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Science, Maths & Technology

OpenLearn Live: 28th October 2015

Updated Wednesday, 28th October 2015

A house leaking doom; the real characteristics of coders and the upside of parasites. Then more free learning through the day.

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OpenLearn Live brings together all the free learning from across the site. This page is updated across the day, or you can follow us on Twitter.

Yesterday, we discovered the Canadian mosaic, why 'open' claims might not be what they seem, and how Facebook polices identity

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

What are computer programmers like?

We all know what coders are like, surely, from a couple of decades worth of movies and TV shows - they're megaminds; a bit awkward in society. And their job consists of mashing at a keyboard until the words "ACCESS GRANTED" flashes upon a screen. (Fans of Buffy will have noticed how, the more confident Willow became, the less often she was shown using computers.) And then there's Moss.


But is the stereotype a fair one? A piece on the British Psychologicial Society's Research Digest blog reports on the findings of a trawl of research:

Cleverer people make better programmers. Also, introversion was correlated with programming skill – which makes sense seeing as introverts generally prefer a quiet environment away from crowds, and working on a computer and writing code fits with that preference. Conscientiousness was another relevant trait. Again this makes sense, because conscientiousness is about attention to detail. 
However, the personality trait most strongly correlated with programming ability was not introversion or conscientiousness, but openness: a trait that's related to being creative and imaginative. What's more, over time to the present day, openness has become a more important correlate of programming ability, while conscientiousness has become less important. This is speculation, but perhaps more creative people are today drawn to careers in programming because of all the opportunities for imaginative expression in a world of apps, video games, snazzy websites, and social networks. Finally, the traits of agreeableness (essentially how friendly someone is) and neuroticism (how anxious and emotionally unstable) were not correlated with programming ability, pretty much refuting the tired stereotype of the socially awkward programming geek.

Fancy trying your coding skills? Explore our Make It Digital collection

Who are you calling a parasite?

Helminths are parasites that live in people's intestines - not so much in industrialised nations; they've pretty much been eradicated there. But it turns out the helminths might have the last laugh - if a worm can laugh - as they turn out to have an upside, too. Loonylabs reports:

because of their long co-evolution with mammals, helminths have developed a close relationship with their host’s immune systems, to the point that they can regulate the host’s immune system in beneficial ways. For example, helminths can ameliorate diseases such as allergic asthma. However, very little is known about how helminths modulate the immune system, and whether or not we can exploit this to fight against diseases caused by inflammation.

The lab of Nicola Harris at EPFL has now shown that the anti-inflammatory activity of intestinal helminths involves “cross-talk” with an unexpected agent: the gut’s bacteria, also known as the “microbiome“. These are the bacteria that have been dominating nutritional news in recent years, as we are increasingly learning how much they influence a person’s metabolism, immunity, and health in general.

Read: Intestinal worms 'talk' to gut bacteria at Loonylabs

Read: Gut bacteria - friend or foe?

Hallowain't: There's a ghost in my house

As we count down the days to Halloween - the scariest day of the year as Mr Kipling's Witches Hat Fancies will disappear from the shops - we're exploring some stories of hauntings that weren't. Yesterday, we heard how a telescope debunked the Paulding Lights. Today, it's a good old-fashioned haunted house. Although, because of the format, you probably have already guessed it's not a haunted house at all.

A haunted house Creative commons image Icon Matt Trostle under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

This story was first told by Dr William Wilmer, who went on to become one of America's most respected ophthalmologists. In 1921, he published an account in The American Journal of Ophthalmology of a visit from a patient who felt she was being supernaturally bullied. The events described shortly before the First World War, when the patient and his family moved into a large, rambling house almost certainly totally unlike the one pictured above. The house had been empty for a decade; as yet, it was not connected to mains electricity so lighting was provided by gas lamp. The building was lavishly carpeted, such that the occupants would not be disturbed by the footfall of servants moving about - because we all know what a bore that can be, right?

And yet, despite the lush carpet, the patient was disturbed at night by the sound of footsteps.

Worse, the house itself seemed to cast a sense of doom over the family. Wilmer records the patient's description:

The children grew pale and listless and lost their appetites. The playroom at the top of the house they deserted. In spite of their rocking horse and toys being there, they begged to be allowed to play and have lessons in their bedroom. 

Children saying "please send us to our rooms" is quite unusual, to be fair. The strange noises got worse - bells would clang in the depth of the night; the patient heard sounds of a fire brigade crashing up the street only to see nothing out of the window.

The family closed up the house for Christmas, and just being out of the house made them happier. Returning in the new year, though, the gloom of their poorly chosen new home was awaiting them.

Things got worse. They even started to spook themselves:

"On one occasion, in the middle of the morning, as I passed from the drawing room into the dining room, I was surprised to see at the further end of the dining room, coming towards me, a strange woman, dark haired and dressed in black. As I walked steadily on into the dining room to meet her, she disappeared, and in her place I saw a reflection of myself in the mirror, dressed in a light silk waist. I laughed at myself, and wondered how the lights and mirrors could have played me such a trick. This happened three different times, always with the same surprise to me and the same relief when the vision turned into myself. 

The children became listless once more; heavy colds would confine them to their beds. And then all the pot plants died. A phantom so dark, not even Baby Bio could defeat its grip.

So what nature of threat was this? Could there be something malign in the house? Well, actually, yes. But it wasn't supernatural. The family consulted an expert, wondering if they were perhaps being poisoned. Back to Dr Wilmer for the denouement:

We told him how listless and ill the children appeared. He found one of them lying on the floor, and the other two in bed. We related the experiences of the children and servants, and told him about the plants. He examined the house thoroughly from top to bottom and interviewed the servants. He found the furnace in a very bad condition, the combustion being imperfect, the fumes, instead of going up the chimney, were pouring gases of carbon monoxide into our rooms. He advised us not to let the children sleep in the house another night. If they did, he said we might find in the morning that one of them would never wake again.

Yes, the family had been held by the grip of carbon monoxide poisoning, not a haunted house. And it's still a very real, very serious threat - around 40 to 50 people in the UK are killed by carbon monoxide every year. The charity Headway have a useful guide to spotting the symptoms and British Gas offer safety tips.

The moral of the story, if there is one other than check your gas appliances regularly, is that looking first for supernatural answers might occlude the very real scientific answer - and can put at far worse risk than that offered by spooks.

See the OpenLearn Halloween collection

The other carbon threat  CO2  Climate change





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