Rita Levi-Montalcini

30 Dec

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103-year-old neuroscientist and all-around impressive individual, has passed away this weekend. (2012 has been a bad year to be a personal hero of mine, statistically.)

Graduating medical school in 1930s Italy as a Jewish woman, Levi-Montalcini faced unbelievable amounts of adversity from the beginning of her academic career. Nonetheless, she went on to share the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is crucial to the survival of many neurons, and is therefore a focus of ongoing research into disorders where cell growth is abnormal, including dementia.

While her loss remains a loss to us all, Levi-Montalcini was also the first Nobel Laureate to reach 100 years of age, and if that’s not the best that can be hoped for in a lifetime, I don’t know what is.

The Guardian has a profile that is well worth a read. The following is my favorite passage:

“Making her own microsurgical and tissue-manipulating equipment – using, among other things, reshaped domestic sewing needles and modified watchmaker’s tweezers — she began her fruitful investigation into normal and abnormal neural development and its mechanisms of control. Discovery of her activities could have resulted in imprisonment or death, but she attracted little interest by buying fertile eggs to investigate the early phases of nerve growth in chick embryos. As a bonus to concealment, many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”


2012: A Solstice Review

21 Dec

If you’re anything like me (and I suspect a solid 95% of people are, in some meaningful way), this year has been approximately one half fevered nightmare and one half giddy joy. Which is probably the human condition, or whatever. But with recent and less-recent events making me feel like life is an overwhelming horror, I thought it would be nice to dwell on the positives of the past cycle around the sun.

It’s the winter solstice today! Axial tilt: it’s the reason for the season. The days are going to start getting longer again, which is in itself something to be thankful for.

The first thing I am grateful for this year is the ability to find beauty anywhere. My un-love for LA in my last days there furnished me with a brand new motto: “You will find joy wherever you go, idiot.” And three weeks in South Bend provided additional proof, should any be required.

Sunrise in South Bend

A sunrise in South Bend, of all things. Who’d’ve guessed?

2012 was also a fantastic year in pop culture. By which I mean I Netflixed a bunch of tv shows from the 90s. By which I mean that if I had done nothing else this year but watch Babylon 5 for the first time, it would have been a good year. By which I mean I may have a slight Babylon 5 addiction.


Fortunately, I also happened to graduate college (what?), attend two kickass weddings, read a lot of cool stuff, and get a job (again, what?).

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Guest Posts and Science History!

8 Dec

We have a guest post today! My friend Jackie writes a history blog called “Little Histories“, where she posts about such varied subjects as Richard III and the history of the martini (in honor of James Bond, naturally). For her most recent post, I wrote on Charles Darwin and evolution, and she wrote about the historical context of Darwin’s time. Enjoy!

Darwin and Victorian Society

The Placebo Effect

18 Sep

The other day, I came across this comic, on the neurobiology of the placebo effect, from Scientific American:

It is pretty great. For a more detailed information of how the brain can decrease our perception of pain, check out the gate control theory of pain.

Books You Haven’t Read

10 Sep

My (soon to be concluded!) summer of unemployment has been filled, predictably, with reading. Fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, not enough poetry, even some shameful rereads (shameful only to the extent that my lifetime is finite and the number of possible books is essentially infinite).

I just started reading If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, and within the first pages, he divides up the books in a bookshop into the following categories:

  • Books You Haven’t Read
  • Books You Needn’t Read
  • Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
  • Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
  • Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
  • Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
  • Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
  • Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
  • Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
  • Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
  • Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
  • Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
  • Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
  • Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
  • Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
  • Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
  • Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
  • Books Read Long Ago Which Now It’s Now Time to Re-read
  • Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them Continue reading

A Sense of Smell

6 Sep

Olfaction is not one of the topics most people look forward to with bated breath when going into a neuroscience course; at least, that hasn’t been my experience. Most people (often myself included) are looking out for the trendier stuff — consciousness, phantom limbs, schizophrenia, hallucinations. But it should come as no surprise that the neuroscience of olfaction, or the sense of smell, is both a hotbed of current research and a fascinating area of study. The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for their discovery of the family of genes (about 1,000 genes total) which code for olfactory receptors in humans.

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Astronaut Life Insurance

1 Sep

I came across this article on NPR about what the Apollo astronauts did in lieu of life insurance, and I thought it was kind of an ingenious idea, perhaps not surprising from people clever enough to fly to the moon.

The Apollo astronauts needed life insurance.  Understandably, this was a problem:  being the first humans to walk on the moon carried with it a certain amount of risk.

Since they couldn’t get conventional life insurance, the astronauts, knowing their signatures would be valuable no matter what the outcome of their mission, signed hundreds of “covers,” or envelopes which they later had a friend bring to a post office to be postmarked on important dates during the mission.  Had things gone wrong, the families of the astronauts could have made thousands of dollars by selling these covers, which even now can be sold for $30,000.

It was a clever solution to a complex problem.  I can’t help but wonder, though, why at least one insurance company didn’t offer to help out — I feel like the financial risk would have been balanced out by the publicity of being the company who believed in America’s heroes-of-the-day strongly enough to offer them life insurance.  Of course, there may be fiscal or ethical issues I’m overlooking; it probably wouldn’t be the first time.