About Redheads

Sandy was not only his name but his nature too. He was a Saunders, a name that came down from Scotland via Ireland, as it had for one of my grandparents.  He was also a blazing redhead, his hair as hot as the Red Sand Beach on Maui.  When Sandy wasn’t being called by his nickname he was a “ginger nut”.  Remembering our friendship in school, I wonder if we ever offended him, and hope that he knew that naming him after a favorite cookie (called ginger snaps in America) was a token of chumminess. I envied his handsome thatch, which stood out in a class of browneys.

According to ScotlandsDNA, a company that mines genetics for Scottish ancestry, redheads are more common in Scotland and Ireland than anywhere else, although greater numbers call America home.  The northern climate is kinder to people with light skins because they are less exposed to the damaging ultraviolet rays of sunlight. But the fewer rays that penetrate the “dreich” weather make vitamin D more efficiently in them than in darker-skinned folk who have a higher risk of vitamin deficiency and rickets, making them less fertile too. That seems a likely explanation for why redheads originated in north-western Europe, and perhaps for their occurrence among Neanderthal people.

I won’t venture to write much about other skins except that the bottom of a red Irishman looks the same color as a blonde Swede’s (that’s what I am told). But the similarity is deceptive because after they are both exposed to strong sunlight the Celtic posterior is much more likely to burn, matching his hair. The difference is in the genetics. For eons while they stayed at home, photosensitivity barely mattered for Celts, but after moving to sunnier climes or when skinny-dipping in Ireland’s new nudist beaches they’ve had to lather on SPF.

Skin is shielded from damage to its DNA by two types of melanin pigment: either brown-black or red-yellow, which is the more abundant type in redheads.  The dark stuff has a SPF of around 13 in African Americans, four times more effective as a sunscreen than in the average White. But a dark skin does not afford anyone absolute protection, and the sun’s rays are not the sole cause of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae star, died with the disease, and so did my Indian friend in Edinburgh.

Skin pigmentation is controlled by the hormone melanocortin, or MSH for short. The hormone works by engaging a protein called MC1R on the surface of pigment cells which in turn sends a signal to fire up the internal machinery, rather like turning a key to start your car engine. These cells are called “incontinent” because they extrude pigment they manufacture for pick-up by neighboring cells, including those that grow hair.

The MC1R gene has over 10,000 DNA units (nucleotides).  If this genetic code is changed by only one unit there is usually no effect, but changing one of three specific units dramatically reduces the amount of dark melanin made, causing hair to be colored from red to gold.

Two reds, one brown and one blonde born to parents with red and brown hair
Two reds, one brown and one blonde born to parents with red and brown hair

These DNA variants are called SNPs (pronounced “snips”) which, genetically speaking, are mutations. I prefer to avoid the word “mutant” in sociological contexts because it can sound pejorative. Besides, SNPs are abundant in environments in which they are well-fitted, so we should regard those for hair color as “good genes”.  Red is the rarest natural color because the genes are recessive, meaning you need to inherit one from both parents to be a redhead.  Forty percent of Scots carry at least one of the SNPs, but only 13% have red hair. When cells have two copies of the gene the “key” doesn’t fully turn in the MC1R lock.  In most of us brown pigments hide the red; it is like green leaves whose reds and yellows are out of sight until the chlorophyll disappears in fall to give a wonderful display.

So much for biology, what about sociology?  Redheads have often gotten a raw deal, but there is absolutely no shortage of brains and beauty or star-power among them – Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Lucille Ball, and Nicole Kidman to mention a few off the top of my head.  Artists love their hair, splashing canvases with red pigments to signal a subject’s beauty, passion, and heat.  Dazzling red hair is the first thing you notice in the painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the mythical Lilith. It is a study of timeless

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood @ http://www.metmuseum.org

concupiscence, modeled by his mistress, Fanny Cornforth, and the artist was so enamored that he composed a sonnet to celebrate Lilith:

…And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old …

The opposite side of the coin for red hair reads like an ABC of prejudice – abuse, bullying, and condemnation.  Gingerism still stalks England’s streets, more often as a sour joke but sometimes violently. Some say that hard attitudes and feelings are the smoldering ends of ancient feuds.

Late Sixteenth Century England was becoming more cosmopolitan, and Londoners were growing more suspicious of foreigners.  Shakespeare shrewdly cast Othello as a noble and distinguished man of color who became bewildered by the malice of enemies he didn’t deserve in his adoptive country: …Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme…  The Bard never singled out redheads for persecution or mockery. Had he done so his own head might have been laid on the block because his queen was one of them and had made red hair fashionable in her life time.

Human color prejudice contrasts with colorblindness in animals. In our teens, Sandy and I would watch badgers when they emerged in the twilight from underground dens in the woods.  Occasionally, there was an adorable cub with a red coat (called erythristic) born in a litter of black and white cubs. The badger family was oblivious to the difference because its main sense organ lies at the end of a long snout. But I guess that a badger fed on garlic or sprayed with Chanel might, ahem, be badgered.

Emily is a seventeen-year-old family member who lives in Sewickley, PA. She told me that it is easier to be red in America than in England, and easier still as a girl.  She gets plenty of compliments about her flowing red tresses, and any other remarks she wisely shrugs off.  Red makes her feel special, and the color “pops”.  On the other hand, her Dad had to put up with school bullies because of his red hair, although old ladies fawned over the cherubic boy.

I sometimes wonder how Sandy feels about his hair now. If he was bullied at school, did he have the satisfaction later on of seeing redheads born into the families of those who formerly brow-beat him, because some of them were doubtless carriers of the red gene? Did a girl fall in love with his “ginger nut”, or did he marry a strawberry blonde and make more gingers together? I imagine he feels differently about his nut after passing a sixtieth birthday because it grows paler by the year. Perhaps he would even be happy if we called it an angel cake.

Next post: Serendipity or Chance

Marmite – Love it or Loathe it

Marmite. I love it! But it divides people more than anything else. Yes, even more than congressional politics! You either love it or loathe it; no one stands between the poles of passion.

In case you haven’t tried it, or have only seen a little brown jar with a bright yellow cap on a grocery shelf, I had better explain. It’s something that Brits love to spread on buttered toast (Aussies have Vegemite instead, which tastes slightly less “raw”).  It is very savory and very salty and MUST be spread very thinly. I remember serving it to a naïve guest who coated it as thickly as he would peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread.  I raised my hands in horror, standing back as if to distance myself from an imminent blast from a foghorn. The expression of pain on his face afterwards was awful to behold. We never saw him again.

Marmite looks like thick engine oil that hasn’t been changed for over 20,000 miles. Often confused with Bovril (boiled-down cow), it is actually wholesome vegetarian stuff.  A century ago, a Mr. Gilmour of Burton-on-Trent in the English Midlands had a brainwave. He had noticed the Bass Brewery in his town was carting away waste yeast cells (“lees”) for farmers to spread on their fields as fertilizer. He wondered if he could make something more profitable from the sludge. He did. By salting and cooking the cells by a secret process he created a brown goo, which his family declared delicious. Soon afterwards, a factory was raised in the town for manufacturing Marmite, whose name derives from the French name for an earthenware pot (depicted ever after on the label). It quickly became popular throughout the Empire.

During World War One, it was added to the rations of British troops serving on the Western Front. In World War Two, it was given with kindly intentions to German prisoners-of-war, but they probably believed their captors were subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment.

To be a Marmite-lover you have to be exposed when you are very young. Growing up in Scotland, my sons were frequently served it on fingers of toast, which we called Marmite soldiers.  My mother had a craving for the stuff when she was pregnant with me. Most Marmite soldiers are made, but I was born one.  Others should only eat it disguised in stews and gravies.

I believe in a good diet, but I am not much of an enthusiast for so-called health foods which come and go in fashion as the latest research first extols then repudiates them.  But Marmite has striking virtues because yeast is a rich source of B vitamins, and manufacturers throw in extra vitamin B12 for good measure.  Regrettably, the Danish Government banned this ambrosia from Albion in 2011 because it is vitamin fortified. Perhaps the Danes don’t realize that Marmite should be consumed only in tiny servings, but they could have a point insisting on a label to warn people who are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (it’s the tyramine).

Marmite soldiers – Yum!

Believe it or not, Marmite never goes off, even when it’s kept where it should be – on the pantry shelf. In the refrigerator it sets like a rock. This gave me an idea for a novel medical application. If nothing grows in it because it is very concentrated like honey, I wondered if it would block infections when spread over an open wound.  When I told my American wife I would try the experiment next time I injured myself in the garden, she said if I did so she would immediately serve me notice. Now my only ally is the dog, who is a marmaholic.

A most inspiring story on this subject starts with an intrepid young woman, Lucy Wills (1888-1964). She grew up in a middle class English family during the early decades of the last century, becoming one of the first women to graduate in medicine. In 1928, she left London to work among poor textile workers in Mumbai (then Bombay).  She soon noticed their high mortality, many dying with macrocytic anemia of pregnancy, especially during seasonal shortages of fruit and vegetables.

Since infection as a possible cause of this anemia was ruled out by the failure of arsenic treatment, she wondered if the women had a nutritional deficiency. That would have explained why higher caste women were generally free of the disease.  Since vitamin B12 didn’t help she also ruled out pernicious anemia, turning instead to test if a yeast supplement could reverse the problem in rats fed the same restricted diet. They survived, and the active agent became known as the “Wills factor”. She saved many lives by feeding women Marmite, then the cheapest source of the vitamin, until it was identified as folic acid and synthesized as a nutritional supplement.

Lucy Wills

Since the virtues of Marmite are known globally, I will close this post with a story about Marmageddon in New Zealand.  While visiting the country a few months ago, kiwis begged me, “Got Marmite?” The earthquake that had hit Christchurch the year before had caused catastrophic damage to the cathedral and council buildings, but there was as much anguish about the destruction of the Marmite factory. Grocery store shelves were bare and rare jars of Marmite were being auctioned for much more than ten-fold their normal price. But investors, even those who loathed the stuff, could rub their hands with glee at the prospects for Marmite Futures.


I have no investments in Marmite, apart from jars on the pantry shelf

No person or animal has been harmed by consuming it in this home

Next Post: About Redheads

Cost of Knowledge

I no longer sleep-walk when writing articles for scientific or medical journals, because I was woken to the drumbeats of an academic spring. As young scientists we were taught we must either “publish or perish” but I now hear the refrain “perish the publishers.”

Rebels have emerged from an unlikely corner of universities – departments of mathematics. This is not the throng you would expect to hear calling for revolution from city plazas and squares (or at least from internet platforms), but they have recently become uncommonly grumpy. They complain about monopolies held by companies that publish their work. Increasingly, they are marching behind the banner Open Access.  I am surprised that scientists, physicians, and especially sociologists haven’t joined them yet, because they too have commercial gatekeepers for publishing their works.

Until the ‘90s, few questioned the system for publishing scholarly work. When a project was completed, sometimes after months or years of labor, it was prepared in the time-honored way as a journal paper. Years ago, I remember some old colleagues admitting they never bothered with the finer points of grammar or spelling; they were satisfied as long as their data were correct, trusting the journal would take care of the rest. No longer. In those days, editors and publishers copy-edited, corresponded with authors and reviewers via snail mail, and sometimes even hired graphic artists to prepare figures. It was a lot of work.

While the cherished peer-review system for vetting papers has not been tampered with, it has changed in every other way. Much of the labor has been transferred from editorial offices and publishers to authors. We must submit manuscripts that are polished, with publication-ready figures, and with everything conforming to a strictly prescribed format for submission via the portal of the journal’s website. Communication is of course via email. I recall that my early papers took nearly year to emerge from the pipeline, but today, after the editor’s thumbs go up, a paper goes online within a few weeks, and print copies appear somewhat later. Authors are delighted by the streamlining.

Path for publishing scientific research

But the old partnership between academia and commercial publishers has broken down like a strained marriage in which one partner is the earner and the other pockets the income. Researchers who generate the papers and serve as reviewers and sometimes as editors generally give their services without any expectation of pecuniary benefit. Of course it is not strictly true that a free lunch is served at the academic table because someone pays their salaries (the rest of us or their students), unless like me they no longer work for a university but can’t give up the habit of writing. But as far as publishers are concerned writers’ services are free.

Mathematicians were first to wake up to a contrary world in which the Internet had enabled publishers to reduce their workload and costs while journal subscriptions and profits soared. Their anger focused on Elsevier, not because it deserved to be singled out as the greediest company, but perhaps because of its size. Elsevier controls 25% of science, technology, and medicine journals, and the market capitalization of its parent is over $11B.

Before our colleagues started grumbling I gave no thought to signing over to publishers the copyright for my articles, nor did I pay enough attention to the problems of people who are interested in original research papers but don’t have access to a large university library. But I think tax-payers interested in research on black holes funded by the National Science Foundation should be able to consult astronomy journals, and it is understandable why donors to medical research charities should want to read oncology journals. If I lost an original copy of one of my own papers and didn’t have access to a library or couldn’t afford a hefty journal subscription it would likely cost me $25-30 to obtain a replacement. And if I want to reuse my own material for a review article I have to apply for permission from the publisher. Don’t you agree that mathematicians have a point?

The current business models strain libraries at a time when budgets are tight. Critics also repudiate the policy of bundling arcane journals that have limited circulation together with expensive journals that libraries must have rather than setting a fair price for each. And until the proposed legislation was withdrawn, they were appalled at publishers lobbying Congress for the Research Works Act that would have reversed the N.I.H. policy of making sponsored medical research available to the public within a year of publication.

Many mathematicians are now boycotting Elsevier publications. Worldwide, over 13,000 have signed the Cost of Knowledge campaign. They have a conspicuous champion, (Sir) Nick Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician who won the Fields Medal (Nobel Prize for math). What is more, the distinguished editorial board of the Elsevier journal Topology (basically geometry) resigned in protest, setting up the Journal of Topology as a rival open access journal published by Oxford. Topology toppled soon afterwards.

I checked the new journal online – very briefly because pages of equations were even more forbidding than reading Mandarin or Japanese. Papers can be consulted gratis for up to six months from the publication date after which they go behind a subscription wall. Someone has to pay eventually, but who and when?

Publishing online is cheaper than the costs of printing and distribution, but not zero. Each paper may cost $2,000 to 3,000. Most researchers are too busy to be yoked with the full responsibility of running a nonprofit publishing enterprise, and business partners must make a profit. The U.K. Government has made a rather gallant proposal to pay for publications by its scientists and scholars. I worry that the funds will be taken from the science budget, and unless similar moves are made this side of the Atlantic and elsewhere the U.K. could be contributing more than its fair share.

Most people agree that knowledge ought to be liberated for free people, but it is too early to predict where the publishing revolution will lead. Its fluidity reminds me of the uncertain future course of universities, which I discussed recently. I dream of an ideal solution but suppose that when the battle for Open Access is over we will see in hindsight it might have been predicted by following the money.

This musing was written after my last paper was accepted by an Elsevier journal. As it was a contribution to conference proceedings I had no choice, other than to decline. It is difficult even for a seasoned writer to join a boycott, let alone a young faculty member who dares not offend. But I have another paper appearing soon in an open access journal, so I can finish this post in good conscience.

Next post: Marmite – love it or loathe it