Wilder Penfield: Why Google honours him today

Once described as the ‘greatest living Canadian’, Wilder Penfield would have been 127 years on January 26.

    Once described as the “greatest living Canadian”, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield would have been 127 years old on January 26. 

    Penfield is recognised for his advances in mapping the brain and for the groundbreaking epilepsy treatment known as the Montreal Procedure. 

    Today, Google is changing its logo in 13 countries to a doodle, or illustration, in his honour.

    Despite his success and achievements, he was not able to save his only sister, Ruth, who died from brain cancer, although complex surgery he performed added years to her life. This is his story:

    Montreal’s first neurosurgeon

    • Penfield was born on January 26, in Spokane, Washington. His father, Charles Penfield, was a physician who didn’t succeed in his career. 

    • His father left his family, and Wilder ended up living with his mother, Jean Jefferson, who is the one who told him about the Rhodes Scholarship that he ended up winning.

    • He studied neuropathology at Princeton and Merton College in Oxford and then served at a military hospital in Paris. He also studied in Spain and Germany. 
    •  Penfield believed studying medicine was “the best way to make the world a better place.”

    • In 1917 he married Helen Kermott, who shared his altruism and love of helping others. Wilder and Helen had four children. One of his daughters also founded a children’s care centre. 

    • After taking a surgical apprenticeship, he obtained a position at the Neurological Institute of New York, where he carried out his first solo operation to treat epilepsy
    • In 1928, Penfield accepted an invitation to move to Montreal, Quebec. There, Penfield taught at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, becoming Montreal’s first neurosurgeon.

    • In 1934, he became a Canadian citizen after he and Dr William Cone founded the Montreal Neurological Institute

    • In 1935, he published three case studies describing the psychological effects of frontal lobe surgery.

    • He used his experience treating his sister to explain the link between brain and behaviour. He said: “If she were alive, I am sure she would approve of such an analysis in the hope it would help others.”
    • He kept his family close throughout his career, writing the book Man and His Family, which stressed the need to nurture and encourage positive family life.

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    Major tsunami struck southern China in 1076: Scientists

    HONG KONG (AFP) – A major tsunami struck China’s southern coast in 1076 causing “drastic cultural decline”, Chinese researchers say, in a study with implications for a densely populated region with multiple coastal nuclear power plants.

    There is a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting an earthquake in the Manila Trench sent a wall of water coursing into what is now China’s Guangdong province around a thousand years ago.

    Now scientists believe they have narrowed down the date to an exact year – 1076 – and say the new data should set alarm bells ringing over whether enough is being done to defend against future tsunamis.

    “This study confirms the risk of tsunamis in the South China Sea,” the teams from the University of Science and Technology and East China Normal University wrote in January’s issue of Chinese Science Bulletin.

    “Such risk should be considered in future planning and construction of nuclear power plant, harbour and petroleum reserve structures on the coastlines of China,” they added.

    A number of nuclear power plants sit on China’s southern coast including in Fuqing, Daya Bay and a soon-to-open plant in Taishan.

    The wider area is also one of the world’s most densely populated regions and includes major coastal cities such as Hong Kong, Macau, Xiamen and Quanzhou.

    The vulnerability of nuclear power plants to seismic events has become a major cause for concern ever since a 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami crippled Japan’s Fukushima power plant, the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

    The Chinese research team first found evidence of a destructive historical wave on Dongdao Island, located in the middle of the South China Sea, in 2013.

    They discovered rocks and corals that had been moved 200m from the shoreline and concluded only a major force of water could have done so.

    Another team found shards of ceramics in tsunami sediment from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) on Nan’ao island, about 250km up the coast from Hong Kong’s eastern side.

    Professor Gao Shu at the East China Normal University told Xinhua that the south-east tip of the island used to be a town with official kilns for making porcelain.

    Researchers struggled to find any archaeological artefacts from after the suspected wave until the later Ming dynasty.

    They also found a shipwreck with 20,000 coins from around the time the tsunami might have struck.

    “This cultural evidence indicates a drastic cultural decline caused by the tsunami,” they wrote.

    China has begun moves to gather data in the South China Sea about potential tsunami threats, deploying early warning buoys off the Manila Trench last year.

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    Micro-chipping workers: UK firms consider human implants

    Would you have a tracker in your wrist? How many are choosing to have microchip implants?

      Once regarded as pure science-fiction, human microchip implants are making a slow but steady arrival in the modern workplace.

      While some volunteers have already been fitted with the technology, several businesses in the United Kingdom are now actively looking to provide them to willing employees.

      But, there are concerns the risks may outweigh the benefits.

      Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker reports from London.

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      Krakatau volcano partial collapse triggered Indonesia tsunami: officials

      WELLINGTON (Reuters) – A large chunk of a flank of the volcanic Anak Krakatau island slipped into the ocean and triggered a tsunami that hit Indonesian shores, killing hundreds of people, officials and scientists said on Monday.

      At least 281 people were killed, hundreds injured and many buildings were heavily damaged when the tsunami struck, almost without warning, along the rim of the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra islands, late on Saturday.

      Anak Krakatau had been spewing ash and lava for months before a 64-hectare (0.64 square km) section of the southwest side of the volcano collapsed, an Indonesian official said.

      “This caused an underwater landslide and eventually caused the tsunami,” said Dwikorita Karnawati, head of the meteorological agency, adding that the waves hit shorelines 24 minutes later.

      Images captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite showed that a large portion on the southern flank of the volcano slid off into the ocean, scientists said.

      “When that land pushes into the ocean … it displaces the ocean surface causing the vertical displacement that causes the tsunami,” Sam Taylor-Offord, a seismologist at GNS Science in Wellington, said of underwater landslides.

      The timing of the tsunami, over the Christmas holiday season, revived memories of the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by an earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed 226,000 people in 14 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

      Indonesia tsunami: tmsnrt.rs/2RdjsMd

      Taylor-Offord said the eruption and “high noise environment” may be why the landslide was not recorded seismically.

      The fact the tsunami was triggered by a volcano, and not by an earthquake, may be the reason why no tsunami warning was triggered, scientists said.

      Coastal residents reported not seeing or feeling any warning signs, such as an earthquake or receding water along the shore, before waves up to 3 meters (10 feet) high surged in.

      Jose Borrero, coastal engineering expert specializing in tsunami hazards at eCoast Marine Consulting, said landslide-generated volcanic tsunami were more of a mystery than tsunami generated by earthquakes, which are better studied.

      There are so many different variables involved with landslide-generated tsunami and a “sweet spot” of exactly the right speed and volume of rocks slipping into and sea and down submerged slopes to generate a wave.

      “In Indonesia, we’ve all been waiting for another big earthquake tsunami and then boom, here we have a volcanic landslide one,” said Borrero.

      “I’ve seen a few bits of imagery that suggest there’s some sort of slant collapse that may extend underwater but none of this will be confirmed until there can be an offshore survey where they go and map the sea floor.”


      Anak Krakatau or “child of Krakatau” emerged from the Krakatau volcano, which in 1888 erupted with such force the blast was heard all the way in Perth, said Mika McKinnon, a geophysicist based in Vancouver, Canada.

      Further eruptions have continued from the massive crater left behind.

      McKinnon said volcanoes are weak, sloppy heaps of loosely bound rocks all slanted downhill and they slip off all the time.

      If this happens to be a large portion, then it would displace enough water to trigger a tsunami.

      There are no early warnings systems that can detect such landslide-driven tsunami.

      Anak Krakatau is so close to shore there would not have been enough time to react and evacuate the population.

      “It’s hard to identify landslide-triggered tsunami, especially quickly enough to issue useful warnings,” said McKinnon.

      “A similar event at Anak Krakatau might trigger another one, or it might not. Maybe a month later, or year from now. We will never know,” she said.

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      Australian scientists develop 10-minute cancer test

      SYDNEY (XINHUA) – Worried you may have cancer? One day, you could take a 10-minute test with a 90 per cent success rate, thanks to a new cancer-detection approach that can uncover traces of the disease in a patient’s bloodstream.

      The cheap and simple test uses a colour-changing fluid to reveal the presence of malignant cells anywhere in the body and provides results in less than 10 minutes, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

      “This led to the creation of inexpensive and portable detection devices that could eventually be used as a diagnostic tool, possibly with a mobile phone,” said Professor Matt Trau, a co-researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, in a statement.

      The test was made possible by the Queensland team’s discovery that cancer DNA and normal DNA stick to metal surfaces in markedly different ways.

      This allowed them to develop a test that distinguishes between healthy cells and cancerous ones, even from the tiny traces of DNA that find their way into the bloodstream. The DNA sample is added to water containing gold nanoparticles.

      DNA from cancer cells sticks to the nanoparticles, making the water’s colour stay pink; DNA from healthy cells binds to the particles differently and turns the water blue.

      The researchers have run the test on 200 human cancer samples and healthy DNA with 90 per cent accuracy.

      The test has been used to detect only breast, prostate, bowel and lymphoma cancers so far, but researchers are confident that the results can be replicated with other types of the disease.

      “We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as an accessible and inexpensive technology that doesn’t require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing,” Prof Trau said.

      The test has yet to be used on humans and large clinical trials are needed before it can be used on prospective patients.

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      'Super-Earth' discovered orbiting Sun's nearest star

      PARIS (AFP) – A “super-Earth” has been discovered orbiting the closest single star to the Sun, scientists said on Wednesday (Nov 14) in a breakthrough that could shine a light on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbours.

      Astronomers studied Barnard’s Star, a red dwarf just six light years away – practically in our back garden, galactically speaking – and noticed the presence of a “frozen, dimly lit world” at least 3.2 times heavier than Earth.

      The planet, known for now as Barnard’s Star b, is the second nearest to Earth outside the solar system and orbits its host star once every 233 days.

      “It’s important because it’s really our next door neighbour and we like to meet our neighbours in general,” Ignasi Ribas, from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and Spain’s Institute of Space Sciences, told AFP.

      Despite being relatively close to its parent star, the planet receives less than two percent of the energy Earth gets from the Sun, and the team estimates it has a surface temperature of minus 170 deg C – far too cold to support life as we know it.

      “It’s definitely not in the habitable zone, no liquid water. If it has any water or gas this is probably in solid form so that’s why we call it frozen,” said Ribas.


      In mankind’s bid to map the planets in the night sky, most historic research has focused on brighter, newer stars, which produce more light and increase the chances of scientists noticing anything orbiting them.

      But since Barnard’s Star is a red dwarf, a small and cooling star probably about twice as old as the Sun, it produces relatively little light making it hard to discern any bodies in its orbit.

      To find Barnard’s Star b, Ribas and the team studied more than 20 years’ worth of observations from seven separate instruments.

      They then used a phenomenon known as the Doppler effect to track the impact of its gravitational pull on its parent star.

      Astronomers can use this technique to measure a planet’s velocity and, therefore, mass.

      “We have all worked very hard on this breakthrough,” said Guillem Anglada Escude, from London’s Queen Mary University, who co-authored the study published in the journal Nature.


      The team worked with the European Southern Observatory using astronomical instruments so accurate they can detect changes in a star’s velocity as small as 3.5kmh – a gentle walking pace.

      It’s thought that Barnard’s Star is tearing through space at around 500,000kmh, making it the fastest-moving known object in the universe.

      Ribas said that although stargazers could predict its size and orbit with relative accuracy using the Doppler effect, any attempt at this stage to find out what the new planet looked like would be “guesswork”.

      “It’s sort of in a fuzzy area with respect to its properties. We’ve seen planets of this mass be rocky, meaning that it could look like Earth with a solid surface with potentially some atmosphere or some frozen layer on top,” he said.

      “Or it may be what we call a mini-Neptune, like a scaled-down version of the gas giants of our solar system.”

      It might be cold, inhospitable and all but invisible but the new planet has one thing going for it: it’s really close.

      The only known exoplanet closer to Earth was discovered in 2016 orbiting one of a cluster of stars in the Alpha Centauri system, just over four light years away.

      “There’s not so many stars in our immediate neighbourhood. The investment to find them is expensive,” said Ribas.

      “It’s really near and therefore if you have the hope – like I do – of eventually seeing these planets to study them in detail we have to start with the immediate ones. It could lead potentially to other discoveries.”

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      Stephen Hawking's thesis and wheelchair sell for US$1 million

      LONDON (REUTERS) – A motorised wheelchair used by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking sold at auction on Thursday (Nov 8) for almost 300,000 pounds (S$540,000) while a dissertation raised nearly twice that at a sale to raise money for charity.

      Famed for his work exploring the origins of the universe, Mr Hawking died in March at the age of 76 after spending most of his life confined to a wheelchair with motor neurone disease.

      Some of his belongings including essays, medals, awards and a copy of his book a “Brief History of Time” signed with a thumbprint were sold online on Thursday alongside letters and manuscripts belonging to Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.

      Mr Hawking’s 117-page dissertation “Properties of expanding universes” from 1965 sold for 584,750 pounds, well ahead of the estimate of up to 150,000 pounds.

      Medals and awards sold for 296,750 pounds, compared with an estimate of 15,000 pounds, while the red motorised wheelchair sold for 296,750 pounds, also compared with an estimate of 15,000 pounds.

      Auction house Christies ran the nine-day online auction called “On the Shoulders of Giants” to raise money for the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

      It also offered fans of the physicist known for his electronic voice synthesiser a chance to buy some of his possessions.

      Mr Hawking died in March at the age of 76, after spending most of his life confined to a wheelchair. PHOTO: AFP

      “Stephen Hawking was a huge personality worldwide. He had this amazing ability to connect with people,” Thomas Venning, head of the Books and Manuscripts department at auction house Christie’s London, told Reuters ahead of the event.

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