SyFy in Science

Lately I’ve found reading Science and Nature to feel a bit like reading science fiction. On September 18, an article in Science reported the invention of “An ultrathin invisibility skin cloak for visible light,” which, as the title suggests, describes how to construct an invisibility cloak (albeit for very small objects, not yet usable for human-scale disguises). This came a day after Nature published a neuroscience article on using laser beams to erase memories, and a few weeks after PLOS ONE published an article demonstrating human mind reading via brain-to-brain interfaces.

The next generation of humans is going to be high-tech. I like to think that in general I support new and improved technologies. And for the most part I do, especially in respect to the technologies that have been used for benevolent functions, e.g. the Internet and social media’s positive impacts on housing international refugees, alleviating hunger and disease, and increasing education. But mind-reading, invisibility cloaks and very literal brain-washing: Is this for the better?

My grandparents likely asked the same question when they first heard the Beatles, and my mom, when I started a Facebook account. Reading scientific journal makes me wonder what will dig the next generation gap. Will it be kids with brain chips and cyberthinking skills? Brain chips or no brain chips, new technology comes with the prospect of a new and often scary future.

What I find most interesting is that the “scary” part of this future might have less to do with the nature of the technology and more to do with our conception of it’s normalcy. Go ask someone on the street about his or her opinion on brain chips, and most of the responses will be vague, related to concerns about brain chips being not “normal” or not “natural.” Very rarely will someone discuss logistics such as where the on/off switch would be. Or do they cause headaches? Or would a chip change one’s sense of creativity? In many ways this parallels the arrival of airplanes, telephones, iPhones and other technological devices that revolutionized communication and connectivity. Initial response is apprehension, secondary response is a revolution. Welcome to the world invisibility, mind reading and mind cleaning. I’m apprehensive, but so was my great-grandfather about indoor plumbing.

Supermoon eclipse this Sunday night

I love this stuff.images-2

There will be a full moon this Sunday appearing about 14% larger than average. On top of this Supermoon (already darn cool), there will be a lunar eclipse! How awesome is that! And it won’t be this big and awesome again until 2033, so make sure to watch. It will start a little after 9pm, and be fully eclipsed at 10:11pm the night of Sunday September 27th.

It’s a bonus that the eclipsed supermoon with its reddish tint looks a bit like an oocyst in a mosquito midgut. There, now this is relevant information.


All the news that’s fit to tweet

There are two twitter feeds that I follow mostly for entertainment value. The first is the Centre Daily Times. My all time favorite tweet by the CDT is a link to “Details about the Incident at the Waffle Shop”. I think this would make a great title for a novel. If you were wondering, the incident was somebody’s pepper spray going off in their bag.

The second twitter feed shouldn’t even be in the same league. And yet, the CDC routinely tweets things that elicit exactly the same sense of bemusement as central Pennsylvania’s finest news source. For example, there was recently a tweet urging me to celebrate National Girlfriends’ Health Day. What is National Girlfriends’ Health Day, you ask? It’s a day when, as a lady, you speak to your lady friends about being healthy. Things like exercising, getting a pap smear, and eating right. Split an entree, suggests the CDC.

Did the CDC really just suggest that I shame my friends into eating less? This advice comes at the top of the page, but I have to scroll all the way to bottom of the page to find the National Domestic Violence Hotline number, which seems somehow more important. Maybe it’s just that, despite being a lady with lady friends, I’m not the target demographic for this particular message. But it seems so poorly thought out that I can’t imagine who the audience is here. It strikes me as a public health intervention devised by somebody binge watching Sex in the City. Or maybe a cliche stand up comedy routine? Women, always talking to each other. Am I right?

Not to go on a rant here (she said, mid-rant) but it adds insult to injury when U.S. senators are currently launching another attack on the health care providers that actually work to keep women (and men!) healthy. I don’t want my friends to talk to me about getting a pap smear, I want my tax dollars to fund pap smears for people who can’t otherwise afford to go to the doctor and get a pap smear.

I realize that Planned Parenthood and the CDC aren’t exactly in the same business, and not to diminish the good work that the CDC does actually do, but surely there are better ways to improve public health than National Girlfriends’ Health Day?

I am, however, looking forward to Brovember: National Bros’ Health Month.

Good old gratitude.

My dad likes to send me newspaper clippings. I’m a fan of his snail-mail tendencies. It means that, instead of a bunch of solicitations from strangers for my time and money, my mailbox is normally dominated by interesting tidbits about a random collection of topics.

The latest inspection of my mailbox produced articles on sleep rhythms, Ebola vaccine and Canadians. I particularly enjoyed the article on Canadians. It struck me as pertinent not just to Canadians, but to anyone who is part of a larger group. Be it, a member of a city, a university or a research lab.

I think the article is best summarized by its concluding paragraph (replace “the Canadian” with “our group’s” and “countries” with “groups”):

“ Gratitude, whether to God or our ancestors or the luck of the draw, requires a certain alertness to reality. It is not available to those who lack curiosity. To feel grateful we need perspective. We need to know something about the Canadian past and even more about the misery now endured by many other countries. Wisdom and peace (said the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus) comes to someone who “does not grieve for the things not acquired but rejoices for those possessed.” “

(Excerpt from article by Robert Fulford, written for the National Post.)

Of course …… we should also always strive to make things better.

Brain size and intelligence

A conversation I had the other day on the news of a new hominid species, Homo naledi, led to a comment that the species had small brains. Can brain size tell us anything about a species? Or can our fondness for our favorite organ mislead us into thinking that its size matters?

It’s tempting to think that a bigger brain is better. I think of brains sort of like I think of wallets. The bigger they are, the more valuable material I can shove in. But in actuality it never works that way: bigger wallets don’t have more money, they just end up with more receipt paper, candy wrappers and membership cards.

Similarly, bigger brains don’t seem to correlate with intelligence. Neanderthals had bigger brains than modern humans, suggesting that we evolved from cavemen to current intelligence levels despite shrinking brain size. If we compare across species, humans also have smaller brains than other members of the animal kingdom, like whales and elephants (we have almost 200,000,000 less brain cells than an average elephant). If we scale brain size by unit body mass, modern humans still get beat by ants, the tree shrew and small birds, having the same brain-to-body-mass ratio as a mouse. Even within our species, there’s inconsistent evidence on whether bigger brained people are any smarter than smaller brained people.

How do we explain differences between human intelligence and the intelligence of other animals if we can’t find a physical feature that puts us at the top of the list in brain measurements? By using Jensen’s encephalization quotient. The encephalization quotient, or EQ, compares brain size to expected brain size for similarly sized species. Here humans win out but I find the justification for this metric confusing. Why should brain size increase with body size? The metric also seems to depend on which species are we using to fit a line between body size and brain size. Using animals with more massive bodies, which could be reflecting adaptations for movement rather than adaptations for behavioral strategies/intelligence, changes the regression line. Depending on which species are selected for the line fit, we could reach a different outcome in the species with the highest EQ. For example, if we used only primates or only flightless animals with higher body masses would our brain size residual be more similar to other animals? The EQ also seems meaningless when we compare between species: are pigs less intelligent than horses? Intelligence is a hard thing to measure, and seems too complex to compare across species.

So if brain size has little to do with intelligence, what can brain size tell us?

Brain size correlates well with body size, head circumference and height. Big brains = big heads.