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Photo: Irena Schulz
This is YouTube personality Snowball the dancing parrot.

Internet videos of cute animals doing surprising things can sometimes lead to research that expands scientific knowledge. Such was the case with Snowball, better known on YouTube as the dancing parrot.

Ed Yong writes at the Atlantic, “Before he became an internet sensation, before he made scientists reconsider the nature of dancing, before the children’s book and the Taco Bell commercial, Snowball was just a young parrot, looking for a home.

“His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana — along with a Backstreet Boys CD, and a tip that the bird loved to dance. Sure enough, when the center’s director, Irena Schulz, played ‘Everybody,’ Snowball ‘immediately broke out into his headbanging, bad-boy dance,’ she recalls. She took a grainy video, uploaded it to YouTube, and sent a link to some bird-enthusiast friends. Within a month, Snowball became a celebrity. When a Tonight Show producer called to arrange an interview, Schulz thought it was a prank.

“Among the video’s 6.2 million viewers was Aniruddh Patel, and he was was blown away. Patel, a neuroscientist, had recently published a paper asking why dancing [was rare in animals.] …

“Patel reasoned that dancing requires strong connections between brain regions involved in hearing and movement, and that such mental hardware would only exist in vocal learners — animals that can imitate the sounds they hear. …

“In 2008, he tested Snowball’s ability to keep time with versions of ‘Everybody’ that had been slowed down or sped up. In almost every case, the parrot successfully banged his head and lifted his feet in time. Much like human children, he often went off beat, but his performance was consistent enough to satisfy Patel. …

“Meanwhile, Snowball was going through his own dance dance revolution. Schulz kept exposing him to new music, and learned that he likes Pink, Lady Gaga, Queen, and Bruno Mars. He favored songs with a strong 4/4 beat, but could also cope with the unorthodox 5/4 time signature of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ …

“In 2008, Patel’s undergraduate student R. Joanne Jao Keehn filmed these moves, while Snowball danced to ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ And recently [she] she combed through the muted footage and cataloged 14 individual moves (plus two combinations). Snowball strikes poses. He body rolls, and swings his head through half circles, and headbangs with a raised foot. …

“His initial headbangs and foot-lifts are movements that parrots naturally make while walking or courting. But his newer set aren’t based on any standard, innate behaviors. He came up with them himself, and he uses them for different kinds of music. …

“Snowball’s abilities are all the more impressive because they’re so rare. Ronan the sea lion, for example, was recently filmed bobbing her head to music (including, again, the Backstreet Boys), but she was trained. And when [another researcher, Adena Schachner,] combed through thousands of YouTube videos in search of animals that could be charitably described as dancing, she found only 15 species that fit the bill. One was the Asian elephant, which sometimes sways and swings its trunk to music. The other 14 species were parrots.”

Are any of you owners of parrots? I wonder if you have seen dancing behaviors. Read more here. And be sure to note the videos of early and late Snowball moves.

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Photo: Matthias Le Dall
Thanks in part to his original songwriting, singing, and guitar-playing, physics doctoral student Pramodh Senarath Yapa won this year’s “Dance Your PhD” contest.

This is such a creative idea: a “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest!

Just as almost any information can be compressed into a haiku, almost any abstract concept can be danced. That’s what my high school dance teacher said when she made us partner with classmates to choreograph scientific principles.  And when Page and I started to choreograph Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen to the Firebird Suite, Miss Hinney reminded us that we had to give life to the concept, not do a historical reenactment. Hard but memorable.

That’s why I loved this story about dancing your PhD. Emma Bowman writes at National Public Radio (NPR), “Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has been named the 2018 winner of the ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest.

“The competition, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, invites doctoral students and Ph.D. recipients to translate their research into an interpretive dance. The winner takes home $1,000.

“It took Senarath Yapa six weeks to choreograph and write the songs for ‘Superconductivity: The Musical!’ — a three-act swing dance depicting the social lives of electrons. The video is based on his master’s thesis, which he completed while pursuing his degree at the University of Victoria in Canada.

“The 11-minute sing-songy rendition is far less paralyzing than the jargony title of Senarath Yapa’s thesis alone: ‘Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.’

” ‘Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature,’ Senarath Yapa told Science. ‘Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!’ …

“John Bohannon, a former contributing correspondent for Science, founded the contest, now in its 11th year. It all started at a party one New Year’s Eve that was heavy on scientist attendees and light on the dancing. ‘I tapped into their competitive spirit,’ Bohannon tells NPR’s Scott Simon. …

” ‘I think in general, they’re exhibitionists. If you’re willing to stand up and defend some crazy obscure research topic that you’ve devoted your life to then there’s probably something in you that wants to dance.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Credit: Tjflex2/Flickr
Inside the pupa (or chrysalis), the caterpillar actually turns to liquid during metamorphosis. Despite such an extreme transformation, the butterfly or moth can retain learning from its caterpillar days.

Do you remember being a newborn? I don’t think our species is capable of that kind of remembering. What about other species? Recent research suggests that butterflies have a kind of muscle memory from the good old days of their caterpillar-hood.

An article from Curious Kids — a series that gets experts to answer questions that kids send in — has the scoop. Evan, age 5, asked the question.

“We have caterpillars at home. I would like to know whether they will remember being caterpillars when they are butterflies.”

“Dear Evan,

“I think it is highly unlikely that a butterfly or moth remembers being a caterpillar. However, it may well remember some experiences it learned as a caterpillar.

“That fact in itself is especially amazing because inside the pupa (or chrysalis), the caterpillar actually turns to liquid as it transforms into a butterfly or moth (the adult stage).

“The transformation from the pupa to the adult is the most dramatic change in the life cycle of a butterfly, and scientists refer to this change as metamorphosis. During metamorphosis, the body tissues of the caterpillar are completely reorganised to produce the beautiful adult butterfly that emerges from the pupa.

“Scientists have known for a long time that caterpillars can learn and remember things when they are caterpillars, and adult butterflies can do the same when they are butterflies. However, because of metamorphosis, we were not sure if an adult butterfly could remember things it learned as a caterpillar.

“This ability to remember caterpillar experiences as an adult was tested in a study by a team of scientists at Georgetown University in the US.

“The researchers trained the caterpillars to dislike the smell of ethyl acetate, a chemical often found in nail polish remover. They did this by giving the caterpillars little electric shocks every time they smelled the chemical. Soon, these caterpillars were trained to avoid that smell because it reminded them of the electric shock.

“They let the caterpillars transform into adult moths, and then tested the moths again to see if they still remembered to stay away from the ethyl acetate smell.

“And guess what? Most of them did! The scientists had shown that the memories of avoiding the bad smell experienced as a caterpillar had been carried over into the moth stage. …

“Thank you for sending in this very interesting question.

“Yours sincerely,

“A/Prof Michael F. Braby”

More at the Conversation, here.

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Art: Mary Delany (1700-1788)
Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) paper collage.

I’m not sure how I learned about the extraordinary botanical collages of Mary Delany, but as soon as I saw photos of her work, I headed straight to Wikipedia.

There I got enraged for the umpteenth time about the helplessness of women in past centuries (Delany was forced to marry a 60-year-old when she was 17). Finally, I came to this description of her late-blooming avocation.

“In 1771, a widow in her early 70s, Mary began on decoupage, a fashion with ladies of the court. Her works were detailed and botanically accurate depictions of plants.

“She used tissue paper and hand colouration to produce these pieces. She created 985 of these works, calling them her ‘Paper Mosaiks,’ [from] the age of 71 to 88, when her eyesight failed her.

‘With the plant specimen set before her she cut minute particles of coloured paper to represent the petals, stamens, calyx, leaves, veins, stalk and other parts of the plant, and, using lighter and darker paper to form the shading, she stuck them on a black background. By placing one piece of paper upon another she sometimes built up several layers and in a complete picture there might be hundreds of pieces to form one plant. It is thought she first dissected each plant so that she might examine it carefully for accurate portrayal.’ [Hayden, Ruth. Mrs Delany: her life and her flowers] …

Frances Burney (Madame D’Arblay) was introduced to her in 1783, and frequently visited her at her London home. … She had known many of the luminaries of her day, had corresponded with Jonathan Swift [among others], and left a detailed picture of polite English society of the 18th century in her six volumes of Autobiography and Letters (ed. Lady Llanover, 1861–1862).”

More pictures at Wikipedia, here. You may also be interested in this post, about the botanical art of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter. Potter, as a woman, failed to receive the attention men in science achieved — a century after Delany.

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Photo: Don Lyman
Threatened Blanding’s turtles have been parceled out to Massachusetts teachers and students to protect until big enough for the Grassroots Wildlife Conservation to return them to the wild.

I’m increasingly impressed with the science projects that schools are pursuing these days. My kindergarten grandchild, for example, brings home interesting science kits regularly — the latest involving batteries, wires, and electricity.

In Carlisle, Massachusetts, students are giving a leg up to tiny Blanding’s turtles, as Don Lyman, of the radio show Living on Earth (LOE), reports. The edited transcript follows.

“Lyman: On a clear but cold February day, snow from a recent storm blanketed the outdoor basketball courts at the Carlisle School. But inside the tank where two young turtles lived [Tsunami and Squirtle], it was a balmy 80 degrees or so, and the classroom itself teemed with excitement. I found myself among perhaps the only people with more questions than journalists: fifth graders. …

“Chris Denaro’s students grilled Emilie Schuler, the Director of Programs and Operations at Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, about everything from how many turtles are left in the world, to potential hazards the littlest ones face. …

“The kids were in the midst of a yearlong project to take care of two baby turtles, to give the hatchlings a head start in life, so they’d have a much better chance of surviving to adulthood and boosting the threatened species’ numbers when they’re released in the spring. … The kids were pros at feeding the turtles, giving them fresh water and weighing them, but they still had lots to learn about some amazing things the hatchlings – which they’d named Tsunami and Squirtle — could do. …

“Schuler: Can a turtle’s body – is it okay for a turtle, for its body to be 33 degrees? … That’s the really cool thing. It’s like kind of a superpower of turtles and of reptiles that they can have their body so, so cold. They can drop their body temperature like that and still be fine.

“Lyman: In order to still be okay with such a low body temperature, Blanding’s turtles have to slow down. Wa-a-ay down.

“Schuler: They’ve measured turtles that are this cold, and their heart was beating only one time every ten minutes. … Turtles have the ability to hold their breath for a really, really, really long time. Scientists have even done studies where they’ve purposely put turtles in water where they’ve bubbled out all the oxygen. Those turtles stayed under the water super-chilled for five months. …

“Your Blanding’s turtle cousins that are outside … in the winter right now … even if they were the same age as Tsunami, come April or May, when it starts getting warmer and they come out – what’s the size difference gonna be between Tsunami and their cousins?

“Lyman: The answer: around 7 or 8 times the weight! That’s the main reason why the headstart program is proving so valuable for boosting Blanding’s turtle population numbers. In just eight months, the kids make the baby turtles look like four-year olds. So they’re less attractive to predators like raccoons, herons, and bullfrogs, and much more likely to make it out in the wild.”

When I was in fifth grade, the teacher let a praying mantis egg case hatch in the classroom (and all over the school). That was certainly memorable, but I think the contemporary science projects involve more learning.

More at Living on Earth, here.

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When I was a child, the great blue whale was the attraction I most looked forward to seeing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Now my grandchildren look forward to it.

But in an article on the website called Seeker about how the whale gets cleaned every year, I learned that the model I saw was not anatomically correct.

“The original model was based on measurements taken by American Museum of Natural History scientists in the 1920s. The measurements were of a dead female blue whale captured by a whaling station in the southern Atlantic, and although the artists who crafted the whale followed the original records, there were anatomical inaccuracies, likely because the whale that the scientists examined was already decaying. …

” ‘It was the wrong color. It had bulging eyes, probably due to decomposition,’ [Melanie Stiassny, curator for the Department of Ichthyology] said. In 2001, artists adjusted the body color and flattened the whale’s eyes, also adding a navel that had originally been omitted.

“Today, the [whale] resembles living blue whales more closely than before. However, while scientists’ knowledge of blue whales has certainly improved, there is still much about these giants that remains elusive.

” ‘We still don’t know how many blue whales are out there,’ Stiassny said. ‘We don’t know exactly where they go to breed. They still remain one of the great mysteries of the ocean.’ ”

More at Seeker.

Art: Richard Ellis

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Our friend Mika is back in Hokkaido these days, after several years in New York working in restaurants and perfecting her “house” dancing. But every once in a while she ventures out to help on a street art project. Here is her friend Florence Blanchard’s mural for CBM Network (Crossing Biological Membranes) at the University of Sheffield in England.

At her WordPress site, Florence explains what the art represents, “I am delighted to present my newest mural here – a collaboration with CBMNet at the University Of Sheffield, in conjunction with Festival Of The Mind 2016 / Fear of the Unseen: Engineering Good Bacteria.

“The ‘Crossing Biological Membranes Network’ is composed of scientists working to understand the mechanisms by which substances are transported into, within, and out of cells. Their ultimate aim is to produce knowledge which will enable the development of new technologies in the Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy sector (eg: producing biofuels using E coli bacteria).

“My role in this collaboration has been to translate the CBMNet area of work into a large outdoor mural located within the university campus. For this occasion I have presented my interpretation of a detail of a cell membrane as seen under an electron microscope, having undergone a cryofracture.

“A cryofracture is a procedure in which the sample is frozen quickly and then  broken with a sharp blow so you are able to study its structure in very close detail – Imagine breaking a bar of chocolate with hazelnuts, this way you can see how hazelnuts are positioned inside the bar.”

“For an online animation of a biomembrane cryofracture follow this link: http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/530082/view.”

Check out the WordPress post.

Photo: Florence Ema Blanchard
Blanchard’s street art is tied to a scientific quest: “Engineering Good Bacteria.”

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Art: Maurice Sendak
From
Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s first children’s book

Maria Popova recently posted about the importance of play, commencing her review of Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play with an anecdote from her own life.

“One July morning during a research trip to the small New England island of Nantucket, home to pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, I had a most unusual experience.

“Midway through my daily swim in the ocean, my peripheral vision was drawn to what at first appeared to be a snorkel. But as I looked directly at the curious protrusion, I realized it was the long glistening neck of a stately bird, gliding over the nearly waveless surface a few away.

“By some irresistible instinct, I began swimming gently toward the bird, assuming it would fly away whenever my proximity became too uncomfortable.

“But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed my approach — for it was deliberate permission that this majestic bird gave me, first assessing me with a calm but cautious eye, then choosing not to lift off or even change course as this large ungraceful mammal drew near. I came so close that I could see my own reflection in the bird’s eye, now regarding me with what I took to be — or, perhaps, projected to be — a silent benevolence. …

“In this small act ablaze with absolute presence, I felt I had been granted access to something enormous and eternal.

“The experience was so intensely invigorating in part because it was wholly new to me, but it is far from uncommon. It belongs to the spectrum of experience which Diane Ackerman, one of the greatest science storytellers of our time, describes in Deep Play … a bewitching inquiry into those moods colored by ‘a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder,’ which render us in a state of ‘waking trance.’ …

The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play … What we call intelligence … may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish. …

“It is hardly happenstance,” adds Popova, “that the word ‘play’ was central to how Einstein thought of the secret to his genius — he used the term ‘combinatory play’ to describe how his mind works. Ackerman considers what it is that makes play so psychologically fruitful and alluring to us …

Above all, play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play’s rules may be enforced, but play is not like life’s other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom.

More.

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You never know what you will pick up from twitter. I started following Ferguson Library tweets after the death of Michael Brown. The library has wonderful tidbits about books, among other topics.

A tweeted tidbit on the antiquity of fairy tales is from Science magazine.

David Shultz writes, “A new study, which treats these fables like an evolving species, finds that some may have originated as long as 6000 years ago.

“The basis for the new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, is a massive online repository of more than 2000 distinct tales from different Indo-European cultures known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which was compiled in 2004. Although not all researchers agree on the specifics, all modern Indo-European cultures (encompassing all of Europe and much of Asia) descended from the Proto-Indo-European people who lived during the Neolithic Period (10,200 B.C.E.–2000 B.C.E.) in Eastern Europe. Much of the world’s modern language is thought to have evolved from them.

“To conduct the study, Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, and colleagues scanned the repository. They limited their analysis to tales that contained magic and supernatural elements because this category contained nearly all the famous tales people are familiar with. This narrowed the sample size to 275 stories, including classics such as Hansel and Gretel and Beauty and the Beast. …

“Tehrani says that the successful fairy tales may persist because they’re ‘minimally counterintuitive narratives.’ That means they all contain some cognitively dissonant elements—like fantastic creatures or magic—but are mostly easy to comprehend.

“Beauty and the Beast, for example contains a man who has been magically transformed into a hideous creature, but it also tells a simple story about family, romance, and not judging people based on appearance. The fantasy makes these tales stand out, but the ordinary elements make them easy to understand and remember. This combination of strange, but not too strange, Tehrani says, may be the key to their persistence across millennia.”

More.

(from a Ferguson Library tweet)

An illustration of Beauty and the Beast from 1913.

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It’s amazing what mysterious creatures scientists find in the fossil records of life on our planet. Jonathan Webb describes one such creature at the BBC.

“A 430 million-year-old sea creature apparently dragged its offspring around on strings like kites — a baffling habit not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

“Scientists who discovered the fossil have dubbed it the ‘kite runner.’ Ten capsules tethered to its back appear to contain juvenile progeny, all at different stages of development.

“Reported in the journal PNAS, the many-legged, eyeless, 1 centimeter [fossil] was dug up from a site in Herefordshire before being taken to Oxford and computerised. This process involved grinding away the specimen, slice by slice, and photographing each of those sections to assemble a 3D reconstruction. …

” ‘You take its anatomy, code it into a data set and then run probabilistic methods on it, which will tell you how likely it is that something evolved in a particular way,’ [David Legg, a palaeontologist from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History,] explained. …

” ‘Nothing is known today that attaches the young by threads to its upper surface,’ said co-author Derek Briggs, from Yale University. …

“It was the variety of shapes seen among the 10 tethered babies that Dr Legg found most convincing. ‘We see them develop and begin to resemble the adult form more and more, as they get bigger,’ he said. ‘I’m definitely convinced that that’s what they were.’ ”

More at the BBC, here.

Photo: D Briggs/D Siveter/ Sutton/D Legg
This tiny, eyeless fossil creature, unrelated to any living species, carried babies in capsules tethered to its back.

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Here’s a recent story about how fungi, of all things, may be affecting global warming.

From ScienceDaily: “Microscopic fungi that live in plants’ roots play a major role in the storage and release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, according to a University of Texas at Austin researcher and his colleagues at Boston University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The role of these fungi is currently unaccounted for in global climate models. Some types of symbiotic fungi can lead to 70 percent more carbon stored in the soil.

” ‘Natural fluxes of carbon between the land and atmosphere are enormous and play a crucial role in regulating the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, in turn, Earth’s climate,’ said Colin Averill, lead author on the study and graduate student in the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin. …

“Soil contains more carbon than both the atmosphere and vegetation combined, so predictions about future climate depend on a solid understanding of how carbon cycles between the land and air.

“Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis in the form of carbon dioxide. Eventually the plant dies, sheds leaves, or loses a branch or two, and that carbon is added to the soil. The carbon remains locked away in the soil until the remains of the plant decompose, when soil-dwelling microbes feast on the dead plant matter and other organic detritus. That releases carbon back into the air. …

“Where plants partner with [ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal] (EEM) fungi, the soil contains 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen than in locales where [other] fungi are the norm. The EEM fungi allow the plants to compete with the microbes for available nitrogen, thus

reducing the amount of decomposition and lowering the amount of carbon released back into the atmosphere.

More.

Photo: Colin Averill
The fruiting body of a fungus associated with the roots of a Hemlock tree in Harvard Forest.

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I’m turning to Maria Popova again as she reviews a book on classic scientific illustrations for her blog.

Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library … [spans] five centuries of anthropology, astronomy, earth science, paleontology, and zoology representing all seven continents. Each highlighted work is accompanied by a short essay exploring its significance, what makes it rare — scarcity, uniqueness, age, binding type, size, value, or nature of the illustrations — and its place in natural history. …

“What makes many of these illustrations particularly fascinating is that they represent a brief slice of history in the evolution of visual representation — after the advent of photography in the early 20th century, many of these lavish artistic illustrations were supplanted by photographic images, which shifted science to a much more aesthetically sterile approach to describing and depicting species.

“They’re also a heartening and enduring example of the magic that lies at the intersection of art and science as scientists not only sought out the best artists to illustrate their articles, but also versed themselves in drawing and produced exquisite artworks of their own.”

More at Brain Pickings. Hippos, crabs, owls, whales, monkeys, frogs, trilobites!

Illustration: Louis Renard (1678-1746)
Although there are coloration and anatomical errors in these drawings, all the specimens can be identified to genus, and some even to species. 

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There was more to Beatrix Potter than Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. Her meticulous drawings of flora and fauna made serious contributions to the science of the day.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings shares Potter’s mushroom drawings and more.

“At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life. …

“Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library) — [is] by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear’s prose itself a supreme work of art.

“A formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender. …

“By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. … Lear writes:

Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.

More here.

Art: Beatrix Potter
Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library)

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A young man I know on the train was interviewed on a National Public Radio program about his unusual brain and what scientists are learning from it.

Jonathan was born without a cerebellum. His father, Richard, who also used to take the train, told me how he worked with Jonathan from his earliest days to prove the doctors wrong about what he would be able to do in life.

Jon Hamilton writes at NPR, “Since his birth 33 years ago, Jonathan Keleher has been living without a cerebellum, a structure that usually contains about half the brain’s neurons. This exceedingly rare condition has left Jonathan with a distinctive way of speaking and a walk that is slightly awkward. He also lacks the balance to ride a bicycle.

“But all that hasn’t kept him from living on his own, holding down an office job [at the Institute for Community Inclusion] and charming pretty much every person he meets. …

“Jonathan is also making an important contribution to neuroscience. By allowing scientists to study him and his brain, he is helping to change some long-held misconceptions about what the cerebellum does. And that, in turn, could help the hundreds of thousands of people whose cerebellums have been damaged by a stroke, infection or disease.

“For decades, the cerebellum has been the ‘Rodney Dangerfield of the brain,’ says Dr. Jeremy Schmahmann, a professor of neurology at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. It gets no respect because most scientists only know about its role in balance and fine motor control. …

“Research on Jonathan and people like him supports the idea that the cerebellum really has just one job: It takes clumsy actions or functions and makes them more refined. ‘It doesn’t make things. It makes things better,’ Schmahmann says.

“That’s pretty straightforward when it comes to movement. The brain’s motor cortex tells your legs to start walking. The cerebellum keeps your stride smooth and steady and balanced.

” ‘What we now understand is what that cerebellum is doing to movement, it’s also doing to intellect and personality and emotional processing,’ Schmahmann says.

“Unless you don’t have a cerebellum. Then, Schmahmann says, a person’s thinking and emotions can become as clumsy as their movements. …

“His sister, Sarah Napoline, [says] her brother is a great listener, but isn’t introspective. …

“Jonathan also needed to be taught a lot of things that people with a cerebellum learn automatically, Sarah says: how to speak clearly, how to behave in social situations and how to show emotion.

“Yet Jonathan is now able to do all of those things. He’s done it by training other areas of his brain to do the jobs usually done by the cerebellum, Schmahmann says.

“It’s taken decades, Richard says. He adds that it couldn’t have happened at all if his son were less resilient and determined.”

Read more at NPR, here.

Photo: Ellen Webber for NPR
Jonathan Keleher is one of a handful of people who have lived their entire lives without a cerebellum.

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Douglas Quenqua recently wrote in the NY Times about a study with rats that could someday lead to aids for the blind.

“Blind rats with a sensor and compass attached to their brains were able to navigate a maze as successfully as sighted rats, researchers found.

“Researchers at the University of Tokyo wanted to test whether a mammal could use allocentric sense — the awareness of one’s body relative to its environment — to replace vision. The scientists attached a geomagnetic sensor and digital compass to the visual cortices of rats with their eyes sewn shut.

“When the rats moved their heads, the sensors generated electrical impulses to tell them which direction they were facing. The rats were then trained to find pellets in various mazes.

“Within a few days, the blind rats were able to navigate the mazes as well as rats that could see. The two groups of rodents relied on similar navigation strategies. The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, could help lead to devices that help blind people independently navigate their surroundings.

“ ‘The most plausible application is to attach a geomagnetic sensor to a cane so that the blind can know the direction via tactile signals such as vibration,’ Yuji Ikegaya, a pharmacologist and co-author of the study, wrote in an email.” More here.

I couldn’t find a picture of three rats together although there were lots of drawings of three blind mice. I started thinking, Do children even know nursery rhymes anymore? I wonder what they would make of Jack, for example, who fell down “and broke his crown” and “went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper.” I know a couple kids who would have a lot of questions about that medical treatment.

Perhaps we should make a concerted effort to teach these rhymes before they are lost completely. After all, they are part of our culture, one of our many cultures.

Photo: redorbit

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