Archive | February, 2012

Everything is better with neuroscience

17 Feb

You know that thing where I pretend I’m a grown-up and I talk about serious things? That is not happening this week. Instead, I present to you, reason enough for the internet to exist: Neuroscientist Ryan Gosling. Now, I think the last movie I saw that had Ryan Gosling in it was probably The Notebook. I think? (Because I’m really good at modern pop culture, clearly.) But some of these make me giggle. Winner? “Have you been running laps on my corpus callosum? ‘Cause you’ve crossed my mind a lot lately.”

(Except there is still a part of me pointing out slight factual corrections to some of these)


“Bear with me, O mystery of being, for pulling threads from your veil”

8 Feb

You may have heard that poet and Nobel Prize-winner Wislawa Szymborska passed away recently at the age of 88. I had never read her work before, but one of her poems in translation caught my eye, and I thought I would share it here.

Under a Certain Little Star
by Wislawa Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity in case I’m mistaken.
Don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you for my own.
May the dead forgive me that their memory’s but a flicker.
My apologies to time for the quantity of world overlooked per second.
My apologies to an old love for treating a new one as the first.
Forgive me, far-off wars, for carrying my flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
My apologies for the minuet record, to those calling out from the abyss.
My apologies to those in train stations for sleeping soundly at five in the morning.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing sometimes.
Pardon me, deserts, for not rushing in with a spoonful of water.
And you, O hawk, the same bird for years in the same cage,
staring, motionless, always at the same spot,
absolve me even if you happen to be stuffed.
My apologies to the tree felled for four table legs.
My apologies to large questions for small answers.
Truth, do not pay me too much attention.
Solemnity, be magnanimous toward me.
Bear with me, O mystery of being, for pulling threads from your veil.
Soul, don’t blame me that I’ve got you so seldom.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere.
My apologies to all for not knowing how to be every man and woman.
I know that as long as I live nothing can excuse me,
since I am my own obstacle.
Do not hold it against me, O speech, that I borrow weighty words,
and then labor to make them light.

I imagine most of my readers can relate approximately as well as I can to the transgressions here — the pricked fingers and flowers carried home, the flickering memories of the dead, etc. My entire life, by some lights, could be considered a minuet record in the face of those calling out from the abyss. But this poem justifies it, somehow.

Why Cells Age

7 Feb

I’m in the middle (er, maybe the first third) of a class on the neurobiology of aging. As such, we’ve covered a few different theories of aging, from the molecular (telomeres!) to the evolutionary (grandparents!). There are about as many overlapping theories of why we age as there are branches and specializations within biology. Aging affects all of us if we’re lucky, and all systems within our bodies, yet we don’t know precisely why it happens at all.

A new paper from scientists at the Salk Institute theorizes that cellular aging may be linked to “extremely long-lived proteins” (ELLPs). Keep in mind that cellular aging is slightly different from aging as a person; some cells throughout your body are constantly aging, dying, and being replaced, no matter what your age is. Other cells are mostly with you from birth until death — neurons are one such group of cells. With some slight, recently-discovered exceptions, there is very little neurogenesis (the birth of new cells in the brain) after childhood.

This new research into ELLPs focuses on the aging of brain cells, which is important, as they are not replaced when they are damaged or die off. Culturally, it’s also important because brain aging is a big deal in our population. I mentioned above that some cells (like skin cells or the lining of the stomach) are being replaced fairly regularly. Another mechanisms that cells use to repair damage is to replace or recycle the proteins that carry out cellular activities.

One important class of protein in brain cells is the transporter protein. The ELLPs in this study form channels that allow ions and other small molecules in and out of the cell past its membrane, which is how neurons signal to each other.

If this type of protein gets worn down or damaged, it is not able to be replaced or recycled, according to this paper. In that case, neurons will have a hard time signaling to each other, and the accumulated damage over many years could lead to problems throughout the brain.

This paper is new and interesting, although it doesn’t provide any easy answers, and definitely requires further study (For instance, the study was done on rats, which are a good model organism, but which also have much shorter lifespans than humans have). It does, however, illustrate one of my favorite differences between physicists, who have variously flavored quarks, and biologists, who have “extremely long-lived proteins.” I don’t know what that says about our respective fields, but it must mean something.

T-Minus Six Months

6 Feb

… Mars Science Laboratory, MSL, is scheduled to land on August 5th!


I was going to be glib and convert that 1/2 Earth year into Martian years, but it turns out (as it usually does) that things are complicated. I came up with 0.266 Martian years, but don’t quote me on that. After all, I’m not even 12 Martian years old, according to this Nerdiversary calculator. On the other hand, I’m 92 Mercurial years old….

Good luck, MSL and team! The best is yet to come!

MSL launch. Godspeed? I will not rest until "Science speed!" catches on. Considering how clunky and unpoetic it sounds, I will probably never rest.

In which I am a stereotypical scientist because my first response is “Neat!”

5 Feb

Apparently there’s been a story making the rounds lately, about a dozen junior high and high school girls in New York with what is being diagnosed as conversion disorder, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in tics and other motor or sensory symptoms, for which you would normally expect a biological (rather than psychological) interpretation. The disorder on display in New York doesn’t appear to be traditionally contagious, or caused by environmental factors. Naturally, this makes people a little nervous.

Being a firm if somewhat facetious believer in House’s definition of “idiopathic” — “from the Latin meaning we’re idiots ’cause we can’t figure out what’s causing it” — I was skeptical. But the school district, department of health, and related agencies have conducted what appears to be a pretty thorough check on all the other possible causes, as seen in this report. Some of the highlights (what, you don’t want to read an 8-page scientific report in your spare time?) follow:

  • The 12 cases have nothing in common save for their school, which has been checked for environmental factors that could have caused the symptoms, and their gender.
  • 1 of the 12 cases had a preexisting diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome, and 2 other cases had earlier diagnoses of other illnesses associated with tics.
  • The cases have been dispersed and ongoing over the past seven months.
  • The time course of the cases indicates that it was NOT (repeat: was NOT) linked with Gardisil or any other vaccination.
  • Of the 12 cases, 8 were examined by a pediatric neurologist. All 8 of those cases had experienced “significant life stressors.” (This one seems to be the big blinking red lights sign, at least from my point of view.)

Space Tourism

4 Feb

This set of letters sent to the Hayden Planetarium in the early 1950s regarding reservations for the first interplanetary travel kills me. It may be the best thing in the universe. (Until this, that is.)

One of many letters from kids whose current age is best not calculated

This drawing is the best. Saturn even has a ring around it!

Then there are letters that reflect a serious time commitment:


I hope this was the inspiration for some kind of science fiction. Click the image to see more details.

I love this next one because snarky-17-year-old-me would have totally gotten along with this snarky-17-year-old-from-the-1950s. If you look through the entire slideshow, it seems that a lot of the writers are around 17. Mars: a valid alternative to college?

"P.S. I would like to get out of this world before the H-Bomb blows it sky-high."

"P.S. I would like to get out of this world before the H-Bomb blows it sky-high."

And then some small part of my brain that eschews morbid humor for just-plain-morbid yells “All of these people are probably dead and we’ve never been to Mars and you’re already 22!” Ahem.

"... and as these jaunts may not be feasible during my lifetime, I'd like to list my children as future rocket riders."

"... and as these jaunts may not be feasible during my lifetime, I'd like to list my children as future rocket riders."

BUT the real point is: whether now or in 1950, your average civilian is ready to drop everything to go to Mars. And that is unquestionably a positive thing.

"And until I am in a rocket heading for the far off space, I won't be content."

"And until I am in a rocket heading for the far off space, I won't be content."

“There is a clear trend”

3 Feb

I know this meme has been done to death, but, in my experience, this is how scientists talk:

Especially “There’s science, and then there’s social science.” When it comes down to it, that is about 47% of everything I ever say. The other 53%? “In conclusion, more research is required.” The entire video could have been people repeating “More research is needed,” and I would have laughed.

Which brings me to my second point: You may not have found the above video funny. Sorry about that.