Month: August 2015

Tastes of Tomorrow

Image: 19th-century engraving of Goethe’s Faust and Homunculus Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft Part 1: Hume and the Middleman Raise your wine glass! Odorant molecules rise from the liquid and pass through your nasal passage before reaching a patch of neurons with hair-like extensions. A biochemical reaction sends an olfactory signal to the centre of emotion, your brain’s limbic system. That’s just the start. Drink! Your sensory experience deepens. Onion-shaped structures called taste buds containing up to 100 taste receptor cells, again with neuronal properties, pass more information about the wine’s chemical qualities to your brain. Waves of information hit your consciousness as your “brain” processes them. How much of this are you aware of? You struggle to come up with more than a few words: red fruit, stale cardboard, mushrooms on a forest floor and ladybug taint. All that information. All those neurons. And the best that you can do is stand by and take a few notes. It seems a bit disappointing. David Hume was a great theorist of impressions and ideas. According to Hume, impressions are like pictures …

Taking data to heart

Image: Heart and its blood vessels, Leonardo da Vinci Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft More people die of heart-related disease than from any other cause. The World Health Organization estimates that 17.5 million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2012, about thirty percent of all global deaths. A cardiovascular disease becomes an acute problem when it leads to a reduction in blood supply to the heart. For example, one of the coronary arteries supplying the heart with blood may be blocked by a blood clot. The part of heart muscle supplied by this artery will die without a blood supply, a process called myocardial infarction. “Heart attack” is the more familiar umbrella term. Twenty years apart, here are two examples of data analysis in the treatment of acute heart disease: a data-based decision tool for patient classification and a “computationally generated biomarker”, which is a risk indicator derived from objectively observable clinical data using advanced data processing. The two examples reveal the progress that has been made and the challenges that lie ahead in using …

Triage 2.0

Image: Wounded arriving at triage station, Suippes, France Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft In healthcare, a triage – from the French verb “trier”, to sift or to sort – is a system to evaluate and categorize patients by the severity of their medical condition to prioritize care. The future of healthcare hinges on new triage technology. Triage was first developed for battlefield medicine by Dominique Jean Larrey, an army surgeon during the Napoleonic wars. In 1792 France was at war with most of Europe and Larrey was a newly minted twenty-six-year-old regimental surgeon-major frustrated by the state of combat casualty care. Surgeons like him were confined to field hospitals located no less than five kilometres from the battlefield. If he was “lucky”, a wounded soldier was able to make his own way to the field hospital or comrades might carry him. Otherwise he’d have to wait for a slow moving cart from the field hospital to haul him in. These carts, called Fourgons, were piled high with bodies and provided the most basic transport. If …

Time and the Rail Revolution

Image: A Swiss Railway Clock. Photo Credit: Yang Yuxin Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft In the 19th century railways brought about a revolution in speed. A trip of days by coach became a matter of hours by train. But there was a problem. Every town had its own local solar time. Solar time and space are linked: each degree of longitude is 24 hours divided by 360 degrees, which is four minutes of time. In England, Oxford ran five minutes behind London, while Leeds was another minute behind and Bristol was ten minutes off the mark. When travel was slow the time shifts were manageable. After a day or two travelling by coach, you’d simply adjust your watch to local time upon arrival, like we do today when we travel by airplane. On a longer trip by sea you might notice your lunch time shifting relative to the time on your watch – no big deal. On a rail network, dealing with a profusion of local times became impractical and dangerous: you can’t have trains …