Encyclopaedia corner: blood and dancing plagues

28 July 2020

Interview with 

Adam Murphy, The Naked Scientists

BLOOD-CELLS

Computer generated image of Red blood cells travelling in a blood vessel

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Adam Murphy mopped up from the Inside the Body round of the quiz - by letting Phil Sansom in on some bizarre science stories...

Phil - Adam, can you give us the scores just for that round, please?

Adam - So just for that round, we have: Bhavesh got five; Chris got seven; but Megan had an incredible clean sweep and managed to pull the full ten questions out of the bag.

Phil - Wow. What a good round!

Adam - And not using the joker on a clean sweep!

Phil - Well no regrets in this quiz! You never know what you're gonna get.

Adam - True, true!

Phil - What facts from that caught your fancy over in encyclopaedia corner?

Adam - So I've found some fun things about blood given that we were talking about blood types and blood cells. Do you know you've got gold in your veins?

Phil - I do?

Adam - Yeah, you've got a certain amount of gold running through your blood!

Phil - How rich am I?

Adam - You are - get this, hold onto your hats - 0.2 milligrams of gold richer than you were before.

Phil - Oh boy!

Adam - You're going to be cashing it in. That's your retirement check right there.

Phil - Beverley Hills, here I come. What's it doing in there?

Adam - It's part of the trace amounts of minerals and things like that that we all have in our bloodstream. We have all kinds of minerals and chemicals.

Phil - Now does that mean that, like iron, it's an essential mineral for you to get a certain amount of, and that your body needs it - that you know of?

Adam - That is a good question. I'm not sure!

Phil - Is it something that comes from our foods, that you know of?

Adam - Most things do so I would imagine so. But if we're talking about rich blood though, there's an animal called the horseshoe crab, and its blood looks like fabric softener - like blue fabric softener. But it's got a chemical in it that's really sensitive to bacteria and clumps onto bacteria, so we can use it really, really well to test the purity of chemicals. And if the horseshoe crab blood says "no, there's bacteria in there," it's one of the best ways we know that something isn't pure.

Phil - How has that happened? That seems like an incredible way to defend yourself against bacteria.

Adam - So they have a particular chemical called LAL that sits in their bloodstreams, that is designed to do exactly this for them. And it turns out that it works for us.

Phil - And moving on from blood, because we're talking about a lot of other stuff inside our bodies - what else have you got for me, Adam?

Adam - So I'm going to talk to you about a really weird plague that happened. And this was in 1518, and it was in Strasbourg in what's now France. What happened was this one woman suddenly started dancing. And she couldn't stop dancing - like far beyond where you should pass out from exhaustion, or where you'd just think, "I'm tired and this isn't fun anymore".

Phil - You know, I was thinking of the coronavirus when you started with plague, but not so much anymore.

Adam - Yeah the dancing plague of 1518! And what happened was it wasn't just her, people started to join in; and there were between 50 and 400 people in this town in France stuck dancing. And we don't know for sure because there's no evidence from directly then, just written afterwards, but there's a good chance that some of these people died because they couldn't stop dancing.

Phil - I mean... did they all get very knocked up on hard drugs?

Adam - Potentially! You're not actually a million miles away. So there's a fungus thing that grows on corn and wheat called ergot, and ergot can break down and give off basically LSD. And there's a thought that they were eating this contaminated wheat, and maybe some of them just ended up on the worst acid trip and then they ended up dancing until they died. That's one theory. The other one is that just mass hysteria happens. Sometimes people get caught up in horrible versions of mob mentality.

Phil - What's happened to ergot now? Is it still around?

Adam - It's still around. And whenever something serious and mass hysteria happens, people tend to blame it on ergot.

Phil - Powerful stuff that, isn't it? Well thank you Adam. And still all to play for!

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