Book review – The Martian

You probably went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this winter. Did you happen to notice how everyone can breathe just fine on just about any planet or asteroid? With no space suits or visible means of  life support? Come on. It’s a reasonably good story —lots of action, romance, family drama, plenty of cute wookie and robot scenes —but the lack of attention to scientific detail drives me insane.

Last year I translated a book about space written by Swiss author Philippe Barraud. It was a fun project. I learned an enormous amount — the unfathomable enormity of the universe, the practical challenges inherent to interplanetary travel, the unlikelihood of survival as a species off our own planet, and most of all the mind-boggling absurdity of our conviction that humans are the most advanced lifeform in the universe. We are stunning in our stubborn tendency to put ourselves at the center of everything.

During our months of work, Philippe mentioned The Martian, saying it was a fantastic book. I’m not a sci-fi fan, so I filed it away and then forgot about it. I didn’t have a hankering to go see the movie when it came out, even though Matt Damon.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Whistler, waiting for Brendan and his friend Cassandra to weary of skiing in the rain. Due to bad planning on my part, I had no reading material. No journal. The free Whistler paper takes about five minutes to read. Front and center in the Whistler Village bookstore: The Martian. Thank you Fate. Continue reading


IMG_0915Happy Thanksgiving, Gydle people! One of my favorite blogs, Gone Floatabout, written by friends with a serious sailing affliction and unparalleled wizardry with a camera, mentioned that some of the blogs they followed are posting the 50 things they’re most thankful for this year. Seems like a good idea. After all, it has been scientifically shown that being grateful is good for your health.

One of the most popular TED talks of all time is by a super-smiley guy named Shawn Achor. He says that if you spend just a few minutes a day thinking of just three things you’re grateful for, you’ll be much happier. Imagine how you’d feel after listing fifty!  Continue reading

Eat sh*t and … thrive!

IMG_1040Everybody’s talking about the microbiome these days. If you’re not taking probiotics, you’re probably eating sauerkraut and swilling kombucha. I know I am.

What’s the Microbiome? I’m glad you asked. See, the human body is made up of about 10 trillion human cells. And that same body is also home to 100 trillion bacteria. Your mouth, nose, armpits, bellybutton, skin and especially your gut are teeming with thousands of different species of bacteria. Collectively, they’re called the microbiome. If you took them all out, they’d weigh about 2 kilos.

And then you’d die, because they play a crucial role in keeping you alive. Continue reading

The underpinnings

inspirationI’ve been doing some mindfulness meditation lately. It’s about the simplest “activity” you can imagine – you just sit on the floor, on a cushion, close your eyes, and breathe.  And I’m not just doing this because I’ve moved to Vancouver and gone all yoga. Okay, it’s partly that. But it’s also been scientifically proven to build you a better brain.

Studies have shown that you can improve blood pressure and anxiety levels, increase cognitive capacity, and stave off aging just by sitting and doing nothing at all. A Harvard prof has done research that shows that it only takes 8 weeks of a meditation practice to rewire your brain. The brains of the meditators actually got thicker in areas involved in attention and sensory processing. It’s like doing pushups for your brain! (And here I thought it was a bad thing to have a thick head…) Continue reading

Reality check

Think for a minute: When was your last existential crisis?

Who, me?  you say. Existential crisis? I don’t have existential crises. I’m a rational thinker. I’m practically an engineer.

I think everybody has existential crises, whether we recognize them as such or not. They’re in the high points, in the low points, in the situations that push you over an edge into a new thing. They’re moments in which you get a glimpse of the uncertainty at the very root of everything that is, and wonder about what your place in it could possibly be. You, this little wad of flesh and bone and bacteria. Continue reading

Huh? Say What?

There are so many things that don’t translate between languages. I could list reams of French one-word concepts that cannot be captured quite right in English. Every time I see one of them in a text I’m supposed to be translating I cringe. Vulgarisation. Valorisation. Territoire.

And then there are the turns of phrase. I understood that péter un plomb or péter un cable meant to be really pissed off, but for the longest time I had a really hard time visualizing someone farting out a bit of lead shot or wiring. In French yoga, downward facing dog is chien tête en bas. But I heard chat a tomba. The cat fell. Indeed.

So my interest was piqued when I received EPFL’s weekly Science question for translation last Sunday. There is, apparently, a word – or rather, one syllable – that has the same meaning in every language in the world. Continue reading

The One-body Problem

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour2Hello, December. What happened to November? All of October I was busy with the Yoga Project, happily scribing away my impressions, downward-dogging my way into a new yoga comfort zone. And then it seemed that November just floated right on by.  And then yesterday, December 1, I opened the New York Times (oh joy) and I realized that I had been subconsciously working on a blog post for the entire month. It’s long, but I hope you still read it.

I’ll call it the One Body Problem. Which is this: We only get one body. This is it. You get the body you were born with, like it or not. And then you die. Continue reading

You want fries with that?

Gydle has been silent the entire month of November. No excuses, I just didn’t have anything to say. Then I woke up this morning and my brain was teeming with ideas. Was it something I ate?

First, I have a great gift idea.

I got an e-mail the other day from “American Gut.” Imagine my excitement! The Human Food Project is live on IndieGoGo. For only $99 and a stool sample, you can get a list of the microbes colonizing your gut. Upscaling is a bargain – it’s $180 for two samples, $260 for three and a mere $320 for a family of four! Continue reading

The function of funks

I was a little worried that after my last post, someone would stage an intervention. Take away all my running shoes, maybe, or set up a booby trap in front of the door so I would trip and sprain an ankle. Remember, way back this spring I asked you to remind me to be moderate when I started going off the deep end. Thanks for nothing, people!

As it happens, I intervened all by myself and took two consecutive days off. Then I went into a funk. And that has really slowed me down. Continue reading

Holy hairballs, Batman! It’s not junk after all!

Greetings from hibernation nation. I did say I’d come out if something really big happened. Guess what? One of my current scientific obsessions was Big News today! No, don’t go away – it’s not the microbiome. It’s my other obsession: junk DNA. I’ve written about it before, here and here and here.

In a stunning “no doh?” development, a vast international array of researchers has discovered that the 99% of the human genome that was considered “useless junk” isn’t junk after all. Continue reading