Of slime and childish curiosity

In which Dr Aust ponders slime. And scientific tendencies.

Reproduced from the wonderful xkcd.com, the comic strip that regularly captures the spirit and the reality of science

Last weekend the Aust entourage, including Junior Aust (aged six-and-a bit-well-nearly-seven-in-a-few-months) visited this event at one of the nearby museums, run by the people from Manchester University’s Life Sciences Faculty.

In the event you could, as it says, “Come on a tour of the human body” and learn “how the heart works and how your lungs help you breathe”, among other things.

Junior Aust was fairly unimpressed by the nice chaps with their two-electrode ECG trace, even when I told her it was one of the things dad gets his students to measure on each other. I think the ECG wasn’t participatory enough for her, as they weren’t allowed to wire up members of the public (a shame, really, but understandable).

I DID manage to persuade her to blow into the spirometer and have her Forced Vital Capacity measured – another of those things you can find me getting students to do in their lab classes. I also measured myself for comparison, though I’d already done my annual Hypochondrial Full-service Multi-parameter Respiratory Function Self-assessment while I was running the student classes earlier this Semester.

She was a bit more impressed with the video of the view of the inside of your airways during a bronchoscopy (not done live, before you ask!), which I was able to tell her was the kind of thing mummy used to do to patients.

But the thing that REALLY made a deep and lasting impression on Junior Aust was the “make your own mucus-alike slime” stand. Kitted out in disposable plastic pathologist-style apron and dashing purple nitrile gloves, she was helped to concoct some truly disgusting-looking greeny-yellow slime out of acrylic glue, water and food colouring. I reassured her that the yellow colour was just enough to made it look properly yellow phlegm-like and grungey, and she was given some of her confection (tied up in another nitrile glove, no plastic bags left) to take home.

Now, we assumed she would lose interest in the stuff quickly enough, but this turned out not to be the case. For the rest of the day we were repeatedly called into action to stop her turning the slime out over the table, or the chairs, or the floor. Despite our best efforts, small chunks of it made their way onto her and her brother’s clothes, and onto the furniture. Yum.

But then we made a truly catastrophic error.

** Warning – you may find the next bit slightly disgusting. **

In a moment of attempting to out-gross Jurior Aust, The Boss (Mrs Dr Aust) remarked “That slime” (which was now semi-congealed) “looks exactly like what was in Junior Two’s nappies when he was ill the other week*”

Oh dear.

Big mistake.

Big, biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Mistake.


For, thoughout the week since this conversation, we have been regaled daily (or indeed several times each day), by one or both children, with the useful information, faithfully and exactly repeated, of just exactly what Jr Aust’s slime resembles. Typically combined with a display of THE GLOVE, turned inside out so we can have a good look at the congealed yellow stuff.


Note to self:

Take care what information thou doth impart to those under seven.

For verily, thou canst not take it back.

Anyway, we are trying to look on the optimistic side. You certainly have to applaud Junior Aust, and her younger sibling, for their impressive curiosity. Even curiosity into slightly gross stuff.

Which explains why I found the cartoon at the top of the post, from the brilliant xkcd.com, so funny when I saw it earlier this evening.

Now, Mrs Dr Aust and I have sworn an oath, in blood and in at least two languages, that the Aust-Sprogs are to be discouraged at all costs from going into any career related to science, or into medicine.

But there is, I fear, the chance that genes, or conditioning, will out.

Time, I guess, will tell.



* It was almost certainly a rotavirus infection, BTW. Most unpleasant, and not a week we are keen to remember.

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8 Responses to “Of slime and childish curiosity”

  1. Kausik Datta Says:

    F1-Austs are fortunate to have such supportive and caring parents.
    Brilliant post.

  2. draust Says:

    Heh. Not so sure about the first bit, Kausik, but thanks anyway.

  3. DMcILROY Says:

    Yeah, we had an attack of viral diarrhea here a few weeks back. I think 4 out of 5 of us succumbed, with about a two day interval between victims. The washing machine certainly did overtime, that week.

    Are you really planning on chucking it in? Or was that an April Fool’s day lark?


  4. draust Says:

    Bad luck with the family outbreak. If it got most of the McIlroy family that sounds like a norovirus, aka the Winter Vomiting Virus, especially if it was a 48-hr thing with notable upchucking.

    Norovirus is one of the very rapidly mutating RNA ones so you have little/no immunity from year-to-year, and sometimes you can even get two different strains in the same Winter – yuck. Hence also no vaccines ever likely. Noro is the one that usually closes hospital wards every Winter – it certainly did at our local Big City Hospital this year, and floored quite a few of the staff, so it has obviously been circulating as well. Lovely.

    Rotavirus is also an RNA virus, but I guess it must have a higher copy fidelity/lower mutation rate, as you do develop immunity and there are vaccines around. Most adults are immune to rotavirus, so just Junior Two being ill, and the duration of the thing, suggests Rotavirus rather than Noro. In the US they would probably test to see precisely what it was, but they don’t bother in the UK as it makes no difference to the treatment. Of course, what Junior Two had could even have been something bacterial, as he had a fairly high-grade fever at one stage.

    Re the other thing, It was my April 1st joke (or attempt). Been surprised how many of my University colleagues bought it, though, even including a couple of my closest cronies. Ah well. Maybe it was wishful thinking (mine and theirs!). Anyway, I can’t afford to retire. And changing career sounds like too much work.

  5. DMcILROY Says:

    It’s true that you can’t acquire much immunity to norovirus infections, but you can be born immune to some strains. They use glycosylated structures of the ABO blood group antigens as receptors on intestinal epithelial cells. If you are a “non-secretor” you lack a fucosyl transferase necessary for forming the receptor for several strains of norovirus. Things being the way they are though, there’s no way for people to be resistant to every strain, and no way for the virus to be able to infect every person in a genetically variable population.

    It’s a nice example of pressure from pathogens maintaining host genetis diversity, and if you ever wondered why the hell blood groups even exist – now you know.


  6. draust Says:

    Apologies, Dorian – you must have been a bit mystified by my last response. For some reason I had this idee fixe that you were a physicist! As a bona fide virologist (I checked after your latest…) I dare say you’d have wondered why I was teaching you to suck eggs. Anyway, I hope there’s some reader who might find my earlier, err, exposition useful.

    Thanks for the info on noroviruses, BTW – didn’t know that about their cellular receptors. In my very brief exposure to virus science I did always think cell invasion was an interesting and comparatively under-explored bit of virology – but that might have been the physiologist in me, since cell invasion vaguely reminds us of things like exocytosis that physiologists study and feel they kind of understand.

    BTW, the thing about noroviruses using the ABO antigens as receptors, and some people lacking them and thus being immune to some strains, reminded me of this stuff about the Bombay blood group, which a medical student brought up a few years ago in one of my tutorials. I remember this especially as the students were stumped by how you could have the A and/or B genes but not the antigens, and I had to start drawing cartoon sugar chains (with squares and triangles standing in for different sugars) to explain it.

    Finally, now that we’ve established you’re the virus expert, can you set me straight re why you get lifelong immunity to rotavirus but not to noro? Is it that different viral RNA polymerases have different copy error rates, so you can have viruses that don’t mutate much (where you can get immunity) vs those that mutate fast (where you can’t)? Or is it something else?

  7. DMcILROY Says:

    I fear you’re rather overestimating my competence. I’m an underperforming cellular immunologist rather than a “proper” virologist. I just talk a good game and got lucky with the norovirus topic. There is a colleague in Nantes who works on this subject, and I use some of his materials in a lab practical. Don’t worry – no-one gets infected.

    As for rotavirus – I really don’t know. I guess it’s a variant on a more general question, that is, why do some viruses have several serotypes, and others only a limited number. For example, adenovirus has more than 50 serotypes, while poliovirus has only 3. Adenoviruses have a DNA genome, and should be less genetically variable than polio, which, as an RNA virus, has no proofreading during replication. So it doesn’t seem to me to be directly related to the error rate.

  8. xtaldave Says:

    Ah, the mucins – that will have been the display from the Thornton group, with whom I share a lab. It must be great to work on something (slime) that so appeals to and engages kids. For some reason arthritis fails to capture their imagination quite so well….

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