How conkers created Israel, cats cause wars, and painkillers are bad for religion

I’ve recently been reading a book called Chaos, by James Gleick.  It is a nice, easy-to-read overview of chaos theory in all its forms.  Chaos theory is not really a proper mathematical field, more of an ideology, which has applications in all walks of life.   The phrase seems to be bandied about less these days, perhaps because the ideas have become so accepted that it is no longer considered a theory, but just “how things are”.  It takes the form of turbulence, entropy and unpredictability; it has great influence on the weather, the traffic, the stock markets…indeed it is hard to imagine how science worked before the notion of chaos.  As one physicist in the book puts it:

“Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of absolute space and time; quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurement process; and chaos eliminates the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predicability”.

Poor physicists! Always having their work eliminated by something or other.  Luckily this doesn’t happen in mathematics.  Chaos in mathematics is studied in the form of dynamical systems,  in which small perturbations in initial conditions can have a dramatic long-term effect.  This sensitivity is known in popular culture as the “butterfly effect”, from a paper by Edward Lorenz – a pioneer of chaos theory – titled: Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?

Lorenz was  a meteorologist, and first noticed chaotic effects whilst running weather simulations.  Weather is notoriously chaotic (see, for example, long-term forecasts by the Met Office for evidence of this), and one day, whilst trying to restart a simulation where he had left off, he fed in data which had been output from the middle of a previous session.  He noticed that the outcome was wildly different from his previous results, a consequence of the computer having rounded his output to what he had thought was an insignificantly fewer number of decimal points.    Gleick goes into weather patterns in some depth, as well as delving into such interesting topics as the fractal – and by implication, infinite – nature of coastlines (the closer you get the more little “bays” there are), and the chaotic behaviour a human heart displays while fibrillating (basically what a defibrillator does is to reset a chaotic system with a massive jolt of electricity).*

But I am not actually going to talk about chaos theory today.  Well, not quite.  Instead I am going to share a few odd and interesting freakonomics-style chains of events I’ve learnt about recently.  They all involve seemingly insignificant things – conkers, diclofenac and a cat parasite, to be precise  – which have (arguably) had a huge impact on world events.   In that sense you could possibly claim that this was some kind of chaos in practice.  But that would be quite a tenuous way to try and link it with what I’ve written so far, so I won’t.

1. How Conkers Created Israel

Acetone is a very useful chemical, used all over the place.  Probably you are most familiar with it as the strangely pleasant-smelling principal ingredient in nail varnish.  However, in the search for more reliable explosives in the late 19th century,   it was discovered that it  could be used as a solvent to extrude a new compound – called cordite – from nitroglycerine, nitrocellulose, and (unexpectedly) vaseline.  Cordite was swiftly adopted as the principal explosive used in artillery and small arms, and after the start of World War I the demand for the chemical increased greatly.  Unfortunately, the  primary source of the acetone  used to make it had been German factories, and at this point the Germans were naturally rather reticent about supplying Britain with ingredients for explosives.  So it was imperative that Britain found a new source of the chemical.

David Lloyd George, who was at that time the Minister for Munitions, commissioned a Russian-born Jewish Professor called Chaim Weizmann to come up with a new way to produce acetone.  Traditionally the substance had been produced by distilling starchy materials, such as maize and potatoes.  But unfortunately, due to naval blockades,even these basic ingredients were in short supply during the war.  So Weizmann turned his attention to non-food starch, and discovered a way to adapt the process to use horse chestnuts, better known as conkers.  Factories were set up which produced huge quantities of acetone, and in order to supply them with the raw material, the following message was posted in classrooms and Scout huts around the country:

Collecting groups are being organised in your district. Groups of scholars and Boy Scouts are being organised to collect conkers. Receiving depots are being opened in most districts. All schools, W.V.S. centres, W.I.s, are involved. Boy Scout leaders will advise you of the nearest depot where 7/6 per cwt is being paid for immediate delivery of the chestnuts (without the outer green husks). This collection is invaluable war work and is very urgent. Please encourage it.

The result was that, for a number of years, far fewer games of conkers were played in playgrounds, and small boys became decidedly more financially solvent, as well as unwittingly essential to the war effort.

As well as being an imaginative chemist, Weizmann was one of the foremost Zionists of his time, and he used the considerable status he had gained from his contributions in the war to further this cause.  Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916, and his gratitude to Weizmann played a large part in his government’s issuance of the Balfour Declaration, which said:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

This was a clear stamp of approval by the British government for the creation of a Zionist state, and greatly helped Weizmann’s campaign.  Weizmann went on to become the first president of Israel in 1948.  Would this have happened without conkers?

3. Why diclofenac is bad for Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion; probably the first monotheistic belief system, and still practised by tens of thousands of people in Iran and South Asia.  Members of the Zoroastrian communities in India and Pakistan are known as Parsis; originally from Persia, they emigrated there in the 8th century.

One unusual aspect of the distinctive Parsi culture is the way in which they dispose of their dead.  The Zoroastrians regard the elements as sacred, and believe that burial and cremation respectively defile earth and fire.  So instead, they choose to leave the bodies in specially constructed buildings, known as “Towers of Silence”, where, through a combination of vultures, sun and wind, they gradually disintegrate.

However, recently an unexpected series of events has led to something of a crisis in this system, leading to much distress in the communities.  Vultures play a large role in disposing of the bodies in the Towers of Silence, and at some point their numbers began to drop drastically.  This led to a huge increase in the time taken for the bodies to decompose, which in turn caused the population of scavengers such as rats to grow drastically, thereby increasing the incidence of diseases such as rabies.  On top of this was the obvious distress to the families of the deceased, not to mention the people living in the increasingly urbanised areas around the Towers.  No other method of disposing of the bodies proved as effective as the vultures,  and debates are still ongoing as to whether to lift the ban on burial and cremation.

You may have been prescribed a painfiller called diclofenac in the past , perhaps for a muscle injury.  It is fairly benign, an NSAID closely related to ibuprofen and aspirin.  It was approved for veterinary use in India and Pakistan some time ago, and became widely used by farmers in order to increase the lifespan of their animals.   It was only recently that diclofenac was found to be the cause of the vultures’ near-extinction.  The drug was still present in the carcasses of the animals they had been feeding on, and was causing kidney failure in the birds.  Thus a simple painkiller was responsible for a great upheaval in a thousands-year-old way of life.

2. Do Cats Cause Wars?

You are probably most likely to have heard of toxoplasmosis from the film Trainspotting; it was the disease which killed Tommy, who caught it from a kitten he had bought for his girlfriend (who had left him after Renton had stolen their sex-tape and replaced it with a football tape).  Toxoplasmosis is indeed contracted from cats, and is a very odd and little understood parasitic disease.  It has the following life-cycle:

A cat eats an infected rodent.  It then passes the parasite through its faeces, which other rodents come into contact with.  When a rodent is infected, the disease has a curious effect on their brain, causing them to lose their fear of cats.  I like the following quote from a paper on the subject:

We tested the hypothesis that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii manipulates the behaviour of its intermediate rat host in order to increase its chance of being predated by cats, its feline definitive host, thereby ensuring the completion of its life cycle. Here we report that, although rats have evolved anti-predator avoidance of areas with signs of cat presence, T. gondii’s manipulation appears to alter the rat’s perception of cat predation risk, in some cases turning their innate aversion into an imprudent attraction.

So, instead of being fearful of cats, the rats actually become attracted to them!  Imprudent indeed.  The cat eats the rat, and so the whole cycle starts over again.  Quite fascinating, and all a bit sinister and sci-fi; you are probably thinking that it is lucky this is just a problem for rats!

Well I’m afraid that is not actually the case.  It is estimated that around  a third of people have toxoplasmosis, and this figure rises to as high as 90% for some countries (most French people have it, for example).  If you have a cat, the chances are that you have toxoplasmosis.  Luckily it is pretty much unheard of for people to die of it, let alone even become ill, unless they have severely weakened immune systems (Tommy had HIV).  However, perhaps even more worryingly, it has been shown by various studies to affect our behaviour too.   And no, it doesn’t just make us attracted to cats.

As I said, it is still quite poorly understood. According to the wikipedia article on the subject, correlations have been found between the parasite in humans and the following:

  • Decreased novelty-seeking behaviour
  • Slower reactions
  • Lower rule-consciousness and greater jealousy (in men)
  • Promiscuity and greater conscientiousness (in women)

One study showed that people with toxoplasmosis are 2.5 times more likely to have a car accident from reckless speeding than those without; it has been suggested that this is due to the effects on reaction speed.  Others have shown that infected women are more likely to give birth to sons, that motorcycle-owners are more likely to have it, and even that it may affect a person’s football skills! (I think that one was from a tabloid: “brain parasite improves football skills”).  If a third of all people have it, then this is scary stuff.  Perhaps especially the part about recklessness and lack of rule-consciousness…might toxoplasmosis have contributed to humankind’s warmongering inclinations?

Anyway, that’s enough conspiracy theory, sky-burial and mind-controlling brain parasites for now.  Next week: more maths!

*Speaking of electrocuting body-parts by the way, apparently an electric current to the brain makes you better at maths. Has anyone tried this?

3 Responses to How conkers created Israel, cats cause wars, and painkillers are bad for religion

  1. Amy says:

    Some good mind-bending for a slow afternoon.
    How can we find out if we have toxoplasmosis?

    • Adam Bohn says:

      I don’t know! There must be a test, although I’m not sure if it would be the sort of thing one could do at home. Perhaps a more important question is: do we want to know if we have toxoplasmosis? Personally if I found out I had it I would be pretty freaked out. Whereas knowing I might have it doesn’t seem to bother me too much. Maybe bring it up with your doctor? I’m sure they’ve had more unusual requests.

  2. In chaos theory , the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz , is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.

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