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The Thin Line between Genius and Insanity

April 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Working for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum this semester, I’ve met a lot of scientists at the top of their fields.  They all have one thing in common: they’re slightly insane.  Whether only insane people choose to work for the museum or working for the museum slowly makes you crazy is still unclear to me.  One thing is certain though–nearly everyone I’ve met there is more eccentric than your average non-scientist.  A few of their eccentricities include making a hobby out of macerating road kill to clean their skeletons (so as not to waste a good specimen) and enjoying memorizing Latin binomial nomenclature to a ridiculous degree.  Not to mention a generally odd sense of humor which is at times morbid.

I find it interesting that this personality type is often correlated with a career in science.  I wonder what it is is about science that attracts these weirdos (which I say completely affectionately and knowing I probably am or am on my way to becoming just as eccentric).

Categories: Uncategorized

Math and…Art??

April 26, 2012 3 comments

As a huge math nerd and art hobbyist (especially photography), I get really excited when the two overlap. Have you ever heard of the Fibonacci sequence? It starts with 0, 1, then continues with each term equaling the sum of the previous two:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc.

What’s fascinating about the Fibonacci sequence is that it appears everywhere in nature in the form of the golden ratio.  Dividing a number in the sequence by the preceding number approximates the golden ratio (the approximation becomes more accurate the further down the sequence the numbers are and approaches ~1.618).  This ratio is expressed in the dimensions of conch shell spirals, the arrangement of branches on trees, the formation of petals on flowers, and even in proportions of the human body.

The golden ratio is used in art because shapes which express the ratio are more appealing to the eye–more beautiful.  In photography, a common composition technique is the “rule-of-thirds” in which the subject or horizon line is placed a third of the way from the frame.  This makes more interesting photographs than if the subject were in the center, and it works because it was derived from the golden ratio.

I think it’s incredible that this simple mathematical pattern seems to govern nature and even how we perceive beauty!

ASL and the Brain

April 23, 2012 7 comments

As someone who is hard-of-hearing, I’ve been fascinated for a long time by sign languages and have been learning American Sign Language (ASL) for awhile now.  I find myself constantly trying to dispel misconceptions and increase awareness about the third most spoken language in the United States.  For example, many think that you must spell every word out, that it is just English on the hands and not an independent language, or that there is a universal sign language that deaf people everywhere use–but these are all false.  One aspect I find particularly interesting about sign languages is that even though they are visual and not auditory-based, there are studies that suggest signing uses the same parts of the brain as spoken language.

This article explains that the regions of the brain, Broca’s and Wernike’s areas, are respectively vital to language production an comprehension.  Despite using completely different senses and muscles, stroke damage to these areas in hearing and deaf people had similar negative effects on their ability to communicate.  One possible difference between the brain usage of talkers and signers might exist in the right hemisphere, according to the article.  ASL may use the right hemisphere more due to the spatial processing and facial expression interpreting required.

This and other studies are not conclusive, but it’s fascinating to think how the same areas of the brain may be responsible for such different means of communication!

Censored Science

April 2, 2012 2 comments

I read this article (http://news.yahoo.com/panel-backs-sharing-studies-lab-made-bird-flu-211908237.html) today which I thought raised an interesting issue to discuss. According to the article, scientists in Wisconsin and the Netherlands successfully engineered a bird-flu virus.  This lab-made virus might easily spread among humans.  The debate began when the U.S. government requested the scientists not publish their work for fear of terrorists using it to create a pandemic.  However, publishing the results of this research may help scientists around the world develop vaccines and keep up with the virus’ mutations.  Eventually it was decided to partially publish the research, leaving out crucial information that could make it dangerous in the wrong hands.

The larger issue here is should the government be able to censor scientific publications?  The free communication of research among science enables collaborative work and speeds scientific advancement, but some advances could be used as weapons.  What do you think?

Quantum Uncertainty and the Limit of Knowledge

February 26, 2012 3 comments

Quantum mechanics has always fascinated me.  It is the field of science in which science loses all intuitiveness–particles have probabilistic, not definite properties.   This submicroscopic level  is so beyond the grasp of our minds that even expert physicists have only a superficial understanding of its inner workings.

I recently read this article about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: http://news.yahoo.com/wacky-physics-uncertainty-uncertainty-principle-160401302.html  In overly simplistic terms, the uncertainty principle states that the measurement of one attribute of a quantum particle (such as position) will decrease the accuracy of the measurement of another (such as momentum).  Our observation affects what we observe.

The uncertainty principle is sometimes generalized to state there is a limit to how well we are capable of understanding the universe, that there is a limit to human knowledge.  It is often the belief (or at least hope) of scientists that full understanding is possible and even inevitable with time, but could there really be a dead end in scientific progress?  Will physics become a Sisyphean task?  Will we ever give up, disappointed or stop, content in the knowledge we have gained?

The Dangers of Trusting Scientists with Science

January 25, 2012 12 comments

Even if you’re not as ardent a fanatic as I am of Michael Crichton, you’ve at least heard of the movie, Jurassic Park, based on his novel of the same title if you’ve spent any amount of time in human society since 1993.  For you cave-dwellers, Jurassic Park, like many of Crichton’s books, begins with a fictional, but not inconceivable advance in science followed inevitably by unforeseen chaos.  Specifically, the DNA of dinosaurs is extracted from prehistoric, blood-sucking insects preserved in amber.  These genetic blueprints are then used to reconstruct the terrible lizards and fill a paleontological zoo.  But the dinosaurs cannot be contained when an unexpected hurricane hits, and control of Jurassic Park is lost by its creators to disastrous effects.

While thoroughly entertaining his audience, Crichton forces us to face our own naivety.  He reminds us that our capacity for foresight is greatly limited by pride, ignorance, and an appetite for recognition.  This lesson is particularly relevant to the sciences as discoveries are modes of societal and environmental change that may be positive or negative, anticipated or unanticipated.  The negative consequences of scientific advancements may not be as obvious or immediate as an unleashed tyrannosaur, but subtle effects can be just as devastating.  I’m sure global climate change, for example, didn’t remotely occur to the inventors of the internal combustion engine.

At its origins, science can be distilled to an attempt to understand cause-effect relationships.  We have an increasing ability to decipher causes of observable effects, but if we can’t predict the effects of our own actions, can we be trusted with this scientific power?  Negative physical and ethical consequences are never a scientist’s intention, but if he or she is blinded by the immediate gratification of fame or money or simply neglects to look, they are likely.

I think scientists, especially those in fields which attempt to control any phenomena which occur naturally (e.g. genetics), should proceed with caution.  One of the fatal flaws of the Jurassic Park project was its confidentiality.  Transparency allows for unbiased minds to predict consequences of scientific research.  Perhaps through forums like science blogs, the public should be allowed to give input every step of the way.  While a small group of scientists desperate for discovery may overlook potential consequences of their findings, an informed public is more apt to foresee them.