Book review: “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari

homo_deusThe first book of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind made The New York Times Best Seller list and won the National Library of China’s Wenjin Book Award for the best book published in 2014. It is a  panoramic view of the human history from a surprising angle. While the history taught in schools mostly tells it as a chain of events, Harari tried to look at the species development as a product of several revolutions – cognitive, agrarian, industrial.

The second book reiterates a few of the first book’s points and I think these are the best parts.  For example, did you know that in Babilon swathes of the country were owned by gods via temples?  Concerning history, Harari is on familiar ground. However, his attempts to continue the imaginary line of Homo sapiens development into the future is much less successful. He overpromises and underdelivers in the second book. Continue reading


What to watch: Between, S1 E2


Red blood cells, erythrocytes, under a microscope. Image by Drs. Noguchi, Rogers and  Schechter via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of the Canadian/Netflix on demand series, Between season 2 became available in June. A virus kills all inhabitants aged over 21 in  a US town called Pretty Lake. The town is quarantined and the children and young adults are left to fend for themselves,  leading to a YA “Lord of the Flies”. Of course, there’s a government conspiracy, which creates an unlikely situation of supply airdrops absence.  But despite a few plot holes, The characters are compelling, the plot moves along nicely.

Unfortunately, unlike in my favorite human cloning series, Orphan Black, the science of Between is completely bogus. A scientist who sneaked into Pretty Lake with  an experimental vaccine looks at something round and red swirling on the screen (red blood cells?) and the vaccine represented by a yellow  shimmering circle around them. He says that the virus sits inside cells and eats them  from inside out, which is represented by churning and undulating cells as if an alien is trying to get out. The cells resist the virus until the 21st birthday date when boom! cells collapse and the person dies.

21 is the age of adulthood in the US when you suddenly allowed to drink, while you could marry, drive a car and join the Army before that magical date. From the biology point of view, 21th birthday is a completely arbitrary date. A  virus wouldn’t know when precisely you were born – it’s virus, not a notary. In the absence of a document, it’s difficult to even estimate a persosn’s age – people who don’t have their birth certificate pass as underage for years and a convincing fake ID would age you.

Yes, there are viruses, which cause diseases in  (mostly) children, for example, notorious mumps, measles, and rubella viruses. This apparent age specificity is caused by  children’s underdeveloped immune systems as it’s still possible to get infected as an adult if you miss the childhood infection or not vaccinated. Assuming, that it’s possible to create a virus, which targets adults, it should hit anybody who reached an age of puberty, which can vary between 10 and 20 depending on the environmental conditions.

It’s the general condition of your body that would matter to a virus, not your birthdate. We all heard about a sprightly 90 yeas old, who run marathons and know 30 y.o. who look and have the health conditions of people of twice their age.


Nutricosmetics: snake oil now in a pill form


Nutricosmetics: ingest before breakfast, repeat twice during the day. Pay $60+ per month.  (Image by Iryna Ilkavets, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, CC-BY)

In The Stylist beauty issue, there is a feature article about nutricosmetics, defined as “beauty products you ingest rather than apply”. The rationale – skin/hair/nail are growing things, which you can supplement from outside (the usual “beauty products” – lotions and creams) or from an inside  – in a pill form. Sort of spray on the leaves fertiliser vs. fertiliser in the soil for your plants.

Sounds good if you don’t pay attention to the caveats mentioned in the article:

A)  As the skin is outside of the body, whatever product you are eating, you need to saturate the body from within to get to the skin.

B) The air conditioner argument. Your body is like an air conditioner – when it overshoots the set temperature, it compensates by cooling, sometimes overshooting in the other direction but eventually returning to the balance. So if you try to increase the concentration of say, vitamin A by eating a lot of it in one go, after a short spike the excess is removed via urine, and there is an actual drop in its concentration. And if it accumulates, you skin turns orange and it becomes toxic.

Let’s have a look at the products mentioned in the article about nutricosmetics:

Lumity – £90 ($135) per month for a cocktail of lysine, arginine, and glutamine. These are aminoacids,  building blocks of protein. I don’t have a problem with this, except that you should be getting enough aminoacids from you food. And if you want to top up just in case, you can buy aminoacids in any health shop for 1/10 of the Lumity  price. Continue reading

Men’s Skincare: The Unusual Suspects

A stinging nettle plant. Image By Júlio Reis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Men have it easy if you consider the volume and degree of bullcrap associated with products targeted to women. Maybe the marketers think that men are less inclined to believe bull or they are more critical or more scientifically minded. Or afraid to scare off men, who for centuries survived without skin products beyond hair grooming. But as the number of men’s grooming products increases to include eye creams and moisturisers the bullshitters are moving into the new territory.

Take the Autumn/Winter Style Issue of  British  ShortList magazine. One its features were about men’s grooming products, which contain unusual ingredients.  Some of the ingredients don’t raise my eyebrow – I know about the vast spectrum of biologically active compounds, which plants accumulate. I would never argue that, for example,  Camomile extract does not soothe skin irritation, or that tea tree oil inhibits blemishes.

But let’s have a look at the list, assuming that the title ingredients are not present in “homoeopathic”  e.g. “name only, no substance” quantities.

Continue reading

Dissecting skincare, Part II – the strangest of the rest

Following my previous post about  one of the winners of Stylist’s best skincare products awards.

Best body lotion

Dove purely Pampering Nourishing Lotion

..this is packed with nourishing shea butter and collagen amino acids to improve skin elasticity.



A model of a collagen molecule. Good looking but too big to get into your skin cells.  Image  By Nevit Dilmen CC-BY_SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

As I’ve written my previous post, collagen is the protein that provides skin elasticity. The previous generation of potions contained collagen with exactly the same claim as applied now to its amino acids.

So why the shift from the collagen to its amino acids? Maybe the common/scientific sense that collagen’s molecule is too big to filter down through the skin and – even if it gets inside the skin cells – they’ll break protein  down to its building blocks, amino acids, won.

But more likely,  a never ending cycle of producing, whipping up the interest and selling new (= better) products required  new entities. Amino acids from collagen sounded like a valid idea. Amino acids are small molecules and can be taken up by skin cells. Except that there no guarantee that they will be used to make specifically collagen and not randomly incorporated into whatever proteins cells synthesizing right now.

Slathering skin with amino acids from collagen is like giving an average adult some money and expecting that he’ll spend it on fruits and vegetables and not on burgers and alcohol.

Best exfoliator

Continue reading

Dissecting skincare – No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum



Fibroblasts under a microscope. They produce collagen, a protein that makes your skin plump. Image by SubtleGuest via Wikimedia Commons,  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Skincare products remain the only area where you can advertise snake oil, an eye of the newt, and toe of frog not only as legitimate ingredients but as something desirable. Anything goes if it’s either “natural” (wisdom of ages) or highly technological (science rules).

But before we start let’s define some terminology. You can skip it and come back later:

* amino acid – a building block of peptides and proteins;

* peptide – a short chain of joined amino acids, consists of  50 or fewer  individual amino acids;

* protein – a long peptide, above 50 amino acids;

* collagen – protein, which maintains skin elasticity. Young people have more of it; old people use various potions trying to get more of it.

The Stylist named  “No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum” the best serum second year in a row, describing it

Rich in plumping matrixyl, there’s a raft of advanced science in play

Science! The Express wrote about Matrixyl that it’s

…a peptide found in some high street anti-wrinkle creams. Research from the University of Reading proves this powerful ingredient does help fight wrinkles.

I found the original scientific article about Matryxyl  written by Roanne Jones et al. It shows that at the highest tested concentration, 0.008% of Matryxyl cell culture of producing collagen fibroblasts increases collagen production three times. Hooray? Yes, but with two caveats:

*we don’t know if the Matrixyl works on the intact skin, which contains lots of cell types, not just isolated fibroblasts;

*nobody but the manufacturer knows the concentration of the Matrixyl in the cream, which can be less than 0.008%  even before it has to filter through the skin.

To be fair, “No7 Protect and Perfect Cream” is famous as the product that works, so there is a good chance that Boots didn’t scrimp on the acting ingredient in a case of serum as well.

Aside: The Express article by Lesley Reynolds is confusing in the industry tradition where the scientific terms invoked as magic spells, for their magic sound rather than meaning. After calling Matrixyl  “a peptide”, the author writes (emphasis by me)

Matrixyl is part of the pentapeptide family. It is an amino acid

“Penta” in  “pentapeptide” means five amino acids linked togther. In any case, a peptide cannot be an amino acid, it’s like calling one person a Conga line. Ms. Reynold continues:

Many other pentapeptides work, including myristoyl, a protein in the same family as matryxyl.



Human skin cross-section. There is much more to it than  just fibroblasts located in the pink layer. Image by Kibald, via Wikimedia Commons

I thought that Matrixyl  was a part of a peptide, not protein family as proteins are longer than 50 amino acids and  Matrixyl consists from only five of them? But that’s a minor quibble.

Despite the similarly  sounding name,  “myristoyl” is not a protein at all. It’s a long-chain fatty acid composed 17 carbon atoms (C17).  As far as I can see from the Matrixyl  formula, the Reading researchers used Matrixyl  pentapeptide connected to a different compound, palmitoyl  (C16) to get their encouraging results on the collagen production. The naked pentapeptide works even worse.

Now, this is a confusion around a product that works. In my next post, I’ll look at other skin products, their confusing descriptions and allegedly miraculous properties.