Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder

These are always fun: the Ig Nobel Prizes. The winners for 2013 were announced yesterday. The big winner is a study on our perception of our own attractiveness after drinking. People have long observed that drunk people think others are more attractive but the Ig Nobel winner was the first study to find that drinking makes people think they are more attractive themselves.

The full list of 2013 Ig Nobel winners, per BBC:

Medicine Prize: Masateru Uchiyama, Gi Zhang, Toshihito Hirai, Atsushi Amano, Hisashi Hashuda (Japan), Xiangyuan Jin (China/Japan) and Masanori Niimi (Japan/UK) for assessing the effect of listening to opera on mice heart transplant patients.

Psychology Prize: Laurent Bègue, Oulmann Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra, and Medhi Ourabah, (France), Brad Bushman (USA/UK/, the Netherlands/Poland) for confirming that people who think they are drunk also think they are more attractive.

Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy: Marie Dacke (Sweden/Australia), Emily Baird, Eric Warrant (Sweden/Australia/Germany], Marcus Byrne (South Africa/UK) and Clarke Scholtz (South Africa), for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the milky way.

Safety Engineering Prize: The late Gustano Pizzo (US), for inventing an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers. The system drops a hijacker through trap doors, seals him into a package, then drops the hijacker through the airplane’s specially-installed bomb bay doors through which he is parachuted to the ground where police, having been alerted by radio, await his arrival.

Physics Prize: Alberto Minetti (Italy/UK/Denmark/Switzerland), Yuri Ivanenko (Italy/Russia/France), Germana Cappellini, Francesco lacquaniti (Italy) and Nadia Dominici (Italy/Switzerland), for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond – if those people and that pond were on the Moon.

Chemistry Prize: Shinsuke Imai, Nobuaki Tsuge, Muneaki Tomotake, Yoshiaki Nagatome, Hidehiko Kumgai (Japan) and Toshiyuki Nagata (Japan/Germany), for discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realised.

Archaeology Prize: Brian Crandall (US) and Peter Stahl (Canada/US), for observing how the bones of a swallowed dead shrew dissolves inside the human digestive system

Peace Prize: Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public, and to the Belarus State Police, for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

Probability Prize: Bert Tolkamp (UK/the Netherlands), Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford. David Roberts, and Colin Morgan (UK), for making two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.

Public Health Prize: Kasian Bhanganada, Tu Chayavatana, Chumporn Pongnumkul, Anunt Tonmukayakul, Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Krit Komaratal, and Henry Wilde (Thailand), for the medical techniques of penile re-attachment after amputations (often by jealous wives). Techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck.

Thank you, science!

On Etymology, Occurrence, and Function of Antlers

Via reddit, today I learned a lot about antlers. Did you know that reindeer is the only species of deer for which both males and females grow antlers? And that in many species of moose, the longer the antler, the better the corresponding hearing? This and more from this fascinating Wikipedia article:

First, the origin of the word “antler”:

Antler comes from the Old French antoillier (from ant-, meaning before, oeil, meaning eye and -ier, a suffix indicating an action or state of being)[1][2] possibly from some form of an unattested Latin word *anteocularis, “before the eye”[3] (and applied to the word for “branch”[4] or “horn[2]).

And then on the occurrence and function of antlers:

Antlers are unique to cervids and found mostly on males: only reindeer have antlers on the females, and these are normally smaller than those of the males. Nevertheless, fertile does from other species of deer have the capacity to produce antlers on occasion, usually due to increased testosterone levels.The pronghorn’s “horns” fit some of the criteria of antlers, although are not considered true antlers because they contain keratin.

Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle. While an antler is growing, it is covered with highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. Antlers are considered one of the most exaggerated cases of male secondary sexual traits in the animal kingdom,and grow faster than any other mammal bone. Growth occurs at the tip, and is initially cartilage, which is later replaced by bone tissue. Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler’s bone dies. This dead bone structure is the mature antler. In most cases, the bone at the base is destroyed by osteoclasts and the antlers fall off at some point. As a result of their fast growth rate, antlers are considered a handicap since there is an incredible nutritional demand on deer to re-grow antlers annually, and thus can be honest signals of metabolic efficiency and food gathering capability.

In most arctic and temperate-zone species, antler growth and shedding is annual, and is controlled by the length of daylight. Although the antlers are regrown each year, their size varies with the age of the animal in many species, increasing annually over several years before reaching maximum size. In tropical species, antlers may be shed at any time of year, and in some species such as the sambar, antlers last several years. Some equatorial deer never shed their antlers. Antlers function as weapons in combats between males, which sometimes cause serious wounds, and as dominance and sexual displays.

The ancestors of deer had tusks (long upper canine teeth). Antlers appear to replace tusks; two modern species, the musk deer and the water deer, have tusks and no antlers, the muntjac has small tusks and small antlers, and other deer have full-sized antlers and no tusks.The diversification of antlers, body size and tusks has been strongly influenced by changes in habitat and behavior (fighting and mating).

Reindeer use their antlers to clear away snow so they can eat the vegetation underneath. This is one possible reason that females of this species evolved antlers. Another possible reason is for female competition during winter foraging.

In moose, antlers appear to act as large hearing aids. Moose with antlers have far more sensitive hearing than moose without, and a study of trophy antlers with an artificial ear confirmed that the antler behaves like a parabolic reflector.

 

On Compatibility Genes: Can You Smell the Perfect Partner?

The Guardian on whether humans have the ability to smell out suitable partners/mates, based on an upcoming book by Daniel M. Davis, The Compatibility Gene: How Our Bodies Fight Disease, Attract Others, and Define Our Selves:

The basis for this notion is the so-called smelly T-shirt experiment, first performed by a Swiss zoologist called Claus Wedekind in 1994. He analysed a particular bit of the DNA of a group of students, looking specifically at the major histocompatibility genes (MHC). The students were then split into 49 females and 44 males. The men were asked to wear plain cotton T-shirts for two nights while avoiding anything – alcohol, cologne etc – that might alter their natural odour. After two days the shirts were placed in cardboard boxes with holes in them, and the women were asked to rank the boxes by smell using three criteria: intensity, pleasantness and sexiness.

Wedekind’s results appeared to show that the women preferred the T-shirts worn by men with different compatibility genes from themselves, raising the possibility that we unconsciously select mates who would put our offspring at some genetic advantage. The experiment was controversial, but it did alter scientific thinking about compatibility genes. And while the mechanism behind this phenomenon is poorly understood, that hasn’t stopped dating agencies from employing MHC typing as a matchmaking tool.

Of course, there are labs out there taking advantage of this science:

One lab offering such testing to online agencies (you can’t smell potential partners over the internet; not yet), a Swiss company called GenePartner, claims: “With genetically compatible people we feel that rare sensation of perfect chemistry.”

But take all this with a big grain of salt, as the research is still preliminary and no one really understands how all this works:

It is not completely understood how all this works at the molecular level, but it is at this forefront that Davis toils. “My research is in developing microscopes that look with better resolution at immune cells and how they interact with other cells,” he says. This interaction is “reminiscent of the way neurons communicate” in the brain, raising the possibility that your compatibility genes are responsible for more than just fighting infection, and could even influence how your brain functions. I confess to Davis that I don’t really understand this part. “None of us do,” he says. “I just happened to write a book about it.”

But how does the smelling thing work – if it works? It has been shown that mice can, and do, detect compatibility genes by smell, and that stickleback fish also choose mates by their odour, but in humans, Davis admits, the jury is out. “How it works on the olfactory level is basically not understood at all,” he says.

I think the more interesting point from Davis’s research is this: since each human responds slightly differently to any particular disease, in the not-too-distant future vaccines and other medications may be tailored to match our compatibility genes.

Interview with Eric Kaplan: On The Science in The Big Bang Theory

It’s no secret that The Big Bang Theory is one of my favorite shows. Not only did I go to graduate school at Caltech (the setting for the show), but as an introvert, I sympathize with the behaviors/personalities of the characters on the show (can you say Bazinga?)

So it was with great interest that I read this interview The New York Times conducted with Eric Kaplan, one of the executive producers and script writers for The Big Bang Theory. Below, selections of the interview.

On going to school at Harvard and how it was similar to Caltech:

Q. Was Harvard anything like your version of Caltech on “The Big Bang Theory”?

A: It was. Because you had people there who were sincerely and passionately interested in what they were doing. That world was about people so entrenched in whatever they were studying that they forget to put their pants on. Now, I don’t think I ever did that. But I’m sure I knew people who did.

The idea that you’re more interested in the amazing problems that life offers than in some kind of status game was genuine there, and that’s what we try to convey about the characters on the show.

On stereotypes of the show, especially that of Sheldon:

Q. Aren’t you stereotyping scientists by labeling them as misfits?

A. Listen, it’s a story, not a thesis about how everyone is. It’s a collection of specific characters. All scientists are not Sheldon Cooper, who finds it difficult to hug someone or go out to lunch and divide a check. But many people whose cognitive ability outstrips their emotional sense can see some aspect of Sheldon in themselves.

Steven Hawking is apparently a fan of the show too:

Q. Do you get fan mail from scientists?

A. We don’t just get mail. Scientists will come to the show and sit in the audience. We’ll often use them as extras in the background during cafeteria scenes.

Stephen Hawking came once. He was happy to portray a version of himself who was petty and childish and enjoyed humiliating Sheldon at a game of online Scrabble. He played himself as a big baby. He didn’t feel like he had to portray himself as a hero of science. That made me respect him even more, because he doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be anything.

I sure hope Eric Kaplan is right on this point:

Q. Do you sometimes hear from scientists who say, “Thank you for showing something about our lives”?

A. Oh, yeah. They’ll sometimes say that there will be a new generation of scientists 10 years from now: kids who watched the show and decided to become scientists because they liked the characters. That would be great. I think there should be more scientists and fewer lawyers. It’s better to invent a plastic airplane than to sue somebody.

If you enjoyed this interview, you might also like this interview with David Salzberg, a UCLA physics professor and advisor to the show.

Theranos and the Future of Diagnostic Medicine

Elizabeth Holmes is a 29-year-old chemical and electrical engineer and entrepreneur who dropped out of Stanford as an undergraduate after founding a life sciences company called Theranos in 2003. Her inventions, which she is discussing in detail for the first time in this Wall Street Journal interview, could upend the industry of laboratory testing and might change the way we detect and treat diseases:

The secret that hundreds of employees are now refining involves devices that automate and miniaturize more than 1,000 laboratory tests, from routine blood work to advanced genetic analyses. Theranos’s processes are faster, cheaper and more accurate than the conventional methods and require only microscopic blood volumes, not vial after vial of the stuff. The experience will be revelatory to anyone familiar with current practices, which often seem like medicine by Bram Stoker.

This is the future of diagnostic medicine. Theranos’s technology will eliminate multiple lab trips because it can “run any combination of tests, including sets of follow-on tests,” at once, quickly, and with just one microsample.

A microsam

A microsample of blood used by Theranos

Another goal is transparency:

Ms. Holmes says her larger goal is increasing access to testing, including among the uninsured, though she might also have a market-share land grab in mind. For instance, she says Theranos will publish all its retail prices on its website. The company’s X-ray of self-transparency also includes reporting its margins-of-error variations online and on test results and order forms, which few if any labs do now.

Worth the read. Don’t miss who’s on the board of directors of Theranos: Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn (ex-senator from Georgia), and Richard Kovacevich (who served as the CEO of Wells Fargo & Company).

The Role of Sleep in Brain Repair and Growth

The purpose of sleep is not very well understood. I’ve been fascinated with the topic for a number of years, so I am pretty excited when there’s new developments in the field of sleep research.

A new study sheds light on the role sleep plays in the the ability of the brain’s cells to grow and repair themselves. Preliminary research suggests that sleep replenishes a type of brain cells that go on to make an insulating material known as myelin, which protects our brain’s circuitry.

The research, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted in mice that were either allowed to sleep, or forced to stay awake. Researchers looked particularly at how sleep affected gene activity of cells called oligodendrocytes, which play a role in the production of myelin. Myelin covers brain and spinal cord nerve cell projections as a sort of “insulation”; researchers explained that it is integral to the movement of electrical impulses from cell to cell.

The study shows that sleep seems to turn on genes known to play a part in the formation of myelin. Conversely, lack of sleep was linked with the activation of genes associated with cell stress and death.

Dr Chiara Cirelli and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, where the study was conducted, explained:

For a long time, sleep researchers focused on how the activity of nerve cells differs when animals are awake versus when they are asleep.

Now it is clear that the way other supporting cells in the nervous system operate also changes significantly depending on whether the animal is asleep or awake.

 

On the Optimal Time for Napping

The Wall Street Journal summarizes the benefits of napping and enumerates the time you should nap for:

For a quick boost of alertness, experts say a 10-to-20-minute power nap is adequate for getting back to work in a pinch.

For cognitive memory processing, however, a 60-minute nap may do more good, Dr. Mednick said. Including slow-wave sleep helps with remembering facts, places and faces. The downside: some grogginess upon waking.

Finally, the 90-minute nap will likely involve a full cycle of sleep, which aids creativity and emotional and procedural memory, such as learning how to ride a bike. Waking up after REM sleep usually means a minimal amount of sleep inertia, Dr. Mednick said.

My favorite part of the article was this tip about taking a 10 to 15 minute nap by holding a pen/pencil in your hand:

Jonathan Brandl is a Newton, Mass.-based consultant who works from home. Up at 5 a.m. to hit the gym, he finds himself fading around 2 p.m. His solution is a fast snooze in a comfy chair in his den. His trick for waking up: He holds a pen or pencil in his hand, which usually falls about 10 to 15 minutes into his nap, waking him up.

Sign me up.

Men of Science, Men of Faith

In a must-read op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Welcome to the State of Denial,” Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, laments on the decline of people’s perception of science in our society.

Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.

The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.

He goes on to write:

We face many daunting challenges as a society, and they won’t all be solved with more science and math education. But what has been lost is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.

My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.

As some comments note, the effort to denigrate science is strong and insidious. I agree with this:

The push by religious institutions to have creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution in schools as legitimate competing theories, as well as the suppression of data linking man-made atmospheric discharges to climate change by industry are designed to preserve the status quo. Science, as a catalyst of change, has always upended institutions as it ushers in new ideas. We are on the verge of discoveries that may forever change the way we look at the universe and our place in it. It’s clear that those with a vested interest in the institutions of today fear what this means for their futures. Science can make oil and bishops largely irrelevant rather quickly if left unchecked. You bet they’re scared.

If I am not being clear: this perverse social acceptability of the denial of scientific fact must be fought with vigor. I fear for our future generation in America otherwise.

Malcolm Gladwell Responds to Critics of the 10,000-Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell came into mainstream prominence with his explanation of the 10,000 hour rule. While Malcolm Gladwell didn’t invent the rule, he instantly popularized it via his best-selling book Outliers. The principle actually dates to a 1993 study (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”; PDF link), though in that paper the authors called it the 10-year rule.

In the latest piece for The New Yorker, Gladwell is back in the spotlight, but this time he is on the defensive. Here, he eviscerates the simplification of the 10,000 hour rule:

No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

Malcolm Gladwell goes on to reference David Epstein’s new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance:

I think that it is also a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand-hour idea applies to every domain. For instance, Epstein uses as his main counterexample the high jumper Donald Thomas, who reached world-class level after no more than a few months of the most rudimentary practice. He then quotes academic papers making similar observations about other sports—like one that showed that people could make the Australian winter Olympic team in skeleton after no more than a few hundred practice runs. Skeleton, in case you are curious, is a sport in which a person pushes a sled as fast as she can along a track, jumps on, and then steers the sled down a hill. Some of the other domains that Epstein says do not fit the ten-thousand-hour model are darts, wrestling, and sprinting. “We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” Epstein quotes one South African researcher as saying, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.

It appears Gladwell is accepting of the challengers:

It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly [than 10,000 hours]

Malcolm Gladwell’s elaboration is important: it’s not just about taking in the time to practice, it’s also the efficacy of practice that matters. Preparation beats innate talent, but there is a limit.

###

Further reading:

1) “Your Genes Don’t Fit: Why 10,000 Hours of Practice Won’t Make You an Expert”

2) “The Sports Gene and the New Science of Athletic Excellence

Debunked: “Right-Brain” vs. “Left-Brain” Personalities

For years in popular culture, the terms “left-brained” and “right-brained” have come to signify disparate personality types, with an assumption that some people use the right side of their brain more, (those who are supposedly more creative/artistic) while some use the left side more (those who are more logical/analytical). But newly released research findings from University of Utah neuroscientists assert that there is no evidence within brain imaging that indicates some people are right-brained or left-brained:

Following a two-year study, University of Utah researchers have debunked that myth through identifying specific networks in the left and right brain that process lateralized functions. Lateralization of brain function means that there are certain mental processes that are mainly specialized to one of the brain’s left or right hemispheres. During the course of the study, researchers analyzed resting brain scans of 1,011 people between the ages of seven and 29. In each person, they studied functional lateralization of the brain measured for thousands of brain regions — finding no relationship that individuals preferentially use their left -brain network or right- brain network more often.

Following a two-year study, University of Utah researchers have debunked that myth through identifying specific networks in the left and right brain that process lateralized functions. Lateralization of brain function means that there are certain mental processes that are mainly specialized to one of the brain’s left or right hemispheres. During the course of the study, researchers analyzed resting brain scans of 1,011 people between the ages of seven and 29. In each person, they studied functional lateralization of the brain measured for thousands of brain regions — finding no relationship that individuals preferentially use their left -brain network or right- brain network more often.

“It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection, ” said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study, which is formally titled “An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging.” It is published in the journal PLOS ONE this month.

From the paper’s abstract:

Lateralized brain regions subserve functions such as language and visuospatial processing. It has been conjectured that individuals may be left-brain dominant or right-brain dominant based on personality and cognitive style, but neuroimaging data has not provided clear evidence whether such phenotypic differences in the strength of left-dominant or right-dominant networks exist. We evaluated whether strongly lateralized connections covaried within the same individuals. Data were analyzed from publicly available resting state scans for 1011 individuals between the ages of 7 and 29. For each subject, functional lateralization was measured for each pair of 7266 regions covering the gray matter at 5-mm resolution as a difference in correlation before and after inverting images across the midsagittal plane. The difference in gray matter density between homotopic coordinates was used as a regressor to reduce the effect of structural asymmetries on functional lateralization. Nine left- and 11 right-lateralized hubs were identified as peaks in the degree map from the graph of significantly lateralized connections. The left-lateralized hubs included regions from the default mode network (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and temporoparietal junction) and language regions (e.g., Broca Area and Wernicke Area), whereas the right-lateralized hubs included regions from the attention control network (e.g., lateral intraparietal sulcus, anterior insula, area MT, and frontal eye fields). Left- and right-lateralized hubs formed two separable networks of mutually lateralized regions. Connections involving only left- or only right-lateralized hubs showed positive correlation across subjects, but only for connections sharing a node. Lateralization of brain connections appears to be a local rather than global property of brain networks, and our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater “left-brained” or greater “right-brained” network strength across individuals. Small increases in lateralization with age were seen, but no differences in gender were observed.

So while there are more creative/artistic people in the world, this study purports that the active parts of the brain do not account for said personality traits. You learn something new every day, right?