Some babies are smaller than others – this is a fact of life; some might call it a sad fact, others a hilarious fact – that’s because different people have different senses of humour.  Like how babies have different sizes.  FACT.

Some babies are small because they have what is known as “Fetal growth restriction” (FGR).  This is when the growth of the fetus is restricted.  ‘Fetus’ is one way of spelling the word, but most scientists agree that it should be spelled ‘foeoeoeoetus’.

Being growth restricted is like trying to grow in a very small room, like in a wendy house or a matchbox.  Sometimes babies actually do grow in matchboxes – always make sure you open up the box a little bit before you take the matches to the counter to buy; otherwise, you might end up with more than you bargained for.  Babies also grow in bunches of bananas.  Sometimes when the bananas are being loaded into a boat for transportation from the Caribbean or the Moon or wherever, a baby gets out of the bunch and bites the cargo handler.  The cargo handler should wear protective clothing, but if he is silly and does not (or forgets) then he should get to a hospital STRAIGHT AWAY because baby bites are highly venomous.

It is important to note that FGR is not the same as FDR, who was a President of America.  It is also not the same as FUR, which is just the word ‘fur’ written in capitals.  Some people prefer to call FGR ‘intrauterine growth restriction’ (IUGR).  This is sensible, because it avoids any confusion with the 32nd President of the United States or somebody shouting about fur.

Some people confuse ‘FGR’ with Roald Dahl’s ‘BFG’.  This is rather odd, but you can be pretty sure the Big Friendly Giant did not have fetal growth restriction – at least, not by human standards.  Or by lobster standards.

How to spot if you have FGR: (1) Are you a fetus?  If no, you do not have FGR; if yes, go to 2.  (2) Do you have FGR?  If no, you do not have FGR; if yes, you have FGR.  This is a simple test that can help put your mind at rest.  I hope you found it useful.

Seriously though, FGR or IUGR can be a very serious condition during pregnancy – really it just means that the fetus is growing less than you would expect in the mother’s womb.  There are lots of possible causes, including poor nutrition, low oxygen intake and listening to Lionel Richie (because all of the mother’s energy goes into enjoying Lionel and not on the baby; only selfish mothers listen to Lionel Richie during pregnancy.  Please note that dancing on the ceiling constitutes a high-risk activity for pregnant mothers and is not recommended by your GP… unless you have a bad GP… or your GP actually is Lionel Richie.  NEVER VISIT A GP CALLED LIONEL RICHIE – just in case.)

In sheep, FGR can be caused by heat stress in early to mid pregnancy.  This is an incontrovertible fact because I just saw it on Wikipedia and I am not going to check the actual source as that is Too Much Effort.

In order to raise awareness of FGR, the NHS set up a football team: Forest Green Rovers.  This happened in 1890 – 58 years before the NHS set itself up, which shows immense foresight and good planning skills.  At the start of every match, the Forest Green Rovers team line up in the shape of a womb and graphically demonstrate the effects of fetal growth restriction.  Then they have a whip-round and donate some of the money to charities that help babies with FGR, and spend the rest of it on sweets for half time.  The government says this is a GOOD THING and that more football teams should be set up to combat illnesses in fetuses.  Next season, an extra team will be added to the Premier League for just that purpose – Necrotising Enterocolitis FC.  They will replace Newcastle United, because their names are very similar and the FA does not want people to get confused.

In conclusion, FGR is a BAD THING.  Many pages can be written about it, but it is better to be short and sweet than never to have loved at all.  I would recommend reading the BFG to children, with or without FGR (but without FDR – he’d just talk right over you).  It is a good book.  8 out of 10.  THE END.

Conflicts of interest: I own the copyright to the BFG.  Also FDR is actually my dad.  And I am Lionel Richie.

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“You know what I think?” said Pierre, the Frenchman (which means he is both French and a man – look at me knowing things, aren’t I smart?!).  “I think that snow happens when it is cold.”

“That it does, I can confirm,” replied Tybalt, a scientist who is very clever and has a degree in things.  “When the temperature of the air drops to a level called ‘below freezing’ it helps the molecules of water in the rain to go all hard and white and turn into snow.  Did you know that, son and laboratory assistant of mine?”

“I had an inkling,” said Pierre.  “That is also the name given to a lickle squid when a mummy squid and a daddy squid love each other very much.  Squids live in the sea, which is wetter than a wet dog.  They swim all the time.”

“Yes, I know,” replied Tybalt.  “I have seen wet dogs swimming with my own eyes.”

“I did not mean that,” said Pierre.  “And I think you know it.”

“Yes, I did know it,” replied Tybalt.  “Har har.  That is called a joke – it is an attempt at ‘humour’.  Humour is something which separates man from the ferns and long bulrushes.  It is also the juice that you find in an eye.  Eyes are for seeing things, like eggs and hams and policemen.”

“And policemen are figures of authority,” said Pierre.  “Like the Queen, who is a monarch – which is different to a monocle, which is different to a barnacle, which is different to a barn – very different.”

“Did you know that barns are for storing crops, which are a type of plant?” replied Tybalt.  “Crops are made of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen, which are all bits you can find in the Periodic Table, which is not a real table like a dining room table or a bedside table or even a coffee table.”

“Speaking of coffee,” said Pierre, “That is a watery drinkable thing that contains lots of caffeine, which has the chemical formula C8H10N4O2.  It is what makes babies stay up all night, which is the dark time of the day.”

“I know,” replied Tybalt.  “Night is very dark indeed because there is no light, because light is made by the Sun which is notably absent after sunset.”

“I have seen a sunset,” said Pierre.  “It is the time of the day when the Sun decides to go to bed for the evening.  The Sun’s bed is in space where there are lots of stars and no air and nobody can hear you scream.”

“That’s because space is a vacuum,” replied Tybalt.  “That means that there is not a molecule in it, not a molecule of iron or of lead or of bismuth or of antimony or of rutherfordium, which are all more bits in the Periodic Table, which is not a real table like an operating table or a King Arthur’s Round Table or a times table.”

“Tables are friends with chairs,” said Pierre.  “They are often made of wood, which is a woody material made with xylems and phloems and leafy things that do photosynthesising which means turning air and water into food and oxygen which is O2 chemical formula.”

“Polar bears live in Greenland,” replied Tybalt.

“And penicillin is not friends with germs,” said Pierre.

“And a radius is part of a circle or a skellington,” replied Tybalt.

“And gravity is very important,” said Pierre.

“And rust is called ‘oxidation’ and ‘bad for cars’,” replied Tybalt.

“And saying lots of facts about science shows that I KNOW LOTS ABOUT SCIENCE AND AREN’T I GREAT,” said Pierre.

TSP036: The nuclear family

September 21, 2011

“You have a gift Jack.”

His mother’s call caused the hugest smile to break out on Jack’s six-year-old face as he bounded out of his bedroom, down the stairs and into the lounge.  Entering the room excitedly, he spotted his grandparents sitting on the sofa, his cousin Barney (aged 8) astride the rocking horse, and his pet pooch Gandalf using an abacus.  “Erro Dakk, rubbry doo shee oo,” greeted his grandfather, without his false teeth yet again.  “HELLO JACK, MY HOW YOU’VE GROWN SINCE THIS MORNING!” belted his grandmother, minus her hearing aid once more.  “Hi Jack, you’re a dork with a poo for a head,” commented his cousin, lacking his manners as per usual.  Gandalf said nothing – just looked up from his beads for a split second (if that), sighed prodigiously and returned to his mathematical labours.  Together with his decidedly normal mother Wendy, this was Jack’s family unit.  The six of them lived together in a bungalow in Santa Fe – had done for years, in fact.  Although they had been thrust together by fateful circumstances far beyond their control (a freak starfish attack had killed off all other relatives that would normally connect them) it was undeniable that they were deeply happy together.

Jack’s mum came into the room carrying a tray with three teas, two fruit squashes and a Bonio; Grandad looked disappointed when the doggy treat was afforded to the most canine inhabitant of the room: Barney.  “Well, now we’re all here together – we can celebrate your birthday properly Jack!”  Huge balloons festooned with glittery number sevens (yes, Jack was older than his face – again, a direct consequence of the starfish attack) adorned the corners of the coving; a banner proclaiming the message “Happy birthday padawan!” covered most of the wall above the mantelpiece, the accompanying portrait of Qui-Gon Jinn nicely complementing the aspidistra.  And there in the corner – a massive parcel, wrapped in shiny green paper and decorated with an enormous red ribbon bow!  Jack eyed it greedily.  “Oh, sorry Jack, that’s not for you – it’s your grandfather’s new colostomy bag,” apologised his mother, who simultaneously nudged her father to direct his attention towards it.  His wizened eyes opened in sheer delight.  “Corrosh a me me!” he shouted exuberantly.  Everyone else smiled politely.

Jack scanned the room for what must be the other gift – the one of which his mother had spoken when summoning him from the confines of his bunk bed where he’d been examining a petri-dish in which the procured contents of his room-mate’s nose lay happily colonising.  He couldn’t spot it.  He gazed upwards at his mum.  “Oh, sorry sweetie,” she said, “You’re looking for your gift, aren’t you?”  Jack nodded innocently.  Barney made an audible ‘duh’ sound; Gandalf bit him to shut him up (he was out by a ten – something that always made him irritable; and he didn’t like Barney at the best of times – their respective fleas were at war with each other).  Jack’s mum gripped her own mother’s hand.  “MOTHER,” she intoned pointedly, “WOULD YOU LIKE TO GIVE YOUR GRANDSON HIS GIFT?”

“I DON’T NEED ANY CIF,” came the reply.  “ESME ALWAYS CLEANS THE KITCHEN WONDERFULLY.  SHE’S BLACK YOU KNOW.”  Wendy rolled her eyes and mumbled that she did know; Jack’s granddad looked surprised.  “Eshees brakk?  I thraw shee wush fra Eash Grishted?”  “NO, SHE’S FROM LEATHERHEAD.  EVERYONE FROM LEATHERHEAD IS BLACK, YOU KNOW.”  Grandad looked impressed.  “Lur shummer roo erree der…”

“I hate Gandalf,” shouted Barney.  “He bit me again.”  “I’m not surprised,” remarked Wendy, “You’re the wrong blood group.”  Barney rocked the horse even harder, scowling and muttering under his breath about how the Pope would let him have a brandy snap, although he fell quiet suddenly at the sight of Gandalf looking up from his calculator and making a visual fist-into-paw threat.  Meanwhile, Jack once more looked appealingly to his mother, tugging on her sleeve.

“Oh, I’m sorry Jack.  MOTHER” – Jack’s grandmother woke with a snort – “TIME TO GIVE JACK HIS PRESENT.”  “OOH, I’VE NEVER MET A PHEASANT!”  “I ah – bakkin er war.”  “NO MOTHER – THE PRESENT.”  At last, ear and brain made contact and Jack’s 90-year-old nan smiled coquettishly.  “OH, JACKY’S PRESENT – WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY?  YOU’RE LIKE THAT MR COLLINS DOWN AT MORRISON’S…”  Picking up her handbag from the floor, the old dear reached into the spaces between the balls of wool and loose mint imperials and then extended her hand towards her eagerly awaiting grandson, whose eyes were now agog with the anticipation of the surprise.  Opening her grip above his outstretched palms, she allowed a whole lot of nothing to pass from her hand into her grandchild’s.  Jack’s brow furrowed; his facial expression returned confusion.  His aged grandmother grinned gaily.

“IT’S FOR YOU, BOY.”  Jack shrugged his shoulders in a way that said “I don’t know what it is – there’s nothing there – you clearly missed whatever it was you were reaching for; try again old woman.”  The blue-rinsed wrinklie leaned in and put her lips to Jack’s ear.  “IT’S A HIGGS BOSON PARTICLE.”  Jack recoiled in pain at the lack of volume shown by his Grandma and again repeated his gesture of bemusement.  “IT’S THE UNKNOWN QUANTITY THAT MAKES UP THE MAJORITY OF OUR KNOWN UNIVERSE.  SCIENTISTS HAVE BEEN SEARCHING FOR IT FOR YEARS WITHOUT SUCCESS.  IT’S BEEN HERE IN MY HANDBAG ALL ALONG.  IT MIGHT BE WORTH 50p OR SO.”  She winked.  Her glass eye fell out.

“Well, what do you say to Grandma?”  Jack’s mum looked at him with a face full of expectation.  On cue, Jack reached up and hugged first his grandmother and then his grandfather, who slurred a response along the lines of “Ash oaky – rukk arfa ee an ee mar jush pear fer ur oonyvershy elookkaysher,” before involuntarily yelling “I am the eggman!” quite clearly and without any trouble at all.  As Jack’s gaze shifted from his grandfather to his cousin, his eyes met Barney’s and both pairs automatically narrowed.  “Tomorrow I’m gonna beat you up and then the Higgs boson will be mine at last,” menaced Barney.  Gandalf had had enough now, kicked over his counting equipment and gobbled up the irritating cousin in a bloody mess of flesh, bone and internal organ.  Finishing his feast by wiping his mouth on the rug, Gandalf belched loudly.

The whole family stared… and then laughed.  For a period lasting a good 15 minutes or so they hooted, guffawed, hollered and cackled at the oddities of life.  It was a beautiful moment and one that Jack would cherish forever… which wasn’t far off because the Higgs boson didn’t take too kindly to being removed from its natural habitat (Grandma’s purse) and decided then and there to bring about the end of the universe as we know it.  That’s science for you.  The end.

TSP029: Pygmalion

July 20, 2011

“Esteemed colleagues, I give you… Pygmalion.”

The scientific elite assembled in the atrium of the Peacocks Shopping Centre in Woking gasped together as Professor Pie removed the sheet with a flourish, revealing a hideous 8-foot high creature shackled to the floor.  As it bellowed ferociously, great globules of acidic saliva frothed off its quivering lips, burning holes through whatever it landed on (which was life-changing for Professor Priest in the front row, and wonderful news for his town’s beleaguered citizens who rejoiced at the rise of their own superhero, PoloMan).  A journalist rose tentatively amongst the cowering audience – “Excuse me Professor, but… what is it?”

Pie’s reply was to become one of the most quoted soundbites of the 1890s: “Pygmalion – half pig, half male alien.”  Several scientists scoffed and Pie’s scowling eye focussed in on them.  “You think it implausible?  You think it beyond the realm of science?”  One researcher stood up to reply.

“Professor Pie, I – and I’m sure the majority of my co-workers here – think it not just implausible but darn nigh impossible.  Whoever heard of such a mythical creature actually being found, let alone experimented upon?!”

“I can assure you gentlemen, aliens do indeed exist.  The one whose DNA has become half of the green, snout-nosed, tentacle-bodied being you see before you was spotted landing just outside Prague in the summer of ’91.  We were very lucky that-“

The scientist interrupted him.  “No, no, sir – of the alien’s existence we have no doubt nor cause for concern.  But this ‘pig’ of which you speak – do you seriously imagine that we can believe in its appearance?!  No ‘pig’ has ever been known to exist outside of the realms of fantasy!”  A general murmur of derision resounded around the room, one professor even crying: “Shame!”

Professor Pie couldn’t believe his ears – this was a member of the Royal Society, the world’s leading institute for scientific innovation and mah-jong, with no knowledge of such a common creature!  And not just this one man, but scores of them besides!  “Excuse me sir,” he began in reply, “but from where do you suppose we procure the meat that is called ‘bacon’?”

“From cows of course!” roared a French biologist, and his mocking laugh was aped by the other fellows present, in a kind of racist ‘haw-hee-haw-hee-haw’ way.

“From cows… right.  And what about gammon?”

“Cows again!  Surely everyone knows that?!” shouted a smug plump zoologist from Slough, his thick Norwegian brogue lending further humour to the situation.  Up on the balcony newspapermen scribbled furiously on their notepads, knowing that here was a huge story of significance – ‘leading scientist clueless about difference between cows (which are real and make milk) and fairytale creatures (which are not real but might still make milk)’.  That headline was sure to have their readership in stitches over their breakfasts the next day…

Pie was determined not to be put off track.  “Well, how about ham?  And sausage-meat?  And trotters?”

“MOOOO!” yelled a Russian physicist and all and sundry fell about in riotous laughter.  The professor was dumbfounded at the reaction.  Everywhere he looked there were eminent technological visionaries simply rolling around crying.  By the aspidistra two chemists lay in each other’s arms, hysterically hooting; just beyond them an astronomer was developing a hernia; and next to him, another fellow had laughed his kidneys up and out of his mouth through sheer delirium.  If Pie was going to salvage any dignity from this episode he would need to act now… and fast.

A thought flashed through his mind like lightning (except not as painful).  “Wait here,” he said to the room, with its occupants laid prone through the exertion of guffawing.  Within a minute he had returned, a straw-chewing, wax coat-wearing, mud-splattered farmer in tow.  “Gentlemen – this man here is a local farmer and agricultural expert; may I introduce Farmer Flatley.”  The countryman tap-danced his way to the front of the stage, his rubber wellingtons making a surprisingly crisp sound on the floor.  “G’evening,” said Farmer Flatley.  The conference delegates looked up, fighting back another surge of giggles.  What was this bumpkin going to say?

“Farmer Flatley here has something to show you.”  At this point Flatley put his hand deep into his right-hand pocket and pulled out a gun.  The room shrieked; several researchers ducked down or hid behind plant pots – one leapt through a glass window and exploded like a mortar shell.  Flatley looked down at his firearm.  “Oh, so sorry gents – no idea ‘ow that got thar.  What I wants to show ye is this.”  At this he delved into his left-hand pocket and produced a small pinkish creature with four hooves, a curly tail and great potential for barbecues.

“Look, he’s got a cow!” one man cooed.  Many people laughed some more.  Flatley stood adamant.  “No, I think ye’ll find it’s called a pig.”  Pie looked satisfied with his ally but the room burst out in wry chuckles once more.  “Look, he’s managed to find a man of the soil who’s as deluded as he is!  Thinking that cow is a pig…  Fancy that – a pig of all creatures!  No man has laid eye nor ear on a pig for many millennia!”

Fighting the taunting Pie spoke up louder and with urgency, “Gentlemen, listen to me.  This is not a cow – it’s a pig.  It always has been, and always will be, a pig.  Pigs are not mythical; they are not a figment of a depraved imagination.  They are farmyard animals, fellow to the cow – which is a completely separate organism that looks totally different to this.  How you can all have your wires so thoroughly crossed is beyond me when there are hundreds of thousands of these creatures roaming the fields of England and their name is a staple inclusion in children’s A-to-Z alphabet picture books.  I can assure you that one of these pigs has been vivisected alongside a male alien – whose being you somehow appear to accept rather more readily – to create the Pygmalion you see before you.  In fact, while we’re on the subject,” he raised his voice even louder and Flatley procured another small creature from his back trouser pocket, “ this is a cow!”

The whole gang of scientists fell immediately silent and prostrated themselves on the floor, repeatedly bowing.  “A god!” they cried with reverence, “It is a god!  Worship the god!”

Pie and Flatley exchanged embarrassed glances, aware that the whole gathering was at that moment bowing in reverence to them.  Flatley opened his mouth, about to correct the public misunderstanding, when Pie grabbed his arm.  “Tell you what,” he whispered, “Let’s milk this one for all it’s worth.”

TSP013: NASA XP

March 8, 2011

As the shuttle took off without a hitch everybody at the launchpad cheered and whooped for joy – scientists, engineers, Human Resources middle management – everybody.  The first spacecraft to be powered solely by Microsoft Office – the StarGates – was on its way to the International Space Station and there was much rejoicing.  Whilst on the ground champagne corks were popping, party hats were donned and much silly dancing was danced, the astronauts several miles above (and rising) were rather less joyfully screaming into their helmets, their faces clenched with pain (five of them due to the effects of the acceleration, one due to stubbing his toe on a monitor bank).  Whereas the bulk of the hard work back at base had been done there was still a whole heap of unfinished business within the shuttle (although as Rogers and Captain Fallon agreed, the tiles in play during their unfinished game of Scrabble may well have been moved out of place somewhat by the force of the take-off, so it would probably be best to declare a draw and await the rematch).

After a couple of days of travelling through space the crew had become fairly used to their controls – they were well versed in the manuals consisting solely of PowerPoint presentations (even though some of the tacky ClipArt did grind on them a bit) and the thousands of complicated theoretical calculations being generated by their automated Excel spreadsheet every second were guiding their vessel smoothly towards their intended destination.  All was going well – until the inevitable happened…

“Houston, we have a problem.”

The words every ground team dreaded hearing; as they were spoken a hush fell over the whole base, except in the coffee room where Glen was cursing a jammed cafetiere.  “StarGates this is Houston.  What is it now?”  The reply came back quickly, exactly as expected: “It says ‘Microsoft Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and needs to close.’”  There was an audible groan from the scientists.  “The big question is: should I send an error report?”

Mack Donalds, the obese team leader at the helm on Earth sighed heavily into his many chins and took a moment to take in the gravity of the situation facing them.  “I-  I was-  I was afraid th- this would happen,” the big man blubbed, a tear welling in his right eye.  His colleagues in the room froze where they were standing as the full scale of the consequences of this simple error began to dawn on them – except Glen, who was hammering a malfunctioning filing cabinet drawer with his shoe, swearing at the top of his voice when the laces got tangled in the locking mechanism.  Donalds wiped his eye with a KFC ‘freshen up’ wet wipe and composed his voice before delivering the fateful news…

“Fallon, I’m sorry.  I’m really really sorry.  Every child dreams of going into space – of finding out what lies beyond the moon, of circumnavigating the world without ever being the right way up, of discovering that there is a place with less atmosphere than a Travelodge.  The work that your brave team has done thus far to make such progress has been phenomenal.  I couldn’t have asked for more…” He paused to gulp back a sob, before continuing.  “But the truth is Fallon… Keith… old friend…” – a heavy sniff – “that the mission ends here.  We can’t help you now – nobody can.  This is an event that we all hoped wouldn’t happen, not on our mission – one we knew we could never prepare for or defend ourselves against.  I’m so so sorry Keith – I really am.”

Captain Fallon’s desperate voice came back down the crackling line, “So-  So do we send the error report or not?”  Donalds’ voice cracked with the emotional strain of the situation; his fellow space boffins began to weep as one – except Glen, who was just outside the window swatting ants with a coat hanger and yelling, ‘This is for picnickers everywhere.’  “Keith, there’s no point.  Microsoft never read error reports – they only exist to give you the illusion that action will be taken on your petty premature programme termination and that help will be on its way.  It’s all a con – a confidence trick.  You’d do just as much good by alerting an ice cream van.  Plus you could get a 99 while you wait.”

There was a brief pause as the space-bound captain’s mind raced around looking for an alternative option and trying not to think of the 50-pointer he’d lost amid the chaos of lift-off.  “Well is there anyone at all who can help us?”

Donalds – who was fully about to collapse into a hysterical tantrum – suddenly jerked to with a notion.  “There is one… person… you could try.”  Fallon listened closely to his supervisor’s words.  “Is Microsoft Word still open?”  “Yes,” replied the captain.  “Good,” said Donalds, now regaining confidence, “Now listen carefully and do exactly as I say – there may be a slim chance of salvaging the mission.”  A ripple of optimism passed through the commander’s watching compatriots, each now crossing fingers, toes and anything else they could in hope of a miracle – except Glen, who was dead.  “Okay Fallon, so take the mouse and – here’s the clever part…”  All ears were tuned in for their leader’s words of wisdom – “…Take the mouse and you see where it says ‘Help’ on the toolbar?  Click that and there should be an option to start up the Microsoft Office Assistant.”

Fallon’s voice faltered as his confused reply came down the line.  “Sir, are you serious?  You want me to entrust the future of this spaceship to the irritating paper clip?!”

Donalds spoke again, now firm and confident: “I’m deadly serious Fallon – that irritating paper clip may well be our only hope…”