Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Good Guys

In the past week, the Twittersphere at the intersection of science, technology, and journalism exploded at hands of Elon Musk.  What started with a completely reasonable belief that journalism should be responsible and accountable (though based on an entirely unreasonable belief that any negative press about him or his companies is biased lies) turned into an idea of a platform where the general public can rate the reliability of news sources (because Yelp has literally never had problems due to people with agendas rating establishments).  This then devolved into a bizarre and frankly paranoid goading of "the media".  When prominant science communicator and PhD candidate Upulie Diviskera called this goading "pathetic", Musk and his legion of fans lashed out at her and her science.  Upulie is molecular biologist studying drug delivery on the nano (AKA, teeny tiny) scale, as well as the founder of the popular Twitter account Real Scientists, which lets a different scientist curate the account and share their passion every week.  Musk declared that her opinion was irrelevant because her Twitter bio referred to nanoscience, which he claimed was "100% bs".  His fans jumped on that train, arguing that she would never win a Nobel Prize, therefore her science had no value, that she wasn't a real scientist because she has a Patreon account (which exists to fund not her research, but her science communication efforts), and that being a PhD candidate in molecular biology doesn't mean that she knows anything about molecular biology or the nanotechnology she researches (somehow implying that Musk's dual bachelor's degrees in economics and physics do give him expertise).

At this point, The Daily Beast science writer Erin Biba stepped up to point out that in our current cultural climate, blindly swinging the sword to hack indiscriminately at science as a whole, as in the Upulie situation, and journalism as a whole could potentially have some very negative consequences, and that when people with power and followings make these sorts of accusations or charges, they need to be cognizant of the potential impacts.  This did not go well.  I want to state here on public record that I have so much respect for this piece.  I don't think I could have written something with as much grace and maturity as she did, giving Musk so much of the benefit of the doubt and calling on him to demonstrate the care for humanity that his companies indicate.  This also did not go well.  

I'm not usually one to add -gate to the end of every bit of drama, but Elongate has perfectly encapsulated a lot of things I've been feeling for a while-- years really, but that have coalesced into coherence over the past few months.  Although I write and I am passionate about science journalism, I want to come at this situation, and what it represents, from the science side of the equation.  

I write this with the caveat that every single thing I'm about to say applies to people of color and gender and sexual minorities as well.  I write this from the perspective of a straight, cis, white woman, but that application is not where this story ends.

Lauren Seyler, a postdoc at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, made an incredibly astute observation on Twitter in April. 

"I used to think that we needed to get more young girls interested in science but I see now that that was never the problem. We are here, we love science. The problem is creating an environment where we are supported, recognized, and rewarded for our work."

This Tweet really got me thinking about all of the environmental and systematic barriers for women/POCs/GSMs once they're already in the sciences.  I particularly started thinking about the things the "good guys" do that can make minority groups feel isolated or like they have to work harder than their white male colleagues.  I am surrounded by these people in my life- good, open-minded, well-intentioned men that would absolutely balk if they knew that they were negatively impacting the women they work with a respect.  But they do negatively impact them.  

Let's take the Musk bros.  Much like Donald Trump fans, there is a hardcore segment of them for whom Elon Musk is a deity who can do no wrong.  They will go to battle and use dirty warfare anytime he is perceived as being besmirched (well, almost any time).  It doesn't matter what points anyone makes or how respectfully they make them, the "attacker" is wrong, because Musk is supreme.  These are the men that the women in Erin Biba's story ran into.  They are quite often people in STEM fields- engineers, computer/IT workers, people excited about and interested in science.  To a man, these are coworkers, colleagues, and consumers of our work.  And for this set, a situation like Elongate brings up a horrible truth: that for some of the men we work with, we are the slightest perceived insult away from them revealing their predeliction for dismantling our opinions based on our appearance, devaluing our work, or unleashing a vitriolic mountain of misogyny.  This normally won't come to the surface...as long as we fall in line.  

But there is another subset of white, cis males that I have come into contact with far more frequently.  The ones that are the bigger problem, the harder barrier to cross.  It is far easier to dismiss the openly misgynistic and hateful statements (when they come bubbling out), but far more difficult with the good guys.  Elongate has perfectly highlighted this group, too.  

I don't like Elon Musk.  I haven't for a long time, and I'm not shy about that.  I don't think he wants a better future for humanity; I think that he wants to create a better future for humanity so that he can profit from it and control it.  I thought the whole "Tesla into space" thing was an arrogant testament to a narcissitic man and a future that prioritizes these exact rich, white, male STEM bros.  I find his management style abhorrent and not indicative of someone who truly has humanity's best interests at heart.  Frankly, I think he's a prick.  And because I wasn't the target of any of the legion's vitriol, probably because I was too afraid, I am glad Elongate happened.  The situation has led to the mid-range Musk fans, the ones that think he's doing really cool stuff and has a great vision and is a humanitarian, but not necessarily a god, realizing that what we've been trying to tell them has been right the whole time. 

These are the men who think "Well...that sounds like some well-sourced science, so maybe he's got a point?"  when things like the Google memo comes out.  Many of them are rejecting Jordan Peterson on the whole, but do feel a need to caveat that with "But this is a good point".  These are the men that every single time I've brought up my distate for Elon Musk, have challenged me on it.  And not necessarily my premises, but my feelings.  When I say "From my perspective as a woman, this is how this situation makes me feel", they respond that I'm reading too much into the situation, or that something he said that was problematic was simply misspoken, or that it was trivial in the grand scheme of everything else he's doing.  The people that I've spoken to think they're doing a good thing by giving the benefit of the doubt, but what they're often actually doing is dismissing and devaluing the experiences and perceptions of the minority they're speaking to.

On one hand, I'm glad Elongate happened, because a lot of that group is starting to see that the red flags, concern, and discomfort that people were raising was actually well-founded.  On the other hand, there is no reason that a situation should have to explode and become a firestorm before you listen to the people who are raising concerns.

This goes beyond just Elon Musk.  It's something that I've seen in my day to day work in science.  When a male coworker is behaving in ways that makes the women in the room feel uncomfortable, they often convince themselves that they shouldn't say anything, because it wasn't really anything overt and maybe it wasn't really that bad.  When they do say something, they're often not the ones benefitting from the "benefit of the doubt" game the good guys play.  Maybe he's just socially awkward, maybe he doesn't realize he made you uncomfortable.  I have personally had experiences where I've told a supervisor that a coworker who was in no conceivable way above me on any ladder was treating me in a demeaning fashion and devaluing my expertise, only to be met with the response of "Well, it's probably not personal".  

And when these situations, much like Elongate, inevitably blow up, and they do often blow up spectacularly, the women who have made complaints and raised concerns are forced to sit through the shock of the men in the room.  The revelations of "It seems so unlike him" or "I can't believe he would do such a thing", while the women are all silently screaming that we've been trying to tell you for years.  You, someone who may have had issues or at the very least knew about them, are forced to listen to these good, caring guys care more about how the perpetrator is doing than how the people who were made uncomfortable at his hand are.  Should they reach out and see how he's doing?  Does he need defending?  When you bring up that this is incredibly uncomfortable for the women in the room, you get told that you should give these good guys a break, because they might not know the whole story.  Your discomfort is diminished and you're made to feel guilty for it, because you're not being charitable enough.  

A prime example of this is the horrendous New York Times interview with the Arrested Development cast.  Jeffrey Tambor apparently at one point verbally abused castmate Jessica Walters.  When it came up, the other males in the room, primarily Jason Bateman, found a way to excuse Tambor's behavior, downplay the situation, and completely dismiss Walters' feelings.  In front of the victim, Bateman stated that if Tambor wasn't asked to return to Arrested Development, he wouldn't return either, immediately making it clear that the experiences of the less enfranchised person in the room were not significant enough to warrant rebuke of the aggressor.  This comes on the heels of Tambor being fired from another show for harrassment.  Trying to smooth over a painful or difficult situation in this way makes the target in the room feel guilty for being upset and like their feelings aren't important, no matter how many times you throw in a "not that it wasn't a big deal".  It makes the women in the room feel unwelcome, even when the good guy thinks they're doing the right thing.   

One of the excuses for bad behavior that is often made is brilliance.  There is a tendency to forgive bad behavior based on perceived contribution to a field.  To quote my boyfriend on the subject of Elon Musk, "I ... dismissed those things because of the good that I believe he has done".  In science, most of the greats with the most power happen to be straight, white men.  While demographics in many scientific fields are changing, the fact is that women and minorities tend to be on the younger side and not carry as much clout as the intellectual giants.  Even within an academic generation, men tend to get more first author publications and hold higher positions, and therefore have more clout.  Our society embraces the trope of the brilliant asshole, think Gregory House, Sheldon Cooper, Temperance Brennan, Dr. Cox, and any other number of examples.  We forgive jerks because they're valuable.  We write off and excuse a degree of "eccentricism", which is really often just douchebaggery.  Because of some of the engrained institutions and practices of science, this system favors the brilliant asshole male being a brilliant asshole in the direction of females.  While it is absolutely true that sometimes the intellectual giant is female and the target can definitely be male, it is disproportionately male abuse towards a female, and the victims are constantly faced with being witness to their feelings being brushed aside at the hands of a cultural excuse.  They're then forced to sit and watch as praise is heaped upon the brilliant jerk who's made their life hell, and supposed to feel lucky for have gotten the opportunity.  

The same boyfriend quoted above told me to use him as a reference of someone who didn't get it at all until he was confronted with what women in science have to endure.  While I have so much respect for him for acknowledging that he was wrong and being willing to own up to it, this is part of the "good guy" problem.  Women and other minorities have been screaming at the top of our lungs about how science is a toxic environment for years.  We've been calling out bad behavior, doing surveys, writing articles, holding workshops.  We have been telling you, but it takes a personal, close relationship with someone who experiences these things daily to start to listen.  These men have managed to ignore or excuse the situations we've been pointing at until they are witnesses on a personal, not just professional level, or until they're bombarded with it from a single individual speaking solely to them about specific situations.  On one level, I don't think it's necessarily their fault.  It's easy to think someone is reading too much into a situation or being overly sensitive when you haven't spent every day of your life being trained to pick out these scenarios.  When you're bombarded with it, you know which "poorly worded statements" are red flags, and which "trivial" things are just part of a bigger pattern.  Ironically, women's experiences have been so devalued that trying to tell someone that you feel devalued is often dismissed because the listener doesn't fully understand the value of your experiences.  It shouldn't take someone getting fired or someone going bonkers attacking female professionals for the people with power to listen to the people who are uncomfortable with a situation, and the fact that it currently so often is one of the biggest reasons that science can still be uncomfortable for women-- even when they're surrounded by good guys. 

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Always the Bridenstine, Never the Bride

Earlier this week, my mother, who shares my love of all things space, bought me the Women of NASA Lego set, and oh my God, I can't get over Margaret Hamilton and her stack of code and Mae Jemison's description as "Astronaut, Engineer, Physician, Dancer".  This incredible reminder of the amazingness of NASA and the science they've done is weirdly juxtaposed against the terrifying prospect of how threatened all that is; also earlier this week, the US Senate voted to confirm Jim Bridenstine as NASA Administrator.
Yes, I spent my Wednesday night putting Legos together

Bridenstine's initial nomination was protested by people on both sides of the political aisle, in large part due to concern about a politician taking the role for the first time.1  In the end, he won confirmation by a single vote.  On the bright side, he has often extolled the value of NASA, saying that "Breakthrough space technologies have improved the human condition and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives."2  On the less bright side, his background is in business (he has an MBA from Cornell), and his previous space experience is mostly limited to attempts at policy making and a run as the Executive Director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.3  He rejects the scientific consensus on climate change,4 which is concerning given that NASA is one of the largest providers of climate change data.5  He's previously introduced legislation aimed at focusing NASA's mission on spaceflight and rolling back non-spaceflight endeavors.6  He is also a major proponent of the private commercialization of space,7 which could be positive or negative, depending on how he integrates government and industry.  Concerningly for the leader of any agency, he has also been vocally anti-LGBTQ and has proposed legislation to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Although there is a legitimate concern that this business man turn politician will turn into this adorable dog when he assumes his new role (and also maybe some hope.  Who doesn't want more adorable dogs in the world?),
I am far, far more concerned about his previous campaigns to limit the scope of NASA's projects, and not just because of the troubling loss of non-spaceflight projects.  In addition to maybe losing funding for telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, satellites like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite, and threats to current climate and environmental science projects, projects studying the interactions between the sun and the planets in the solar system, and a projects with the aim of understanding how the universe works, limiting the scope of NASA is a distinct threat to what is arguably the most important of their stated missions-- "Share NASA with the public, educators, and students to provide opportunities to participate in our Mission, foster innovation, and contribute to a strong national economy."9

People love space.  They share colorful pictures of nebulas, they get excited about the discovery of new exoplanets, they tune in to watch rocket launches, and, for those of us in the US, everything stopped for an hour while millions of people watched the eclipse on August 21, 2017.  Space inspires us.  It makes kids want to be astronauts and gets them interested in math, science, and engineering.  We know this, because we've seen it.  On October 4, 1957, Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, fundamentally changed American science.

Sputnik was launched during the Cold War, a time of intense tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It threatened the US's vision of themselves as the global power in science and technology and it brought concerns over what the USSR would use their technology for.  The launch of Sputnik kicked off the Space Race, which directly led to the creation of NASA (1958), the National Defense Education Act (1958), a substantial increase in funding to the National Science Foundation, and the pressure to be the first country to get a person to the moon (1969).10  But beyond the direct response to Sputnik, all of those initiatives had resounding affects on American education and interest.

The NDEA was, as its name suggests, targeted increasing the number of defense oriented personnel, but its methods changed education for all students.  More than a billion dollars was  invested in science curriculum, including training programs for science teachers, research into the use of technology in education, and putting new educational tools directly into classrooms.11  It laid the ground work for Gifted and Talented programs, funded graduate training for students with a desire to become teachers and professors, and introduced a new educational loan program.  In addition to math, science, and engineering, it also poured money into foreign language and programs like African American and Latin American studies.  It provided money for vocational training and for guidance counselors to provide vocational services.12  While  a lot of this was spurred on by feeling threatened by the USSR, it boils down to space and space technologies being a driving force in the education system.

The fire of the Space Race went beyond classrooms; it played a huge role in bringing science and technology to the general public and making people excited about them.  In the 1950s and 1960s, 1200 public planetariums opened in the US, mostly at schools and universities,13 and by 1977 they entertained 10 million people annually.14  In the 1960s and 70s, science centers, museums that emphasize a hands on and interactive experience, began popping up.15  These museums focused on science engagement and getting people, particularly kids, interested in experiencing science.

Technologies developed during this time have become integral to our lives.  GPS, satellites, accurate weather predictions, laptops, 3D graphics and virtual reality, and The Dustbuster were all born out of developments directly related to NASA's work over the past fifty years.  Ear thermometers, for example, use the same infrared temperature measuring technology that NASA developed to measure the temperature of stars.

We are experiencing a resurgence of space excitement, partially driven by spaceflight, but partially driven by other astronomical endeavors.  There are still dozens of programs that use space as a way to get kids interested in STEM.16171819  The rise of private space companies like Space X put new technologies in the news on a weekly basis, and stunts like sending a Tesla into space give people a thrill.  I would argue that the image of the dual landing of the Falcon Heavy boosters will be one of the iconic images of this decade.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
More and more countries are creating space agencies.  The observance of gravitational waves by LIGO has landed astrophysics in mainstream news media.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of Hayden Planetarium in New York, is a celebrity who literally goes on tour to talk about space, selling out theaters on the way.  The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system in 2016 inspired a wave of excitement about exoplanets.  NdGT, astronomer Phil Plait, planetary scientist Emily Lakdawalla, and others all have over 100,000 Twitter followers.  Recently, a tweet by planetary scientist Sarah Horst that showed her holding a piece of the moon and a piece of Mars went insanely viral.20  All this is to say that we are, rightly so, fascinated by ALL of space, the universe, and the solar system. Our excitement and inspiration isn't just limited to spaceflight.

According to Tonya Matthews at a talk given at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences conference in February 2018, "Space is one of the best tools at our disposal for increasing interest in STEM."  We have concrete examples from history of how a national interest in space can improve education, capture kids' imaginations, drive interest in STEM fields, provide data that is critical for sustaining and protecting life on Earth, and uncover fundamental truths about the universe.  This, to me, is the biggest issue with the confirmation of Jim Bridenstine.  Though he claims that we are in "our Sputnik moment",21 his emphasis on spaceflight to the detriment of other objectives actually threatens all the same positive outcomes that Sputnik inspired.  He has also indicated his desire to change the term of the NSAS adminstrator to reach across multiple presidential administrations,22 which could impact interest in STEM, education, and discovery for a generation.

Jim Bridenstine's background in business and politics is doubly dangerous-- he fails to see the scientific and technological importance of all of NASA's aims, and he may have the business acumen and political pull to be effective in his dangerous goals.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Remember Your Humanity, Forget the Rest

I was planning on going to the March for Science today, but I live in Minneapolis, where both the March and Spring have been canceled due to the forecasted foot of snow.  Instead, I am inside at my desk with a London Fog latte writing about marching where it is warm and my chances of skidding to an icy death are far lower.
View from my apartment.  In April.

Over the past year, there have been many pieces written about the concept of the March for Science: what the goals are,1 why people will or will not be marching,2 controversies surrounding the organizers and organization,3 and the outcomes and efficacy of the first March.4,5  There have been many complaints that science is apolitical, and therefore political protest is irrelevant or unwise.  This idea has already been thoroughly debunked when you consider that science is dependent on government funding, and that funding is determined by politicians;6 that who science is done on has a long history of targeting politically and economically disenfranchised groups;7 that the government has the ability to make decisions about scientific questions that should not be studied;8 and that many rejections of scientific truths often stem from threats to underlying political beliefs.9  This is not to say that science SHOULD be political, but that for hundreds of years, it has been, and that's not going to change.  There is another contigent that argues that scientists should be apolitical, at least in their capacity as scientists.10  This idea is based on the concept that a vocal political agenda will introduce perceived bias into scientists' work and damage credibility of the field as a whole.  People who make this argument often invoke an apolitical history of scientists, but that's just not a thing.  While the current scale of political involvement as demonstrated by the March for Science, the political action committee 314 Action, and an ever-increasing number of opinion and op-ed pieces is unprecedented, scientists have long been politically active, and to argue otherwise is disingenuous.

In the early days of science, it was primarily privately funded.  Scientists and scientific departments relied on patrons and donors to be able to complete their work, and many of the people making scientific and technological discoveries were not associated with universities and wouldn't consider themselves scientists.  Think about Benjamin Franklin, Gregor Mendel, and William Herschel, the composer who discovered Uranus.  A big shift in how science was done and paid for occurred in tandem with the world wars; governments started funding scientific research for defense technology.11  In the early days of WWI, scientists in Europe began banding together to respond to en masse to political events.  Following the German army burning the library at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, eight prominent British scientists, wrote a letter in protest.  Ninety-three German scientists responded with a letter of support for the German army's actions.12  However, in 1919, the year following the end of WWI, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences released a statement discouraging members from publicly expressing their opinions on political questions, and this seems to be where the idea that engaging in political discourse can compromise scientific objectivity really started.13

This apolitical scientific objectivity lasted until the 1930s, when scientists began to be troubled by fascism surfacing across Europe.  Many European scientists fled to the United States, sponsored and advocated for by scientists in America.  Scientists saw fascism as a threat to the free and open discourse that science rested on and recognized that many of the "scientific" arguments that fascist governments were making in an effort to turn the public against minority groups were, in fact, bullshit.  They held up the Soviet Union as a model for what the practice of science should look like: an "emphatic endorsement of science" from the country's leaders, scientific research funding as the largest line item in the country's budget, and socialized health care.  Threats to this model from the Nazi party in Germany helped to further galvanize scientists against fascism and set the stage for the future stronghold of communism in American universities.  The AAAS reversed their previous position on scientific involvement in politics, electing as its president Walter Cannon, a vocal socialist and anti-fascist.  On August 12, 1939, they hosted symposia and teach-ins for the public in 26 cities, with discussions on dispelling the pseudoscience that backed fascist attacks on minorities and the importance of democracy for science to flourish.  Famed anthropologist Franz Boas rallied strongly for scientist involvement in the politics of the day, founding the Committee for Intellectual Freedom, which had 10,000 scientist members.  He joined with 1,283 other scientists to issue a manifesto against racialism and fascism.  Boas commented that "The present outrages in Germany have made it all the more necessary for American scientists to take a firm anti-fascist stand... Our manifesto declares that we scientists have the moral obligation to educate the American people against all false and unscientific doctrines, such as the racial nonsense of the Nazis. The agents of fascism in this country are becoming more and more active, and we must join with all men of good will in defending democracy today if we are to avoid the fate of our colleagues in Germany, Austria and Italy."  This bubble of political activism burst in 1939, when the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which led to the disenchantment and fracturing of American scientists' anti-fascist cause.14 

Franz Boas, from Wikimedia Commons

The next major issue the roused scientists' activism occurred after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Scientists once again became politically charged, this time against nuclear proliferation.  Physicists took the lead this time, particularly those involved in the development of the bomb, writing pamphlets and giving talks on the danger of nuclear weapons research and tests.  They created a non-technical research journal (side bar: we need more of these) to explain nuclear weapons and the threat the posed to scientists and the public called The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.15  They traveled to Washington to lobby for the passage of bills for both international and domestic nuclear control.  Ironically, this anti-nuclear cause contributed to the overall receeding of scientists from visibly political life.  Outspoken scientists often found themselves on the problematic end of Senator McCarthy's communist probes and getting blackballed from academic jobs.16  

Despite the threat and overall shift to change from within the system, over the next decades, prominent scientists continued to speak out against nuclear arms.  Days before his death, Albert Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, highlighting the dangers and leading to the development of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, a meeting that brought together scientists and policy leaders.17  

Presentation of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, from Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, nuclear arms and research continued to be the main focus of scientists' political activism.  Organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms sprang up, and, while not alone in their efforts, were often at the heart of anti-nuclear protests.18  

Scientists have joined other political causes here and there over the years.  The AAAS was one of the first major institutions to publicly issue a statement against the Vietnam War in 1965; the anti-war movement also led to the creation of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Scientists have lobbied for anti-smoking and climate change legislation.  They have protested cuts in research funding.  They have been involved in ethically based political conversations about banning embryonic stem cell research and abortion.  Almost every major scientific organization, including the Society for Neuroscience, the American Geophysical Union, the Federation of Societies for Experimental Biology, and the American Astronomical Society, has a policy or advocacy arm.  The current CEO of the AAAS, Rush Holt, is a former US Representative.

While a lot of scientist involvement in politics has been single issue advocacy or protest, it is clear that there is a robust history of scientists being openly, vocally, and visibly political.  Arguing that marching for science or using a label of "scientist" to get involved in the political sphere is something that isn't done has a host of historical counterfactuals.  Science is political.  Scientists absolutely can be and have been political.  Politics should be more scientific.  While being politically involved may have an impact on the opinions of scientists, there is no evidence suggesting that it harms how scientific research is perceived.19  

So go, my scientific friends.  You are free to be as visibly politically involved as your heart desires.  If political involvement isn't for you, that's fine, but don't use bogus arguments to dissuade others from doing so.   

In the end, however you chose to express your political and scientific beliefs, follow the words of Pugwash Conference founder Joseph Rotblat from his 1995 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.  "Remember your humanity.  Forget the rest."

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Bring Me to Life

In honor of Easter, today I'm talking about resurrection (and yes, I am super proud of this topical tie in).  Two thousand years ago, the story goes, a very nice carpenter man was executed because the people in charge were threatened by how nice he was, and then three days later he rose from the dead, lived again, and now for some reason people look for eggs and eat ham to celebrate this.  A few weeks ago, MIT Review covered a start-up company that's offering the chance to resurrect YOU way after you die.  This isn't a new thing.  Companies have offered cryogenic freezing and other ways of preserving you until we have the technology to bring you back to life for a long time.  What is unique about this company, Nectome, is that they're focusing on preserving just your brain, with the idea that eventually we'll know enough about the brain that we can digitize it and then recreate you in some form or fashion, and that they've been getting big money to do this.  Their preservation process is cutting edge and has won multiple grants and awards, plus they're charging 10,000 dollars to get your name on the list to receive this procedure.  Most of the articles that have covered the Nectome story have focused on one teeny-tiny little hiccup- that they have to kill you in order for the preservation process to work right.  I'm going to focus on another teeny-tiny little hiccup- that the whole thing is very unlikely, nigh on impossible, to bring you back from the dead. 

Theoretically, digitizing brain activity is definitely possible, and in some ways, has been done.  A neuron only has two states; it's either firing, or it's not.  That seems obvious, but what I mean is that an action potential, the electrical signal that neurons use to send messages, signal other neurons, and make stuff happen, is always the same. 
It looks like this.  Always.  The two little humps next to the arrow represent getting a little bit of a signal, but not enough to cause the neuron to fire.  If a neuron gets enough of a signal, it will fire, every time, and the signal it sends will always have the same strength, size, and shape; the only thing that really changes is how fast it goes through this process.  Because of this, it would be easy to digitize a brain signal, because it's already binary.  For every neuron, a 0 means it's not firing, and a 1 means it is.  

But that's only digitizing what's currently happening.  In order for digital reincanation to be viable, we can't just record what is happening, though.  If we want the recreation to have our memories and personality, we have to be able to have some digital record of the signals the brain has sent in the past.  Not just that, but for digital immortality, we need to have some way for the digital brain to respond to new situations with the same pattern of firing that original us would have.  It has to be able to learn new things and recognize future patterns.  It can't just be a digital record- it ALSO has to be able to act relatively independently moving forward.

Every brain digitization plan is well aware that we can't do that yet, and it will be a while before we can.  There are too many outstanding questions that we don't currently understand.  For one thing, in order for this recreated brain to be "you", it has to have your memories, be able to access and act on them, and make new ones.  The problem is that we don't really know how our brains store memories.  Memory is way too big of a subject to cover everything we know about it as part of this post, but some general things we know.  We know that there are different kinds of memory, and something that affects one type may not affect another kind, so they must have at least somewhat different mechanisms.  We know areas of the brain that are important for memory.  We know that synapses, the places where neurons communicate, are important. But, most importantly for this, we don't know what a memory looks like in the brain, or exactly how to trigger a specific memory.  That seems kind of important if you want your brain, and presumably your consciousness, to live forever; if we don't understand what a memory really is, how can we know that we're preserving the right information to recreate them?

And we are more than just our memories.  Presumably, if you want to live forever, you want your recreated brain to respond to situations like current you would.  You want that future brain to feel like you.  We have no idea how things like personality and intelligence and other individual differences are coded in the brain, much less the beginning of an inkling of how to recreate them.  As with memory, we have no way of knowing if preservation techniques are preserving the right things to make a future brain really be us. 

A map of the human connectome

The cornerstone of Nectome's business is their brain preservation technique.  This is what they've been getting grants and winning prizes for, not really for anything directly having to do with brain digitization.  The idea is that their method of brain preservation works at an extremely fine level, preserving each and every synapse in the brain, to create a map of all of the connections, also called the "connectome".  This is totally true.  They've done this with a pig brain (fitting given the whole eating ham to celebrate a resurrection thing), and it is really freaking cool.  The adult human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons and 1 TRILLION synapses, and this process essentially perfectly preserves all of them.  That is amazing.  But....it also may be completely useless when it comes to digitizing brains. 

Just because you perfectly preserve the structure of the brain doesn't mean that you're preserving the function.  For one thing, there's a lot more that matters than just the structure of synapses: the presence and concentration of proteins, whether that synapse sends "fire more" or "fire less" messages, and what neurotransmitters are doing, just for a start.  About ten years ago, researchers were able to fully describe the connectome of a nematode called C. elegans, and despite being able to recreate it, we still have no idea how it stores memories or a lot of other information.  There's also the question of functional connectivity, the idea that areas of the brain influence each other when doing a specific task, but not necessarily all tasks.  What tasks those are and why those areas move together isn't captured just by having a connectomic map.  Simply being able to make detailed pictures of the synapses doesn't mean we can recreate the information the communicate. It only captures the structural state of the brain in a single moment in time, and that's....pretty useless, honestly.  

Given what we currently know about the brain, there are a lot more questions that need to be answered about how information is stored and what in the brain makes us us before we can even begin to think about digital reincarnation.  However, given what we currently know about the brain, it seems basically impossible that a physically preserved brain, no matter how well preserved, is going to carry even close to enough of that information to be able to digitally reincarnate us.  That's not even to touch on the philosophical questions of whether a copy of your brain is really you and whether all we are is just learning algorithms.  Nectome has a really amazing process that is going to be useful for a lot of things, but making us live forever just isn't one of them. 

As always, share this post, follow me on Twitter for fun science all the time, and follow me on Facebook because of your burning desire to never miss a post.  

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.