Thursday, March 15, 2018

I Packed My Bags Last Night, Pre-Flight

So I WAS going to write about brains all week and we were going to have fun talking about this zany organ in our heads, but then something much more important happened that I feel a need to address immediately.  NASA issued a press release of the findings of a study on twins Scott of Mark Kelly, looking at a variety of biological measures after Scott returned from a year in space, using his identical twin brother Mark as a control.1  The popular press has really loved this story, and it's found its way, in some form or fashion, into a variety of news outlets, many of which are boldly proclaiming that a year in space permanently altered Scott's DNA2 and that he and Mark no longer have identical DNA.3  

These stories are, in large part, borne of miscommunication, misunderstanding, or somewhere in between.  The truth is that 1) 93% of Scott's DNA did not return to normal, and 7% of his genes have not been permanently changed, 2) if you want to claim that the Kelly brothers are no longer identical, then they never actually were.  So what happened here?

First, the study design.  This study looked at a lot of things- immune response, cognitive skills, the selection of tiny organisms living in the gut, and genome sequence at several different time points: before Scott went into space, while he was in space, when he got back, and then a follow up several months later.  We would expect to see some changes in Scott, just because things are going to change over the two years the study was conducted regardless of a trip to space, but we can compare his changes to Mark's changes to see if they're substantially different.  

 Cells need to make copies of their DNA every time they replicate, and it's actually a really complicated process.  We like to think of our bodies like with think of computers, and thus copying the instructions should be like copy over exact copies of files, but the reality is, we are SO not like computers.  To copy double-stranded DNA, the strands first need to be separated from each other.  This is where you get the world's best pick up line: "I wish I were DNA helicase, so I could unzip your jeans".  DNA helicase is the substance that separates those two strands.  Other substances, called DNA polymerases, locate "start" signals in the DNA code, latch on, and start adding new blocks, with the separated strand of DNA serving as a template for what to add.  You end up with two copies of the DNA, with half of each copy being from the original strand.  

This process is actually incredibly accurate.  There's only a mistake about 1 out of every 1,000,000,000 building blocks added.4  The problem is that we add a lot of building blocks.  There are 3,000,000,000 building blocks in the human genome,5 you build two strands at a time, which leaves room for 6 mutations every time a cell replicates.  Factor in that a cell divides 50-70 times over the course of its life,6 and multiply that by the fact that there are 37 trillion cells in the human body,7 and, well, that's a lot of mutations, that happen every day here on Earth just because of whoopsies.

So a few things here.  First, if Scott Kelly really DID have 100% of his DNA change, as the 93%-7% figure seems to suggest, he would be dead.  It's unclear if the original release meant to indicate that 93% of the changes observed when he first returned to Earth reverted to their original state, or if 93% of his DNA is normal, or what was exactly the details are.  Second of all, we have to look here at whether these mutations occurred at a higher rate than they did in Mark.  It appears that they did, but the important thing here is that you can't make that determination just by comparing Scott's DNA to Mark's; you have to compare Scott's before and after, and compare the proportion of changes to Mark's before and after.  Third, because these types of mutations happen basically constantly, if the point is that they've caused Scott and Mark to no longer have identical DNA, well, the boys are 54 years old.  That's enough time for a lot of mutations, and it is a 100% guarantee that they had separate mutations before Scott left for space, so using that argument, they were NEVER identical twins. 

Let's back away from DNA for a second and talk about genes.  DNA is organized into chromosomes.  Twenty-three groupings of DNA (provided that you're human) that contain smaller divisions called genes.  These genes are what code for everything about us, from the things that make us unique, like our hair color, to the things that make us exactly like every other living organism, like that cells have a lipid bilayer membrane surrounding them.  Only about 1.2% of our DNA is part of a gene; we're still figuring out what the rest of it does.8  This means that the odds of any single DNA mutation that happened to Scott when he was in space being in a part of the DNA that actually codes for a gene are really, really small.  If we go back to the rate of mutations, it's a pretty safe bet that some of them are, but mutations in your DNA do not mean that you're a genetically different person,9 because most of them happen in places that don't actually affect anything.  Just from the fact that there are changes in the DNA code means nothing about what's actually being expressed.

Which brings me to the next point- gene expression.  The way that genes are expressed is by copying DNA into the very similar but single stranded RNA.  Molecules then run along this single strand of RNA, following its instructions to build proteins, pretty exactly like how my boyfriend will carefully track a recipe with his finger to make sure he doesn't miss anything.  These proteins are what makes everything happen in our bodies.  There are lots of things that can happen that can cause this process to change.  Stress in our lives, exposure to drugs or toxins, the weather, so many things can either add molecules to DNA or change how it folds up, which change how things are expressed.  Genes can be turned on or off, told to create more of one type of protein and less of another.  Different gene expression is why cells in our bodies do different things, even if they all have the same DNA.  This is what happened to Scott Kelly.  The 7% of genes number that's being cited was not changes to his DNA, they were changes in how his DNA is expressed.  The DNA is still the same (minus mutations), and he isn't genetically different to himself or his brother.  The genes that have continued to express differences include genes that play a role in the immune system, DNA repair, and bone formation.  Note that they don't CAUSE these things, because they're all super complicated processes, but they're some of a number of genes that play a role in these processes.  Again, if you want to use these differences in expression to claim Scott and Mark are no longer identical, then they never were.  

There were some changes to the DNA itself in a way.  First, loose bits of DNA were found freely floating in his blood stream, likely due to stress.  This could be the mental stress that we usually think of when we use that word, but it also probably related to the physical stress of living in a small space with artificial conditions, changes in gravity, and other stuff that our bodies are just not used to.  It turns out that much like humans, DNA likes to go for a float in a river when it's feeling stressed.  The other difference that they noticed (which quickly reverted back to expected) is in the length of his telomeres.  Telomeres are portions of DNA on the endcaps of the strand that control how many times a piece of DNA can be copied.  As you age, they get shorter, limiting the number of times DNA can reproduce.  The scientist's interpretation of this is that it was likely due to the amount he was exercising or the ISS diet of prepackaged foods that somewhat calorie restricted.  Basically, this effect was due to diet or exercise, which says that it really did have much to do with being in space, just living healthier. 

The study on Scott and Mark has some really cool findings, and we should definitely be publishing them and talking about them.  I say that with a few caveats: first, we should maybe put a hold on these conversations and stories until the actual papers from the scientists come out.  Right now, all we have are two pretty ambiguous NASA press releases that people are running with.  Second, the outlets writing about this story should probably check that the people they have writing them understand DNA replication, transcription, and translation, or at the very least should be basing their stories on their own reading of the releases, and not just borrowing the same phrases and explanations from people who already bungled it.  Third, this world (and apparently other ones) are cool enough places that we don't need to make science news more dramatic; it's already amazing and fascinating and mind blowing.  Let this astonishing world speak for itself; there's no reason to put (not so true) words in its mouth.  

Sorry for being a such a grumpy bugger today.  I'll return to a few more "our brains are crazy" posts tomorrow.  If you don't want to miss out on those, follow me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter to talk about how wrong these stories are.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Brain Awareness Week Post 3: City of Delusion

The brain is amazing.  It is intensely complex, relies on a complicated scaffold of processes, involves constant communications over trillions of synapses, and it has to be both incredibly specialized and also able to handle all the new things we constantly throw at it.  A healthy, functioning human brain is fascinating, but as humans, we like the weird stuff.  Knowing how things work can be interesting, but knowing how things can break is more fun.  For today's Brain Awareness Week post, I'm doing a rundown of the wacky-- the types of delusions that you mostly only see on TV. 

Capgras Delusion- People with Capgras syndrome believe that someone close to them or important to them-- friend, spouse, parent, child, pet-- has been replaced with an identical imposter.  Usually they only believe that one person is an imposter, not everyone around them, and it can be incredibly frustrating that no one else sees what you see.  These patients don't necessarily know who the imposter is or why their loved one has been replaced, only that they have.  Capgras is thought to be related to deficits in communication between areas of the brain, such as areas that specialize in recognizing faces and areas that process emotion or areas important for remembering specific events.

Cotard Delusion- In Cotard delusion, patients believe that they are dead, don't exist, don't have internal organs, or are rotting away.  The most common manifestation is the denial of a person's own existance.  Like Capgras delusion, it's thought to be related to disconnection between face recognition centers and structures known for their role in emotion processing.  This disconnection is often due to brain degeneration, injury, or lesion.

Fregoli Delusion- In keeping with the dysfunctional face processing trend, Fregoli delusion is the belief that a single person is using disguises to appear as multiple different people in the patient's life, usually due to some sort of persecutory reason.

Syndrome of Subjective Doubles- Syndrome of subjective doubles is the belief that the person has a Doppelgänger out in the world, living their own life.  Usually, the Doppelgänger has a separate personality and life history than the patient does, but sometimes it is also a mental clone.  The Doppelgänger may be a different age, or the patient may believe that THEY are actually the Doppelgänger.  Syndrome of subjective doubles is a delusion that is often present in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Somatoparaphrenia- This mouthful describes the belief that an appendage or even one side of the body does not belong to the patient.  They might believe that the limb is not attached to their body, or they be convinced someone else limb has been attached to them.  Sometimes this is found in cases of hemineglect, and sometimes the patient will experience paralysis in that appendage.  It is believed to be due to brain injury, degeneration, or lesion.

Clinical Lycanthropy- If you watch Supernatural, you'll already guess what this delusion is.  Clinical lycanthropy is the belief that the person can transform into an animal.  Like a werewolf, though it doesn't have to be a wolf.  The patient either recalls feeling like an animal, or will engage in animal-like behavior: moving like the animal or making similar sounds.  Clinical lycanthropy is a specific manifestation of other psychotic disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Folie a deux- French for "madness of two" (Note: you can also have folies of other numbers, or even groups).  This is a shared delusion.  It occurs either when one dominant person develops a delusion and is able to influence a secondary person to have the same delusion.  The second person in this situation most likely would never have developed a delusion on their own, and their delusion will resolve on its own if the two are separated.  The other form of folie a deux occurs when two people develop delusions independently that feed off of each other and fuel each other, merging into a single, shared delusion.  This could be, for example, two people prone to paranoia and persecutory thoughts.  One person notices something sketchy that confirms the other's suspicions, and now the first person has more evidence for their belief, and it snowballs from there.

These are all pretty freaking rare disorders and syndromes, much rarer than soap operas and crime procedurals would have you believe.  They are all real, but they're often exploited for the sake of story line-- having someone with Capgras kill the person they think is an imposter, or someone with somatoparaphrenia cut off the offending limb with a table saw.  The brain is amazing, but it does some really weird things.

Signing off til tomorrow, when I'll have a new crazy brain phenomenon to blow your .... mind (see what I did there?  Get it?  Because, like, mind-brain?)  In the meantime, Twitter here, Facebook here.  Follow, share, retweet.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Brain Awareness Week Post 2- You Spin Me Right Round, Baby

Even though it's day two of Brain Awareness Week and everyone should be SUPER EXICTED, it is also the worst day of the year- the Monday after Daylight Savings Time starts.  Because I care about you, I'm going to keep today's post short so that you can get to bed and catch up on the sleep you missed out on this morning.  Here's my favorite brain fact to tell people: why we get the spins while drinking.

The vestibular system is dedicated to your sense of balance and orientation in space.  The structures of the vestibular system are located in the inner ear, with sensing neurons sending messages to various parts of the brain and spinal cord to coordinate body movement and maintaining balance.  One of these structures is the semicircular canal, which is a pretty apt name for a half-circle shaped tube filled with fluid, specializing in detecting angular momentum-- spinning.  The semicircular canals have a membrane on each end, and if the head rotates, the fluid in the canal, endolymph, gets pushed up against the that membrane.  Think about if you were to put water in a Hula hoop, hold it horizontally, and then rotate the Hula hoop left and right.  The water would pretty much stay still while the hoop moved around it; that's pretty much what's happening in your ear.  Which membrane has the fluid press against it tells the brain which direction your head is turning. 

Alcohol is a blood thinner (which is one reason why reputable tattoo and piercing parlors won't let you partake in their services if you have recently imbibed), but it also thins other bodily fluids, like, for example, endolymph.  When you drink, the endolymph in that canal gets thinner and sloshes around more, even if you're not turning your head, right up against those membranes that tell your brain there's been angular moment.  Your brain interprets that as "Weeee!  I'm spinning!" and the spins are born. 

We can take this one step further though, because why the spins are worse when you close your eyes is also all about the brain.  When your eyes are open, you're also sending your brain visual messages that conflict with what your vestibular system is saying.  Your ears say you're spinning, but your eyes say you're not.  Your brain has to bring these two together, usually mostly trusts your eyes, and stands down a bit on the spinning interpretation.  If you close your eyes, you no longer have any visual input to override what your semicircular canals are telling your brain, and off you go again into the land of swirly twirly gumdrops.  

Don't test this right now, because you shouldn't be drinking on a school night.  Instead, migrate over to Twitter and Facebook and follow me so other people start to learn how cool I am.  

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Brain Awareness Week Post 1! I Saw (Half of) the Sign

Today is the start of Brain Awareness Week, and I am super stoked.  In honor of this holiest of holy weeks (from my perspective, anyway), I've decided to do a series of posts on my favorite brain phenomena- the stuff I've learned about over the years that makes me go "Whoa, that's so freaking cool".  First up- hemi-neglect.

To understand what's happening in hemi-neglect, you need to understand a little bit about how the visual system works (also, as a visual neuroscientist, I just want to talk a little bit about how the visual system works).  Light reflected off of objects hits our retinas at the back of our eyes, and cells there turn the photons from the light into electrical signals.  These signals are passed from the retina to a structure called the lateral geniculate nucleus along the optic nerve.  The LGN is basically like a relay station, and sends the signal to the primary visual cortex, which specializes in gathering information about basic features of the image- where it is, orientation, how bright it is. That information gets passed to other areas of the visual system that specialize in detecting edges, processing color or motion, and recognizing objects and faces.  It's not a perfect hierarchy, though, and some signals skip earlier areas and go straight to later ones, and sometimes the later areas send signals back to earlier ones.  Other, non-visual parts of the brain also get involved, like areas that control attention or voluntary movements.
One thing that's important in hemi-neglect is that right side of the brain processes the left visual field and vice versa.  This doesn't mean it only processes information from the left eye, rather information from the left side of both eyes, which makes up what we see that's on the left side of our nose. 

"Blindness" in the traditional sense is often caused by damage to eye or the optic nerve which keeps signals from even getting to your brain.  If there's damage to the cortex caused by a stroke or disconnecting one hemisphere of the brain, however, those messages that get sent that skip around the damaged areas and go straight to other parts of the network.  This can lead to your brain knowing there are objects in your visual field, but you not being consciously aware of them.  Essentially your brain knows something you don't.

Hemineglect has different forms, determined by what the reference point of the neglect is and the range of the neglect.  In some cases, the person is their own reference point, and they're not aware of anything that happens in the left half of the world as they're looking at it.  They're not aware of people sitting next to them on that side, have a tendency to walk into walls and doorways on one side of their body, and if you moved a pencil in front of them at the optometrist, it would disappear as soon as it crossed in front of their nose.  In some cases, every object is it's own reference point.  People suffering from this type of neglect will not be consciously aware of half of every object in front of them. Put a dinner plate in front of them, and they'll only eat food on one side of it.  In some really crazy cases, people will neglect one side of an object even though it's on the right side- ignoring Asia on a flipped map, for example, because they know that it's supposed to be on the left.  It's not just about seeing, though; often people will demonstrate the same type of inattention in drawing a clock, only including numbers 12-6.  If you ask a patient with hemineglect to imagine they're standing at a certain location in a place they've been and describe what they see, they'll leave out all the things on one side.  If you ask them to imagine they're standing directly opposite of the first location, they'll describe all the things they didn't include the first time, and not be aware of anything they did already include.  Sometimes this will apply to all objects in view, sometimes only to objects within arm's reach, objects that they're capable of interacting with.  

I said that hemineglect is your brain knowing something you don't, because even though the patient isn't consciously aware of something in that location, they might still respond or interact with it, and have no idea why.  They might step out of the way of an object while walking, even though they don't know why they did that.  If you write something like "animal" on a paper in the neglected hemisphere and then ask the person to name some words that start with the letter "B", they'll be more likely to name animals, even though they don't know that there's even a word there.  In the end, it's not really a question of being able to see, because the brain is seeing stuff, but a question of being consciously aware of things, which makes it an interesting question for people interested in consciousness.  

Hemineglect is most often caused by strokes that damage tissue in the parietal cortex.  For a long time, the theory was that it was due not all of the tissue being damaged and signals jumping between tiny islands of healthy tissue left in the visual cortex.  However, you can see the same types of deficits in patients that have had entire hemispheres of their brain removed, so there's definitely no healthy tissue islands left.  There's really not a single mechanism that can account for all the different forms of hemineglect, so in reality, it's probably a cluster of different things that we've grouped together because they all involve being unaware of one side of something, but either way, it tells us some really amazing things about how our brains work. 

Keep up with the rest of my Brain Awareness Week posts to learn about more fun brain phenomena!  Follow me on Twitter for more science stories and conversations and Facebook to keep up with all my posts.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Drum Roll Please.....

Today's post is going to be long, because it's about my favorite annual nerd event: the awarding of the Ig Nobel Prizes.  This annual prize honors the ridiculous, absurd, and hilarious findings of the past year.  Improbable Research, which gives out the award, describes their goal as making people laugh as well as think, and "raising the question [of] How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not".  The Ig Nobel prizes were given out on September 14 at Harvard's Sanders Theater by actual Nobel laureates- because why be brilliant if you can't also have fun?  I highly recommend watching the webcasts of their ceremonies- there's an opera, paper airplanes, 24 second technical lectures with 7 word lay explanations, and at the end of the evening, the traditional disappearance of the audience.  I have taken the liberty of reading all of the winning papers to report on them for your intellectual benefit.

Before we get into that, because it's not an award ceremony without opening remarks, please follow Reviewer Three on Facebook to get notified about all my recent posts and on Twitter to learn fun science things.  My goal is to get 100 Twitter followers by the end of the month, so please spread the word! And, as always, I love seeing my view count creep up as I obsessively refresh the page, so feel free to share my stuff and help make me a big-time blogger.  And now, on with the awards!

PHYSICS: "On the Rheology of Cats," Marc-Antoine Fardin1
Rheology is the branch of physics that deals with the flow of matter.  Cats are notoriously flowy, as Figure 1 in the paper demonstrates.
The author uses the Deborah number, a measure of the fluidity of matter determined by a relaxation time value representing how long it takes a substance to adjust to applied stress divided by the time of the experiment.  Using the Deborah number, it was determined that, as in (a) above, sometimes cats qualify as a solid, and sometimes, as in (b)-(d), cats are a liquid.  One of the limitations of the approach as detailed in the paper is that all of the research subjects were kittens, and older cats may have different relaxation times.  Response to applied stresses was determined in a number of different scenarios.
The author also points out that it must be noted that cats are not isolated fluid systems, because they can transfer and absorb stresses from their environment, as demonstrated by cat cafes where you can pet cats to relieve stress.

PEACE: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz and Otto Braendli2
After a didgeridoo instructor with sleep apnea reported decreased daytime sleepiness after jam sessions on the Australian aboriginal instrument, science was born.  If you are unfamiliar with the didgeridoo, here's a video of someone playing one.  Twenty-five patients with moderate sleep apnea were randomized into a didgeridoo lesson group or a control group who swore not to start taking didgeridoo lessons for the duration of the study, which I can only assume was quite the sacrifice.  The didgeridoo group practiced for at least 20 minutes, five days a week, for four months.  The intervention group improved significantly in daytime sleepiness as compared to the control group, as well as improvements in the sleep quality of partners who shared a bed with the apnea patient, as well as improvements in apnea episodes recorded in the course of a sleep study.  The improvements were slightly less than when patients are treated with CPAP machines, though CPAP treatment is typically prescribed in more severe cases.  For those who are interested, didgeridoos can be purchased for ridiculously cheap on Amazon.

ECONOMICS: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer3
The idea behind this study is that previous research has suggested that if someone is highly aroused or excited before gambling, they will often gamble longer or with larger amounts.  If the person is a pathological gambler, however, being highly aroused actually moderates gambling behavior.  Studies unrelated to gambling have demonstrated that people are apt to misinterpret positive or negative feelings when being highly aroused to an unrelated stimulus, so the researchers hypothesized that if people are exposed to a high arousal, negative valence situation, they may associate that feeling with the gambling, causing them to place smaller bets as they feel unlucky.  It logically follows that the ultimate way to test this is by exposing people to live crocodiles. So that's what they did.  Tourists visiting a crocodile farm in Australia were recruited to participate in an electronic gambling task.  They either performed the task when they first arrived at the farm, or after an hour long tour where they had the opportunity to hold a one meter juvenile crocodile. The crocodile's mouth was taped shut, but "tourists were cautioned that it could still harm them due its sharp claws and protruding teeth."  For participants who had no gambling problems, the crocodile group placed smaller bets than the control group, regardless of the intensity of negative affect.  For participants with gambling problems, however, the crocodile group placed smaller bets than controls if they were high in negative affect, but placed larger bets than controls if they were low in negative affect.  The take away for the researchers was that low intensity negative moods or high arousal non-negative moods contribute to large bets for at-risk gamblers.  The take away for me was that casinos probably shouldn't use crocodile tanks as decoration.

ANATOMY: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" James A. Heathcote4
In this classic study from 1995, four British doctors asked all of their patients who came in if they could measure their ears. The age range of patients was 30-93, and after the data were entered into a computer (a point the paper is clear to make), it was discovered that, indeed, ear length correlates with age.  It appears that ears grow at an average rate of 0.22 millimeters per year.  I take great issue with the presentation of the Ig Nobel to this study, as it is a completely misnamed and misleading title.  The paper itself states that "Why ears should get bigger when the rest of the body stops growing is not answered by this research."  It also included women, therefore actually emphasizing that old PEOPLE have big ears.

BIOLOGY:  "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, Charles Lienhard5
Let me begin by saying the graphical abstract for this paper is absolutely horrifying.  I couldn't tell what was where and who was what and why there was something that looked so much like a scrotum on my screen.  I've included the picture for your viewing pleasure.
On the very off chance that that doesn't tell you everything you need to understand this paper, I'll go into more depth.  In Brazilian caves, there is a genus of barklice called Neotrogla, that consists of four species.  The defining feature of this genus is that they have reversed sex roles that accompany reversed sex organs.  Namely, females have an erectile structure that protrudes from the body, accompanied by a second structure that stores sperm.  The males, on the other hand, have simple arc genitals that don't have any type of protruding organ. The female gynosome penetrates the phallosome in order to receive "voluminous spermatophores" from the male.  Once inserted into the male, a membrane inflates to hold it in place with help from a whole bunch of spines.  If you try to separate two insects during the act of copulation, you will only succeed in ripping the male's abdomen from his body, as it is so firmly anchored to the gynosome, so that's pretty awful. It is suggested that this unique arrangement may have arisen from females competing for, I kid you not, this is how it's worded, "nutritious seminal gifts" (objectively the worst Hanukkah present), which increase the female mating rate. In this situation, the gynosome "may have a premating function grasping reluctant mates or a postmating function holding mates to ensure prolonged copulation".  And with that, I don't want to have to read about insect sex again for a long, long time. 

FLUID DYNAMICS:  "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," Jiwon Han6
First, I'd like to note that the author of this paper was a high school student at the time he wrote the paper, and that this makes me feel bad about myself. I don't think anyone could explain the impetus for this study better than young Jiwon himself, so to quote: " Rarely do we manage to carry coffee around without spilling it once. In fact, due to the very commonness of the phenomenon, we tend to dismiss questioning it beyond simply exclaiming: “Jenkins! You have too much coffee in your cup!”"
Thus, this paper sought to determine why we spill coffee when we walk, and the best way to avoid this universal phenomenon.  A material's resonant frequency is the vibration frequency where you get the most amplification of oscillations, basically allowing for small forces to have big responses.  In the 1940s, this phenomenon led to the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, when the wind caused it to vibrate at its resonant frequency to huge disaster.  Check out a video of the bridge to get a better idea of the effect of resonance.  In this study, researchers determined that the resonant frequency of coffee in a coffee cup just so happens to be right around the same frequency of vibrations from normal walking.  In other words, our normal gait makes the coffee slosh around with even more amplitude than it should, leading to spills.  They went on to explore what we can change about how we carry coffee that will reduce spillage.  Walking backwards did change the frequency from human movement enough that it was no longer the same as the resonant frequency of the coffee, however did not necessarily reduce spillage due to increased likelihood of tripping or "crashing into a passing by colleague who may also be walking backwards".  The more effective method was to use what they call the "claw-hand method" to hold the cup.
This also changed the vibration frequency from walking due to the way it transfers vibrations to the cup.  I would assume, however, that your coffee has to be below a certain temperature for this to work, given that the steam on your palm could make carrying your cup this way uncomfortable, but that's research for a future Ig Nobel.

NUTRITION:  "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres7
Vampire bats' name derives from the fact that their food source is other animals' blood.  They are extraordinarily specialized for this, with teeth designed to puncture vascular areas, saliva that contains anti-coagulation compounds, and organs that efficiently process out water and urea.  They also can't store fat, and therefore can't go more than two days without eating.  Two of the species of vampire bats have some variety in the type of animals they feed from, while the third species, the hairy-legged vampire bat, only preys on birds. This is a problem, because if they live in areas that have been disrupted by humans, their options for food sources decrease dramatically.  In this paper, group of researchers found that the hairy-legged vampire bat solved this problem by simply feeding on the humans.  The researchers collected bat fecal samples from an area in Brazil that had around 1,000 families currently living in it.  In these fecal samples, they found DNA from both chickens and humans, suggesting that when birds are not available, the hairy-legged vampire bat is able to (rather vindictively) expand its diet.  Previously, bats in captivity had been shown to starve themselves to death rather than eating pig or goat blood, so this was an unexpected discovery.  It is possible that they're not actually feeding on humans, rather on animals that are in close contact with humans, but it still points the way to more work regarding the public health consequences of bats preying on humans, as well as horror movies.

MEDICINE: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly and Tao Jiang8
A group of French researchers needed to determine what percentage of the French population is disgusted by cheese, and what that looks like in the brain.  They found that 38 out of the 332 subject s (11.5%) were objectively wrong and were disgusted by cheese.  Cheese also represented 36.9% of all of the "disgusted" answers, higher than any other category of food.  However, they also found that the majority of people rated desserts as below a 6 on a ten point scale, and almost no one claimed to be disgusted by vegetables, so I have some doubts as to the accuracy of these responses.  They found differences in "liking" and "wanting" ratings for pro- and anti-cheese people when provided with a cheese odor and a picture of cheese, as well as a significant difference in liking and wanting ratings for anti-cheese people when they were just smelling cheese as opposed to smelling and looking at cheese.  When smelling and looking at cheese, they found differences in activation in the globus pallidus, substanatia nigra, and ventral pallidum between pro- and anti-cheese people.  Basically, people who are disgusted by cheese aren't motivated by cheese, and areas that code reward also likely code disgust, at least when it comes to cheese.  (Fun personal note: I'm writing this piece on a weekend where I consumed at least half a pound of cheese.)  

COGNITION: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, Salvatore Maria Aglioti9
As humans, we are very good at looking at human faces.  We're even better at looking at our own faces.  We recognize ourselves more quickly than other people, we pay attention to our own face longer, we use feature information more for our faces than others, and even in cases of prospopagnosia (face blindness), it's very rare for someone not to be able to recognize their own face. Researchers here recruited twin pairs and their friend, and showed all three faces to each set of three, asking them to identify who each face belonged to.  This is a great way to realize your friend can't tell you and your sister apart. Twins were equally good at recognizing them and their twin in terms of reaction time and accuracy, but were worse at recognizing themselves (and their co-twin) than controls were at recognizing themselves.  This result depended on how much twins were reported to look like each other, which indicates that it's more about them not being able to tell themselves apart than any kind of seeing themselves as a single unit phenomenon.  It is important to note that no twin will ever be able to give you a hard time if you can't tell them apart, because they can't either.

OBSTETRICS: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission," Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, and Alberto Prats-Galino10
Conventional wisdom says that playing music to your future baby will make it smart (though there are some major flaws with the so called "Mozart Effect").  You might be wondering, though, what the best way to deliver that music is.  You see a lot of images with a pregnant woman with headphones on her belly, but much like an infomercial, there must be a better way!  It turns out that fetuses show increased mouth opening, rotation, and tongue expulsion when a flute melody is played through an intravaginal microphone as opposed to just headphones on the belly.  The researchers had to ensure that the responses were due to music and not just vibration, so as a control condition, they administered intravaginal vibration, which also resulted in fewer facial expressions that the intravaginal music.  There is no report on how many American Pie "One time, at band camp, I stuck a flute up my ...." references were made during the course of data collection.  If this finding sounds like music to your, uh, ears, rest easy, because they marketed Babypod, a vaginally inserted speaker that comes with headphones so you can listen to the same thing your baby is.  

And with vaginal speakers and control vibrators, my tour through this year's Ig Nobel winners is complete.  For past winners, visit Improbable Research's website.  I recommend 2014 as a particularly good year.  

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Relative Reich

There weren't really any songs about Nazis that I could tastefully used as a title, so I improvised this week.  I assume that most of you have, at some point, watched a movie where Evil Nazi ScientistTM does Evil Nazi Science.  The Evil Nazi science might have been aimed at creating a devastating new weapon, or a race of super soldiers, or a four dimensional power cube, but regardless, it would change the course of the war and is up to our intrepid (American) hero to stop him.  

Not to be too farcical.  Nazi science was absolutely a real thing, and that's what we're talking about today.  The Nazi party, under the direction of Dr. Josef Mengele, engaged in horrific human experimentation.  I'm not going to go into that, because a) most people are somewhat aware of these experiments and b) I don't want to do the research into that, because there are some things you just don't want to read.  Ever.  So instead, I'm talking about a very different kind of Nazi science (that I'll still be able to sleep after): Deutsche Physik.

"Deutsche Physik" literally means "German physics", and was a direct result of the interaction between ego, scientific controversy, and nationalism.  A lot of the scientific sentiment I'll be writing about today is deeply and inescapably entwined with larger, historical patterns in Germany at the time, and I'll do my best to add historical context as we go.  While ideas of nationalism had been percolating through German elites since the 1600s, nationalism in the form that is usually associated with the World Wars began really spreading through the German population in the late-19th century, driven by Prussian authoritarianism after military unification of Germany in 1871.1 This nationalism emphasized the ideals of the German crusaders of the Teutonic Order (1198-1525) as a basis for a national identity- the ideas of willpower, loyalty, honesty, and perseverance.2  Also important to our story is the emphasis on pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic ideas in nationalist philosophy.3  German nationalists began to use modified scientific theories, such a social Darwinism and the idea that races are fundamentally biologically different, as a way of cementing their beliefs.4  Nationalism, not just of Germany, was one of the major causes of WWI, starting with the building of tensions between ethnic groups within countries, leading up to Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated by a Serbian nationalist that was the spark for the whole thing.

Symbolism of the Teutonic order was integrated into Nazi symbolism

By the start of WWI, these nationalist ideas had found their way into universities, specifically into the fields of physics and math, fueled by disagreements between German and non-German physicists.  On August 25, 1914, the German army burned the library of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Catholic University of Leuven) in Belgium.  This made book lovers everywhere and British scientists very angry.  Eight British scientists, five of whom were Nobel laureates (including Alexander Fleming, who developed the first antibiotics, and JJ Thompson, who discovered subatomic particles), wrote a letter in protest of the burning of the library.  One of the signees was Sir Oliver Lodge, who was exceptionally good at producing children (he had twelve) and being involved in scientific feuds, and this was no exception.5

Sixteen German physicists, led by Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Wien, reacted to the British document with an appeal of their own, directed not at the British scientists, but rather at German scientists and scientific publishers, stating that they could no longer facilitate productive scientific interactions with British scientists, and urging four main points: 1) that English scientific literature should not "find stronger consideration" than German science, 2) that German scientists no longer publish in English journals, 3) that German journals only accept papers written in German, and 4) that public money is not spent translating articles.6  This was followed up by the "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three", in which 93 prominent German scientists and artists gave their full support to German military action in Belgium.7  Given that the international community had taken to calling the invasion "The Rape of Belgium", that was probably not the right side of the issue to be on, but that didn't stop a further wave of nationalism from sweeping through German universities following the declaration.  This nationalistic movement was just a reflection of what was happening across Germany.  After WWI, there was another surge of nationalism, as many Germans felt wronged by foreign actors through the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Burning of "un-German" books
As WWI raged on, there was another intellectual war being fought.  Einstein's special theory of relativity was published in 1905, followed up by his general theory of relativity in 1915.  Special relativity was, for all intents and purposes, revolutionary.  In fact, the abovementioned Wilhelm Wein actually nominated Einstein, along with Hendrik Lorentz, who developed the mathematical equations underlying the theory, for a Nobel Prize (they did not receive it).8  Despite the general acceptance of the theory of relativity, underlying anti-Semitic tensions led to some rejecting the theory on personal, as opposed to scientific grounds.  Galvanizing anti-Semitic publisher Theodor Fritsch wrote about the role of the "Jewish spirit" in relativity, and went on to discuss the negative consequences of this spirit, an idea that was picked up and propagated by the far-right press.9  Engineer Paul Weyland organized an entire society, the aptly named Anti-Einstein Society, based on conservative and anti-Semitic scientists who disagreed with the theory of relativity (though they only had one meeting).10  The Wikipedia page on Weyland has only one line, which reads "Weyland was a key figure involved in organising an anti-semitic campaign against relativity. He was later granted American citizenship.", which, frankly, sounds about right.11  Many believed that the only reason the theory of relativity was becoming so popular, and Einstein himself a celebrity, was that Jews controlled the media.11  Wilhem Muller called relativity a "Jewish affair" that corresponded to the "Jewish essence".  Bruno Thuring emphasized the correspondence between relativity and the Talmud, one of the central texts of Judaism.12

Philipp Lenard
And so, a group of scientists in Germany, led by Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, began a movement that would control their Jewish relativity problem- creating a new physics, a German, Aryan physics. Deutsche Physik.  Deutsche Physik emphasized all things German and suppressed all things Jewish.  Lenard contrasted "Aryan physics or physics by man of Nordic kind" with "formal dogmatic Jewish-physics".13  Aryan physics was marked by rigorous experimentation and tangible proof, while the Jewish spirited physics was more based on ideas, theory, and equations.  It was a difference between discovery and proposal.  It was the representation of German nationalism in science, that science that isn't done in done in keeping with the German method, indeed much of theoretical physics, was fraudulent.  It sought to oppose this fraudulent, anti-German thought by simply pretending it didn't exist.  Movement member Rudolf Tomaschek rewrote Grimsehl's Lehrbuch der Physik, to remove all mentions of Jewish physics, even among conversation where it was almost impossible to avoid.  For example, the book discussed Lorentz's mathematical equations, but made no mention of relativity, how the equations were applied, or Einstein himself.14  

As the Nazi party came to power in the 1920s, the movement began to gain even more steam.  A German mathematics journal, Deutsche Mathematik, was published following the same ideals.15  It wasn't just Jewish scientists that were getting left out- "honorary Jews", essentially anyone who agreed with Einstein, were also having their contributions cut from scientific thinking.16  With the endorsement of the Nazi party, Lenard and Stark began a campaign aimed at eliminating Jewish physicists at German universities with Aryan physicists.  This plan never came to exact fruition, though the outcome was identical, due to the implementation of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which forbade Jews from working in universities, as well as a number of other businesses.17

In the end, Deutsche Physik fell out of favor, in large part due to the upper echelons of the Nazi party.  Theoretical physics, Jewish physics, turned out to have some extraordinarily important weapons implications- as long as no one mentioned Einstein or Bohr.  

The story of Deutsche Physik is one from the 1910s to 1940s, but similar patterns are cropping up again today.  Extreme nationalism.  Censoring scientific findings due to political ideology.  Believing that the media are controlled by liberals and Jews and only spreading their ideologies.  Politics over truth.  Letting petty squabbles and strained egos drift into policy making.  Rejection of the ideas of "others".  Politics has no place in science.  It's been done.  It failed.  Be different.  Be better. 

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.  The Facebook page keeps you updated on the blog and new posts, Twitter has links to articles, cool stories, and retweets about the eclipse.  Most importantly, a plea- I'm still getting this blog off the ground, and I'm trying to break into the science communication field.  I would appreciate it so much if you enjoy something you read on here, share it with someone, share the whole blog with someone, retweet me, leave a comment.  Tell someone about me, and tell me about someone you think I might like!  I love what I do, and I would love even more to share it with more people.  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ain't No Sunshine When You're Gone

I like space.  Like, a lot.  My living room is actually entirely decorated in a space theme, with NASA's JPL travel posters, glasses that look like planets, LEGO space shuttles and scenes, and some decorative pillows with nebulae on them.  Trust me, it's totally cool and not kitschy at all; I promise.  My love for space leads me to think that the total solar eclipse that will be happening on August 21, 2017 is really cool.  My love for engagement in science, however, makes me think it's one of the coolest things that's ever happened to science in this country. 

The 2017 eclipse is predicted to be the largest mass migration to see a natural event in history.  The Federal Highway Administration estimates that between two and seven million people will be traveling to be able to witness totality (a 70 mile swath reaching from Oregon to South Carolina).1  That's in addition to another 12 million that already live in that path.  Alaska Airlines is offering a special flight to view from the air,2 United Airlines has worked with NASA on its flights, and Southwest has five flights that cross the path, for which they're offering special themed cocktails and viewing glasses.3  Business in the path of totality are shutting down for an hour.  Thousands of eclipse viewing parties have been organized, at locations ranging from universities to bars.  You can't function as a news outlet right now and NOT have an article about the eclipse.  Most outlets have literally sold out of eclipse glasses. The excitement and commitment that people have for this event is incredible to me- and it's not due to a sporting event, or a once in lifetime concert, or a political rally; it's all about a natural, scientific phenomenon.  That's amazing to me.  The United States is currently divided about everything, and we're experiencing what many have called an era of renewed science denialism.4,5,6  And yet, somehow, a scientific event is bringing millions of people together, making us travel, interact, learn together, and experience something wondrous together.  For someone who cares passionately about science literacy and engagement, I wish we, as a society, had this excitement all the time, but I'll take this as a start. 

I'm pretty sure that if you're a science journalist and you don't write something about the eclipse, they take away your Twitter account and force you to go back to the bench.  But as I mentioned, every news outlet has written something about the eclipse. So I feel a burning need to say something about the eclipse, but there aren't many stories that haven't been totally played out.  Today, I'm taking a historical approach, focusing on the the things we've learned about the earth and our universe from similar eclipses in the past. Let's also take a moment to appreciate that I came up with a musical sun themed title that wasn't "Total Eclipse of the Heart".

Babylonian eclipse tablet recording eclipses between 518 and 465 BCE

The Sun
Historically, it has been incredibly difficult to study the sun.  The sun is bright.  Really, really bright.  Bright enough to do severe damage if you're looking directly at it, and bright enough to basically drown out anything around it.  Now, astronomers use telescopes that can filter out specific spectrums of light and allow them to see the normally suppressed features, but for most of history, the only way to observe these features was while the bright part of the sun, the photosphere, was covered up.  These features, specifically the chromosphere and the corona, are actually part of the sun's atmosphere.  Some believe that the earliest recorded reference to the corona was carved into oracle bones in China during the Shang Dynasty (1766 to 1123 BCE), but it's a little ambiguous.  Plutarch described what sounds like a corona during the eclipse of March 20, 71 CE in the book De Facie in Orbe Lunae: "Even if the moon, however, does sometimes cover the sun entirely, the eclipse does not have duration or extension; but a kind of light is visible about the rim which keeps the shadow from being profound and absolute."  Byzantine historian Leo Diaconus reported on the eclipse of December 20, 968 CE in Constatinople: " the fourth hour of the day ... darkness covered the earth and all the brightest stars shone forth. And is was possible to see the disk of the sun, dull and unlit, and a dim and feeble glow like a narrow band shining in a circle around the edge of the disk".7  Pre-filtered telescope astronomers used the differences in the corona between eclipses in subsequent years to study changes over the course of the sun's eleven year cycle from solar maximum to solar minimum, as measured by the number of sunspots.8
The corona photographed in 1871

Eclipses are also responsible for the discovery of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).  CMEs are projections of plasma that snap off from the surface of the sun and go hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour, carrying with them billions of kilograms of ions.  This happens at least once a day, but most of them don't come anywhere near the Earth.9  When they do, however, they can cause power surges that can result in blackouts and damage electronic equipment.  On the aesthetic side, they can also cause auroras, more commonly knows as the Northern or Southern Lights.10  The first CME was observed during the eclipse of July 18, 1860.  Solar prominences, filaments of plasma that extend from the surface of the sun into the corona, were first described during the Russian eclipse of May 1, 1185.  The observance of the corona and subsequent discoveries of CMEs and solar prominences tells us a lot about the sun's magnetic field.  This magnetic field is a major driver of solar weather patterns, which can have huge effects on the Earth and the astronauts and equipment we have floating around it.  However, just the Earth's magnetic field, the lines of the field aren't visible.  The pattern of a corona is a reflection of the magnetic field, prominences are held in place by the field, and CMEs are a direct result of breaking the magnetic field lines.  Their discovery allows us to better understand the seemingly distant phenomena that affect our world.11

During the solar eclipse of August 7, 1869, two astronomers independently observed an emission line in the corona in the green part of the spectrum.  This line didn't correspond to anything known, so it was believed to be a new element dubbed "coronium".  In the 1930s, it was discovered that this wasn't actually a new element, but rather was just iron.12  I say "just", but in reality, the lines weren't caused by your everyday iron, but incredibly hot iron.  So hot, in fact, that it was much, much hotter than the sun.  These lines indicated that the corona reached temperatures of 3.6 million degrees F, when the actual surface of the sun only reached about 10,000 degrees F.13  We don't know exactly how the atmosphere of the sun is hotter than the sun itself (which is presumably giving off the heat), but it's suspected to be due to "heat bombs", the result of the magnetic field crossing into the corona and realigning.14

Although coronium wasn't really a unique element, the discovery of new elements during eclipses was not without precedent.  A total eclipse in Guntur, India on August 18, 1868 revealed a bright yellow line in the spectrum of the chromosphere that didn't correspond to any known element.  The element was named for the sun where it was first discovered- helium.15  Helium wouldn't be observed on Earth for almost thirty more years.16

Sometime around 150 BCE, Hipparchus of Nicaea realized that the solar eclipse could help the calculation of the distance between the Earth and the moon.  For that particular eclipse, northwestern Turkey experienced totality.  Alexandria, Egypt, about 1,000 km away, reported only 80% totality.  Since a solar eclipse occurs when the moon drifts between the Earth and the sun, this gave him enough information to be able to use trigonometry to figure out the distance between the Earth and the moon.  It should be noted that he was wrong (off by about 20%), but it was still a pretty good estimate for the tools of 150 BCE.17

This one is my personal favorite.  For a long time, scientists predicted that there was a tiny planet in between Mercury and the sun, because Mercury's orbit was a little more unstable than it should be.  They called this planet Vulcan, I assume because it would have to be so hot and Vulcan was the god of fire and volcanoes, and not because the crew of the Enterprise broke the Prime Directive.  During the eclipse of July 29, 1878 two different astronomers reported observing a red planet object very near the sun, and believed this to be confirmation of Vulcan.18  The next year, one of those astronomers, James Craig Watson, along with Maria Mitchell and Thomas Edison (yes, that Thomas Edison), tried again to observe Vulcan during an eclipse and failed, probably because it's not there.  

In 1915, a theory was postulated that could explain the wobbly orbit without needing another planet:  Einstein's theory of relativity.  The basic idea of general relativity is that spacetime curves around mass, which is an exactly useless explanation for anyone who isn't a physicist, and probably many who are. I'm going to try to break this idea down.
  • Spacetime is a model that combines the three dimensions of space (up-down, left-right, front-back) with one dimension of time (which I'll call forward-backward).  It's kind of hard to picture, because we're so used to visually conceptualizing 2D (think about graphing in grade school) or 3D (all objects around us).  But all objects DO have a fourth dimension- time.  The table my feet are propped up on right now has the dimensions that were listed on the website, (length, width, and height), but it also exists in different moments of time, essentially right now.....and right now.....and right now.....and right now.  Graphing the time component of the table would look something like this one dimensional line:

          The time dimension is tricky because for every day objects, it feels less finite than height,                   width, and length.  If you think about the expanse of the universe, though, height, width, and l             length are also decidedly less finite.  If this is still confusing to you, I don't blame you, and                   there are a bunch of videos you can google for visual explanations. 
  • So we have a fabric that we'll call spacetime.  It stretches out in all dimensions.  Think of it like a stretchy trampoline material.  If you place a baseball on a trampoline, it will sag a little under the baseball. If you put a bowling ball on the trampoline, it will sag more, because the bowling ball is heavier.  If you put a really round hippo on the trampoline, it's going to sag a lot.  That sagging is what we mean by spacetime being curved, and just like in our trampoline example, objects with different masses make it curve different amounts.
  • Now imagine you have a marble on the trampoline. Flick it across the surface, and it rolls steadily in a specific path according to Newton's laws: it'll keep going in a straight line at the same speed until it gets pushed or friction slows it down. Now push the marble across the trampoline when the hippo is sitting on it; it doesn't move in a straight line.  When it hits the sag, it starts to spiral inward, like those penny donation cones at the mall.  This is the idea of relativity.

Relativity explains why orbits precess in a way that isn't consistent with classical physics and ideas on gravity, and also predicts that, much like the path of our marble, light itself bends in the gravitational field of a large object.

You might imagine this to be a difficult thing to prove, but fortunately, there was another solar eclipse coming up on May 29, 1919.  This eclipse occurred as the sun was passing the Hyades star cluster.  Light from these stars would have to pass through the sun's gravitational field to reach Earth, and thanks to the eclipse dimming the sun, it would be dark enough to see them.  By comparing measurements of the locations of these stars on a normal day and measurements taken in Principe during the eclipse, Sir Arthur Eddington was able to confirm that the light was was being bent by the gravity of the sun by more than what would be predicted by classical physics and exactly as much as would be predicted by general relativity.  The morning after Eddington reported his findings, Einstein became a scientific celebrity, a position he's never faltered in.19

Historically, eclipses have portended doom and been signs from God.  They've caused fear and hope.  They've inspired astronomers and brought people together.  They've changed the way we view our universe.  There a hundreds of experiments that will be taking place on August 21st, and who knows what they'll change.  

Follow me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and for the love of all that is holy, don't look directly at the sun.