Archive for: August, 2010

Recent Reading 8/30/10

Aug 30 2010 Published by under Recent Reading

Some of my recent reading:

Maggie Koerth-Baker @ BoingBoing: Adorable kitten fails mirror self-recognition test (adorably)

Mr. Science Show: The Sailors' (syphilis detecting) Handshake (you never know when it might come in handy)

Carl Zimmer @ The New York Times: Scientists Square Off on Evolutionary Value of Helping Relatives

Why are worker ants sterile? Why do birds sometimes help their parents raise more chicks, instead of having chicks of their own? Why do bacteria explode with toxins to kill rival colonies? In 1964, the British biologist William Hamilton published a landmark paper to answer these kinds of questions. Sometimes, he argued, helping your relatives can spread your genes faster than having children of your own.

(see also 'Grandmother hypothesis' takes a hit : Nature News)

80 Beats: Is an Ant Colony’s Caste System Determined by Epigenetics?

What does it take to be a long-living queen? Change your gene expression, say researchers who analyzed both worker ant and queen ant genes in two ant species–making the humble bug the second social insect (after the bee) to get sequenced.

Vince LiCata @ The World's Fair: Latisse!

The existence of the drug Latisse is clearly a harbinger of the end of modern civilization, in more ways than one, but it is also intensely fascinating and creepy. When I first heard of it, about a year ago, I really thought it was some sort of satirical article about the current status of big pharma and their slow but steady drift towards more (and more profitable) "lifestyle" medications. But's frickin' real!

Scicurious @ Neurotic Physiology: PCR: when you need to find out who the daddy is.

And if weren’t for a guy studying bacteria in a hot spring, medicine would not be where it is now. I’m sure Dr. Brock never really thought about the potential applications until they happened. But I hope he’s very pleased.
And that’s the thing. You NEVER KNOW where the next breakthrough will come from.

Samia @ 49 percent: radicalism, love and the scientific temperament

To say that most scientists feel discomfort with our own (scientific) ignorance is a bit of an understatement. Indeed, a peculiar, obsessive intellectual unrest seems to propel our adventures through our various specialties. But Medawar also believed scientists possess a "sanguine temperament" that expects to be able to surmount almost any problem given enough time and information. We are not afraid to use the tools at our disposal to increase our knowledge, even if they may be unfamiliar at first.

Daniel Lametti @ Slate Magazine: How bathroom posture affects your health

Shortly before Christmas in 1978, the leader of the free world came down with a severe case of hemorrhoids. The pain was so bad that President Carter had to take a day off from work. A few weeks later, Time Magazine asked a proctologist named Michael Freilich to explain the president's ailment. "We were not meant to sit on toilets," he said, "we were meant to squat in the field." He's probably right.

David Ng @ BoingBoing: Citizen science and why biodiversity is a great portal to discovery

It only takes a single child and a trip outdoors, to realize that it is arguably our planet's richest resource of intellectual query.This is also why I think citizen science projects are particularly wonderful. Many of them do focus on wildlife spotting. And while there's obviously many caveats associated with these projects (i.e. can the non-expert provide valid observation), at their heart, they are a mechanism for people to get involved with science, and in a way which is meant to involve an element of relevancy (i.e. you're collecting data!)

Emily Singer @ Technology Review: A Family Mystery, Solved by a Genome

After sequencing his genome, James Lupski discovered the mutations that led him and three of his siblings to develop a neurological disorder (Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease).

Markus Jokela @ University of Helsinki:  Press: ‘Women are getting more beautiful’ – Getting the story right

Having your study publicized by the media is nice. Having your study misrepresented and misinterpreted in the process is not. The media coverage of my paper on physical attractiveness and having children had a bad start and even worse follow-up. The origin of the problem: Times Online news article sexing up the finding a bit too much (I wasn’t interviewed for this article at all and heard about it only after it had been published). Then things got worse . . .
[this is a year old, but it's a telling example of how the main stream media can distort science news]

See also: Times Higher Education - Trial by error

Razib Khan @ Gene Expression: The individual & social risks of cousin marriage

This post was inspired by a recent Channel 4 special, When Cousins Marry: Reporter Feature. ...  But it highlights that the issue is going to be salient in the United Kingdom for a generation or so at a minimum. As I said, in the United States inbreeding is a way to make fun of poor, uneducated, and isolated whites. ... The American perception of inbred people is not particularly positive, and the accusations of being inbred are used to mock and humiliate. But when it comes to the issue in Britain it is different, because consanguineous marriage is a feature of the Muslim community, and there are issues of race, religion and class which are operative

Tara Parker-Pope @ New York Times: Phys Ed: Does Music Make You Exercise Harder?

... it’s music’s dual ability to distract attention (a psychological effect) while simultaneously goosing the heart and the muscles (physiological impacts) that makes it so effective during everyday exercise. Multiple experiments have found that music increases a person’s subjective sense of motivation during a workout, and also concretely affects his or her performance. The resulting interactions between body, brain and music are complex and intertwined.

Mara Grunbaum @ scienceline: Pees and Carrots

They were perfectly lovely, the beets Surendra Pradhan and Helvi Heinonen-Tanski grew: round and hefty, a rich burgundy, their flavor sweet and faintly earthy like the dirt from which they came. Unless someone told you, you’d never know the beets were grown with human urine.

erv: Immunizations: "If your children have been vaccinated against xyz disease, why would you care if others are NOT vaccinated" [no need for a pull quote when the gist of the post is in the title!]

Newscripts: The Chemistry of Stadium Foods

Here at the ACS meeting in Boston, Newscripts was part of an elite group of reporters treated to a quick lesson in popcorn, ballpark hot dogs, and beer before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. “The Chemistry of Stadium Food,” is part of an ongoing series of events on food chemistry at national meetings hosted by the ACS Office of Public Affairs.

Joe Kloc @ SEED Magazine: Into the Uncanny Valley

New findings shed light on a century’s worth of bizarre explanations for the eerie feeling we get around lifelike robots.

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Here Comes Science!

Aug 29 2010 Published by under Art & Science, Biology & Environment

I've been enjoying the quirky animated music videos for the songs from Here Comes Science, They Might be Giants' album of science songs for kids. Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer of the New York Hall of Science, advised TMBG on the content.

Here are a few about biology:

The Bloodmobile from They Might Be Giants with animation by Divya Srinivasan.

Photosynthesis from They Might Be Giants with animation by Pascal Campion.

My Brother the Ape from They Might Be Giants with animation by Matt Canale.

Cells from They Might Be Giants with animation by David Cowles

They Might Be Giants - Science Is Real from They Might Be Giants.

You can see all the videos from the album on Vimeo or YouTube

You can download the lyrics and guitar tabs for the songs on "Here Comes Science" from this might be a wiki. Perfect for your next sing-along!

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Women’s Equality and Neurosexism

Aug 28 2010 Published by under Brain & Behavior

"... for nothing terrifies the average man so much as a touch of science which he does not understand. And nothing gives a shallow-minded individual so much importance as to when he quotes a little false biology."
~ Woman Suffrage (1907) by Arnold Harris Mathew

This past week marked the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. The right to vote was only achieved after decades of work by supporters of women's suffrage. The "false biology" Mathew refers to in the quote above is the belief that the anatomy of women's brains made them intellectually inferior to men, a claim that was used to argue that women were mentally unsuited to vote. As Mathew points out¹, the latest scientific evidence did not find any significant gender difference in brain size or overall intelligence.

But even when women and men were considered to have similar levels of intelligence, it was argued that gender differences in brain anatomy showed that men and women have different types of intelligence:

For example, prominent phrenologist2 Jessie Allen Fowler proposed:

Those parts [of the brain] which are most extensively developed in man are the seat of the intellectual attributes, creative and volitional, as opposed to the emotional and sensatory, which have their seat in the posterior and lower region; and those parts of the brain which are most extensively developed in woman are the seat of the emotional, domestic and affectionate attributes.

Thus man, as a result of this brain development of a differentiated character, shows a mind endowed with judgment, creative power and philosophic reasoning ability; and woman, on the other hand, shows an insight into the domestic relations, home life, and the social well being of mankind.

This does not mean that man has no affection and woman has no reasoning powers, but that the above named attributes predominate as a prerogative in each sex.

~ Brain Roofs and Porticos (1913), pp. 69-70

Fowler's conclusions about the gendered brain - that women are good at understanding emotions and men are good at problem solving - aren't too different from those published nearly a century later.  And while I think it's easy to dismiss Fowler's analysis of gender differences as  stereotypes dressed up as science3, current popular science books and articles

often cite recent scientific studies that presumably are more experimentally solid than phrenological skull measurements.

It turns out that even those books that appear to be scientific on the surface may distort the science to emphasize gender differences and downplay the similarities between men and women.

As Mark Liberman at Language Log has pointed out in his analysis of the misrepresentations of science in Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain, the issue is not that there aren't differences between men and women, but that those differences are often misleadingly exaggerated:

There certainly are psychological and neurological differences between men and women, sometimes big ones. But even when they aren't promoting their ideas on the basis of "facts" that are apparently false, authors like Sax and Brizendine use a set of rhetorical tricks that tend to make sex differences seem bigger and more consequential than they really are. You can do it too, if you want -- just choose phenomena that emphasize differences, leaving out the ones where the sexes are more similar; pick studies that find stereotypic differences, leaving out the ones whose results disagree; and in all cases, talk and write as if (even relatively small) differences in group averages were essential characteristics of every member of each group.

(read Liberman's whole post if you haven't already)

Australian psychologist Cordelia Fine has looked more deeply at the issue in her recently published book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference.  While I haven't read it yet, at least part of it appears to expand on Fine's 2008 paper in the journal Neuroethics - "Will Working Mothers' Brains Explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism" (pdf).

In that article, she suggests why so many people find the claims that there are significant gender differences in brain function appealing:

What, exactly, is the draw of gender stereotypes dressed up as neuroscience? For men, perpetuation of the idea that they lack women’s hard-wired empathizing skills is a small price to pay for license to lay claim to more valued and potentially profitable psychological advantages. According to another popular book about gender difference, The Essential Difference [1], “[t]he female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is  predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” (p.1). As Levy [16] notes, this translates to the idea that “on average, women’s intelligence is best employed in putting people at their ease, while the men get on with understanding the world and building and repairing the things we need in it.” (pp. 319–320). Levy adds, “[t]his is no basis for equality. It is not an accident that there is no Nobel Prize for making people feel included.” (p. 323).

Fine suggests that women may use the information to rationalize the status-quo. For more about Delusions of Gender, see the interview with Fine in USA Today's Science Fair blog, the review post at Language Log, and the article about Fine's book in the Guardian.

So if there are indeed differences in the average male and female brain, and many men and women find those differences appealing, why is highlighting those differences a problem?

Even thought we may not consciously acknowledge gender stereotypes, they can unconsciously affect the way we perceive both ourselves and others. For example, women business leaders who conform to female stereotypes are often perceived as less competent, while those who do not conform are considered "too tough" or "too angry". Similarly a recent study by physicist Amy Bug showed that a physics lecture made by male actors received significantly higher performance ratings from male students than the identical lecture given by female actors.  Such biases are difficult to counter, since most people don't consciously realize they have them (you can try the Implicit Association Test, to assess your own unconscious biases).

It's has also been shown that just the knowledge of a negative stereotype about the group in which one belongs, can have a detrimental effect on performance.  For an examples of the effects of "stereotype threat", see Christina Agapakis's post explaining how cultural stereotypes about math ability appear to affect test scores.

Even if there are significant differences "on average" between male and female brains, such averages tell us nothing about a particular individual's abilities, aptitudes or interests. I'm not much of a stereotypical "girly" girl - don't care for chatting on the phone, have had the same hair style for a decade and enjoy science. On the other hand I tend to be soft spoken, and like watching Project Runway and cooking shows, and I think of myself as sentimental and sympathetic. Most women and men I know also have a mix of stereotypical "masculine" and "feminine" preferences and behaviors. Pop culture books that misrepresent neuroscience studies to suggest that only stereotypical behavior is "normal" or "natural" do us all a disservice.

I'm looking forward to voting in November.

Top photo: Image from the Library of Congress's Bain Collection on Flickr

Middle images: Illustrations from Jessie Allen Fowler's Brain Roofs and Porticos

Bottom image: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Image courtesy of Dr. Paul Thompson, University of California, Los Angeles.

1. Mathew wrote Woman Suffrage in support of women's suffrage in the UK, but similar arguments about women lacking the intellect to vote were made in the US.
2. From Wikipedia: "Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules . . . Phrenologists believed that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a person's propensities, and the importance of the given mental faculty. It was believed that the cranial bone conformed in order to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas of the brain in different individuals, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain."
3. Fowler's book also has an chapter on how skull shape differences between races demonstrate different "temperaments".  It's not that surprising that she divides people "superior" and  "inferior races", given the racist attitudes of the early 20th century. But what I find a bit surprising is that the  "races" are broken down into much smaller national groups with apparently unique brain characteristics. For example the "Scotchman has a predominance of the bony and muscular structures, with more of the Motive than the Vital Temperament, hence he is characterized for action and thought ... is slow yet strong, steady and firm. ". That is, of course, quite different from the English, who are "the strongest type of the Caucasian", or the Welshman or Irishman.  The book's generalizations of the personality types of different Europeans and Asians and Africans is like a catalog of early 20th century stereotypes "supported" by the evidence of their shape of their skulls.  It's unlikely her analysis of gender differences in brain structure is any more scientific.

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Feed Me, Seymour!

Aug 25 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Kati London - a TR35 Young Innovator - is a senior producer at Area/Code, a  company that creates games that interact with the real-world.  For example, Sharkrunners - a game developed for the Discovery Channel- allows people to play marine biologists, directing research ships.  The real world element are the game sharks, which are controlled by real great whites with GPS units attached to their fins.

But as a serial houseplant killer - I'm down to lucky bamboo and a few succulents - I'm more interested in London's "extracurricular" project Botanicalls. One of the main reasons that houseplants die is improper watering.  Either too little or too much water can kill your plants.

That's where Botanicalls comes in. It's a home-made moisture sensor with an internet connection that posts status messages to Twitter - it can ask to be watered, note when you over water, and post a "thank you" for watering. There are full instructions on how to DIY or you can purchase a kit.

Of course it's not really very practical. It requires placement of your houseplants so that they have an internet connection handy.  And you'd have to have a different setup for each plant. And you'd have to actually water when you read an "I'm thirsty" tweet.

I'll stick with my "finger inserted into the dirt" method,  along with plants that aren't finicky about how often they are watered.

Photo: An orchid set up with Botanicalls by moleitau on Flickr. According to its twitter feed, it dried out completely on November 13th, 2009. RIP.

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Recent Reading: 8/24/10

Aug 24 2010 Published by under Recent Reading

The big news in science blogging this past week was the launch of, which aggregates science blog feeds. It currently includes the big science blogging networks (Scientopia (of course!),, Nature Network Blogs), as well as the blogs at Discover, Scientific American, WIRED Science, Popular Mechanics and many others.  It currently lacks the feeds of independent science bloggers, but hopefully that will change in the near future.

Some of my recent reading:

Science and Nature

Medicine & Health

History of Science

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Classical Conditioning?

Aug 21 2010 Published by under Brain & Behavior, Food & Cooking

Just hearing the midi-esque version of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" of the local ice cream truck makes me salivate.

The one cruising my neighborhood has an additional tactic: the recording they use has a loud "Hello!" before each verse. That really got my attention.

I think I need some Ben and Jerry's.

Or if I'm not feeling too lazy after dinner, I may make a batch of this creamy frozen banana dessert, which is simply frozen banana chunks pureed in a blender. That whips in enough air to give the bananas a nice creamy texture.  It turns out to be even better if you add some lightly sweetened frozen strawberries and top with a little chocolate sauce. Yum!

Photo: Chocolate Chip Ice Cream by Lotus Head on Wikimedia Commons

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All kinds of crap in the first Carnal Carnival!

Aug 20 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Bora has posted the first Carnal Carnival: The Essentials of Elimination

It's a great collection of posts about poop of all sorts (including my E. chromi post), from humans to sharks to caterpillars to rabbits.

The next Carnal Carnival will be hosted by Carin Bondar at Biologist With a Twist. The theme will be barf.

You can find submission instructions on the Carnal Carnival blog.

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Glass Microbes and Colorless Viruses

Aug 19 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Electron micrograph of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus

3D representation of the influenza virus

Look at the two images of the H1N1 influenza virus - the strain that causes swine flu - on the right.

The first is a three-dimensional illustration that shows different parts of the virus in different colors  - the hemagglutinin protein on the surface is blue, for example, while the RNA and associated proteins inside the virus are green.

The second is an electron micrograph image of the same virus. It's a more "realistic" depiction of the influenza virus than the 3D illustration, but it has been artificially colored.

UK artist Luke Jerram was intrigued by the fact that both types of images false in their own way. To explore how artificial coloring can affect our understanding, he worked with University of Bristol virologist Andrew Davidson to create  a series of clear glass sculptures that accurately depict different viruses including the influenza virus, HIV, SARS and smallpox.

Here is Jerram's sculpture of the H1N1 influenza virus:

As he explained in an interview with the Wellcome Trust:

The series is a reflection of my interest in how images of phenomena are represented and presented to the public. I’m colour blind and this has given me a natural interest in exploring the edges of perception.

Often images of viruses are taken in black and white on an electron microscope and then they are coloured artificially using Photoshop. Sometimes that will be for scientific purposes but other times it will be just to add emotional content or to make the image more attractive.

The problem is that you end up with the public believing that viruses are these brightly coloured objects. These are often portrayed in newspapers as having an air of scientific authenticity and objective truth, whereas actually that isn’t the case. You can end up with some images that potentially promote fear.

Smallpox, HIV and Untitled glass virus sculptures

Swine Flu Sculpture

Glass swine flu sculpture by Luke Jerra

I think Jerram's virus sculptures are quite beautiful. However, they don't make the viruses any more or less frightening - or real - to me.

What do you think?

The first two images are from the CDC Newsroom Image Library. The illustration is by Dan Higgins, CDC. The electron micrograph is by C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC.

Glass virus photographs by Luke Jerram.

Thanks to Chris for sharing the link to Jerram's web site!

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E. chromi and The Scatalog

Aug 17 2010 Published by under Brain & Behavior

This is for the new "Carnal Carnival". This month's theme is poop, and will be hosted by Bora at a Blog Around the Clock.

Pigments produced in "E. chromi"

E. coli Bacteria engineered to produce different pigments by a team from Cambridge for iGEM 2009

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is an annual contest in which student teams use a kit of "standard biological parts" to engineer bacteria with new and interesting properties.

There were 110 teams entered in the 2009 iGEM competition. Finalists included Valencia's  "bio-screen" lighting display and Groningen's heavy metal scavengers for cleaning polluted water. You can find information about all the team submissions on the official web site.

The winner of the competition was the Cambridge team, for their development of "E. chromi": bacteria engineered to express a rainbow of different colored pigments. Although the bacteria are colorful enough be used to create bacterial art, they were designed to be environmental sensors.

Displaying the Scatalog

Displaying the Scatalog at the iGEM2009 Jamboree

So what does that have to do with poop? The Cambridge iGEM team collaborated with designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King - who both use biotechnology in their art - to brainstorm potential applications for their design. One of the possibilities they came up with was The Scatalog, which proposes to use pigment producing bacteria for inexpensive personal disease monitoring.

The idea is pretty simple:  eat some tasty yogurt containing  E. coli bacteria  engineered to secrete different colored pigments in the presence of specific chemical signals. E. coli are a normal part of your intestinal flora, so the bioengineered bacteria should be able to colonize your gastrointestinal tract. In a healthy system, only one color - say blue - would be produced, resulting in blue poop. Any chemical changes in your system, such as exposure to toxins or development of a disease, would cause your poop to change color.  Just match your poop color to the reference turds in the Scatalog and you get an instant health assessment.

You can see close-ups of the Scatalog in Guerilla Science's photostream.

Sadly, the Scatalog hasn't been developed beyond its colorful plastic poo samples.  As experts  have pointed out, it may turn out to be too impractical to be implemented:

"I can see the popular appeal of this kind of E. chromi technology," said Rick Henrikson, who helps run the Point-of-Care Diagnostics Idea Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. "But as far as actual diagnostics, conceptually it's a little far off." Developing such a product, he explained, would require huge feats: getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve it, for example, and keeping the body's immune system from attacking the bacteria.

What a party pooper!

Here's a video of the creators explaining the project (there is unfortunately a lot of background noise that makes the audio a bit difficult to understand.):

Video: Jam09 05 - E.chromi interview with Daisy Ginsberg and James King from mac cowell on Vimeo .
Top image: Bacteria producing different pigments created by Team:Cambridge for iGEM 2009

Bottom image: Scatalog display at iGEM2009 Jamboree, taken by jimhaseloff on Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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Contribute to Imogen Heap’s "Love the Earth" film.

Aug 16 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Mellow British singer songwriter Imogen Heap wants your nature video footage to show at her debut performance at Royal Albert Hall in November. She writes:

Perhaps you have clips already sitting on your hard drive that are beautiful but are just gathering digital dust, or maybe film gathering a layer of the real stuff in the attic. They need a home too!
It could be a sunrise from your bedroom window, underwater deep sea diving, a flower in a pavement crack, mist over mountains, reeds in rivers, a rare wild cat, rolling desert dunes, the northern lights, a sycamore seed helicoptering down or a cotton wool cloud.
We want everyone to explore the colours, lights, shades, rhythms and patterns of nature. Moments that fill us with wonder.

No people and no pets, but otherwise any sort of nature goes.

Check out the promo video to get a sense of Heap's style, musically and otherwise.

See the official site for "Love the Earth" for details and instructions for submitting your video

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