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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