Archive | September, 2011

Frankenstein; or, In the Pale Moonlight

27 Sep

This is my very favorite type of story:  the type of story that lets me pretend, for the 20 minutes or so it takes to read it and write about it, that we do in fact live in a scientific utopia in which all major practical problems have been solved to the satisfaction and benefit of all humanity, and billions of happy and healthy philosopher-scientists spread over the safe green lands of this Earth and the cold scientific outposts established on its nearest neighbors can settle down in well-funded laboratories to explore the most pressing questions left to them by responsible and forward-thinking previous generations.

Questions like, “Based on Mary Shelley’s account of the moonlight over a period of time, can we use astronomical data to confirm or deny the chronology she provides for the process of writing Frankenstein?”

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part V: Words, Words, Words

16 Sep

Numbers are excellent. As long as something is expressed in numbers, it seems rational, sane, comforting. Like NASA in the 1960s — basically, it was all brains and slide rules. Numbers have power, but it’s a reasonable, understandable power.

Words, on the other hand, are terrifying. They do all sorts of ridiculous, unpredictable things for no reason. Maybe the psychologists think they know, but I sure don’t. And I should. I’ve used far more than my lifetime allotment of semicolons already, and I have used them correctly. And I am downright Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone about books.

Two words: College. Libraries.

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part IV: Nature vs. Nurture

15 Sep

No, this isn’t another biology post. This is a post about family — specifically, my family, and what they’ve taught me about being a nerd.

Let me start with a story. When I was around 8 years old, my grandpa lent me his copies of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I guess in and of itself, that wouldn’t be much of a story, but the real point is, I didn’t see anything at all unusual about that. Reading mid-twentieth-century science fiction was just what you did, whether you were 8 or 70.

My mother and father, they taught me that reading is fun. I know. It’s ridiculous. In other words, I had no choice in the matter: I was always going to be a nerd.

That baby will be a neuroscientist someday. Also, a major nerd.

It took me a long while to realize that not everyone reads for fun. (High school, to be honest. And even now, sometimes I think it might all be a hoax. I mean, what do you do in those spare hours that you’re not reading? Just stare at things? Watch youtube videos? But if that’s the case, what did people do in the 90s? I sincerely want to know, and I’ve always been too embarrassed to ask.)

Being a nerd means being passionate about things. My parents may have missed out on a few life lessons (“how to change a tire” and “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” stick out), but they did teach me that when you care about something, care about it. Even if it’s not cool, even if it’s not important — what matters is that you care.

And on that note: Happy birthday to the only Dad in the universe who is cooler than Rory Williams & Bill Adama combined.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part III: Crafty

14 Sep

What’s the world of geekery without the commitment that comes from making things by hand? You have to find just the right project — maybe it should be subtle enough that you can show it off in public, but obvious enough that your fellow geeks will get it. Or maybe it should be so outrageously nerdy that it will earn you stares from the normals. Either way, there’s something wonderful about the overlap between nerdiness and craftiness.

I also really like having something that I can work on while watching movies or television, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting time — it’s gotten to the point where I can’t simply sit and watch a show without doing something else at the same time — preferably something crafty.

I made this, and got it signed by astronauts at #NASATweetup. Actual astronauts!

I learned to knit in high school, but only got really into it when I realized all the really clever things I could make.

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part II: Brains

13 Sep

Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t like zombies, for the same reason I don’t like vampires — because I get distracted trying to piece together a way in which they could make any biological sense, thus ruining any fictional, escapist, or allegorical content of whatever it is I’m looking at.

So, this post is about the other kind of brains: the real kind, the kind that don’t provide sustenance to the undead (somehow) — in short, the cool kind.

There’s a lot to say about the brain, and I have a little bit more knowledge about neuroscience than I do about rocket science. But the #speakgeek concept is all about the joy of loving nerdy things, and there are few topics in neuroscience that induce more nerdy glee than the concept of the brainbow.

Take that, Hubble!

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part I: Space

12 Sep

Sometime last week, I came across this call to action against negative nerd stereotypes. My first thought was, “Oh, I’m going to have to do this.”  My second thought was “Oh, I’m going to have to do this for a lot of things.”

So this is the first part of (tentatively) a five-part trilogy. Today: NASA. I know you’ve heard it all, here and elsewhere. I know it’s easy to be positive about space exploration, although a lot of people can get pretty tetchy over manned vs. unmanned spaceflight, and the necessity of one or the other.

I’ve already written (once or twice) about the ideological aspects of space travel that made me fall in love in the first place, so today I’m going to try to do something different. On top of seeing the shuttle launch this summer, I just watched Apollo 13 and viewed last Saturday’s GRAIL launch, both of which got me thinking about the different propulsion systems NASA has used over the years. Limiting myself to just the shuttle program, Apollo, and GRAIL, we have:

The Saturn V

Might well be my favorite to see launch — it’s so slow, Atlas-like, as if it’s somehow aware of the weight on its shoulders. The Wikipedia article confirms that it’s still “the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status,” and that it “holds the record for the heaviest launch vehicle payload,” with over 7.5 million pounds of thrust. All together, there were 13 Saturn V launches, with zero loss of crew or payload.

That is one snazzy machine, and the one I’ve been physically closest to.

Like apes to an obelisk. Astounding.

Of course, reading the Wikipedia entry gives a pretty interesting picture of the history of the program. (I know that some things are just plain complicated, and this may be one of them — nonetheless, I cannot read the name of Wernher von Braun without hearing this Tom Lehrer song.)

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So Wrong It’s Not Even Wrong

10 Sep

So here I am, on a Saturday afternoon, innocently looking to download this week’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, when I stumble upon the headline “Addiction Is Not A Disease of the Brain.” At that point, I know I should just walk away — or, even simpler, click away. I should just let it be. But of course, that’s not what happened.

On the one hand, this article seems to be deliberately baiting scientists — enough so that I probably shouldn’t dignify it with a response. On the other hand, there’s just too much to respond to here to avoid it.

The first point that the author makes, after a fairly standard and obvious introduction with which I have no major issues, is this:
“Let us first ask: what makes something — a substance or an activity — addictive? Is there a property shared by all the things to which we can get addicted?
Unlikely. Addictive substances such as alcohol, heroin and nicotine are chemically distinct. Moreover, activities such as gambling, eating, sex — activities that are widely believed to be addictive — have no ingredients.”

As a scientist, my objective reaction was something along the lines of ” Bu…. Wha….? No.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

The author is fond of analogies, so let me attempt one of my own. “What makes something — a substance or activity — cause weight gain?  Is there a property shared by all things which can cause weight gain?
Unlikely. Substances such as sugar, salt, and fat are chemically distinct. Moreover, activities such as watching too much tv, buying junkfood, and underestimating portion sizes — activities that are widely believed to cause weight gain — have no ingredients.”

A thing doesn’t need “ingredients” to be addictive. The commonality between all addictive substances and activities is their effect on neural pathways — and the differences between brains, let alone the differences between one brain in different states and at different periods within the lifespan, make it impossible to single out neural circuits and say “Aha, this and no other thing causes addiction!” Just as the substances and activities in my analogy above all may cause weight gain despite their differences, certain substances and activities are addictive because they are addictive, tautology or no. The fact that addiction is a complicated process in the brain does not mean that the solution to the problem can’t be found in neuroscience — in fact, I would say it indicates the opposite.

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Bertrand Russell

9 Sep

You could say that staying up reading Bertrand Russell until 2 in the morning for a few weeks during the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college made me who I am today. Of course, you could say a lot of things — but few of them would be so obviously causally true as the above.

The following quote by Russell (source) manages to say approximately everything I have ever intended to say about life, better than I could have done.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

What else is there to say?  “With equal passion I have sought knowledge.” “A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.” There are no better words.

I found especially relevant the lines on pity:  “Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth.” This is the common and fallible argument against investing in space exploration and other scientific research — that the money would better be spent here on Earth, on everyday problems. I love that Russell acknowledges that it’s all right to sort of exist in both planes, to acquire knowledge in your ivory tower, as it were, but still to be fully engaged in the social injustices of your time (as Russell himself certainly was). For me, at least, there is this sense that I’m privileged not only economically and materially, but really privileged over anyone who has ever lived in my ability to study modern neuroscience, considering the advances that have taken place even in the past 10 years.

On the flip side, of course, an optimist would have to conclude that I am to be hopelessly pitied by future generations who feel the same about the neuroscience of my generation. It is certainly the best that can be hoped for. But still, discounting possible futures, Russell hits the nail on the head when explaining the balance between the elevation of love and knowledge and the way in which suffering diminishes even those who do not themselves suffer.  (Although I have spent years learning, as another great philosopher once wrote, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.)

Anyway, there is nothing more to add, except to suggest that you scroll back up and read the passage again.

Two Months

8 Sep

It’s been two months since the STS-135 launch and tweetup, and this morning I woke up at 5 a.m. to watch a (scrubbed) GRAIL launch. The lack of sleep and the anniversary have led to an emotional state that finds me walking down the street to class and suddenly realizing that I am grinning like an idiot because I just remembered that I have actually met astronauts.

So far, no one has asked me to explain why I would wake up at 5 a.m. to watch a launch from ~2,500+ miles away on a small computer screen (granted, my roommates were all asleep when I left this morning), but that dopey smile and the memories of rain and pre-dawn parking lots and the last five seconds of the countdown go a long way towards explaining it.

So, dear #GRAIL #NASATweetup attendees:  you are now a part of an amazing alumni group who can understand just what it feels like to drive up to this view in the morning:

This must be the fifth time I've posted this picture; but it's so worth it.

The Moon and Mars

5 Sep

Until Friday, I had never seen Apollo 13. I know. Shameful, shameful space geek behavior. Of course, I knew what happened, I just hadn’t gotten around to watching the movie. (Although, while finally watching it, I was taken in enough to briefly wonder if I had gotten my history wrong, before realizing that a) no one would go see that movie, and b) Jim Lovell was on the Daily Show about a month ago.)

While it’s not quite on the same level of popularity, I had also been meaning to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy for an embarrassingly long time, and just finished Blue Mars this past week.

At first glance, the two works don’t have much in common besides space travel–they are film and literature, nonfiction and fiction, the moon and Mars. Of course, both are hard sci-fi, in the sense that Apollo 13 stuck pretty well to the facts and Red through Blue Mars didn’t feature time travel, mind readers, or anywhere near the usual amount of sci-fi hand-waving.

Ultimately, the difference between the two works lies in where they place their faith. In Apollo 13, you have the technology of the early 1970s being utilized by people with the best training, character, and intentions possible. In the Mars novels, you have very human humans using reliable interplanetary space travel, terraforming techniques, and later longevity treatments and interstellar travel. The success or failure of the mission, in each case, relies on both the people involved and the technology on which they rely.

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