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OpenLearn Live: 18th July 2016

Updated Monday, 18th July 2016

The man who sees the power of fungus; the Foreign Secretary's country pile and your brain and pain. Free learning from across the day.

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OpenLearn Live: while the world reaches 30 degrees outside your window, keep it cool with a slice of free learning and research. This page will be updated during the day.

On Friday, we marked St Swithins Day, completed a week of famous Theresas, and heard how we might preserve space history

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Today's posts

Poking in your brain

What is your brain doing? More precisely, what is the bit of your brain known as periaqueductal gray doing? There's a post on Neuoroscientifically Challenged that can start to answer that question - it might be making you hurt:

When the PAG was first found to have an association with pain, it was observed as playing a role in pain transmission---or the sending of pain signals to the cortex---and not the mitigation of those signals. Eventually, the PAG would come to be much better recognized as an area important to pain inhibition. In the late 1960s, the first indication of the role of the PAG in pain suppression emerged from a study that found that stimulation of the PAG in rats allowed researchers to perform surgery on the rats without the use of anesthetics (and without the animals exhibiting signs of severe pain). Further studies found that PAG activation was associated with the inhibition of spinal cord neurons involved in pain signaling. By the mid-1970s, stimulation of the PAG was already being used as an experimental approach to treating chronic pain in human patients. The fact that some of these experiments reported success in the treatment of chronic pain supported the role of the PAG in analgesia. The patients involved in these experiments also often complained of a wide range of side effects linked to PAG stimulation, however, suggesting that many more functions than analgesia were connected to the PAG.

Read the full article at Neuroloscientifically Challenged: Know your brain: Periaqueductal gray

Read: Dementia care - what happens in the brain?

Fixing Brazil's water crisis

Brazil's major cities struggle to have enough water to keep running. Could better management of natural resources help? Possibly...:

Natural infrastructure can safeguard and complement traditional water infrastructure systems, for example, by avoiding water pollution that would otherwise need to pass through a conventional water treatment plant, thus reducing costs.

In some cases, the return on investment can be substantial. Like 19 other cities in Latin America, São Paulo has a Water Fund supported by The Latin America Water Funds Partnership, an association of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), FEMSA Foundation, Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), in partnership with many other partners. TNC estimates that restoring at least 14,300 hectares (35,000 acres) of degraded land in São Paulo’s supply watersheds would reduce sedimentation by 50 percent, saving $2.5 million every year and reducing water treatment costs by 15 percent over the course of 10 years.

Read the full article: Can natural infrastructure help Brazil beat its water crisis?

Grab your grammar

From our pile of recently published free courses on OpenLearn, have you spotted Grammar Matters? It explores why its (or is it "it's"?) important to be in control of your grammar and gives you some tips for keeping your sentences straight and your meaning clear - even in an age of texts and tweets:

 The mode continuum is the movement from more spontaneous spoken-like language to more formal, written-like language. Face-to-face informal conversation between friends may have characteristics similar to written communication between friends while a political speech may be organised in ways similar to newspaper reports. Communications via phones and the internet are useful in demonstrating the ways in which contextual variables, such as how well the interactants know each other, where they are, and the immediacy of response, can all work to blur the distinction between grammar in speech and in writing. For example, when exchanging text messages or chatting on social media, our language often reflects the relatively immediate timeframe and extent of contextual knowledge shared between participants, aspects which are often associated with conversation.

Try the course Grammar Matters

Chevening classes

More news from Westminster, as it's emerged this morning that the Foreign Secretary's grace-and-favour residence, Chevening, is being turned into a flatshare. The Guardian's Andrew Sparrow reports:

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, will get joint use of Chevening, the grace and favour home traditionally used by the foreign secretary.

The three leading Brexit ministers are not great chums and quite how the Brexit house-share will work in practice remains to be seen although, given that Chevening has 115 rooms, it should be possible for them all to turn up at once without having them having to worry about one of them hogging the bathroom.

It is not the first time Chevening has been shared - under the coalition, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, had joint use of it with the foreign secretary, first William Hague and then Philip Hammond - but a three-way split like this may be unprecedented.

Explaining the decision to give Johnson, Davis and Fox joint use of the property, the prime minister’s spokeswoman said this “reflects the fact that all of these secretaries of state will, as part of their work, be needing an opportunity to host foreign visitors and leaders”.

Read the full article at The Guardian: Johnson, Davis and Fox to get joint use of Chevening, the foreign secretary's mansion

But what is this house that is soon to be filled with the sound of Brexit discussions? It's a government property which was given to the nation in 1967, upon the death of the Earl of Stanhope. It's not the Foregin Secretary's by right, as the official website explains:

On the death of the 7th Earl in 1967, the Chevening Estate Act of 1959 (amended in 1987) came into force and the Trustees took over responsibility for the house and the estate.

Under the terms of the Act the Prime Minister has the responsibility of nominating the person to occupy the house. This person can be the Prime Minister, a minister who is a member of the Cabinet, a lineal descendant of King George VI, or the spouse, widow or widower of such a descendant. The Canadian High Commissioner, the American Ambassador and the National Trust all have remainder interests in Chevening in the unlikely event that none of the above would require the house.

Indeed, betweeen 1974 & 1980, the Prince of Wales was the official resident - effectively robbing James Callaghan and David Owen from their opportunity to take their weekends near Sevenoaks.

The official Chevening House website history

A history of Chevening parish at

Study politics with The Open University

Happy birthday: Paul Stamets

This week, we're starting up every day by celebrating someone who was born this week in the past. Obviously the past. People will be born in the future, but we don't have any pictures of them yet. We're starting with Paul Stamets, born July 17th, 1955.

Paul Stamets, American mycologist, holding an Agarikon mushroom Creative commons image Icon Dusty Yao-Stamets under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license Paul Stamets

Paul is a mycologist - a fungus expert. Paul claims that his interest in mushrooms and other fungi was inspired by his brother, the late photographer John Stamets. John had a very specific interest in mushrooms, Paul told the Seattle Times:

“John was a force of nature,” his brother, Paul, said. “He inspired me on my path into the field of mycology, after his travels to Mexico and Colombia in pursuit of magic mushrooms.”

Paul's interest is less the magic of fungus, and more the science of them. His particular speciality is the range of life found in the old growth forests of Washington State, and believes that they are a source of untapped potential.

As an example, his company Fungi Perfecti is working with beekeepers to use a natural resistance found in mycelium to help protect bees against the devastating varroa mite. NPR explains:

In recent years, his research has shown that rare fungi found in the old-growth forests of western Washington can help fight other viruses and diseases, including tuberculosis, smallpox and bird flu. He wondered if the honeybee would see similar health benefits from wood-rotting mushrooms.

"Bees have immune systems, just like we do," he says. "These mushrooms are like miniature pharmaceutical factories."

Paul holds a number of patents for this sort of novel use of fungus byproducts. If you've a little time, here's a TED talk he gave on the subject:


But if the forests of Washington could be a source of great medical and technological value, there's a problem. We're hacking them to pieces. And that worries Paul:

The rainforests of the Pacific Northwest may harbor mushroom species with profound medicinal properties. At the current rates of extinctions, this last refuge of the mushroom genome should be at the top of the list of priorities for mycologists, environmentalists and government. If I can help advance this knowledge, I will have done my part to protect life on this planet. And yet, if it were not for our customer's contributions, with our limited finances, this goal could not be achieved.

Get to know the fungi: Listen to Investigating fungi





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