott.

     

  • A sculpture: Jacob and the Angel, referencing a somewhat obscure Biblical allegory about Jacob's struggle with God, in the form of an angel, who leaves him partially lame.  It's by Jacob Epstein and it's a very substantial and, given the material, a very costly endeavour that must have taken a very long time to make, while all the while attempting to shape his own existential struggle. Deep and meaningful. Yet it always makes me smile as it recalls a probably unfair but delightfully frivolous limerick:

  • There's a wonderful family named Stein;
    There's Gert and there's Ep and there's Ein;
    Gert's poetry's bunk;
    Ep's sculpture is junk;
    and no one can understand Ein.

 

Like many familiar museums the Tate houses other such images and objects, that, like photographs, have the power to recover their related memories.

Around twenty years after I lived there I was in London again and decided to revisit the Tate. Confidently walking along The Embankment to its location I was amazed. The Tate had disappeared! After asking someone I found it again, several hundred metres away, but I was absolutely convinced that they’d moved it to a different building. I even questioned the people at the reception as to when this had happened.

Of course it hadn’t moved, it's been in the same place since 1897. It was my clear and certain memory of the London I knew that had subtly changed; and not just at that point.

From that moment on I became a little less inclined to insist that my memories, while generally reliable, are always an immutable record of past events.  Now the best I can say is that: 'on the whole my memory is reasonably good'.  I had no difficulty finding the Tate again last year. 

Of course even in childhood I’d noticed that others I’d shared an experience with had a slightly different version of what happened. On a school outing friends would notice different things and even ascribe different meanings or reactions, like fear; joy or surprise, to those events.

That people experience the same event differently exercises psychiatrists dealing with Post Traumatic Stress on a daily basis and as a theme it has a long literary tradition. For example it’s the basis of Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashômon and several later movies. In that case the report of the killing changed according to the witnesses prejudices, desires and biases.

So this too masks the tricks our memory plays on us over time. We can’t rely on others to provide confirmation of our memory of an event immediately after the event, let alone decades later.

Everyone's memory is fluid, changing subtly over time.

It’s obvious to everyone that we change physically as we age. None of us has the same body we did a decade ago. And when we suffer injuries or disease healing leaves us a little different, perhaps with a scar or a limp. A mature adult loses and recreates about 60 billion replacement cells every day. So in ten or twenty years almost every cell in our body has been progressively replaced. We are like a corporation in which every staff member has changed.

It was once thought that brain cells, neurons, must be the exception. Else how is memory and thus knowledge; belief and skill preserved? But it seems that these cells too die and are replaced, with the previous connections and their switches more or less reinstated, almost perfectly. Yet it was small imperfections in these reconnections in my brain that lead to the disappearance of the Tate.

Philosophers and scientists talk about the ‘illusion of the self’ and I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere on this website so I won’t reprise it yet again.

Suffice it to say that the beliefs we hold the abilities we have and the knowledge, experiences and behaviours we have learned and accumulated are all stored in our brains, by our neurons as strings of connections between their synapses. 

Thus learning a new skill causes our brain to grow in the relevant area.  Even in old age many can learn new skills or recover from brain damage, like a stroke. 

Today people live longer that they once did. So it's more apparent to everyone, that when they suffer memory loss, our acquaintances and loved ones cease to be the person they once were.  When half a century was a long life this was relatively rare and it was thought, like madness, to be due to possession by the Devil. A priest would be called. Now we know it's due to damage to functional memory, as encoded in the relationships between connections in their brain and medical research aimed at mitigating dementia is concentrated on repairing or preventing such damage.

Even a healthy brain is changing all the time yet we don't notice small changes in our memory because it's its own principal reference. So we're inclined to believe our memories are a true record, even when contradicted by irrefutable physical evidence. The pram was cream!

While changes to our brain and the replacement of all our cells make us into a new person over time, this should not be a 'get out of jail card' for past crimes and misdemeanours, any more than asserting that we were under the influence of a drug when the crime was committed. But it should make us cautious about accepting anyone's distant memories as totally reliable, unless there is immutable or at least independent verification.

 

 

 


    Have you read this???     -  this content changes with each opening of a menu item


Travel

Bolivia

 

 

In October 2011 our little group: Sonia, Craig, Wendy and Richard visited Bolivia. We left Puno in Peru by bus to Cococabana in Bolivia. After the usual border form-filling and stamps, and a guided visit to the church in which the ‘Black Madonna’ resides, we boarded a cruise boat, a large catamaran, to Sun Island on the Bolivian side of the lake.

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

Bonfire (Cracker) Night

 

 

We children were almost overcome with excitement.  There had been months of preparation.  Tree lopping and hedge trimmings had been saved; old newspapers and magazines stacked into fruit boxes; a couple of old tyres had been kept; and the long dangerously spiky lower fronds from the palm trees were neatly stacked; all in preparation. 

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life

 

 

What everyone should know

Most of us already know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

All living things on Earth are comprised of cells and all cells are comprised of numerous molecular structures.

Unlike the 'ancients', most 'moderns' also know that each of us, like almost all animals and all mamals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication. 

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 

 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

When human girls are born, they have about a million eggs in each of their two ovaries, nestled in fluid-filled cavities called follicles. But this number declines quite rapidly so that it is depleted by the time of menopause (usually before 50 years of age). Unless fertility treatment is in use, just one or sometimes two of these (apparently randomly selected) ova descends from the ovaries each menstrual period - down the woman's fallopian tubes where it (or they) may become fertilised if the woman has recently engaged in coitus (had 'sex').

As in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

Our genes, that are encoded in their DNA, come in equal proportion from both parents.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 

 

 


Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand

 

Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 


Replication

The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   

 

  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 


but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.

 

Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.

 


DNA replication. 

 

This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (LUCA - see above) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.

 


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example later Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.

 


Viruses

Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.

 

Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 
https://www.newscientist.com)

 

But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.

 

 

 

 


Terms of Use                                           Copyright