Archive | August, 2011

People Like You

26 Aug

That’s generally not a good phrase, is it? “People like you,” I mean. Implying, as it does, people not like me. If someone starts a sentence with “People like you,” odds are it won’t end well. It also tends to pick out one characteristic of an individual and generalize it to a group, which is rarely useful and even more rarely a reflection of real-world conditions.

So today, after my first week of classes, when I was waiting in line at CVS to buy milk, I had a conversation that subverted my expectations on so many levels. An older man was waiting in line ahead of me — not older older, but older than I am — and there was one girl at the register for about six of us in line. The man must have noticed that I was wearing my typical it’s-Friday-I-don’t-care college shirt, because he asked me how I was enjoying school.

It’s great, I said, because honestly, I just wanted to buy milk, go home, have some lunch, and read Blue Mars (I know, it’s Friday, but it’s a good book.)

Then he asked me if I was a freshman, which was kind of weird, but again, the Friday-I-don’t-care-buying-milk thing was not so grown-up looking. Still, it was enough to make me glance toward the self-checkout machines, half of which were nonfunctional.

So I told him I was a senior, and he said that was good. I agreed. The Yeah, one more year response has become instinct with me anyway.

Then he asked me what my major was, which was at least a more natural progression of the conversation. I told him neuroscience, and he said, That’s good, curing diseases. I couldn’t help but smile then, but I didn’t bother contradicting him or clarifying, because, when it comes to biology, it’s all interconnected, anyway.

Then, the kicker: My daughter beat leukemia because of people like you.

I managed to stammer out some sort of congratulations and expression of admiration at his daughter’s accomplishment, or something, probably. I think. It was difficult.

Because what I really wanted to say was this: It couldn’t have been people like me. People like me take nothing seriously, and will ignore the real world in favor of a good book, and drink coffee way too late in the evening. People like me get the giggles anytime someone else is being particularly Serious-with-a-capital-S. If the Earth depends on people like me, then, sir, we are in trouble. People like me call other people “sir” in mental dialogue because they have watched too much military sci fi and read too much George R.R. Martin. People like me would rather listen to TED talks and bake banana bread than do real work. People like me are a mess.

But upon further reflection, I guess that’s the human condition — not the GRRM or the banana bread in particular, but being a mess in general. There are probably exceptions — astronauts, Steven Moffat, I mean, people who really have things together. But mostly, people like me are the ones that get people through leukemia, and build rockets, and heroically contend with befuddled CVS customers on a Friday afternoon. People like me do cure diseases, after all — and so, therefore, do people like you.

Proteins Walking

24 Aug

This semester, I’m finally taking a course in neurobiology. I have loved my general biology classes (seriously, the kidneys and the immune system are both beyond cool, and I would happily study either one if I weren’t already so emotionally invested in neuroscience), but I’m glad to finally get into the really interesting, specific stuff.

Really, the only problem with this class is that when I tell people about it, they blink at the word “neurobiology.” It’s a weirdly common reaction–and I try to take it as a reaction to the lack of neuroscientists in the general population rather than as a reflection on me, personally.

Anyway, the first few lectures have mostly been review, but I just thought I’d share something cool about neurons. First of all, neurons can be as small as your average cell, but they can also be over a meter long in humans — think the neuron that leaves your spinal cord and signals the muscles in your big toe to move — that’s all one long neuron, which averages about a meter in length in adults. Even in the smallest neurons, proteins and neurotransmitters must be synthesized in the cell body, and transported throughout the cell to where they are needed.

This video shows how kinesins move down microtubules, which extend all the way down from the cell body (the blobby part with the nucleus in your stereotyped neuron diagram) to the end of the axon (the long projection from the cell body that sends signals on to the next neuron or cell in the signaling pathway).

Kinesins move from the cell body (soma) to the end of the axon (nerve terminal). Dyneins, on the other hand, carry things from the axon terminal back up to the soma — so, for instance, worn-out parts that need to be degraded.

I love its cartoonishness. The two “feet” really do walk down the microtubules like that (of course, even in the largest neurons, this is all two tiny to see in such detail, and the colors are not so…  well, colorful). The stalk on top of the feet carries cargoes of neurotransmitters and other proteins that were produced in the body of the cell, down to the nerve terminal, where they are used or released as needed. Since proteins can’t be synthesized in the nerve terminals, things like neurotransmitters and membrane proteins constantly need to be replenished as they are released or worn out.

What’s really important to remember is the microscopic scale on which this all takes place. The kinesin protein is about 4 or 5 centimeters tall on my computer screen; in real life, a kinesin protein measures about 50 nanometers — a nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter, or one millionth of a millimeter. That means a kinesin molecule has to travel approximately 20,000,000 times its own length to travel from the base of your spinal cord to your big toe.  If (as Wikipedia says) the average American woman from 2003 to 2006 was 5 feet 4 inches tall, this would be the equivalent of walking 20,202.02 miles, which is nearly once around the equator.

Of course, this is based on sloppy cheap-calculator math, and is a pretty sketchy analogy anyway, because kinesin molecules don’t have legs, and “walking” cargo from one end of the cell to another is their sole function.

Still here are these unimaginably tiny yet incredibly complex structures walking down meters of microtubules in axons, just so you can move your big toe — or do anything at all, like, say, be a sentient being. Pretty neat.

Of Neurons and Photons

17 Aug

I’m currently settling into my new apartment for senior year, but I did have time to see this headline this morning:  “Holograms Reveal Brain’s Inner Workings.”

Obviously, the first thing I thought of was this:

I mean, obviously.

The real article, as usual, is simultaneously cooler and less cool than science fiction. I love that the intro compares bringing neurons into sharper focus with bringing astronomical objects into view. I like to think we have two final frontiers, equally in importance but opposite in direction.

The article states that this new microscopy technique (Digital Holographic Microscopy, or DHM) “accurately visualizes the electrical activities of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, in real-time, without damaging them with electrodes, which can only record activity from a few neurons at a time.”

And “Accurately visualizing the electrical activities of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, in real-time” is kind of major. Our ability to monitor brain activity is honestly not that great. It’s been improving for decades now, but it’s still not what one could wish for. And it is the electrical activity that’s a big deal, not necessarily just the shapes and positions of neurons, which can be measured (although the measuring itself may damage or distort them) in usually more invasive and old-fashioned ways.

So, if there are no major drawbacks or flaws, this is a pretty important new technology, and could hasten the process of research in the field. (As opposed to the above Firefly scene, which is shiny, but really, what does that accomplish that a computer screen couldn’t accomplish? Also, Firefly + neuroscience + the level of scientific hand-waving I am willing to put up with in fiction for the sake of a good story is a whole different post.)

10 Things I Learned This Summer

15 Aug

Classes don’t start for another week, but for me, leaving Chicago for Los Angeles always signals the end of the summer. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on how–cool?  brilliant?  amazing?  rad?  ace?  brilliant?–this summer has been. So here are 10 things I know now that I did not know in May.

1) No matter what Google Maps says, this is not SpaceX.


2) Camera lenses got just as fogged-up in Florida humidity as glasses do.

Also a testament to my photography skills.

3) Elmo is sassy in person.

And astronauts are cool.

4) Ned Stark does not always make the best life choices.

Par for the course.

5) Watching an EVA (spacewalk) during a power-and-internet-outage sans car is worth a half-hour trek to the nearest Starbucks.

I couldn't dry my hair in the morning, but I could watch people working in orbit.

6) Space Corps Directive 1694 states that, during temporal disturbances, no questions shall be raised about any crew member whose timesheet shows him or her clocking off 187 years before he clocked on.

Also that it's cold outside, there's no sort of atmosphere.

7) During a shuttle launch, the heat will kill you at 400 feet away.  At 800 feet away, the sound will kill you. (Also, by consistently telling this to people as a “fun fact,” I have learned that I overuse the phrase “fun fact.”)

Obviously, we were not this close on launch day.

8) Tim Minchin is both really nice in person and really funny live.

"I mean, I think you're special, but you fall within a bell curve."

9) Embroidery is fun.

Possibly too much fun.

10) It is possible to get goosebumps in 90-degree heat.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Literary Science Fiction

14 Aug

There are only a few phrases in the English language more beautiful than “literary science fiction.” Perhaps “the results supported our hypothesis.” Or “We are go for launch.” Anyway, “literary science fiction” is up there. NPR just released their not-very-scientific (which they have repeatedly admitted to) list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. First of all: Yay! Here it is. (I love the robot graphic at the top.)

Seriously, love this robot.

I’m really excited about all of these book recommendations, but obviously, this is mainly interesting for its implications about the voters. This being NPR, they actually have an article about precisely that. I, like the author, would have loved to have separate science fiction and fantasy lists. But I’m also interested in the fact that this seems to reflect the reality of who’s reading what, purely as a popularity contest. Personally, I have read 7 of the top 10, but only 33 of the total top 100. I made you a graph!

Percent of books I've read by placement level on NPR's list.

Since the whole thing’s based on popularity, here are my favorites:

Dune (#4). Reading Dune was sort of my final step in allowing myself to embrace full and public nerdiness. If I can reference the Kwisatz Haderach without flinching, then everything else must be easy by comparison.

A Song of Ice and Fire (#5). This has consumed such a significant percentage of my summer this year. The show also happens to be one of the best things currently on television.

The Foundation Trilogy (#8). My grandpa lent me his old copies of these books when I was about 8. I remember reading and enjoying them, but I couldn’t remember them very well plot-wise, so I reread them last year–the ending still shocked me. Whether that says more about the quality of the story or me, I can’t say.

The Martian Chronicles (#27). Ray Bradbury’s writing is, in my book, about the closest that fiction comes to the emotions of the real-life Moon landing.

Contact (#50). Carl Sagan writing science fiction: what could go wrong? Plus, a strong, realistic female protagonist! Thank goodness.

And on the strength of repeated recommendations, I’ve picked up the Mars Trilogy (#95) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (#79).

Life After the Shuttle

13 Aug

The Atlantic once again has a great photo essay, this time on the future of NASA. It doesn’t really contain anything new, but it’s a very convenient collection of things that have been going on in the recent past and will be going on in the immediate future. Here’s the link.

Picture #24

Pictures like #24, of the surface of Mars, sometimes strike me as incredibly strange:  this is a real planet, with an actual surface, that one (I) could theoretically walk on. For a long time, my desktop background was a NASA image of a sunset on Mars. I have a poor sense of distance, along with a terrible sense of direction, so, on a purely intuitive, illogical level, it seems no more unreasonable to my brain to imagine walking on Mars than it does to imagine walking in the Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center after a two-hour flight.

Sunset on mars, via NASA.

There are also a few Cassini images, an awesome picture of the James Webb Space Telescope, and many more. Definitely worth a look, especially if you still need convincing that a) NASA is not “over” with the end of the Shuttle program, or b) the JWST deserves saving.

Regarding Stress and Vampires

13 Aug

This Science Daily article, “Increased Light May Moderate Fearful Reactions,” seems to support an age-old truth: that the dark is scary. I try to be rational. I mean, really rational. But truthfully, when our power was out for two days, and I made the uniquely poor life choice to read the last 100 pages of Blindsight by flashlight while everyone else in my house was asleep.

Objectively, I knew no resurrected genetic vampires were outside of my door. But that didn’t stop me from being afraid.

I even took a picture while reading Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere later that night--I wanted to document the level of my poor decision-making skills under the influence of a lack of air-conditioning and internet.

This study looked at learned fear responses in mice, which is an interesting specification, just as much so in humans as in mice. Behavior and psychology are effected by previous experience, and it’s reasonable to expect that one major factor that would be encoded in a memory would be the level of light or lack thereof at the time the event took place. Therefore, an initial slight instinctive propensity for heightened fear responses in low-light conditions would presumably be strengthened by experience.

The article gives a good explanation of fear as we understand it:

Fear is a natural mechanism for survival. Some fears — such as of loud noise, sudden movements and heights — appear to be innate. Humans and other mammals also learn from their experiences, which include dangerous or bad situations. This “learned fear” can protect us from dangers.

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